Last Chance to see (for two years) – The Courtauld Gallery

To my absolute horror I have recently discovered that the Courtauld Gallery will be closing on 3 September for two years.  This redevelopment programme will allow for widely expanded gallery, research, and conservation facilities, and should be welcomed.  However it is always galling to be deprived access to something one has become accustomed to.  With less than a month left to visit, I’ve compiled some of my favourite pieces, worth seeing while you still can.

Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1832-33

bar at the folies-bergere

It would be impossible not to include this on any list of works at the Courtauld.  It is one of the most enigmatic paintings of its time, and has provoked endless debate, which Manet seems to almost have cheekily invited with his inaccurate mirrors and intriguing figures.  I will doubtless at some point add to the reams of writing on this, but I would suggest that, before you read too much about it, you sit down with it for a while, and see what strikes you.

Pierre Auguste Renoir, La Loge, 1874

Renoir La Loge

Sticking in the same period, another highlight is Renoir’s La Loge.  I have actually written about this work twice already on the blog (here and here), so it is a firm favourite.  Whether you see it as cynical or sincere social commentary, the combination of modern brushwork and composition, with the careful capturing of character, makes it an easy work to get lost in.

Paul Gauguin, Portrait of Mette Gauguin, 1877

Gauguin Portait of Mette Gauguin

Gauguin is an artist I find it particularly difficult to write about.  His supposed interest in underage girls, the ‘noble savage’ ideas his works often seem to exploit, and his general self-aggrandisement make it easy to paint him as a villain, and lose something of the complexity of his character, and works.  I like this sculpture, which depicts his wife Mette, because it so radically subverts our expectations of him as both artist and character.  This is one of only two marble works we know by Gauguin (the other depicts his son), and it is so carefully and delicately executed that it is hard to believe that it is by the artist who would alter revel in the simplicity of his style.  Famed for abandoning his family and heading far away to French Polynesia, the work hints at the ambiguity behind this story, and adds a note of complexity.  All-in-all it is quite unexpected, and worth a stop on your way through the galleries.

Francisco de Goya, Portrait of Don Francisco de Saavedra, 1798

Goya Portrait of Don Francisco de Saavedra

Sticking with the theme of seeing familiar artists in a slightly different light, this portrait by Goya is the sort of work with which he earnt his living, but it hardly what he is remembered for today.  From his famous painting the Third of May 1808 (my blog post on which remains ones of my most frequently read pieces) to dramatic works like Saturn devouring his Children, it is difficult to imagine that Goya once devoted his time to such an apparently tranquil subject as this.  The style of the portrait reflects Goya’s in interest in the English portrait painters, such as Gainsborough, and Saavedra’s general interest in England and its fashions.  Hard though it is so believe at times now, England was a world-leader in fashion and taste in this period, influencing architecture, landscape design, and modes of dress.  Saavedra was Minister of Finance at the time of sitting for this, and Goya has captured something of his active mind, as he thumbs through his papers, perched on the edge of his chair, and turns a piercing gaze to offer some command or thought.  It is not without that slight sense of unease Goya brings to his works though.  This was one of the most respected men in Spain, but there is just a hint, perhaps in the dark background and the contrast of bright light and shadows, that suggests that all is not quite as it seems.  As ever, Goya makes us think, and presents a surprisingly enigmatic image of this charismatic man.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve, 1526

Lucas Cranach the Elder Adam and Eve

It is easy to get lost in the moderns and relatively-moderns at the Courtauld, as so many of them are so great.  But one mustn’t forget that they have splendid collections of earlier art.  Adam and Eve is perhaps one of the more memorable of these.  The composition is inspired by Durer’s print, but otherwise Cranach has made it quite his own.  With that mixture of symbolism and naturalism so typical of Northern artists, he brings to life the damning moment when Eve offers Adam the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.  Flanked by predator and prey depicted with scientific detail of observation, harmoniously co-existing in the Garden of Eden, Cranach’s Eve looks as if she knows what she’s doing, as she places the fruit in Adam’s hand.  He looks confused, scratching his head and looking at her face rather than the fateful foodstuff.  Cranach emphasises this moment, that of the Original Sin.  Often Adam and Eve are depicted as relatively tranquil figures, but, in line with religious practices of the time, Cranach emphasises the emotional significance of the moment.  However, it is not without optimism: the vine creeping its way up the Tree of Knowledge signifies the Redemption, Christ dying on the cross to redeem Eve’s sin, and thus also the Virgin Mary as Eve’s positive equivalent.  Sombre though the piece is, it is clear that the painting was created as much for visual delight as for religious instruction.  Cranach’s masterful capturing of naturalistic details is wonderful to behold, and doubtless would have been as much for its original owner as it is for us.

Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine, 1887

Cezanne Montainge Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine

Finally, how could I not include this piece which serves as the banner to my whole page?  This has always been a favourite of mine.  It is one of numerous paintings he created of the same subject, the mountain near his home in Aix-en-Provence, where he grew-up, and then returned with his own family.  He seems to have been captivated by this view across the valley to the mountain, as he returned to it again and again. You can see why, as it offers such a great opportunity for him to explore different aspects of his technique.  Though he was interested in the work of the Impressionists, he looked to add a certain solidity, breaking elements down into geometric shapes.  We can see this in his brushwork.  Unlike the small, hurried (looking) brushstrokes of the Impressionists, he used thicker, flatter strokes to model objects.  In this painting, we can see him applying these principles to a variety of objects, natural and unnatural, and to the depiction of space and depth.  The finished result is a painting which captures both the appearance, and some of the experience, of the place, without resorting to laboured naturalism, or an over-excited interest in light as an end in itself.  Framed by the pine, the composition leads the eye from one point of interest to another, the painting has a sense of scale and mass which is undeniably appealing, whilst still evoking the landscape it reproduces.  It is interesting to compare this with his other works on the same subject, but if you can only see one, let it be this one; it perfectly encompasses Cezanne’s experimental but masterful style.

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All images credit to the Courtauld Gallery.

#Selfie – Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Vincent Van Gogh Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

In this new series I’m going to be taking a short sharp look at some of art history’s most famous selfies.  In the age of social media and the proliferation of digital cameras, it is easy for people to be scathing about the purpose and intent behind so-called ‘selfies’.  The shortening of ‘self-portrait’ is supposed to hint at a lightening of content.  Those who take selfies are deemed narcissistic, self-interested, and fake.  But are these images really being used that differently to how their art historical precedents were?  As I’ve explored before on this blog, there are numerous reasons why artists might choose themselves as subjects.  But undoubtedly one reason is the projection of self; they wanted to say something about themselves, regardless of whether or not it was true, to their audience.  This is not so different to our contemporary love of the front-facing camera (although there is clearly a disparity of skill).  So here I’ll be exploring what artists might have been trying to say, both in some very famous examples, and in some lesser-known ones.  To kick-off the series, let’s look at one of the most famous self-portraits, Van Gogh’s 1889 painting, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear’.

While there has been some speculation as to the authenticity of this work, it is generally accepted to have been painted by Van Gogh shortly after his return from hospital, which he was taken to having severed an artery in his neck, and chopped off part of his ear (and here I am glad of a modern divergence from precedent).  We could talk for hours, and produce hundreds of thousands of words of speculation as to Van Gogh’s particular illness, and motivations for these actions.  He was clearly not a healthy man, but it is interesting to look beyond just this one aspect of the portrait.  He painted himself many times, and this is not the only portrait to feature the bandage.  Might one see this painting as a return to ‘business as usual’?

There are certainly many other aspects of the painting which seek to tell us something about Van Gogh as an artist, as well as a man.  This event occurred during a particularly fractious period in his life, when he was in Arles trying to establish an artistic community with that ever-controversial figure, Paul Gauguin.  It is easy to paint Gauguin as something of a villain (not just on this occasion, but throughout his life), and it is perhaps not always deserved, but it is safe to say that he and Van Gogh were of rather different and not necessarily compatible temperaments.  So, this was clearly a time when Van Gogh was more than usually concerned about this artistic identity.  His identity as a human, and his identity as an artist, here, as so often in his work, becomes intertwined.

In some ways the painting is quite a traditional one.  His pose is typical of portraits, the bust, three-quarter view passed down through centuries of portraiture.  It is also utterly traditional for artists’ self-portraits to feature an easel, or some other symbol of their profession.  Most usually they are shown in the process of painting.  This allows them to further demonstrate their skills, by painting some sort of miniature artwork within the artwork.  Van Gogh however has his back turned to the easel.  We don’t really get much from his canvas on the easel.  It is almost just a freshly prepared canvas, ready to be used to create a new piece.  What we do see prominently, perhaps in place of a work of his own, is the Japanese print.  Though his style is so different to these works, Van Gogh, like the Impressionists before him, was highly influenced by Japanese perspectives, compositions, and even subject matter, and his paintings owe much to these works.  The one we see here is a slightly altered copy of a print by Sato Torakiyo, which Van Gogh had pinned to his studio wall.

