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.

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.

Throwing light into the darkness and shadows

FOR UNKNOWN REASONS, we were initially reluctant to bother with viewing the exhibition (at London’s Tate Britain until the 18th of September 2022) of paintings and drawings by Walter Sickert (1862-1942). However, I am glad that we did because we got to know and appreciate an artist, of whom I had heard but knew little about. That little which I did know was that for a brief while Sickert had one of the Mall Studios in Hampstead, where years later the sculptor Barbara Hepworth worked and resided with one husband, and then another. Later, Sickert moved from Hampstead to Camden Town.

Sickert was born in Munich (Germany). He and his family moved to Britain when he was 8 years old. His father, Oswald Sickert (1828-1885), an artist, introduced him to the works of important British and French artists, but Walter’s inclinations led him to study acting. However, in 1882 he entered London’s Slade School of Art (at UCL) and he became a student and assistant of the artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903). Soon, he began spending a lot of time in France, where he met Edgar Degas (1834-1917), whose work was to have a great influence on his style.

The exhibition at Tate Britain successfully demonstrates that Sickert was a highly competent artist. His topographical paintings (notably of Dieppe and Venice) are superb, as are the many of his portraits, some of which verge on being impressionistic, on display. His depictions of scenes within theatre show his great ability to portray light and shade. A series of paintings of nude women, some of whom are shown being in the company of often disinterested-looking men in far from elegant clothing, throw light on the shady world of the poor in places such as Camden Town and its environs.

Although some of Sickert’s paintings show features that later would become associated with artists such as the impressionists, Lucien Freud, and Francis Bacon, he is not one of the first artists that springs to mind when thinking about the great artists of the late 19th and early 20th century. Why is this the case? Despite hinting at what was to become common in the works of the Abstractionists, he never broke through the barrier into Modernism as did painters such as Braque, Picasso, Miro, Kandinsky, Matisse, and Mondrian. In no way does this detract from the brilliance seen in Sickert’s work. In a way, he was born too late to be considered as distinguished as those I have mentioned. Considered alongside 19th century artists, he shines. But, although he received many commissions, he was painting during an era when the more adventurous and innovative artists were in their heyday. That said, I can strongly recommend the exhibition at the Tate, which demonstrated to me that Sickert, a master of light and shade, was an artist who deserves much more attention than he gets today.

Seeing things differently

I DOUBT THAT Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) would have ever imagined that a copy of his sculpture “The Kiss” (created 1901-1904) could have ended up being displayed bound up in one mile of string. Situated in the lower ground floor foyer of London’s Tate Britain gallery, that is what can be seen currently (August 2022). The British artist Cornelia Parker (born 1956) decided to wrap-up/tie-up a replica of “The Kiss” as described. You might wonder why. I cannot tell you, but make the observation that we all perceive things differently. And one of the skills that has united artists over the centuries is that they can express to other people the way they perceive and understand the world they observe. Rodin’s bound sculpture stands close to the entrance of an exhibition dedicated to works by Ms Parker, which runs until the 16th of October 2022.

Part of “Perpetual Canon” by Cornelia Parker

The exhibition consists of artworks of varying sizes including visually dramatic installations, each large enough to fill a spacious room in the gallery. All the works are labelled. These labels explain how they were created and the concepts, some of them with political aspects, that the artist intended to express. When I look at works of art, I am primarily stimulated by their appearance and the visceral emotions they evoke in me. I am less interested in the concepts being portrayed and the artist’s explanations. Therefore, amongst the exhibits in the Parker exhibition, it was the installations that both interested me and excited me most.

The installation “Thirty Pieces of Silver” consists of domestic silver plate items that were squashed beneath a steam roller. Each piece is suspended above the ground by fine threads attached to the ceiling. They are arranged in thirty separate groups and lit from above. The shadows of the silver objects are projected on the floor below them. This delicate-looking installation’s name is taken from the 30 pieces of silver, which Judas received for betraying Jesus.

A spectacular installation, “Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View”, is housed in another room. Parker arranged with the Army School of Ammunition to use Semtex (as used by terrorists) to blow-up her garden shed (filled with tools and other stored objects). Then, all the fragments were recovered, and one by one they were suspended from the ceiling of the gallery in such a way that the ensemble resembles a still from a film made whilst the shed was exploding. In the middle of all the suspended debris, there is a single light bulb shining. This throws the distorted shadows of the blackened fragments onto the gallery’s walls.

