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.

The lady in blue

What makes for a great work of art? Well, people differ on the answer to this question. Seeing one special painting in the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in Palermo (Sicily) helped me formulate my answer.

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The painting that literally caught my eye and grabbed my full attention is “The Virgin Annunciate”. It was painted sometime between 1474 and ’77 by the Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-79). It depicts a woman in a blue veil seated at a small wooden desk on which there is an open book. The fingers of her right hand spread forwards towards the viewer. Her left hand holds her veil closed. She appears to be gazing towards her right.  Simple, really, if described like this, but it is not.

The painting grabbed my attention long before my brain had time to analyse what was reaching my eyes’ retinas. It was an intense visceral attraction to the image that made me stop and look at it carefully, an attraction that few other works of art have had for me.

When I had recovered from the initial pleasurable shock of seeing such beauty, I began to notice its subject matter, and with the help of an explanatory note next to the painting, I learnt some of the artist’s deeper intentions.

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For example, there is a sharp crease in the cloth of the veil  just above the mid-point of the lady’s forehead. This tells the informed viewer that the Virgin is wearing a special treasured, rarely worn, veil that is usually kept neatly folded in a closet or wardrobe. No doubt, art historians would be able to point out many other meaningful details that the artist has depicted. Despite these aspects of symbolic meaning, despite its subject matter and context, this picture is primarily an object of enormous beauty and graciousness that appeals greatly to something in the deep recesses of my subconscious.

For me, a work of art must first seize the seat, the very source of my emotions in a positive way. If it can do that, then whether or not the artist has imbued it with layers of meaning, the work is in my view a great one. Lest you think that it is only the works of long dead masters that fall into my definition of ‘great art’, let me refer to someone who created more recently, Constantin Brâncuși (1856-1957). Some of his sculptures depict birds or humans as simple, almost abstract, forms, almost devoid of detail. These works evoke the same deep sensations of visceral attraction as the painting by Da Messina, yet they could hardly be more different in all respects from that.

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A work by Brancusi [Source: bookdepository.com]

I am unable to formulate why the Da Messina and Brancusi works chime (and even some extremely abstract works such as those by Modriaan or Sean Scully) with my deepest emotional chords, when others, undoubtedly masterful in many ways like the works of Caravaggio and Barbara Hepworth, do not. I suppose this is what folk call ‘taste’. And, tastes differ greatly.

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Sean Scully

For me, a great work of art must first appeal to me emotionally, viscerally if you like, rather than intellectually. If I can only begin to appreciate a work of art after it has been explained, as is the case with much so-called ‘conceptual art’, then, for me, it is not ‘great art’.