Tag Archives: Royal Academy

Notes on Palladio – Royal Academy – Spring 2009

The art history books put Andrea Palladio somewhere at the end of the Renaissance, but really, the architect sits rather uneasily in such a place. The narratives for painting and sculpture reach their crescendo with Titian and Michelangelo, and then they suppose that everything tails off for a while, at least until Annibale Carracci reboots the Florentine linear form at the start of the seventeenth century. But Palladio sits right in that age of elongated forms once labelled mannerism, even though there is not much about his art that could be considered mannered. Palladio is clear evidence that the Vasarian trajectory is not quite right.

The exhibition is dry. There are many drawing, prints and crinkly artifacts, which probably don’t do much to excite those new to architectural history. Neither will the beige models of his most famous buildings, however intricate and well proportioned their creation, fire the imagination. There was one innovation – a digital construction of Palladio’s rather heavy design for the Rialto bridge; but still how architecture shows cry out for more imaginative use of technology.

Andrea Palladio, conjectural drawing of Baths of Agrippa, Bath

But if you are prepared to invest some time in them, the drawings are fascinating, intricate yet precise. His drawings of the Roman Baths of Agrippa convey a sense of the building’s architectural brilliance, but without any concession to flashy stylistic devices. Equally, the plans for his own buildings convey precision and grandeur without any added devices – Palladio lets the architecture speak for itself.

Andrea Palladio, drawing of Palazzo Chiericati, Vicenza: part elevation of the entrance facade and portico, 1550s/60s

In his studies, publications, observations and measurements Palladio belongs to a intellectual narrative different to the artistic spine constructed by Vasari and repeated with many variations by art history. Palladio seems to look forward to a more rational age; the impulses to study, measure and communicate makes me think more of a creature of the enlightenment. This is emphasised by his focus on the antique and the relative lack of religious motifs, thus divorcing Palladio the architect from the familiar religious context (the Council of Trent, the Catholic Reformation) of the time.

It’s also worth comparing his sparse clean designs – so different from the glamorous confusion of the baroque, a movement about to ferment further south in Italy. It’s not clear from the exhibition I don’t now how much spiritual passion Palladio had, but the clean grand lines that inform or even the interiors of churches, such as San Giorgio, seem a world away from the coloured marbles and gold leaf that would cover the churches of the succeeding centuries.

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Anish Kapoor – Royal Academy – Autumn 2009

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Shooting into the Corner, Royal Academy, 2009

His little piles of powder are intensely beautiful in colour. And yet …

The reflective perfection of the mirrors is a joy to behold. And yet ..

The buzz of expectation in waiting for the cannon to eject its barrel of bloody wax is palpable. And yet …

And yet I’m not quite sure what is all adds up to. I can’t deny that there is a sense of wonder in walking around the Anish Kapoor exhibition at the Royal Academy. But what I struggle to find is some lasting argument within the exhibition, some defining narrative that makes me alter how I see the world. The works are full of allusions, but have very few reference points. One can feel the exhibition, but what do you take away? It’s clear that the the body, sex, defaecation, the universe, the self and the art gallery itself are all part of the thematic make up of his oeuvre. He makes us aware that sex is ubiquitous; and that the spiritual is just the flip side of the scatological.

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Svayambh, Royal Academy, 2009

Is that Kapoor stretches too far, whirring through an endless panoply of tricks, without ever stopping to work through the deeper ramifications of what he is saying. Or is that that we are tricked into such reactions? The artist’s hand is often non-existent (all metal and mirror in the larger works) and the exhibition therefore leaves a sense of dislocation between the atmosphere of philosophical eloquence and the mechanical, soulless way in which such a sensation is created. Do we yearn for a voice to shine through the light?

I doubt, of course, Kapoor will care. He may indeed point to entirely different genesis for his work, drawing on traditions far removed from the sources that inform much western art. Kapoor’s oeuvre is more closely aligned to a Buddhist world where everything and nothing is said; where life is perceived rather than interpreted. There is little of the fetishising of intellectual complexity that Christian art, and much of the western art tradition, demands. Kapoor may occasionally reference other texts or myths, but the creation of the huge abstract gestures that fill and take control of the Royal Academy galleries negate the need for such contexts.