In another room, there was an installation, which also made effective use of reflections projected on to its walls. “Perpetual Canon” consists of a collection of silvered brass instruments, which have been flattened. Each of them is suspended from the ceiling by a fine thread, and they are arranged in a circle which surrounds a centrally located light. The light throws shadows of the instruments onto the four walls surrounding them. Like the two previously described works, this provides a very effective and intriguing visual experience.

Another installation, “The War Room”, impressed me least amongst this category of Parker’s works on display. One of the last rooms in the exhibition houses an installation called “Island”. This consists of a common design of garden greenhouse. Its floor consists of worn floor tiles that used to line the corridors of The House of Commons. The glass panes are covered with white dots made from cliff chalk. They are related to Parker’s reaction to Brexit. Contained within the glasshouse, there is a light whose brightness pulses like that of a lighthouse: increasing gradually, and the slowly diminishing. This causes the shadows of the dots and the frame of the greenhouse to be projected on to the walls of the room containing it. Like the light producing them, the intensity of the shadows pulsates gradually.

As already mentioned, the exhibits’ labels explain what Parker is trying to express. Interesting as that is, it was the visual impact of these installations that impressed me most. Parker, like all great artists, has interesting ideas expresses them most imaginatively and effectively.

The black man’s burden

IN 1899, RUDYARD Kipling (1865-1936), who was born in Bombay (when India was under British rule), wrote a poem called “The White Man’s Burden”. The content of this piece was in harmony with the then current idea that the ‘white race’ was morally obliged to ‘civilise’ the non-white races of the earth, and through colonisation to encourage their economic development and ‘progress’. Well, this was an illusion happily believed by most of the colonisers. The reality was that colonisation was not designed to benefit the colonised but to increase the prosperity of the colonisers. The white man’s burden was in truth much more the burden which had to be borne by the non-white races, which were colonised. This is beautifully characterised in an art installation, “The Procession”, on display in London’s Tate Britain until the 22nd of January 2023. Conceived and created by the Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke (born 1959 in Edinburgh), I have seen it twice so far, and loved it each time.

“The Procession” consists of a large number of models of people dressed in colourful and fantastical costumes. They are arranged as if they are taking part in a carnival or parade. Many of the models appear slightly grotesque or even menacing. If these models were real people, they would inspire awe and maybe fear. Some of them carry banners, others carry skulls, and there are some supporting poles from which objects are either suspended, or on which objects are supported.

There are banners in the procession. Some of these depict colonial dwellings and institutions. Others show enlarged photographs of company share certificates and financial bonds. Some of the characters in the parade wear clothes on which these old-fashioned records of financial investment are printed. Thus, the artist has portrayed the fact that success of the investments of the European and American colonists and their backers rested on the shoulders of the hard-working black colonial subjects, who derived few if any benefits from their labour.

“The Procession” is not only a highly original way of conveying the unfortunate history of colonization, but also a feast for the eyes. It is both a reminder of Britain’s not always too glorious colonial past, as well as a celebration of the cultural diversity, which this country enjoys. The installation is housed in the magnificent neo-classical Duveen Galleries (opened in 1937), whose design is derived from architecture characteristic of the ancient imperialist regimes, which dominated the Mediterranean many centuries ago. Was it accidental or deliberate to place an essentially anti-imperialist exhibit in rooms that evoke an imperial past and by their immensity dwarf the exhibits? Whatever the answer, this is an exhibition for which it is well-worth making a detour.

The stuff of dreams: an exhibition of Surrealist art

MOST NIGHTS I HAVE several dreams, all very vivid and in technicolour, often with a soundtrack. However, when I awake, I might only remember the outlines of one of them, if any at all. Much Surrealist art, often paintings, drawings, photographic images, or cinematographic sequences, depicts dreams. Whether these are the dreams that an artist has actually experienced, or they are creations that attempt to recreate the often weird ‘atmospheres’ that are produced in dreamers’ brains during slumber, it matters not because many of the Surrealist artists produce works that have the distorted realism typical of many dreams, which most viewers will recognise.

By Salvador Dali

Until the 29th of August 2022, there is an excellent exhibition of works created by Surrealist artists. Called “Beyond Borders”, it does not confine itself to well-known western artists such as Salvador Dali, De Chirico, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, and so on, it introduces the viewer to Surrealists from as far afield as Japan, Latin America, and Africa, as well some pieces by artists who are new to me (and I suspect to many other visitors to the Tate). Most of the exhibits were paintings, graphic and cinematographic art; there were relatively few sculptures.   Well-known artists’ works are displayed alongside those of artists who are not widely recognised in this country, but deserve to be. Some might question the way that the curator (s) chose to group the artworks, but not being an art historian, this did not disturb me in the slightest. One new thing I learned from glancing at the informative notices amongst the exhibits is that Surrealist images were occasionally used by artists to convey politically subversive messaging. This reminds me of some strange (not necessarily Surreal) films that were made in parts of Europe when they were behind the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’: their oddity was supposed to disguise criticisms of the regime in power by baffling the strict but unimaginative censors.   

