Tag Archives: Art

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.

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.

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.