Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Postcard from Oxford

Sketch of The Virgin and Child by Lorenzo di Credi (Florence c1457-1536) at the Ashmolean Museum Oxford 25.08.08.

We enjoyed a flying visit to Oxford over the weekend. I've only been there once before and that was about 20 years ago so it was all new to me and I was amazed at how much bigger it is than Cambridge (where I have been a lot). On Monday morning we had coffee and read the papers at a pleasant café and then when we'd had enough caffeine we paid a visit to the *Ashmolean Museum.

Fortunately they are refurbishing the museum so that immediately cut down the number of exhibits to look at, because let's face it, there's always too much information to take in at a good museum. Now, I am not particularly religious but I was very taken with the image of The Virgin and child I sketched above. I quite like the finished result but in my version the baby Jesus does look like a fat old man. In my defence in the original he has got a remarkable amount of hair, with a little quiff, for a newborn and a very fat face with a knowing expression.

In another gallery there were a number of busts of various Popes with grumpy faces all crafted by the same artist. I didn't take a note of his name but he was fond of drapery and managed to give a very convincing impression of silk robes fastened with delicate buttons all finished off with silken tassels and they were all fashioned out of marble. Amazing!

Before I go I must tell you about two very famous works of art. One is by Paolo Uccello (c1396-1475) and is called The Hunt in the Forest. He artfully employed perspective in this and composed it very carefully (which is something I could usefully learn from) and the other one is by Piero di Cosimo (1461-1522) and is called The Forest Fire. You can see small versions of the paintings here.

* You might like to know that they have lockers in the basement which they only open at the end of the day so you could for a modest price (not that I would ever dream of recommending it to you) stash your stuff there and pick it up later in the day when you finished sightseeing.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Intriguing interiors

All around London at the moment are advertisements on the tube and on the buses promoting an exhibition of Wilhelm Hammershøi's paintings. It's the other exhibition on just now at the Royal Academy along with the summer show and they have called this exhibition The poetry of silence.

I admit that I have not heard of this artist before but I found the image that has been used for the advertising intriguing and seductive. Something about the image reminded me of the work by Gwen John (1876-1939). She was the sister of the artist Augustus John who led a colourful life and painted exuberant images of the women in his life amongst other subjects. By contrast Gwen John's paintings are quiet, atmospheric and introspective.

Hammershøi (1864-1916) was a Danish artist who was born into a comfortable middle class home and led an uneventful life until his relatively early death from cancer. He travelled extensively around Europe but it is the paintings he made of his domestic life at home in Copenhagen which made the biggest impact on me. Sometimes he would paint an empty room with open doors leading the eye out of the room and towards a different, unknown part of his apartment. Often he would include a female figure, perhaps sewing or darning or holding a tray or maybe playing the piano. And he obviously had a bit of a thing for people's back views because there are quite a few on display - maybe it saved him from having to chat to his subjects.

In one painting there is a figure is at the far end of a room leaning with one knee on a chair and gazing out of the window. I was dying to know what she was looking at and listening to but as a silent observer I will never know. His images are always very carefully composed and I had the odd feeling that far from merely looking at these paintings I was actually inside the rooms with him and enveloped by the heavy, silent atmosphere he'd created which was emphasised by the restricted pallette he employed.
By the time I left the exhibition I felt I almost knew what it's like to wear a long grey dress and wear my hair tied back in a bun and move around slowly. This wasn't an exhibition to rush round in a hurry - the images wouldn't let you. The experience was more like being a contemplative in an enclosed order and taking a stroll around the cloisters last thing at night. Very powerful.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The tyranny of the red dot

I began this blog last year after I had been to the Royal Academy of Art summer exhibition. This year I haven't felt particularly drawn to go but decided on the spur of the moment that I probably ought to while I still had the chance as it closes on 17 August. So I went just yesterday afternoon but was close to changing my mind and returning home after I'd spent half an hour waiting for the bus. Eventually the no: 8 bus made an appearance and I was on my way. I usually enjoy being a passenger on this route because you pass so many interesting places but yesterday there were road works every which way and I wondered if there would be time to see any of the exhibits if I eventually got to my destination.

Get there I did and was very grateful for the icy air conditioning that was blowing through the galleries. The first gallery has been devoted to the late R B Kitaj, RA as a memorial to him. He died last year, at the age of 74, in his native America but he is fondly regarded in Britain because he lived here for about 40 years which always works for us Brits. We're also sort of fond of Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow for the same reason, but I digress. His work was also very influential on his generation of artists back in the 60s. I particularly liked two of his works, which to my mind are large pieces, and one is called Pacific Coast Highway (across the Pacific) which he completed in 1973 and Catalan Christ (pretending to be dead) completed in 1976.

In the next gallery there was, amongst other things, yet another memorial tribute to a recently deceased RA and that was Colin St John Wilson who designed the British Library. He started out as a painter before turning to architecture and there were some rather lively paintings on display along with some sketches for the library and a scale model of the exterior of the library in situ near St Pancras station which I enjoyed scrutinising as I have spent many a happy hour in there enjoying the exhibitions and eating lunch in the restaurant.

At this point I turned left into a gallery that usually has prints displayed in it and this is where the red dots, indicating successful sales, run amok. As far as I can tell this is where the general public might, if they are lucky, get their works hung. This room and the small one next to it have work jammed in them so tightly you can end up with a crick in your neck trying to take it all in. It was in this small room that my head began to swim so I went back into the print room and started to look at the exhibits slowly. I noticed one large etching of a landscape had several red dots stuck on the frame. This print was signed by the artist and instead of being numbered in an edition it was described as artists proof so I assume that this artist now has to go ahead and print at least four copies of this etching to supply her customers and since printing an etching can be time consuming that will amount to a lot of work.

Two years ago I undertook some market research of the designs for my greetings cards which are now for sale to find out which were the most popular images. Most people I accosted were happy to fill in the forms but one woman felt it was important to tell me that if I was serious about selling my cards then I should include people and animals into my designs, particularly cats. This made me laugh at the time but she might have a point about the sentimental appeal of cats since the print with the most red dots on it was a small etching of a face of the most ugly cat I have ever seen (you can probably tell I'm not a cat lover). I can't imagine having it in my house but clearly many people disagree with me. The other print that was also doing well in the red dot stakes was a small sideways image of an angel.

This is when I began to feel tyranised by the red dots. I was getting tired by this stage and needed to edit the number of images I was looking at so ended up unwillingly concentrating on the pieces with the most red dots whereas if there hadn't been any red dots I would have made different choices. The only sensible thing I could do at this point was stagger off in search a restorative cup of tea and a piece of cake before heading home.