Parasol in the palace: art and architecture

WHEN I SET off for Venice a couple of days ago, I doubted whether I would enjoy the Biennale as much as my wife and our daughter. How wrong I was. I have been enjoying exploring the artworks housed in a number of different places around the city. Some of the shows are in pavilions specially designed for Biennale exhibitions. Others are in places adapted, mostly temporarily, for use during the art festival. For example, the Nepalese and Armenian shows are in what look like disused shop premises. Others are in far grander edifices.

Today, we visited an exhibition housed in the courtyards and rooms of a huge palace, which is home to a music conservatoire (located close to Campo S Stefano). The exhibits (sculptures, paintings, and videos) were created by members of a group of artists within the fold of the Parasol Unit art foundation. The artists in the show are: Darren Almond, Oliver Beer, Rana Begum with Hyetal, Julian Charrière, David Claerbout, Bharti Kher, Arghavan Khosravi, Teresa Margolles, Si On, Martin Puryear, and Rayyane Tabet.

The show in the conservatoire is wonderful. The building itself is a fantastic architectural sculpture with a myriad of neo-classical decorative sculptural details. The works of art, which are in total contrast to the architecture, harmonise interestingly with the environments in which they have been placed. Photographs cannot do justice to this exhibition; it has to be experienced in person.

Although this show will be amongst my favourite exhibitions in the 2022 Venice Biennale, it is not alone in being magnificent. I am glad that we have come to Venice for this artistic bonanza.

Two empty pavilions at the Venice Biennale

THE BIENNALE IN Venice was first held in 1895. The original international bi-annual art exhibition was contained in public gardens at the Eastern end of the city of Venice in the Castello district.

Initially, there was a Central Pavilion, opened in 1894. Later, various participating countries built national pavilions, the first being Belgium in 1907. The latest is the Australian pavilion, built only a few years ago.

The national pavilions reflect both the politics and architectural styles prevailing at the time they were built. Therefore, they are at least as interesting as the artworks that take up temporary residence within them at each exhibition.

I will discuss two of the pavilions in this short essay, and hope to write about some of the others at a later date.

The Russian pavilion bears the date 1914 and several double-headed eagles. It was constructed before the 1917 Revolution, and has some traditional Russian architectural features.

Next to the Belgian pavilion, stands the Spanish one. First constructed in 1933, its facade was replaced by a modern brick one in 1952.

Both the Spanish and the Russian pavilions appear to be empty, but for quite different reasons. For the 2022 Biennale, the artist Ignasi Aballi (born 1958 in Barcelona) has left the pavilion empty but shifted its internal walls in an attempt to correct a discrepancy between its original architectural plan and what ended up being constructed. The result is an empty pavilion with a strange internal layout. It was at first disconcerting to discover a pavilion empty of artworks, but soon it became pleasurable to see the strange vistas and connections between neighbouring rooms.

The Russian pavilion, unlike the Spanish, is closed. But it is also devoid of exhibits. Russia was not invited to the Biennale this year. The reason for this was Mr Putin’s unwise decision to invade his neibour, Ukraine.

Art appealing to eye and brain: two exhibitions near Piccadilly

THADDEUS ROPAC GALLERY, in a most elegant building on central London’s Dover Street is four minutes’ walk from Waddington Custot Gallery on Cork Street. We visited both today (the 13th of September 2022). At Thaddeus Ropac, we saw an exhibition, “City of Silence” by Wolfgang Laib (born in Germany in 1950), and at Waddington Custot, we saw “In the Studio”, a collection of works by March Avery (born 1932 in New York City).

Works in beeswax by Wolfgang Laib

Laib’s works, the best of which is a collection of objects made in beeswax that resemble towers and ziggurats, were not particularly visually appealing at first sight. Neither were his numerous minimalistic works on paper or even a set of identical model boats made in brass. It was only after reading some of the explanatory material provided by the gallery that these artworks began to become interesting. They did not become more appealing to the eye, but they began to make some kind of sense to me. For example, the beeswax towers and other objects alongside them are supposed to evoke thoughts of dwellings in the Middle East and the Towers of Silence where Zoroastrians leave corpses to be devoured by vultures. To some extent, these objects achieve the artist’s mental vision of the structures, which inspired them. However, without the explanations, Laib’s exhibition would have ‘left me cold’.