The brushwork is very much Van Gogh’s own.  At the time no-one else was working quite like this.  It demonstrates how different he was to Gauguin.  Though they share an interest in the use of non-naturalistic colours, where Van Gogh uses large, directional brushstrokes to depict what he was seeing, Gauguin uses large, smooth swathes of colour.  Their brushwork is not the only way they differ.  It was perhaps inevitable that the two would fail in their artistic friendship, as their aims were so different.  Van Gogh is close to the Impressionists in his interest in depicting nature, even if he goes about it in a more extreme fashion.  Gauguin, by contrast, is more akin to the Symbolists, who were interested in allegory, Symbolism, and meaning, and less concerned with nature and representation.  They sought a different purpose, and so it is predictable that their results would differ.

But for all the pain he suffered as a result of their project, Van Gogh presents himself here as confidently and clearly accepting of his style and influences.  He is not cowed into agreeing with Gauguin’s opinions.  So, while it is tempting to view his work entirely in relation to his emotional state, and instability, and there are of course obvious clues to this (the bandage, the overcoat, the hat), it would be a shame if the undeniably intriguing details of his personal life caused us to overlook the elements of his portrait which are more purely about his artistic endeavours.  We owe it to him to not be bogged-down in speculation, but to pay as much attention to his artistic as we do to his emotional state.

I hope you enjoyed reading the first in this series.  If you’d like me to look at a particular artist’s ‘selfie’ in a future post, let me know in the comments below, or head over to my Patreon!

 

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The Purpose of Public Art – Broken Chair, Daniel Berset and Louis Geneve, 1997

Broken Chair, Geneva

In this post I’ll look at some of the ideas raised by ‘Broke Chair’, in Geneva.  Public art is a fascinating area to consider, it prompts so many thoughts about audience, purpose, function, even material, and so on.  I may well follow this up with other essays on public artworks, so if this is something that appeals to you, let me know in the comments, and keep an eye out!

This artwork raises questions about the ‘function’ of art, particularly public art, and especially non-narrative art.  This was, unlike most sculptures, created for a very specific and active purpose: to remind those at the UN of the horrendous impact of land mines and cluster bombs in the run up to the signing of two significant agreements, the Otaowa Treaty in 1997 and the Oslo Treaty in 2008.  It was first installed in 1997, and reinstalled in 2007.  Originally commissioned by Paul Vermeulen, co-founder of Handicap International Suisse.  It reaches 12 metres high, and is made from 5.5 tonnes of wood.  Artist Daniel Berset created the idea, while it was constructed by carpenter Louis Geneve.  It is bolted to the ground, and it is clear to see how it is made from numerous pieces of wood.  It serves an essentially commemorative purpose, the torn leg an allegory for the physical destruction these horrific devices cause.  One could compare it to the Cenotaph in London.  Though it does not commemorate a specific conflict, but rather the victims of global conflicts, it acts a warming to future generations: ‘do not let this happen again’, in a similar way.  However, the abstract form the work takes goes some way towards obscuring this reasoning.  It has, predictably and understandable, become one of ‘the sights’ on the Geneva tourist trail.  It has become a fun photo-opportunity for the selfie-driven masses.  Much like the ‘leaning tower of Pisa’, it has become the focus of fun and cutesy, optical illusion shots, people raising their hands to complete the broken leg, or simply demonstrate its great size by their failure to do so.  This is quite understandable, it is a fun thing to do, and the resulting photos are a silly memento of the trip, the more serious photos being saved for poses in front of the UN flags.  But one can’t help but consider whether the work is achieving its awareness-raising function.  An advantage that works like the Cenotaph has is that they are extremely simple to understand – war memorials depicting tombs, brave and injured soldiers, and so on, clearly demand a sombre tone, and one can’t help but consider the issues they depict.  By contrast, the Broken Chair, while having the advantage of being a striking a simple image, demands an imaginative leap (and indeed some prior knowledge) on the part of the viewer.

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This leads one on to a question of audience.  Who is the audience for this work?  Who is supposed to understand it?  Maybe the woman taking photos of her two dogs in front of the work isn’t really the target viewer.  The physical context of the piece is carefully chosen, it stares down the alley of flags, in an almost intimidating fashion.  It holds these collected nations to account; taller than the flags it faces, it represents the universality of the issue, of the threat.  It is greater than any one nation, than, indeed, the idea of nationhood.  It speaks to the universal important of recognising the shared humanity of the world’s inhabitants.  Angrily looking down upon those small, insignificant individuals who will nevertheless make world-changing decisions in the UN, it is raised to a higher purpose.  So perhaps it does not matter that tourist and locals alike have embraced it as a source of humour and pleasure; in taking on one role, it has not necessarily abandoned the other.