I think Anish Kapoor is great for the art world. He produces grand, spectacular art that draws in believers and non-believers. He gets attention. He makes art exciting. Yet I would fervently insist that he is not seen as the pinnacle of achievement. There is much more that art can achieve.

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Notes on From Russia – Royal Academy – Spring 2008

  • Huge variety of styles on show, but drawing plenty of influences from Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism and other schools of the late 19th century.
  • Strong conceptulisation of centre and periphry
  • Russia as part of a tradition of European painting, excising its Soviet blip. An exhibition was a strong contemporary resonance
  • But using Malevich as an end-point – sudden minimalism of Malevich’s Black Squares after all the decorative, colourful work preceeding it. Very good curation of the final part of the exhibit (cf the Citizens exhibition where the cold, clinical Ingres portrait contrasted to the aristocratic grandeur that had preceded it)
  • Tatlin’s communism and related art as a non-European phenomen
  • Opportunity to rethink Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse in this context.

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Hammershoi – Royal Academy – Summer 2008

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Even the tiredest eye will alight on the affiliation between Vilhelm Hammershøi and Vermeer. There is the solitary woman, enclosed in a narrow domestic setting. She is absorbed in some mental process, oblivious to the viewer. Subtle graduations in light wash over the canvas.

But, it’s obvious to see from this Royal Academy exhibition, Hammershøi brings nothing of the same psychological richness to his paintings. Vermeer’s characters are poised in complex emotional dramas. The movement in their eyes, the gestures their arms make, the clothes they are wearing, their relationship to other characters and their position within the setting all help create a teasing, ambiguous narrative, which leaves the viewer looking for more. Such emotional phrasing does not materialise in Hammershøi – his characters tend to be solitary, folded up, and preoccupied by mundane tasks which leave little scope to the imagination. Above all, we see the backs of the women, thus avoiding their faces, fingers and all the parts of the body that could maximise expression. Hammershøi’s paintings are Calvinist in body as well as spirit.

But that’s not to say we should write the Dane off.

Despite the absence of complex emotional textures, the paintings still emit an eerie psychological sensation. It’s not so much the narratives that create this (one really has to push the imagination to create a rich storyline from a Hammershøi canvas) but the way that the paintings don’t allow for emotional contact between the characters; or indeed how the characters of the paintings do not engage with the viewers. There is an unerring consistency within Hammershøi’s paintings for his figures to turn away; for figures not to meet the eyes of anyone around them.

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Interior with Woman, 1903-4

Visual empathy, and indeed any empathy, is prohibited. It’s not a class or social thing at all (one is hardly sure if a character is a wife, servant or a mother), but something much more essential; almost a metaphysical conviction that afflicts all beings.

Hammershøi even turns this back on himself. His Interior with Easel simply shows an empty easel, as if Hammershøi had tried to paint himself, only to find it impossible. Even empathising with the ego is difficult in Hammershøi’s world.

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Interior with Easel

And it’s not just people. Objects become difficult to behold (another contrast to the forensic clarity of Vermeer). Reflections appear on polished tables or serving jugs but they only reflect smudge of the original objects, which are themselves hazy. Maps and images on the walls are vague and indistinct. Like the characters, they are impossible to read. The gloomy light that already envelops this patch of Copenhagen seems to cloud over everything.

The sense of emotional distance evoked becomes even more intriguing when one considers what type of patron may have bought these paintings. Were they intended for the very type of customer who, like Hammershøi, led a quiet, modest middle-class life in clean apartments with minimal decoration? Were the paintings in some way mirrors of their own existences? Did his patrons want to have this emotional coldness thrown back at them in paintings? Or, in seeing the paintings in this way, are we bringing a particularly modernist angst to his ouevre?

It is question worth further exploration, certainly because the exhibition reveals Hammershøi’s affinities not with Vermeer, but with a host of more modern artists who were far more open in engaging with avant-garde concerns. And it’s these connections that lend Hammershøi a special resonance as a painter who did not make easy imitations of the past, but began, in his quiet studio in Copenhagen, to touch on some of the preoccupations of twentieth-century art.