Immediately on entering Waddington Custot, Avery’s colourful, mostly figurative paintings appealed to my eyes and provided feelings of visceral satisfaction. Although it is highly likely that the paintings are manifestations of the artist’s thoughts and ideas, the viewer can get enjoyment from the artworks without knowing anything about what was going through Avery’s mind while she was creating them.   

We left Avery’s exhibition both visually and intellectually satisfied. In contrast, we felt that Laib’s works on their own without explanation were far less fulfilling than Avery’s.

Some Islamic figurative art in the Victoria and Albert Museum

THE VICTORIA AND Albert Museum (‘V&A’) in London’s South Kensington is one of my favourite museums. It contains a huge variety of exquisite artefacts. Some of them were obtained by fair means, and others, such as Tipu’s Tiger (an 18th century mechanical toy), by means that some might consider foul. I do not propose to write about the current discussions on the ethics of museum collections, but instead I will concentrate on some interesting tiles that arrived in the museum from Persia, where they were made during the Safavid Dynasty that was established in 1501 AD, and lasted until 1722.

The 36 tiles, arranged in 4 rows of 9, together depict a garden in which a lady is reclining with her 5 attractively dressed attendants around her, all wearing headgear: their uncovered faces are portrayed fully. This tiled panelling might have been originally made as part of an extensive architectural project in early 17th century Isfahan, the capital of the Safavid Dynasty. Other similar tiled panelling can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, so wrote Farshid Emami in his paper “All the City’s Courtesans: A Now-Lost Safavid Pavilion and Its Figural Tile Panels” (published in the Metropolitan Museum Journal in 2019). The panel is shaped so that it could be fitted beneath a window.

The Safavid Dynasty was Islamic. Unlike many other groups in the Islamic world, which discourage or forbid figurative representation, the Safavid rulers, who were great patrons of the arts, developed a dynastic artistic style in which the depiction of human figures played an important role. The tiles that are on display are a fine example of this. According to the V&A’s website (https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O93167/tile-panel/) these tiles were:

“Bought from L.S. Myers, 6 Savile Row, for £275…”

Myers & Co, which flourished at the above-mentioned address in the 19th century, usually dealt with prints. “A Biographical Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Antique and Curiosity Dealers” by MW Westgarth (publ. 2009) revealed:

“Abraham Myers (born c1815/16) traded as a curiosity dealer in Old Bond Street and at New Bond Street, London, from the 1850s. Myers is listed as ‘antiquary dealer’ at 179 New Bond Street in Kelly’s Directory, 1878 and 1886 and at 6 Savile Row in 1886–91.”

So, assuming that LS Myers was associated with this firm, the tiling might well have been bought between 1886 and 1891.

Every visit to the V&A, which might take much of a lifetime to explore fully, is exciting because each time I visit the place, I discover something fascinating, which I had not noticed before. These tiles are no exception to this.

The Black Chapel in the park

EVERY SUMMER SINCE 2000 except for the year 2020, the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens has hosted a special event. On each of these years between June and October, a temporary pavilion has been erected near to the original Serpentine Gallery (now known as Serpentine South). No two pavilions have looked the same. However, what they have in common is that each one of them is the first ever completed structure erected in England by the pavilion’s designer/architect.  

This year (2022), the pavilion, called “Black Chapel”, was designed by the American artist Theaster Gates (born in Chicago in 1973). In the past, we have seen exhibitions of his works hosted in the White Cube Galleries at both Masons Yard and in Bermondsey. Many of his exciting artworks have impressed us greatly. So, it was with high expectations that we went to see his pavilion.

At first sight, we were disappointed by the Black Chapel. It is a huge black cylinder with three apertures. Two of them are entrances and the third is a circular orifice in the centre of the tall structure’s circular, domed ceiling. A segment of the cylinder is walled off and serves as a café servery. Benches line the lower parts of the wall of the rest of the building. Seven large, flat rectangular, metallic paintings (or plates) are attached to a part of the internal wall, and there is a large bell just outside one of the pavilion’s two entrances.

Today, many people like to have art explained to them. For me, it is my visceral reaction to an artwork that is more important than its intended meaning or the artist’s intentions. The ‘meaning’ of a work of art is, for me, secondary to the way I am affected by it. For those, who seek meaning in art, this is what the Serpentine’s website has to say about the pavilion:

“The structure, realised with the support of Adjaye Associates, references the bottle kilns of Stoke-on-Trent, the beehive kilns of the Western United States, San Pietro and the Roman tempiettos, and traditional African structures, such as the Musgum mud huts of Cameroon, and the Kasubi Tombs of Kampala, Uganda. The Pavilion’s circularity and volume echo the sacred forms of Hungarian round churches and the ring shouts, voodoo circles and roda de capoeira witnessed in the sacred practices of the African diaspora.”

