ARTYFACTS: March 2008

Friday, March 14, 2008

Cranach at Royal Academy

I saw the Cranach show at the Courtald last July, and to be honest, I can't say this was a whole lot better. It's bigger, but the Courtald had some excellent Adam and Eve images that this show lacks. Let's be honest, the highlight of the show are his nudes. He would not have been as well kown as he is without this distinctive approach to the nude through his Adam/Eve, Diana, Lucretia, Venus, The Three Graces etc. They are medieval erotica. The fact that the same woman and shape appears in so many guises is proof enough that the interest of both artist and viewer is in the object and not the subject.

Should I?
The flesh tones against black with a wisp of gauze is enough to lure all of the Adam's watching the show at the Royal Academy. We're all supposed to show that terribly dull aesthetic disinterest in front of nudes but these raise a few knowing smiles. In Adam ad Eve, Adam is scratching his head. Two older womed in front of me commeted on this saying, "Look he's scratching his head thinking 'Should I?'" The other replied with a laugh, "and he did!"

There are some credible portraits, especially of Luther, as he was, effectively, his publicist, but the religious paitings were rather feeble.

The First Emperor (British Museum)

Huge queues and show is crammed into the reading room - the bottom line is that the British Museum is not set up to cope with these blockbusters. It was far too hot and crowded. These acrobats were unusual - buried in a separate pit they include a strongman (at back right).

I'm off to Xian in a couple of weeks but was keen to see a preview of the warriors before seeing the real site. What we see here are mere samples from the site but the figures are impressive. There's a mass manufacture feel (something Chinese aesthetics has ever been scared of) but the joy is in the faces and hairstyles. Compared to similar Greek sculpture in the west at the time, it's primitive but this was not 'art' in that sense. It was a act of Emperor/God megalomania, closer to Pharonic Egyptian burials.

What was interesting wasn't the art, but the cultural impact. The creation of a superstate, first through an overwhelming investment in the military machine, with standardised weapons and conscription, then protection of its borders (The Great Wall - really not a wall at all but several walls) . What held the whole thing together was the philosphical idea of legalism - we're all born bad and have to be constrained by laws. This led, conceptually, to not only laws but standards in coinage, weights and language. It would appear that these have been China's strengths and weaknesses for 200 years.

The next show at the British museum is Hadrian (76-138). The parallels between Hadrian and Quin Shi Huangdi are striking. Both were formaidable military leaders who built great walls to protect their empires, toured tirelessly and built on scale. Tivoli Gardens are similar to the great Qui Shi's gardens built by reflecting his conquered territory.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

From Russia (Royal Academy)

Off to a bad start as the Rejin picture of the October 1905 celebration is so poorly hung and lit that, no matter where you stand, it can’t be seen in its entirety. Two spotlighhts drill into the painting flooding it with white light. Why spend so much on getting this stuff to the UK then kill it with poor curation? While I'm at it, 30 minutes in the queue as there was only one person selling tickets at three tills – who runs these places?

Repin’s Tolstoy is a familiar image, seen
on the covers of countless paperbacks then the Nesterovs and Levetins – Russia’s landscapes are not abstract experiments in colour, they are places populated by people. Even when there’s no one in the landscape – it’s their presence that counts. Nothing really knowcks you out here and the endless speculation on colector's is ratehr tedious - catalogue stuff. I'm here for the painting, not the history of collecting.

The huge room of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists - Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso – is a spectacle. The Haystacks, Poppy fields and Renoir bar scenes are all too familiar, but Matisse’s ‘The Dance’ is one huge piece of joy that dwarfs everything else in the room. It was a Russian magnate that commissioned the piece for his house and I wonder if the current crop, Abaramovich etc show as much taste and vision – doubt it. You may have been delighted by Dance 1 in the MOMA in New York, but that was a mere study – this is the masterpiece. But it’s his other huge canvas, a sizzling, deep-red image The Red Room is just as impressive.
But it’s the
Russian artists I really came to see; Alexander Benois. Leon Bakst, Boris Kustodiev, Nochiolas Roerich, Alexander Golovin and Valentin Serov. And there it was, a complete surprise. I have never seen this picture, nor any replication in print, yet for me it was the star of the show. Tucked away to one side was a huge image of a woman dancing in a red/green dress, as rich as any Byzantine mosaic I’ve even seen (seemed to be its inspiration), and as lively as any painting I’ve ever seen. This is Malyavin's Peasant Woman Dancing. He went to Mount Athos when he was 16 and became an icon painter, eventually reaching Russia, then Paris, to become an acclaimed painter. This, for me, is the real link between France and Paris. A painter whose roots are truly Russian/Byzantine, taking his art to new heights through colour to portary the new Russia, that of it's pesants.

The futurist room was as dull as old museum showing some minor artefacts from the past, but moving quickly into the last room, the finale, raised my mood again. A wonderful wall of Kandisnsky, some Malevich and the abrupt minimalism that ended in the images of the cross, circle and square.