Overall, the exhibition provides a richly varied series of visual experiences. Wandering through the exhibition was a delight for my wife and me, and we shall try to visit the show again before it closes.

Painting in the Mall

BETWEEN HAMPSTEAD AND Belsize Park, there is a narrow footpath running north from Tasker Road. One side of it is lined with a terrace of low buildings known as Mall Studios. Built in 1872 by Thomas Battersby, they were designed as artists’ studios. Each of them contained small waiting rooms; costume rooms; and a lobby. Each studio had three skylights and large north facing windows to capture the kind of light favoured by many artists. Following the advice of the artist Walter Sickert, who had lived there, the artist John Cecil Stephenson (1889-1965) settled into number 6, Mall Studios in March 1919.  It was to remain his home until he died. In 1927, Barbara Hepworth became his neighbour in number 7, and at around that time, the influential art critic and writer Herbert Read moved into number 3. Nearby, Parkhill Road became home (for various lengths of time) to other artists including Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Piet Mondrian, Hans Erni, and other artists who have since become famous.

By John Cecil Stephenson

Whether it was the proximity of his artistic neighbours, who were pioneers of 20th century modernist art, or something else in his artistic evolution, Stephenson departed from his previous ‘straightforward’ portraiture and landscape painting and created works characteristic of what is now known as the ‘Modernist’ style. Although some of his works created after the late 1920s are to some extent figurative, most of his output was mainly abstract and constructivist. During WW1, Stephenson left London’s Slade School of Art temporarily to work in munition factories in Bishop Auckland (County Durham), the town where he was born. His experiences of working with industrial machinery and observing the efficiency and speed of the mechanised production processes is reflected in some of the paintings he produced later.

Stephenson, son of a grocer, was less well known than his neighbours. He produced art that bears favourable comparison to the works produced by them. Until the 18th of September 2022, there is a wonderful small exhibition of his works in a gallery within Hampstead’s charming Burgh House. The catalogue, edited by Sacha Llewellyn, Paul Liss, and George Richards, not only contains a fine collection of photographs of the exhibits but also provides a superb introduction – better than others I have seen – to the story of the pioneering role of Hampstead in the evolution of modern art in England. Burgh House, which contains several rooms comprising a museum of the history of Hampstead, also hosts excellent exhibitions such as the current survey of Stephenson’s works. Its well illuminated Peggy Jay Gallery provides a space for contemporary artists, many of them local, to display their works. Beneath the two storeys of cultural experiences, the basement of Burgh House is home to a pleasant café where anything from a cup of coffee to a wholesome meal can be obtained. And amongst the interesting range of books in the small bookshop, you can find copies of my book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” on sale (if they have run out, tell them to ask me for more, and then get your copy from Amazon).

Great expectations

I LOVE OUTDOOR sculpture exhibitions. Also, I enjoy visiting the exhibition spaces of the White Cube Gallery, which are located in Piccadilly and Bermondsey. So, it was with high expectations that we drove up to Arley Hall in Cheshire to view an exhibition of outdoor sculpture by artists with whom the White Cube represents.

The works on display until the 29th of August 2022 are by artists including amongst others Gormley, Noguchi, Tracey Emin, Mona Hatoum,and Takis. This is a formidable line up of artists.

Arley Hall and its gardens are magnificent. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the temporary exhibition of works by eminent modern sculptors. Unlike other outdoor sculpture shows I have seen (e.g. Frieze at Regents Park, Houghton Hall, and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park), what was on display in Arley Hall’s garden was unexciting despite the delightful setting. I felt that White Cube, whose exhibitions are, if nothing else, always dramatic, could have displayed a more impactful selection of artworks.

Exhibition aside,visiting the grounds of Arley Hall was well worthwhile as it has given us the opportunity to spend some time in Cheshire, which we do not know well.