Interesting as this might be, it neither increases nor diminishes my appreciation of the Black Chapel. Theaster Gates’s Black Chapel is less exciting visually than some of the past pavilions. Although our initial impressions of this seemingly simple structure were not particularly favourable, after spending a little time in it, the place grew on us and now we hope to visit it again.

Images of my mother’s sculptures rediscovered

MY LATE MOTHER (Helen Yamey: 1920-1980) trained as a commercial artist in Cape Town (South Africa) before WW2. In 1948, she came to London to marry my father. In London, she painted and, according to my father, took lessons from the great Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). Around the time when I was born (1952), my mother began making sculptures. The first of these was a terracotta mother and child. Maybe, she was depicting herself with me in her arms.  By the 1960s, she was working in the sculpture studios of St Martins School of Art, which was then near Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road. There, she was in the company of artists such as Anthony Caro, William Tucker, Philip King, and William Turnbull. At least one of these now famous artists taught my mother how to weld and solder.

My mother exhibited her works in important art galleries at least twice. In late 1961, she exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in a show called “26 young Sculptors”. In 1962, she exhibited sculptures at the Grabowski Gallery, along side works by Maurice Agis and David Annesley. Although she sold a few of her creations, she did them more for pleasure than for profit.

My mother was a perfectionist. She destroyed much of what she created. However, at some time during the 1960s, she had a series of professional photographs taken of some of her mainly abstract works. These were kept in a yellow Kodak photographic paper box in a drawer in our home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. As a teenager, I used to look at them occasionally and wonder what became of some of the creations recorded in these photos.

My mother died in 1980 and my father remarried 11 years later. After remarrying, he and my stepmother moved from our home in Hampstead Garden Suburb to another house (near Primrose Hill). After the move, I used to ask him what had happened to the photographs of my mother’s sculptures and other family photos. Each time I asked, he would say that they were stored somewhere, possibly in the garage of his new home. After a while, I gave up hope of ever seeing these pictures again because it was clear to me that Dad had little or no interest in these photographs and in addition he could not imagine why anyone else would find them interesting. My father died, aged 101 and 6 months, in 2020. What with covid19 and its associated problems, we did not see his widow, my stepmother, again until recently this year (2022).

When, at last, we met her, she arrived carrying a plastic carrier bag, which she handed to me. To my great delight, it contained the box of photographs described above and another filled with family photographs taken mainly in the late 1950s. My stepmother told me that she had found them when she was sorting things in the garage of the house where she and my father had lived.

The photographs of my mother’s sculptures all bear the name of the photographer: Joseph McKenzie, ARPS (95 Blenheim Gardens, Wallington, Surrey). According to Wikipedia, Joseph McKenzie (1929-2015) is regarded as “father of modern Scottish photography”. More relevantly in the context of my mother’s works, he taught photography at the St martins School of Art.

Some of the photographs have notes written on their backs. The handwriting is my mother’s. One of the pictures, that of the mother and child has the words: “my first ever sculpture, terracotta, mother and child, 24””. Some of the other photos have information about the size and the material of the work depicted.

About 10 years before she died, my mother became disillusioned and practically gave up making sculptures. Although she made a few abstract images in pen and ink and a few carvings in alabaster, her abandonment of sculpture making as a full-time activity left a great hole in her life.

I have taken pictures of the photographs, and they can be seen on:

http://www.ipernity.com/doc/adam/album/1323344

The fantastic herons

ON SUNNY EASTER Sunday (2022), we took a morning walk along the Thames Path from the Black Lion pub (and the excellent Elderpress Café facing it) to Dukes Meadows, upstream from the pub. Dodging the endless stream of mostly courteous joggers and less polite cyclists, we enjoyed splendid views of the River Thames and the many old buildings lining Chiswick Mall. Several of the buildings were covered with flowering wisteria.

The Fantastic Herons

The river was well-populated with waterfowl including swans; geese of various kinds; ducks; a pair of cormorants resting on a buoy; and several herons. The latter were either standing on the sand and mud at the waterside or in the water close to the bank. Eventually, we reached Dukes Meadows, which consists of fields formerly part of the estate of nearby Chiswick House.

