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”.

Hampstead and the Tate Britain Gallery

THE TATE BRITAIN pleases me far more that its younger relative, The Tate Modern, and its cousins in Liverpool and St Ives. I do not know why, but I feel far more comfortable in the old institution on London’s Millbank. Today (31st of March 2022), I took a leisurely wander through some of the Tate Britain’s galleries. I was on the lookout for works by artists, who have been associated with Hampstead in north London. My only disappointment was that there were no works by John Constable (1776-1837) on display. Buried next to Hampstead’s parish church, he worked and lived (for several years) in Hampstead. I had better luck with one of his contemporaries, George Romney (1734-1802). His “A Lady in a brown Dress: The Parson’s Daughter” hangs in the Tate. “Roadside Inn” was painted in about 1790 by George Morland (1763-1804), who used to visit Hampstead to teach. The gallery also contains a picture, “Punch or May Day”, by the painter Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846), who is known to have visited Hampstead, where he met the essayist and critic Leigh Hunt and walked with the poet Wordsworth.

By Mark Gertler

It was the painter William Rothenstein (1872-1945), who found accommodation for, and looked after the great Indian literary genius Rabindranath Tagore, when he stayed in Hampstead briefly in 1912. The artist, who also lived in Hampstead for a while, is represented by at least two of his paintings in the Tate Britain: one was painted in 1891 and the other in 1899-1900.

It was during the first five decades of the 20th century that Hampstead became a mecca for artists, who are remembered today and whose works are displayed in Tate Britain. “The Merry-Go-Round”, a colourful painting created by Mark Gertler (1891-1939), who had a studio in Hampstead, depicts a fairground attraction on Hampstead Heath. It was painted in 1916. Gertler studied at the Slade School of Art at the same time as the painter Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), who had a studio in Hampstead’s Vale of Health for a while. It is therefore apt that Gertler’s painting hangs next to one by Spencer: “The Resurrection, Cookham”.

Another juxtaposition is a wooden sculpture by John Skeaping (1901-1980) and a painting by Ben Nicholson (1894-1982). Both worked in Hampstead in the 1930s and both were married to the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975). She divorced Skeaping to marry Nicholson. One of her sculptures is on display close to another artwork by her second husband. I spotted one more work by Hepworth. That was a painting, a sketch for a sculpture she was planning in 1957. The three artists all worked at various times in the Mall Studios near Parkhill Road.

David Bomberg (1890-1957), who, like Gertler and Spencer, studied at the Slade, lived in West Hampstead between 1928 and 1934. There are several of his dazzling, colourful paintings hanging in the Tate Britain.

Henry Moore (1898-1986), who lived for a while in Hampstead, is the best represented of all the artists who lived or visited that locality. Tate Britain has many of his sculptures on display and some of the sketches he made during WW2. These images depict people sheltering in deep Underground stations to be safe from the bombs being dropped by the Luftwaffe. Moore lived for a while in the modernist and relatively bomb-resistant Lawn Road Flats (‘The Isokon’) near South End Green (and, incidentally, near the Mall Studios). I have read that it is likely that Moore made some of his dramatic wartime sketches in the nearby Belsize Park and Hampstead Underground stations.

It was fun visiting the Tate and seeing pictures by some of the artists, whom I have written about in my new book about Hampstead: “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs”. This work contains two chapters detailing Hampstead’s myriad artistic connections. If you wish to learn more about this and about other aspects of Hampstead and its surroundings, my book (and Kindle edition) can be obtained from Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92).

Born in Portugal, hanging in the Tate

THE TATE BRITAIN is currently hosting a wonderful exhibition of the works of Paula Rego, born 1935 in Lisbon, Portugal during the fascist dictatorship of Antonio Salazar (1889-1970), who was in office from 1932 to 1968.  Her father was anti-fascist and anglophile. He sent Paula to a finishing school in Kent (UK) when she was 16. Later, she enrolled to study painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, part of London’s University College. While she was studying there (from 1952 until 1956), she met her future husband, the painter Victor Willing (1928-1988). They married in 1959, following Victor’s divorce from his first wife. Paula and Victor lived between Portugal and the UK, finally settling in the latter in 1972.

Distributed within eleven rooms of the Tate Britain, Rego’s works are well displayed, some of them with informative panels placed beside them. Her paintings express her political (anti-fascist) and social consciousness, some of which is concerned with the ill-treatment of, and the indignities inflicted on, women, especially in the country where she was born.

Rego’s paintings are dramatic, colourful, powerful, and not lacking in a sense of humour. They are sometimes almost abstract, but the element of figurativeness is never completely absent.  Her paintings often lean towards surrealism.  Whether they are expressing subversion, or love, or depression, or pure fantasy, they are visually intriguing and cannot fail to engage the viewer. Throughout her works, which span several decades, the influence of her native land can be discerned, sometimes without difficulty, other times with the assistance of the informative labels by their side.

The exhibition, which opened on the 7th of July 2021, will continue until the 24th of October 2021. So, there is plenty of time for you to enjoy this superb exhibition of the fabulous works of this fascinating artist. It is an exhibition that once again demonstrates that great art is often created as a reaction to an oppressive regime.

A joyous façade on the Tate Gallery

HERE IS SOMETHING WORTH seeing if you can. It is on display at the Tate Britain until the 31st of January 2021 and you need not enter the gallery building to see it. Originally created to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light, in late 2020, this is a wonderfully joyous celebration of both Indian and British culture in light and colour.

The artist Chila Kumari Singh Burman was born in Bootle, near Liverpool, daughter of Punjabi Hindu parents. She graduated at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1982 after having also studied at Southport College of Art and Leeds Polytechnic.

Burman has temporarily transformed the main (Thames facing) entrance of the Tate Britain, its staircase and pillared portico into a pleasing and often humorous riot of colour that makes many references to her upbringing and India’s culture and mythology. To do this, she has made use of coloured lights, neon tubing lights, coloured photographs, and decorative printed coloured paper. The Tate’s website (https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/chila-kumari-singh-burman) describes Burman’s installation, “Remembering a Brave New World” as follows:

“This magnificent installation, remembering a brave new world, combines Hindu mythology, Bollywood imagery, colonial history and personal memories. Inspired by the artist’s childhood visits to the Blackpool illuminations and her family’s ice-cream van, Burman covers the façade of Tate Britain with vinyl, bling and lights. She changes the figure of Britannia, a symbol of British imperialism, into Kali, the Hindu goddess of liberation and power. The many illuminated deities, shapes and words are joined by Lakshmibai, the Rani (queen) of Jhansi. Lakshmibai was a fierce female warrior in India’s resistance to British colonial rule in the 19th century.”

This description provides a fair summary of what is to be seen. It does not mention the entertainingly decorated autorickshaw (three-wheeler) that was on display in the vestibule of the gallery when we visited. The doorways are also worth examining because they are lined with images taken from the Amar Chitra Katha’s comic books that are published in India to teach Indian children about both Hindu mythology and Indian history. Our daughter, whose background, is both Indian and European, used to enjoy reading these.  Despite what the Tate has written, the artwork does not come across as polemical or anti-British, at least not to me. On the contrary, the artist appears to be enjoying her joint cultural heritage: both British and Indian. My wife said of the installation:

“If this is multi-culturalism, let’s have more and more of it!”

However, words are quite insufficient to describe the visual impact of this wonderful spectacle. It has to be seen to be believed and enjoyed. We saw it during daylight when it can be enjoyed in fine detail, but I imagine that seeing it after dark would also be quite magical.

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.

BURNE 1

 

For Victorian art  

looking back to the past

Burne-Jones does excel

 

BURNE 2