An Australian artist in London

THE ARTIST DAMIEN Hirst has given London’s art lovers a great gift. In October 2015, he opened his Newport Street Gallery (near Lambeth Bridge) to the public. Housed in a former theatre scenery workshop, which has been beautifully modernised, the gallery puts on a series of exhibitions of artworks (mainly paintings) from Hirst’s enormous personal collection, which he has been creating since the late 1980s. The current exhibition, “Cloud of Witness”, which ends on the 10th of July 2022, is of works by an artist born in Australia, who created many of his paintings in London: Keith Cunningham (1929-2014). I had never heard of him before seeing the exhibition.

Cunningham arrived in London in 1949 and enrolled at the Central School of Art and Design, where he aimed to improve his skills as a graphic designer. In 1952, having developed an interest in painting, he joined the Royal College of Art (‘RCA’), where he worked alongside now famous artists including Leon Kossoff, Joe Tilson, and Frank Auerbach. He exhibited in the prestigious London Group in 1956 and the two years following. This group had been formed as an association of modernist artists, who wished to escape the restrictive criteria of the Royal Academy. In 1964, he was invited to become a full member of the Group, but for unknown reasons he declined. By 1967, he had ceased exhibiting his work and was making his living as a graphic designer and teaching at the London College of Printing. Despite this, he continued producing paintings until his death. He kept his paintings hidden from view in a spare room. So, it is fortunate for us that Damien Hirst acquired many of them and put them on public display this year.

The Newport Street Gallery website (www.newportstreetgallery.com) describes his work succinctly:

“Cunningham’s paintings were produced in London during the post-war period, an artistic environment dominated by the likes of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. A student at the Royal College of Art in the mid-1950s, Cunningham worked alongside major artists such as Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Jo Tilson.

Cunningham’s sombre paintings, coated in layers of dense, sculptural brushstrokes, are populated by skulls, fighting dogs and darkly altered human figures. Like his schoolmates and teachers at the Royal College, Cunningham was interested in figurative painting, transforming the reality of everyday life into loose, slowly disintegrating forms.

His canvases, like those of Bacon, Kossoff and Auerbach, are covered in powerful strokes of dark pigments conveying strikingly expressive forms. The Cloud of Witness seeks to redefine Cunningham’s role in the London art scene of the 1950s, highlighting not only his ability but also the variety of his inspirations. To this effect, it coincides with the major show at the Royal Academy of Arts, Francis Bacon: Man and Beast, encouraging visitors to compare and contrast the works of these two artists.” Having already seen the Bacon exhibition at the Royal Academy and works by other artists mentioned in the quote, I feel that it is a good summary of what we saw at Newport Street. My favourite works in the exhibition were some of the portraits and some of the more abstract works. Undoubtedly, Cunningham was a competent artist, but having seen the exhibition, I can understand why he is not amongst the better-known artists of his generation

Drawn to remember: an exhibition by an Indian painter

THE PAINTER MAHESH BALIGA was born in the south Indian state of Karnataka in 1982. He studied painting at The Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts (CAVA) in Mysore, and then received a postgraduate qualification at the prestigious Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU, in Baroda (Vadodara in Gujarat). He has taught at various art schools in India and exhibited in several countries including India. Currently, he lives and works in Baroda. Between the 12th of April 2022 and the 28th of May 2022, some of his works are being exhibited in a solo exhibition, “Drawn to Remember”, at the David Zwirner Gallery in Grafton Street (in London’s West End).

The paintings on display were created using casein tempera. This kind of paint has a glue-like consistency, but it can be thinned with water. According to Wikipedia, artists like this kind of paint because:

“… unlike gouache, it dries to an even consistency, making it ideal for murals. Also, it can visually resemble oil painting more than most other water-based paints …”

At first glance, it is difficult to discern whether the Baliga’s paintings on display at Zwirner’s resemble water colours or oil paintings; some of them seem to look halfway between the two mediums. All of them, except one, are quite small canvases and without exception they are all attractive. The subject matter depicted in the works is varied, from studies of plants and animals to everyday scenes (often with depictions of Indian life) to the slightly unusual. An example of the latter is in the only large canvas of the show in which there is an image of a man with sticky plasters over his left eye. Another odd subject shows a man with flowers growing out of his shirt. This is appropriately named “Flowering Self”.

The small size of most of the paintings, which the artist described as ‘lap-sized’, has a reason. Many of them were executed on the journeys the artist made when commuting to and from Surat (in the south of Gujarat), where he held a teaching position for a while. Though they are not large paintings, each one of them provides a window on the artist’s experiences and and his take on them. Although the paintings are far from mundane, they are not over-dramatic or excessively visually challenging. The exhibition is well worth seeing.  I would be happy to hang any one of the works I saw at his exhibition on my walls at home.