The exhibition notes recorded Hammershøi’s appreciation of Whistler, but there are other more intriguing connections.

Magritte, for example, seemed to reflect the same ideas about the impossibility of knowing the self via work such as The Human Condition and and The Forbidden Reproduction. There is also a family resemblance between Magritte’s mirror portrait and the Double Portrait of artist and wife that Hammershøi executed in 1905. Hammershøi’s wife, it should also be noted, has that distant other worldly look that is shared by the pipe smokers recorded by his contemporary Cezanne.

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Rene Magritte, The Forbidden Reproduction

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Double Portrait, 1905

De Chirico is another soulmate. Hammershøi’s architectural paintings, particularly those of the grey hulk of the royal palace, are northern cousins of the arcades depicted by De Chirico. In both, their uncanny emptiness which seem to presage some ominous event. Alternatively, one could place Hammershøi next to Hopper, artistic voyeurs, who may not be the best painters but are evocative artists, peering into the private lives of of others.

Or finally, how about Hammershøi as a prototype for Rothko – the Dane’s paintings as Calvinist colour fields. In paintings such as {woman at piano} there is strong element of geometric precision, with the resultant grids doing their best to hold seeping blocks of colour. The stillness in Hammershøi’s painting aids this, as the static figures blend into the background, thus focusing attention on the soft lozenges of colour, breathing gently in the muffled Danish light.

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You may not wish to consider the Dane a full modernist – indeed in limiting his oeuvre to quiet domestic lives, there seems something very anti-modern about him. But this is where his strengths lie, not looking back to Vermeer, but in beginning to unpick and psychological and aesthetic concerns that would mark twentieth-century art.

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Cranach – Royal Academy – June 2008

Where to start with such a fascinating artist? The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, in the first room of the Royal Academy’s exhibition, is a good place.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1504-05

It is an extraordinary painting, recording the moment just after the miraculous destruction of the wheel being used to torture the expectant saint, and just before the beheading that ensures her martyrdom. The canvas is divided up, each section turned over to distinct parts of the narrative. There is the massive dark blast at the top right, wrenching open a hole in the cosmos; there is the tranquil path leading to the distant monastery at the top left; there is the gigantic figure of the executioner just about to grab the chin of Catherine, who kneels in astonishment. And then there is the fantastic jumble of defeated pagans who are crammed into some indeterminate space behind the scene of Catherine and her killer.

In this strip of figures, Cranach manages to describe a sense of infernal panic. What is striking is that it is the entire area that is filled – there are no patches of grass, nor chinks of light, nor indeed any space between the figures. Demonstrating a truism about early Northern painting, Cranach has no clear idea of how to depict the gradually receding space of a three dimensional scene. Accordingly, the viewer’s sense of the characters inhabiting a realistic space is somewhat compromised. But does this affect the impact of the painting? Of course not!

Such an approach allows Cranach to release his extraordinary visual and emotive imagination, squeezing in humans and animals which enliven the narrative of the painting. Indeed, the very application of a rational sense of space could in fact diminish the effect of the canvas, providing a calming gloss to a storyline full of fear and confusion. It is precisely this confused conception of the painted arena that gives the painting its urgency; one is reminded of similar scenes painted over 400 years later.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, detail from The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1504-05

Pablo Picasso, detail from Guernica, 1936

See how the faces are varied – Cranach conjures up numerous ways of depicting the response to the miraculous and noisy intervention, we see shock, pain, trepidation and fear, and yet each face is different, of a distinct character. Particularly in the male figures, Cranach liked to paint their features in vastly different ways; look at how the three pairs of eyes just above Catherine’s head are documented.


Lucas Cranach the Elder, detail from The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1504-05

Facial hair is equally variegated. There is also an astonishing variety of clothes and head wear depicted. The knight behind Catherine is literally crestfallen. On the left, there are the puffed curls of the turbans of the philosopher-like figures and on the right the more simple red hat of the pickpocket. There is also the extraordinary arrangement resting on top of the executioner – it will take a knowledgeable dress historian to explain its genesis.