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Konrad Witz, La Peche Miracaleuse/The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, 1444

Konrad Witz, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, 1444

This painting, in Geneva’s Museum of History and Art, is picked out in their guide booklets as one of the 10 masterpieces of the Museum’s collection.  It is truly a charming example of the Northern Renaissance interest in using the familiar to bring Biblical stories to life, as well as that attention to naturalistic detail which is striking in so many of the works of Northern European artists in this period.  Originally part of an altarpiece, the scene is painted in oils on panel.  The scene depicted is most likely the second of two miracles commonly referred to as the miraculous draught.  One evening after Jesus’ resurrection, seven of the Disciples go fishing, and catch nothing.  Next morning they try again, and once again have no luck.  Jesus, who they do not recognise, calls to them from the shore: ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish?’  Hearing that they haven’t, he instructs them to cast their next on the right side of the boat, and they will find some.  They do so, and the net is so full of fish that they can hardly lift it.  By this miraculous change of fortune John recognises Jesus, and Peter jumps into the water to meet him.  The exact number of fish caught is listed as 153, but Witz wisely does not seem to have troubled himself to paint every single one, the gist of the story being much the same whatever the number.  He has however carefully chosen to illustrate other identifying aspects of the story: the seven disciples, the net being cast on the right side of the boat, and the dramatic moment when Peter jumps in to meet Jesus, arms outstretched and face bearing an expression of awe.

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During this period it was becoming typical for artists to relocate Biblical narratives to local setting.  Here Lac Leman stands in for the Sea of Galilee, the mountains in the background recognisable to his viewers.  There is some debate as to why this became so popular, but it is easy to see that this gives the images a relatability and an immediacy which would be appealing to viewers.  Rather than being distant, geographically and historically, the figures are given contemporary clothing, and situated such that the viewer would almost feel it was a scene they had stumbled upon in their own neighbourhood.  In the fifteenth century there was a new focus on the individual’s personal role in securing their religious well-being.  Individual prayer become more important, and people were taught to truly engage with religious stories and ideas, rather than being passive receptors of preaching.  The rise of the Book of Hours is testament to this, as are the growth of spiritual groups of lay people.  This was reflected in the art that was popular in this period, such as the new trend for depicting the Madonna and Child in an average, Netherlandish home.  However, as we see here, it could also be seen in landscape settings.  The Mountains, the Swiss Flag (already in use, but not of course to represent exactly the same area), the familiar architecture, and the scenes of mercantile activity on the right, all help to position this as a contemporary scene, aiding the viewer’s understanding of and engagement with the Biblical story.

It is not only in what he has chosen to depict that Witz shows us an interest in realism.  His attention to accurately depicting smaller details suggest a desire to create a naturalistic image.  You get a real sense that he is painting based on observation of the real world.  For instance, there is a clear attempt to depict the odd way in which light distorts our view of Peter’s submerged legs.  There is also an impressive understanding of reflection, seen in the buildings on the right, but particularly in the reflections of the Disciples in the water alongside the boat.  20180620_115814We see ripples where the oar has left the water, and the small clusters of bubbles suggest where the water flows quickly amongst the rocks of the shore line.  One can’t deny that some aspects are more crude (the grass on the shore is quite simplified), and he is not against an artistic flourish, the rippling folds of the first Disciple are more a demonstration of his skill than serving any other function, or fitting how the wind seems to be behaving in the rest of the scene  But overall the effect is one of placing us in the scene, and confronting us with the essence of the story, not distracted by unfamiliar details which would pull us out of it.  He seems keen to avoid any elements that would break this effect: the halos for instance, are the slightest of touches, more manipulations of light (again with an almost scientific eye for effects) than anything tangible.  It is, all-in-all a highly impressive work, pleasing in its realism, but also capturing and embodying the religious preoccupations of its time.

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First Impressions: Giovanni Giacometti (1868-1933), Autoportrait, 1899

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In my latest ‘First Impressions’ post, I paid a visit to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.  The First Impressions pieces are intended to be a faithful record of my thoughts on being confronted with an artwork.  They are written in situ in front of the piece, and without further research.  The longer you sit with an artwork the more you get out of them, and these pieces are in a sense exercises in ‘slow looking’, as well as close looking.  I would highly encourage you to pick a painting that appeals to you, and sit with it for an hour or so, and discover what you see.  Comment below if you do this too!

