View in the Alps
1825 by Ernst Ferdinand Oehme
A Dialogue with Nature; Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany, The Courtauld Gallery, with The Morgan Library & Museum.
The Courthauld’s A Dialogue with Nature is a quietly potent exhibition; its small works continuing to meditate upon beauty, long after their philosophers have died. An array of watercolours and drawings turn our gaze to the Romantic notion of landscape, with nature so delicately drawn she exudes an ethereal sigh. This breath of wonder sweeps through the exhibition, caught and carried in the exquisite detail of the landscapes and their jewel-like treatment of colour. The concentration of every element is poignant; a cluster of works in the middle of the exhibition concentrate only on the formation of clouds – ink washes and coloured paper perfectly capturing their weightless magic. Indeed, it seems almost a mystic coincidence that both British and German artists were captured by clouds, transfixed by the skies at the same moment in time. This joyful realisation embodies the treatment of the British and German artworks throughout the exhibition; neither are singled out, but left to harmoniously converse in their melodious interpretations of differing landscapes. Ernst Ferdinand Oehme painted alongside Caspar David Friedrich, a pioneer of early German Romanticism (Friedrich is also in the exhibition). View in the Alps is pregnant with the air of mysticism; the hills glowing with a green so lush, their tops roll with vitality. Colour fades and grows as a drawing breath, shadowy purples and deep emerald eclipsed by the radiant white of the mountain tops. The celebration of nature and its beauty is jubilant, singing of infinite possibilities and leaving us on a high that remains long after we have left the exhibition.
c.1885 by William Morris & Edward Burne-Jones
William Morris: Story, Memory. Myth, Two Temple Place, January 2012
The William Morris exhibition at Two Temple Place is bewitching in more ways than one. The darkly wooded walls of Two Temple Place’s Gothic rooms carry the rich tapestries and the enchantingly entwined designs of Morris’s fabrics. As one makes their way through the exhibition, it is less like a gallery and more like wandering through the home of one of the pre-Raphaelite’s. The works are hung beautifully, as if they were decorations of the room, subtly hidden among the bewitching corners of the building. The landing at the top of the magnificent staircase is flanked by Morris’s designs at every side, illustrating the freedom of discovery in this exhibition. If we are told a way to proceed there is no need to listen; surrounded by Morris’s work, the process of looking becomes a chanced stumbling upon numerous treasures, as both house and art embrace each other in a union of tantalising effect. One of the choice discoveries of this exhibition is Morris’s artistic attention to the stories and myths that inspired his creations. So enraptured are we by his designs for fabric and wallpaper by the remarkable production of Morris & Co, that his illustrations of those magical figures that inspired so many of his designs are forgotten. Like a true pre-Raphaelite, Morris was in awe of the mythological world that provoked such beauty, pairing it with nature to weave the fabric of his designs, translating it to words to enhance the effect. Together with his and Burne-Jones’s tapestry of Pomona, he captures the Goddess of Fruit & Harvest in a poem:
I am the ancient apple-queen,
As once I was so am I now.
For evermore a hope unseen,
Betwixt the blossom and the bough.
Indeed Morris proves her to be “betwixt the blossom and the bough”, as acanthus leaves and flowers swirl about her. She appears supported by a tumult of nature, as the foliage seems to teem with the movement of her life around her. The leaves possess that lively movement of nature that Morris injects into all his designs, so our eyes have no choice but to follow the leaves as they dip and dive; we are caught, and here Morris shows us the power of just one of the figures that he seeks to personify. A source, Morris uses such figures to truly weave enchantment into his depictions of nature.
c1850 by unknown
The Bridgeman Art Library
This jolly Father Christmas is an image taken from a Victorian Christmas card, most probably the early twentieth century. The first ever Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 featuring a picture of a festive family, though it proved a little controversial due to the fact that the children were drinking wine. Extremely fashionable in the Victorian times, Christmas cards rarely featured religious scenes but instead magical figures, such as fairies or Father Christmas — and here we have no exception. Jolly with rosy cheeks as round as cherries, Father Christmas is a bumbling bundle of joy — fatly rotund and ringing his jingle bell of Christmas. With a full white beard curling widely about his face, indistinguishable from his collar, he is softly padded and textured with fur and velvet — an inviting beacon of warmth in the idealised chill of a white Christmas. With sleigh bells tied to his coat, one can almost hear his bells as well as seeing them. Father Christmas proves his lasting effect, featuring on the face of a contemporary Christmas card today over one hundred years later.
1897 by Eugène Samuel Grasset
V&A; Wellcome Collection in High Society until 27 February 2010
High Society is a much subtler exhibition than perhaps advertised; far from a tantalising collection of high-impact images, it is a quiet display of drugs throughout history, pausing occasionally to present their effects. We peer into tiny etchings of vast opium factories in India (small boys rolling balls of treasure), marvel at the miniature bottles and packets of narcotic-filled medicine from the 1800s, while wondering whether the playing of light from slides made in the ‘70s really reflect the ‘intoxicated feeling’. As we should come to expect from the Wellcome, the exhibition is more of an historical collection with visualised and creative observations, rather than a history lesson or display of drug inspired art. Grasset’s Morphinomane then stands out with artful impact – large, brightly coloured, and poster-like. Indeed, it was painted in the time when posters in the Art Nouveau style dominated Paris and London; everything from transport to the theatre was advertised in this way. Though Grasset was famous for his posters, it is interesting that he decided to portray his drug-reliant protagonist (Morphinomane means morphine addict) in this vein, usually so associated with glorified glamour. She has all the usual tropes, dark hair that cascades in waves, skin made perfect with a one-tone porcelain finish, yet Grasset uses these with a distinct taste of irony. The perfect skin tone is a sickly haunting yellow, making the usually bright and warming colour of the background lurid rather than a happily celebratory glow. The bright green that colours the chair then carries this further, coming off as gleefully horrific; the combination of brilliant yellow and green with off-white and ill-toned skin gives the composition a distinctly sickly atmosphere. The hands clutching the needle and leg are crinkled, haggard compared to the rest of the body, and the look of desperation on the face is acute, the teeth clenched tight and uncomfortably. Grasset’s hair, usually so seductively arranged, is cast back above the forehead in the manner of madness. The portrayal is a sharp contrast to Grasset’s usual celebration of ‘all women’, and indeed that of his contemporaries’ such as Toulouse-Lautrec – they frequently painted prostitutes and significantly without judgement. The irony in Grasset’s Morphinomane, however, is not without humour and it is the very monstrous quality in the portrayal that makes the figure slightly ridiculous. It is just another visual comment of a raucous lifestyle, unabashed to show the good along with the bad.