Lucas Cranach the Elder, detail from The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1504-05

Lucas Cranach the Elder, detail from The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1504-05

The commitment to detail, to compressing each last drop of human emotion into the painting is incredible. Even where there is the most minute space, Cranach has inserted another individual gazing in awe at the heavens, or a pickpocket taking advantage the chaos rather than leave the canvas blank.

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The Martyrdom of St. Catherine deserves a close reading. This is true in a more physical sense as well; to get to grips with the huge jumble of figures, one needs to get close to the painting and work through all its details. This is not a painting that can be swallowed whole. While the graceful form of, say, a Raphael can be appreciated instantly, Cranach produced paintings, particularly his larger ones, which need to be brought closer to the eye and then read through. Just in the way a page of text needs to be brought up to the reader and then its individual elements worked through, so one needs to approach a Cranach and perceive its individual elements before comprehending the larger whole. Cranach’s paintings are works that demand close readings.

The dimensions of Cranach’s paintings play into this as well, as the Royal Academy’s curators have observed, placing twin portraits beside each other like facing pages of a book. The open covers of the diptychs (and occasional triptych) only serve to enhance this.


Lucas Cranach the Elder, Holy Family Altarpiece, 1509

But more telling of all is simply the number of characters engaged in reading or holding books or bound manuscripts in Cranach’s work. The Holy Family Altarpiece (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt) shows all different types of people reading. Thus we have the Virgin Mary in the centre, temporarily distracted from her book. The bearded man with red stockings in the right hand corner rather pensively considers the outsize volume held in his long-fingered hands. And at the other end of the triptych a young boy is studiously engaged in the green book nestled between in his knees. In Cranach’s world, man, woman and child are all free to read. Note too that the grissaile saint on one wing of the manuscript is also clutching a bound book.

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Lucas Cranach the Elder, detail from St Valentine, date unknown

Never has an artist been so concerned with ugliness. Cranach has perhaps painted some of the least flattering images in western portraiture. He was concerned with beauty too (witness the numerous nude Eves, twirling their tresses in the garden of Eden), but he was much better at ugliness. The portrait of Saint Valentine (nowadays the patron saint of lovers) is an essay in grumpiness – the bloated nose, the triple chin, the close set eyes.

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So passion, detail, beauty and ugliness – what more could you need? Surely, if Cranach can produce paintings like the Martyrdom of St Catherine, he touches greatness? Well, not quite. Save for the startling twin portrait of Jesus and Mary Magdalen (who may actually possibly the Virgin Mary) where all of Cranach’s deficits seem to have been shed in a painting which advertises an ambiguous similarity between the two figures, there is a lack of confidence in some of Cranach’s portraits that reduces their dramatic power.

From a distance they seem to have that steely precision which illuminates Holbein’s meticulous portraits; closer up, however, they lose that precision and have a lifelessness about them. What can appear as an exacting portrait of heavy jowls and fattened cheeks can actually descend into a bland concoction of paint as if the painter did not have quite the conviction in his talents. It may not matter so much when looking at an individual portrait, but when one sees it repeated over several in a single exhibition, the tendency to blur and fudge becomes manifest and ultimately disappointing.

Similarly, his many renditions of Adam and Eve become repetitive, and the insistence on that round headed, doe-eyed version of female beauty, with golden tresses pulled back to reveal a rather prominent forehand is a little cloying.

Cranach is at his best when forced to engage complex narratives or is inspired to add seemingly unnecessary detail to standard narratives – true for paintings such as the Catherine martyrdom but also to the prints and drawings. An insistence on imagination, ugliness and confusion does not detract from great art; rather it makes it.

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Note on exhibition space at Royal Academy

The Royal Academy, despite being typically busy, was an excellent forum for the exhibition. Cranach’s pictures are usually so small in dimension that the four rooms of the Sackler Wing were sufficient.

Although more label information would have been appreciated for an artist whose work was particularly sensitive to the social context – I suppose dump all that contextual stuff on the audio guides these days

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