Situated in one of the smaller rooms on the second floor of the museum, this painting immediately caught my eye.  It has such an audacious composition.  He stares out at you in a way few paintings achieve, it is a truly piercing gaze.  He has chosen to situated himself within a bright winter landscape, the kind with fast moving clouds and a little warmth from the sun balancing the cold gusts of wing.  The composition is essentially that of a bust, almost superimposed over a landscape painting.  This gives the work a great sense of immediacy, and intimacy.  One can’t help but feel that the interaction which brought us so close to him, and with him bearing such an expression, would be a somewhat socially awkward one, but it gives the work an almost photographic sense of modernity.  This is a type more familiar to us from photojournalism than from paintings of late Nineteenth century Switzerland.

It’s hard not to compare self-portraits of red-heads with that other, most famous of ginger artists, and it is possible that Giacometti was familiar with the work of Van Gogh.  He certainly does seem to be familiar with new approaches to colour and brushwork that were being explored in Paris at the time.  Geneva was becoming more artistically significant during this period, with a burgeoning art scene, due in part to its close links with Paris.  For the majority of the painting, Giacometti’s choices of colour are fairly naturalistic.  It is in his brushwork that he is more daring, with dense networks of directional brushstrokes giving and undisciplined but effective impression of the craggy, jagged, and snow-covered mountains.  Whereas earlier artists would tend towards hiding their brushwork, smoothing brushstrokes away to focus on careful variations creating depth and volume (such as in the earlier works of leading Swiss artist Hodler), Giacometti chooses varied and visible brushstrokes, which are more evocative of being in 20180617_115942the landscape.  Nothing about the painting is idealised; this is a rough, challenging landscape which tests those who have to live within it. He uses a fairly typical post-Impressionist method in outlining the top of the mountain in long, continuous, and dark brushstrokes.  This adds to the feeling that one is being situated within the landscape; it mimics the silhouette effect achieved by the bright sun.  It is in its way a carefully studied landscape, with the scars of avalanches and snowdrifts creeping their way down through the pines.

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While it is in some ways thus a highly ‘naturalistic’ work, creating an evocative impression of an experience of place, it would be unfortunate to miss the ways in which the artist has asserted himself within the landscape.  Obviously, he has done this quite blatantly in his choice of pose and composition, but we also see this in his choice of colours.  Various shades of green and pink dominate the lower half of the painting, seen in the trees and houses, for instance, and most prominently in the artist’s own face.  Here we see the modernity of his brushwork united with a modern approach to colour.  The use of contrasting green and pink, in very fine brushstrokes, works to bring a vividness to the face, befitting such a frank and confrontational pose.

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I’m not generally one for trying to read too much into the expressions of painted individuals.  This is an area which is too much about reception, and where it is perhaps best to consider the death of artist and the birth of reader(/viewer).  However it is tempting to consider Giacometti’s look as one of almost revelation, it speaks of a sudden awareness of one’s place in the world, not in relation to any social standing, but rather a more Romantic awareness of place within the wider world.  Nothing in a painting is incidental, and from his face we are clearly drawn to the funeral procession behind him, moving inexorably towards the church nested down the valley amongst the trees.  Whether we read this as a reflection of his personal realisation is largely a matter of taste.  The inclusion can be seen to fit with the effect of the painting capturing the essence of life (and therefore death) in the landscape it depicts.  Despite compositionally being placed in front/on top of the landscape, he has positioned himself as part of it.  His dense felt hat comes low over his ears, keeping out Alpine gusts, and his thick woollen coat is buttoned all the way up.  Though he turns to face us, his shoulders are at an angle, and he steps out into the landscape.  The two black figures, stragglers from the funeral, create a sense of movement across the canvas; perhaps he will join them?  The painting fills one with a sense of bearing witness, and becoming part of a way of life, lived from start to finish, in tough conditions.  Thus, Giacometti has not just offered us an image of a place, or an idea of a place, but rather a complete, involved, and honest experience of what it is to exist in that place.  His questioning gaze invites us in, and we are led to contemplate this existence alongside him.  Thus a painting which could come across as egotistical, putting himself, the individual, front and centre in the most literal of senses, gains a degree of universality; rather than being a focus in its own right, the individual (artist/us) becomes part of a greater, human story.