Noa Noa woodcut number 1
1894-95 by Paul Gauguin
Tate Modern until 16 January 2010; permanently at the British Museum
The wonderful thing about the Gauguin exhibition at the Tate Modern is the breadth of work it displays from the artist. Gauguin’s painting is so characteristic, it is easy to pigeonhole in terms of style and recognisability. But the Tate shows us a vast collection of work; of early and tender portraits Gauguin painted of his children, to beautifully crafted wooden sculpture created for his house. The effect is one that turns our perspective of this renowned and certainly notorious artist on its head, one that alters our vision and provides the depths for a portrait of a slightly more rounded and intriguing character. Gauguin’s travel journal Noa Noa is particularly poignant in this respect; showing us not only his obvious infatuation for Tahitian women, but also his inquest to understand and document the traditions, beliefs and lifestyle of this land and its people. Noa Noa literally translates as ‘fragrant fragrant’ and though this points to the overt sexuality Gauguin clearly took from Tahiti, it also has a clear grounding in place – of place and longing and smell being the first indication of arrival. The style of the book’s accompanying woodcuts confirms this leaning towards a documentation of place as a whole. Style is more primitive than that of his lusciously painted women, with figures as shadowy outlines in simple and modest dress. Colour is dark and easily so, with the strong yet thin lines of the woodcut providing enough subtle but poignant contrast. These lines appear almost as articulative highlights – bright orange in the dark density of the earth. It is in these lines that animals surround the first figure’s feet; emotive they appear to materialise from the earth itself, held in the lines of the earth’s texture that stretch beyond. A coconut tree at the height of this land then grows to another Tahitian scene; again grounding Tahiti’s people and their ways in the earth that they stand on. The colour that is used is distinctly warm and natural – soft red and orange, together with the darkly intense yellow of the setting sun. The design accumulates to the words Noa Noa, written it seems in a cloud above the scene. The growth of this climax — from earth to scene to words — is celebrated in fronds of foliage curling round the words and by a creature who rests impossibly in the sky beside it. The image reads like the mist of perfume itself, a rising cloud of scent, aiming to be the vision of the very fragrance of place.
The Turtle Pond
1898 by Winslow Homer
Brooklyn Museum of Art
Beginning as an illustrator, and only that by accident, Homer became one of the most prominent painters of the late nineteenth-century. Largely self-taught, his transition from illustrator to painter was one adjoined to discovery and experimentation; fuelled by subject, his style developed into something painterly, expressive, and innovative, breaking free of the constrictive lines of his engravings or drawings. Though he painted in oils, his watercolours are highly acclaimed stylistically, possessing a fluidity and freedom that broke free of traditional constraints. In The Turtle Pond Homer’s clouds mirror the sea, not just in colour as usual, but in semblance: both move with a large sweeping motion, encompassing of wind and space; it is atmosphere being captured rather than detail. Substance is literally awash with paint; great swathes of intense but translucent green and deep blue materialise the sea, with an equally widely brushed surface capturing the wood, though in pale, washed out and sun bleached colours. This free and simple composition then holds its human detail acutely, not distracting but carrying of the two figures that stand in its waters. Their dark, tanned skin is juxtaposed by the brilliance of the scene that surrounds them, and as the water captures the first man’s reflection the colours of this painting’s spectrum are beautifully blended. Overall it is a tumult of atmosphere in colour and style, a happy and welcome diversion from contemporary paintings concentration on detail; perhaps it took an illustrator, one who had only concentrated on such things, to leave them behind.
Tigre dans les jungles
1893 by Paul Ranson
Ranson can be most easily remembered for his role in the French post-impressionist group, the Nabis; a founding member, he hosted their Saturday afternoon meetings in his apartment. But it is his prints and decorative arts, rather than his painting, that is perhaps most interesting. It is pre-meditative in more than one way, leaning towards an Art Nouveau celebration of natural forms in arts & crafts, as well as a fascination with Japanese art which is Modernist in its relation to Pound. Tigre dans les jungles is Pound-esque in its playfulness with the Japanese style, and similar in effect to Gaudier-Brzeska’s work (see postcard 101). Gaudier’s panther, that fronts the cover of Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (published by University of California Press), has the same free-hand exploration, catching the cat pre-pounce some ten years later. Whether Pound and his brood in London were aware of Ranson, probably not, the likeness is interesting. The lines of Tigre are appear merry in their ease of twists and curls; explorative, they embellish their subject; the body is held high, sprightly, while the tail curls delighted to one side, and stripes are whimsical in bunched squiggles down the back. The surrounding jungle then joins in this dancing of lines; the trees bend to their subject while the flowers, even the earth is seems, crowd the tiger in a motion that unites the whole performance. Tigre dans les jungles is play, not only for the composition, but for our tracing eyes.