Tag Archives: 20th Century Art

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.

First Impressions: Zhang Xioagang, Bloodlines: Big Family No. 1, 1996

As today is Chinese New Year, I thought I’d post a piece I’ve written about a piece of Chinese art.  I must confess that this is something of a cheat as a ‘First Impressions’ piece, as I haven’t actually seen this piece myself, but it was written in the same way as my usual pieces, and I think it’s a great piece, by an artist perhaps not so well known to UK audiences.  I’ve been lucky enough to take the course ‘Art in China since 1911’ as part of my undergraduate degree, which is fascinating, and covers so much art that was unfamiliar to me before, but am glad to have discovered.

You can see a picture of this work here… http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/prints-multiples/zhang-xiaogang-big-family-no-1-from-5050380-details.aspx , complete with the record of it selling for what would now seem a ridiculously small price for such a work.

The work is dominated by three figures, that of a man, a woman, and a small baby boy.  The composition is cropped, we do not view all of the figures, we view the man and woman from chest height, with their shoulders cut off at either side, and the baby is viewed from about ankle height.  The baby seems to hover in the air in between and in front of the two other figures, who the title and convention might suggest are his parents.  The baby is differentiated from the other figures by the bright red hue given to his body, while his clothes maintain the monochromatic tones that are used for the other figures and the background.  This use of colour is suggestive of black and white photography, an association strengthened by the poses of the figures, facing the ‘camera’, or the viewer, looking directly out from the painting.  There is some blurring around the edges of the figures, particularly around the woman’s plaits, and in the background, which is just that in that it does not convey any particular sense of space, or a particular setting, acting instead as a generic background for the figures in front, perhaps suggesting the backdrop of a photographer’s studio, or a rendered or painted wall.  The cropping of the figures adds to this sense of them being in an indistinct space, as we do not see points where they would link with it (e.g. where their feet touch the ground).

 

The surface of the painting is interrupted by a series of red lines, which sit wire-like on the surface of the painting, joining over the baby and the figures behind it.  Thus a sense of flatness is created, the depth created by the over-layering of the figures is negated, and we again are given the sense of this being a photograph.  Their clothing is carefully detailed, with precise brushwork to denote crisp collars and neat lapels, while we are given some idea of the man’s profession or status by the pen tucked into his jacket pocket, suggesting that he is a ‘white collar’ worker, while glasses were accepted as a sign of the intellectual, or at least educated, individual.  The figures do not seem to acknowledge one another, except in the woman’s slight lean into the centre, and the slight turn of both figures’ outside eye in towards the centre.  Aside from the baby’s red hue, there are also patched of slightly brighter colour on the other figures, with patches of pinkish tones over their faces and neck, but again, the way in which the colours cut across them, covering the glasses, and her clothes, for instance, suggest that this is supposed to evoke the effect of a fading photograph.  However, its meaning could be multiple, and it could be present to suggest the humanity behind these monochromatic facades.  The eyes of all three figures are picked out in precise lines, contrasting with the blurring of their other features, and are painted in a darker, shinier shade of black, which gives them an unnervingly piercing quality, and which immediately draws the gaze of the viewer.  The baby’s slightly furrowed brows are the only hint of definite expression in the figures, the adults have expressions that are hard to read, deliberately open to interpretation.

 

The title, ‘Bloodlines’, could be a specific reference to the importance of one’s family connections during the Cultural Revolution, be they harmful or helpful, and can also link to the thin red lines across the canvas.  The Bloodlines series is usually large in scale, emphasising the striking and unnerving qualities of the figures.  The red chosen for the child could relate to a number of different ideas, the most obvious being the red of Communism, but red was also traditionally associated with good luck, which coupled with the child’s troubled expression, leads one to wonder the significance of the connection between these two associations.  The inclusion of a single child could bring to mind the one child policy in China, but I think it’s important to recognise the potential for a multiplicity of meaning.