You can read some of my thoughts on the genre of self-portraiture here.

 

Highlights of the National Gallery – Part One

It’s always immensely difficult to choose ‘favourite’ paintings (and one is often asked to do so when people discover you’re an art historian!), but it can’t be denied that there are some works that keep drawing you back.  One of my favourite galleries, not least because of the sheer variety of the collections, is the National Gallery, London.  So I’ve decided to do the unthinkable and attempt to select some of my ‘favourite’ works of art from its hallowed halls.  It can be quite overwhelming being faced by such a large and spectacular collection of art, so it’s sometimes nice to pick just one or two works, and devote your full attention to them.  In this spirit, read on for some of my personal recommendations for those most worthy of your attention.

Vincent van Gogh, Two Crabs, 1889

One of Van Goh’s most famous works, Sunflowers hangs in the National Gallery, but it also houses a number of less well-known, but nonetheless fascinating works by the Dutch artist.  Two Crabs one of these.  The work was painted shortly after van Gogh’s release from hospital in Arles, in January  1889.  It is probably one of the still lifes he told his brother Theo he was planning to paint to ‘get used to painting again’.  The thick brushwork creates a sense of realism we are perhaps unused to in his work, with carefully modelling really putting across the shape and texture of, for instance, the crab’s claws.  The use of tick, short brushstrokes on the legs again emphasises a sense of texture, and brings an almost animated feel to the image.  This is enhanced by the liveliness of the background, with the flatter, wider strokes lending turbulence, and recalling the rocky shallows of the crab’s marine home.  The current title is slightly confusing, as this is probably in fact a single crab, viewed from different angles.  Van Gogh keys into a long artistic tradition of artists practicing by drawing a single object from multiple viewpoints, to examine how surfaces and shapes respond to light, and how to represent this.  His choice of subject was likely inspired by a Hokusai woodcut, ‘Crabs’, which was reproduced in a magazine, ‘Le Japon Artistique’ which Theo had sent Van Gogh while he was in hospital.  It is quite a touching image in a way, as Van Gogh takes a traditionally quite clinical form and brings to it his usual sense of humanity and empathy, all in an attempt to reconnect with his own artistic skill and expression.

As this image is on loan to the National Gallery from a private collection, I have been unable to reproduce an image, but you can see one on the National Gallery’s website here.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-23

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Titian, active about 1506; died 1576 Bacchus and Ariadne 1520-3 Oil on canvas, 176.5 x 191 cm Bought, 1826 NG35 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG35

And now for something completely different…Titian brings an exuberance to this image of Greek mythology.  Ariadne, abandoned on an island by her ex-lover Theseus, is discovered by the god of wine, Bacchus, who immediately falls in love with her.  Bacchus has a somewhat jovial and jolly image in the pop-culture of the present day, but in Greek and Roman mythology he and his followers (the maenads and the satyrs) were associated with at times violent frenzies.  It is this aspect that Titian has chosen to emphasise, bringing a sense of drama to the image.  The followers are depicted as wild, with one holding a disembodied (and crucially un-butchered) calf’s leg, while the calf’s leg is dragged along at their feet.  It is thus understandable that Ariadne is turning tail to flee.  Theseus’ ship is visible on the horizon to her left, showing how hopeless her situation is.  Titian hides most of her fame from us, creating an image of a terrified young woman in fear for her life.  The painting really appeals to the senses, with the maenad’s clashing cymbals, and the stampede of frenzied figures, treading on the carefully realistic flowers.  This madness and business is contrasted compositionally with the stillness and grace of its opposing corner of the image, with its calm blue skies.  Bacchus acts as a link between these two elements, and the hyperactivity of his followers is juxtaposed by his single-minded gaze, which meets Ariadne’s.  His pose offers a dance-like retort to that of Ariadne, creating a harmonious visual link between them as he leaps energetically from his chariot.  Though it is hard to imagine quite what wind would result in the tight and intricate folds of his garments, it cannot be denied that they give an impression of the speed and suddenness of his movement.  The coy little satyr looks out at the viewer, pulling the calf’s head behind him on a rope, the flowers in his hair and his otherwise cherubic face perfectly putting across the intimidating unpredictability of a bacchant in full swing.  The snarling dog, looking up at him and backing away, perhaps reflects the viewer’s response to this unsettling display.  However, for all the darkness of his depiction, Titian gives us a hint at the story’s happy ending: Bacchus raised Ariadne to the heavens, making her into a constellation.  An alternative version (and perhaps one in which she gets a slightly better deal) is that on marrying her, Bacchus turns her wedding crown into the constellation.  The scale of the painting further emphasises the emotional weight of the image, and the viewer’s reaction to it.