Near the Hammersmith end of the Meadows, we saw a metal sculpture, ‘The Fantastic Herons’, on top of a tall pole. Created by the artist Kevin Herlihy (born 1962) along with pupils from Cavendish Primary School and unveiled in 2004, it depicts three herons standing on a nest. Like most of Herlihy’s creations which often depict animal life, it is made from recycled waste materials. Funded by Singapore Airlines, who held a series of art workshops in the school, it is an appropriate sculpture for the area as herons can often be standing by, or in, the Thames flowing past the Meadows.

Vanishing point

OF JAMAICAN HERITAGE, the artist Barbara Walker was born and brought up in Birmingham where she lives today. During her childhood, she was taken to see museums and galleries. She noticed that in many works (paintings and other images) of western art, Black people play a peripheral role, depicted as servants and so on, serving the ‘white’ people who play a central role in a picture. Recently (April 2022), we visited an exhibition of her works at the Cristea Roberts Gallery in London’s Pall Mall. Called Vanishing Point, this superb display contains artworks, prints, which address the issue that Barbara noted when she was younger.

At first sight, most of the framed prints appear to be large sheets of white paper with a few beautifully drawn details depicting black people or parts of their bodies. Closer examination reveals that there is more to the white spaces than first meets the eye. The white areas are embossed. The black people, who have been drawn, are surrounded by the embossed areas of the print. Together, the drawings and embossed sections of the print can be seen to be a whole picture. Walker has processed an original image to create a new one in which only Black people in the original are easily visible and the rest of the picture forms a ghostly background. Unlike the pictures she saw when a youngster, the Black people in the picture are prominent and the others are barely detectable.

I am not sure exactly how the artist achieved this interesting effect and these powerful images, but I will have a go at explaining, using my experience of having once made etchings in the past. Metal plates are first coated with a photographic material. Then images of an original painting are projected on to it and processed in some way that produces a photographic reproduction on the plate. The artist, then blocks out selected areas on the plate with an acid-resistant material to produce a pattern that includes many details of the original image, including all of the parts of it that contain depictions of Black people or the parts of their bodies in the original painting or image. The plate is then immersed in acid, which eats into all the parts of it, which have not been painted over with the blocking agent. Then, a sheet of dampened paper is placed on the plate and the two are run through a printing press. The pressure exerted by the rollers of the press force the dampened paper into the depressions on the plate caused by the action of the acid. The result is a sheet of paper with embossed indentations. When the paper has dried, the artist then draws on the flat areas, which are in fact silhouettes of the Black people (or details of them) which appeared in the original painting. The rest of the embossed area, containing details and enough outlines of the original image to make it recognisable, is left white. The result is an image in which Black people become the focus of the viewer’s attention.

Barbara Walker’s works on show at Cristea Roberts (until the 23rd of April 2022) are ingenious and extremely engaging. She has employed an interesting technique to make her statement. Rather than reinforcing the fact that Black people were often depicted as being menial as is the case in the recent display of paintings by Hogarth at the Tate Britain, she has found a way of raising their status in artworks that sought to portray them as mere subsidiaries.

Art beneath your feet

MOST VISITORS TO London’s Tate Britain and National Gallery tend to look at the paintings hanging on the walls and sculptures on pedestals. Fewer people look down to see what they are walking on. The floors of the main entrance portico of the National Gallery and of Gallery II at the Tate Britain are well worth examining.

National Gallery, London (UK)

The mosaics on these floors were created by the Russian artist Boris Vasilyevich Anrep (1883-1969). Born in St Petersburg, he studied law at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in that city, graduating in 1905. In 1908, he abandoned law and went to Paris (France) to study art. Between 1910 and 1911, he studied at the Edinburgh School of Art. While in France, Boris met several British artists and intellectuals, many of them members of the Bloomsbury Set. His fascination with mosaics began in about 1904 after seeing the early Christian mosaics in Ravenna (Italy). In 1917, Boris settled in England, where he created many of his mosaics.

The floor of Gallery II at what is now the Tate Britain, but was formerly ‘The Tate Gallery’, was damaged by bombing during a Zeppelin raid in WW1. In 1921, Anrep was commissioned to make a mosaic floor for this gallery. By 1923, it was ready. The dramatic-looking creation consists of scenes representing William Blakes “Proverbs”. Each of the vignettes in the octagonal gallery, which used to house pictures by Blake, includes one of Blake’s proverbs. They are surrounded by a depiction of the flames of Hell.

