Tanning at the Tate Modern

 

One of the great features of possessing a Tate Card (an annual season ticket) is that one can enter (with or without a companion) the regular special exhibitions without paying extra for tickets, which tend to be quite costly. What I particularly like is that if an exhibition does not meet one’s expectations, one can spend a short time viewing without worrying about having wasted, maybe, as much as £18 per person.

Recently, I visited the much-hyped special exhibition of works by the French painter Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) at the Tate Modern in London. Without the Tate Card, the two of us would have had to shell out £36 (about 30% of the cost of a Tate Card) to see what I thought was a tedious exhibition. 

I like Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in general, but the Bonnard works left me cold (or at least lukewarm!). I cannot comment on the competence of their execution, but I found them short of visual excitement, almost boring compared with works of other artists painting during Bonnard’s lifetime. Consequently, we did not linger long in the exhibition. I may sound like a Philistine with my comments about the famous Bonnard, but it is only fair to write honestly about how the exhibition affected me. Incidentally, I noticed that many of the visitors at this show were more interested in chatting to each other than looking at Bonnard’s works. I saw one man sitting on a bench reading his newspaper rather than trying to enjoy Bonnard.

As we were still in the mood for looking at art, we decided to enter another special exhibition in the Tate Modern. Using our Tate Card, we saved up to £26 when we entered the exhibition of artworks by the American-born Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012). However, this is an exhibition that is well worth its entrance fee. Bonnard and Tanning’s working lives overlapped for a few years, but the American’s output made a far greater impression on me than the Frenchman’s. 

The exhibition at the Tate Modern commences with paintings from Tanning’s surrealist phase. Her execution and composition sets her amongst the best of the surrealist artists. Each painting has subtlety, excitement,  a sense of adventure, and creative freshness. As Tanning grew older, her works tended towards abstraction in an original way. In brief, Tanning was an artist whose visual language(s) really attract me. Her work has a freshness and impact that I found lacking in Bonnard.

In addition to paintings and designs for stage sets, the exhibition at the Tate includes some of rather weird soft fabric sculptures, which did not appeal to me quite as much as the framed works. However, they display another aspect of Tanning’s undoubted inventive talent.

I am glad we decided to visit the Bonnard, even though it disappointed me, because it got me to visit the Tate Modern after a long break (in India) and to discover the delights of Dorothea Tanning’s  artistic output.

 

The photo is a detail of a work, “Endgame” , painted by Dorothea Tanning in 1944

Art on the road

We have recently returned from Cochin (in Kerala, South India), where every two years there is a huge art exhibition, the Kochi Muziris Biennale, that is open for just over three months. The artworks on display are supposed to conform in a loose way to a theme chosen by the chief curator. The artworks are not for sale at the Biennale.

Once a year early in each January, a one day art festival called Chitra Santhe is help along Kumara Krupa Road in Bangalore. This tree lined thoroughfare runs past both the Bangalore Golf Club and also the Chitrakala Parishadh, a leading art school.

Many artists display their works along the street. Their aim is to sell to the thousands of passers by, who amble leisurely past them. The quality of the artworks varies from highly skilled to colourful kitsch. All tastes are catered for. Many visitors wander about with their wrapped purchases under their arms.

The atmosphere at Chitra Santhe is festive. The January temperatures make for pleasant outdoor art viewing. Unlike the Biennale in Cochin, there is no theme unifying the artworks on display apart from the artists’ desire to sell. The artists are happy to discuss their works and are not pushy salesmen. Prices range from very low to not unreasonably high.

If you happen to be in Bangalore on the first Sunday in January, then an hour or so at the Chitra Santhe should prove to be a rewarding and enjoyable experience.

Burne-Jones in London

Until 24th February 2019, there is an excellent exhibition of the works of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) at London’s Tate Britain.

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For Victorian art  

looking back to the past

Burne-Jones does excel

 

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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’.

The tests of time and taste

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Is it fair to juxtapose works of modern or contemporary art with great masterpieces, which have stood the test of time?

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We were fortunate to have been given (by our daughter) complimentary tickets to the 2018 Frieze Masters exhibition held in Regents Park. It is part of a larger art fair, Frieze, held in London annually.

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The Frieze Masters show contains stalls set up by art dealers, displaying only works made no later than the year 2000 AD. I must admit that I was expecting to see works of art only made during the 19th and 20th centuries. To my great delight, the artworks on display were made anytime between ancient times (several centuries BC) and 2000 AD.

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Although the more recently made (i.e. 20th century) artworks are of the highest quality, they are often on display close to artworks made many centuries earlier. Some of the gallery stalls contain a mix of modern art and much older works. Placing some 20th century works (e.g. Calder) near to older classical works (e.g. Brueghel and Cranach) is not fair to the newer works.

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The older artworks, which have stood the test of time and satisfied the tastes of many generations of viewers, make the nearby contemporary works seem weak in comparison. This is not always the case. Some small sculptures by Barbara Hepworth seemed very comfortable next to their far more venerable neighbours. Also, to my surprise some ancient classical carvings stood harmoniously close to some abstract art works made in the second half of the 20th century.

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The older works of art on display have been treasured for many centuries. Probably, what we see today is the best of what was produced long ago. Even at the time when they were made, their excellence must have been obvious when seen beside other works, now lost and long-forgotten, which were created at the same time.

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I question how many of the more recent (19th and, especially, 20th century) works of art, which I saw at Frieze Masters, will still attract both interest and high prices in, say, fifty or a hundred years’ time. And, I also ask myself how many of the newer works will be able to evoke the feelings of aesthetic wonder that, say, a Brueghel or a Cycladic sculpture have been able to do for so many centuries.  

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