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnieres, 1884

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Georges Seurat, 1859 – 1891 Bathers at Asnières 1884 Oil on canvas, 201 x 300 cm Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1924 NG3908 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG3908

This painting was one of the first that I ‘officially’ studied, as part of my A-level in Art History, and it seems that I have been studying it ever since but I still find so much of interest in it, and can’t say I’ve ever got bored of it.  I intend to write a longer post about this, so watch this space, but I couldn’t not mention it as one of my favourite works in the National Gallery.  Begun before he has developed his famous Pointillist technique, it does represent his engagement with what he called ‘chromoluminarism’ (also called Divisionism), the use of contrasting colours in an attempt to create optical mixing, the mixing of colours in the eye.  He hoped to mimic Nature, and to bring a brightness and vivacity to his works.  Thought it is debatable how effective this is, and how much he truly engaged with scientific theory, it represents a radical move and a desire to improve upon the Impressionist’s depiction of light.  But the painting is not merely interesting on a technical level, it also gives us an insight into Seurat’s political, specifically Socialist, leanings.  Asnieres was an industrial district, and Seurat depicts the factories in the distance, and their workers in the foreground.  It was a time of labour reforms that enabled factory workers to have time to engage in leisure in a new way, and have a greater degree of freedom.  The boating, bathing, and relaxing that was once the preserve of the middle classes (and was still undertaken by them in more fashionable areas along the River Seine), but was now opening up to the Parisian majority.  While some met these changes with distrust, Seurat and his friends welcomed them, and saw it as an important step towards a more egalitarian future.  He celebrates this by raising the workers to a level, and a physical scale more commonly associated with the grand subjects of history paintings, the highest genre in the official scale endorsed by the academy.  He thus combines his scientific experimentation with his interest in the politics of his time, and presents his own political optimism and hopes for the future.

Also of interest in the National Gallery are the preparatory drawings he produced for the painting, hung alongside it, which give a real sense of how it developed, and how he experimented with both the composition, and how to represent the light in the scene.

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Georges Seurat, 1859 – 1891 The Rainbow: Study for ‘Bathers at Asnières’ 1883 Oil on wood, 15.5 x 24.5 cm Presented by Heinz Berggruen, 1995 NG6555 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6555

Three is clearly far too few to choose from such an extensive collection, so this will be part one of a series.  I would be fascinated to hear if you have any favourites in the National Gallery (or anywhere else for that matter!) which you just can’t stop yourself from going back to.

All Saint’s Church, Shorthampton, Oxfordshire

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This fascinating little church makes for an ideal excursion for anyone wanting to escape the Oxford bubble, or simply just explore the beautiful countryside around Oxford.  The tiny hamlet of Shorthampton is easily accessible by road, but perhaps the most pleasing approach is by foot, walking through the beautiful hills and shallow valleys of the surrounding landscape.  We took a train out from Oxford to Charlbury, a pretty little village not far from the city.  From there, you walk out to Shorthampton along footpaths through the fields, with some beautiful views across the Cotswolds and back down into the village.  The fields themselves tell you something of the place’s history, with medieval ridge and furrow visible around Shorthampton.  Shorthampton itself seems now to be little more than a farm and a small collection of houses, with the church’s bellcote prominently rising above the surrounding trees.

It is clear from the outside that the church has been built in several phases.  There seems to have been a chapel on the site since at least the twelfth century, with the first surviving reference to it found in a document dating from 1296.  However the majority of what we now see dates from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  The fourteenth century saw the addition of a new chancel, and the fifteenth century brought about radical changes to the structure.  A new nave altar was added, necessitating the expansion of the church, which was achieved by pushing the south wall of the nave out by about six feet, to the position it is now in.  The roof was, obviously, also altered in this period, with the current arch-braced roof being added.  It’s corbel stone supports are carved with human heads (not so easy to spot in their white-washes state), three representing lay people, and one representing a monk, suggestive of the church’s link with nearby Eynsham Abbey, which owned the land at that time.  There is also a stone representing a priest – the set perhaps together representing the figures of the people who would have occupied the church.  The chancel stuck on the front of the church slightly oddly, dates from 1820-24, as do the porch and bellcote, which were all rebuilt in this period.  The church is enclosed by a drystone wall, in a very pleasing churchyard with commanding views across the Cotswolds.  Its quaint and rural character is only reinforced by the adjoining orchard.