The floors of the Portico at the national contain a much greater area of mosaics than that of the gallery in Tate Britain. Anrep created the mosaics between 1926 and 1952. Some of them are becoming worn out after having been walked on for so many years since the were put in place. A website (https://artuk.org/discover/artists/anrep-boris-18831969) explained that the mosaics in the National Gallery consist of:

“… four floors on and around the main staircase, executed between 1926 and 1952. The subjects are ‘The Awakening of the Muses’, ‘The Modern Virtues’, ‘The Labours of Life’, and ‘The Pleasures of Life’; portraits of many well-known contemporaries are incorporated in them, for example the philosopher Bertrand Russell representing Lucidity and the film actress Greta Garbo as Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy.”

Sir Winston Churchill is also depicted, as are other well-known personalities (for details, see: https://mikepitts.wordpress.com/2016/06/10/lookdown-boris-anrep/).

The attractive, intriguing mosaics at both the National and the Tate Britain are far less famous than many of the works to which most visitors make a beeline. However, Anrep’s mosaics should not be overlooked. In fact, I believe they are worth lingering over at least as long as one might when viewing, say, a Rembrandt in the National, or a Turner in the Tate.

Incidentally, after Anrep died, his body was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium, a place which I have described in my book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs”.

Hepworth and Mondrian in Salisbury

IN THE 1930s, both the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) and the painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) lived in Hampstead (north London). Hepworth and her two successive husbands lived and worked in the Mall Studios near Parkhill Road. Mondrian lived at 60 Parkhill Road. According to one of Hepworth’s biographers, Eleanor Clayton, writing in “Barbara Hepworth. Art and Life”:

“The beginnings of a friendship between Hepworth and Mondrian can be seen in her letters to Nicholson at the time: ‘so glad Mondrian said nice things about me & work. Goodness U did learn a LOT.’”

Visitors to the cloisters of Salisbury Cathedral can see an abstract sculpture at the southeast corner of the grassy space enclosed by them. At first sight, it looks like a sculptural version of a painting that might have been created by Mondrian. It is a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth called “Construction (Crucifixion)”. This bronze artwork was created in 1966, and then donated by the artist to the Cathedral in 1969. It is according to a notice by the sculpture:

“… Hepworth’s response to Christ’s Crucifixion …”

The interpretation of the piece’s symbolism is far from simple, as a website text (https://www.salisbury.anglican.org/news/the-crucifixion) explained:

“What we see are 3 verticals linked by a single horizontal bar, and by 2 other horizontals at different heights.

A large circle, attached to the intersection of the horizontal and vertical lines, is painted citrus yellow on one side and blue on the other. At the bottom of the central vertical, we see red on its own beneath the blue side of the circle, and red and white beneath the yellow. On the yellow side, a metal hoop encircles the point of crossing.

Hepworth wrote that she found it ‘very serene and quiet’, but that doesn’t have to guide what we make of this piece. We could see the yellow circle as the sun, the blue circle as the moon, the red paint as blood, the 2 verticals on either side as the crosses of the 2 men crucified with Jesus.

Or we could contemplate its hardness, weight, size (12ft tall and 2-and-a-half tons) and stark simplicity. We could seek to find meaning here, or we could stand before it and try to imagine the experience of meaningless horror and sheer emptiness which brutality of any kind must impose on those who witness it. For us, it need not seem ‘serene and quiet’ as for Hepworth. On the contrary this cross might confront us with the tragic lack of meaning which has so often afflicted humanity since the cross of Christ was first set up.”

Whatever its symbolism, Hepworth’s piece is attractive and looks good surrounded by the gothic architecture of the cloisters. Above all, its appearance immediately brings to mind thoughts about thw works of art created by Mondrian. One website (https://artistscollectingsociety.org/news/barbara-hepworth-sculpture-returns-salisbury-cathedral-permanent-display/) describes the piece as “Construction (Crucifixion): Homage to Mondrian” and then continued as follows:

“The sculpture is thought to explore the duality of Jesus Christ in its use of geometric symbols and features bold colours borrowed from the palette of ACS member Piet Mondrian, referenced in the artwork title.”

I was very pleased to see this work once again in March 2022, soon after publishing my book about Hampstead, past and present, in which I have included a substantial chapter about the modern artists who lived and worked in the area between the two World Wars. There is a good chance that Hepworth’s encounters with Mondrian and his work whilst they were both in Hampstead is reflected in the appearance of this abstract Crucifix, which stands in the cloisters at Salisbury.

PS My book, “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” is available from Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92).