The overall impression from the outside if of an interesting but not particularly beautiful church; endearing rather than especially picturesque.  Remnants of the earlier building phases can be seen throughout, such as the rounded windows in the north wall.  However the interior is both beautiful and intriguing.  The most striking features are the numerous wall-paintings, some of them unfortunately in a very sorry state, but fascinating nonetheless. P1120364 The squint is painted with the Legend of the Clay birds, a story in the young Christ molds himself some birds out of clay, and then turns them into real birds which fly off.  This is an apocryphal story, derived not from the Bible but from various collections of stories about Christ’s childhood, found in the Gospel of St Thomas.  Having studied these stories for my undergraduate thesis, I was delighted to find an image on this scale so close to home.  They are evidence of people’s strong desire to know more about Jesus as a person.  The Bible has very little to say about Jesus’ upbringing, so people turned to these unofficial stories to fill in the blanks, as typical of the general turn in this period to focusing on Christ’s humanity.

The paintings above the nave altar also reveal an interest in Jesus’ human side.  There are two phases of painting here, the later depicting a fairly standard Christ in Majesty, but the earlier seemingly depicting the Agony in the Garden, complete with great red tears of blood, an image which again draws attention to Christ’s humanity, presenting a particularly empathetic image of him.  The Christocentric paintings are completed by the Doom painting over the chancel, showing us Christ’s promise of salvation at the day of Judgement.

The other paintings largely depict various saints, some of whom have local significance.  The local saint Frideswide of Oxford, whose relics are housed in Oxford Cathedral (within Christ Church), and who caused a spring to appear at nearby Binsey (see a forthcoming blog post), is depicted on the north wall.  This same wall features an image of an archbishop, who is likely to be St Edmund of Abingdon. He became one of the first academics at the fledgling University of Oxford, and was later, reluctantly, elected Archbishop of Canterbury.

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St Sitha, or Zita, a thirteenth century saint known for her piety whilst in domestic service, is featured in the reveal of the south window.  To the east of the door is an image of St Loy, or Eligius, a goldsmith turned bishop.  He was patron saint of all metalworkers, including blacksmiths, hence his being depicting shoeing a horse.  The scheme of the west wall seems to have been either St George and the Dragon, or the Archangel Michael fighting the Beast of Revelation, but its current damaged state makes it hard to be certain of the subject.  The saints depicted are for the most part of a quietly pragmatic and humble piety, perhaps chosen as appropriate role models for the congregation of this rural church.

But the wall-paintings are far from the only interesting elements inside the church.  The space itself is dominated by the box pews, added along with the pulpit and reading desk in the 1820-24 works, but possibly replacing similar pews from the late-sixteenth or early-seventeenth century, as suggested by the cuttings in the stonework of P1120375the mould of the chancel arch and the piscine.  There was also at some point a west gallery, probably surviving until at least 1810, and which made use of the original twelfth century door, re-positioning it to give access to the gallery.  Another major original survival is the tub font, which sits opposite the entrance like a cut-off Doric column, doubtless offering a rather intimidating sight to the small babies brought to it for baptism.P1120348

The fifteenth-century elements, mainly the paintings, have not survived so well.  The theological changes brought about by the Reformation lead to the white-washing of the paintings, which were only rediscovered in 1903.  However, instruction were to add texts in their place, hence that which we see over the door, the Creed.  The preference for text continued, as seen in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century cartouche on the west wall, which contains King Solomon’s prayer at the consecration of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The nineteenth century chancel, far from clashing with the earlier building as such additions often do, allies itself with the church’s quiet simplicity.  Its best feature is the window over the altar, offering a wonderfully peaceful view out across the fields and countryside.

 

 

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It is an altogether charming church, with an overwhelmingly peaceful atmosphere.  There is a real sense of continuity, with the people farming and praying amongst this beautiful landscape for hundreds of years, and this gives the whole place a very reassuring feel.  I always say (because I always feel!) the churches I write about are well worth visiting, but I would particularly recommend Shorthampton if you’re in search of a quiet moment, to put anxious thoughts to rest, or just need a break from the buzz of the city.  I suppose that, of all the churches I have visited, this is the church in which I felt I could come closest to their original purpose.  You can certainly still feel why, all those centuries ago, this spot was chosen for the location of a simple, one-man chapel, and how it has grown and developed with the passing lives of the people who lived, worked, and died, in the surrounding countryside.