Saturday, 8 September 2012

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye @ Tate Modern

The Sick Child 1907, Oil on canvas

The exhibition starts with the predictable self portrait / formal beginning room but continues into the "reworkings" room where images Munch made multiples of are compared on facing walls. These are really interesting and you can see the decisions Munch made in terms of handling, colour and composition. Even though Munch said; "I have in fact often made copies of my paintings - but there was always progress too, and they were never the same - I build one painting on the last." You can see that the later copies are generally larger, brighter and less intimate paintings. Munch often opened up intimate figure studies (the Kiss) with landscapes in the background, used thinned out oil paint and brighter tones in his copies, as Tate points out to meet demands of collectors and maintain commercial success. The later edition of The Sick Child is one of the most effective in the room but summarizes the trend. The brushwork is less cutting than the original, the colour less deep, the figure relationship is not as close and the scene is opened up rather than genuinely emotive and atmospheric. 

The Girls on the Bridge 1927

Another in the 'reworkings' room is The Girls on the Bridge. I like the way Munch successfully combines the illusion of space with flat expanses of colour. The exaggerated perspective used in the diagonal of the bridge leads us into a distant path winding up a hill while the reflection of the dominating, blob-like tree draws us into the depth of the water. He also combines very loose and energetic brushwork with clearly defined forms and areas of colour. Everything is in its place while simultaneously capturing an energy of excitement and sense of place.   

On the Operating Table 1902-1903, Oil on canvas 109 x 149 cm

Another example of Munch's experimental handling of space is in the extremely foreshortened body of the artist himself in; On the Operating Table. Munch creates such an uneasy scene with his use of colour, composition and handling. The way the body is laid out on display to a watching audience and implicates us as an observer, places us in an position of shared anxiety for the subject and as a squeamish viewer not really wanting to take part in this event but not being able to drag our gaze away. Its like car crash tv. You can't help but watch as the bowl full of blood is collected. All eyes are on him at center stage and his vulnerability is laid bare as he clutches with his left hand to any remaining hope and dignity. Amongst the inanimate, faceless viewers appears the specter of the Scream, the symbol of Munch's oeuvre, expressionist and western painting, in the group of standing figures or intimidating surgeons. The sharp, zig-zagged brushstrokes radiating from the audience clash with the comforting curvilinear brush marks around the body of the artist. Like the Scream this painting seems to deal with a moment of isolation, an internal moment of emotion being released out into the outside world. It is very much about the tug of war of emotional experience between the individual and the collective. This painting was prompted from a real life occurrence in 1902. Munch had an altercation with his girlfriend during which a struggle with a gun led to it being fired and Munch's left hand being hit and subsequently operated on. He only had the tip of one finger removed but he has masterfully exaggerated it to heighten the emotional effect.

New Snow in the Avenue 1906

Ice whites and pale blues evoke the somberness of winter or early spring in New Snow in the Avenue. This time two figures are set against a curiously morphing, gloopy, lava lamp like skyline and outnumbered by an avenue of trees. Not all together somber I feel the optimism coming from the zesty green / yellow shoots of life in the trees and the luke warm violet provide reason for some optimism. At least this is a contemplative moment with an element of calmness or focus on what lies ahead in the untouched blanket of snow on the path ahead. Munch again creates an illusion of space by using his familiar motifs and also crops the only figures in the foreground to allow the landscape to dominate and compound the feeling of our small, insignificant place in the natural world or that pschological state of isolation.


Inka Essenigh, Snow 2007, Oil on canvas, 72 x 62 in © Inka Essenhigh

Munch's New Snow reminded me of this painting by Inka Essenhigh. In another way Essenhigh has created a morphing sky with bulbous clouds which rather than being part of the backdrop actually become a kind of architectural phenomena in the scene. An unsuspecting walker bye is stretched and absorbed into the bloated form while a hooded figure is actually attempting to push the heavy atmosphere back with their shoulders like the titan atlas carrying the world on his shoulders. Although a bit more well trodden, Essenhigh's Snow captures those interactions with the great outdoors in winter. The icy feeling and desolation of nature which evoke isolation and the emptiness of the space around you. Even though the scene is cluttered with people you get that sense of winter when walking in the park and being too cold to acknowledge the humanity around you, somehow the weather internalizes you too or forces you into introspection.  

Starry Night 1922-24, Oil on canvas, 140 x 119 cm

Like the painting by the same name painted over thirty years before by an artist by the name of Vincent Van Gogh, Munch's version of Starry Night similarly makes use of deep ultramarine's setting off swirling, firework like yellow lights in the sky (above is a bad reproduction of Munch's version). Unlike Van Gogh's blitz of colour, rhythmic brush work and immediacy, Munch maintains a distance with the embers of light glowing in the background. I think the depth of colour Munch uses produces an emotional response in this painting. The use of pure colour without much white, deep blues, purples contrast with warm yellows, burnt siennas, oranges and reds make this painting visually attractive. Starry Night ,like the other great pictures in the show, is great because Munch is able to paint great expanses of pure, flat colour with a vigorous application while being able to depict a kind of narrative with his motifs of space and distance.  

I really like Munch's painting, especially his use of colour and brush work but this style is also a bit risky. From my own painting I have found that a lot of the time when you feel energetic and want to just throw the paint about madly it really doesn't come out that great. Sometimes it can work but without a sensitivity to subject, composition and some lets say formal set up /  arrangement or experience it just ends up like a mess. This can feel great as an exercise but doesn't often yield visually interesting results and I feel like some of Munch's paintings suffer from this - maybe over experimentation. Not that I would want to discourage experimenting in any way but in terms of creating something visually interesting it requires more. I would say there are about five or six masterpieces or just really great paintings in this show with a lot of average paintings and a few stinkers. Also they have used up the space with some photography which I didn't think was that interesting. For a large scale Tate retrospective that doesn't seem like much value but considering many of Munch's best / most famous paintings have not been included (the Scream) it is still worthwhile. Sometimes it is nice to see the paintings that do not work in order to understand some of the decision making and pro's and con's of the artists style. 


Red and Green Scream (After the Scream)

Red and Green Scream (after the Scream) is an old painting I made in the investigation of the emotional effect between using only the colours red and green. I was trying to investigate emotion in painting and how to convey, project and ultimatley induce an emotional response in the viewer. Within this project Munch was a key influence and the Scream stands out as an icon of emotion in painting.


Friday, 24 August 2012

The Great Colourists

The Great Colourists Tour by Steven Barrett @ The National Gallery

Giovanni Bellin The Agony In the Garden about 1465 egg on wood 81.3 x 127cm

This is a great example by a leading exponent of the 15th Century Venetian School and teacher of arguably the greatest ever painter; Tiziano Vecellio also known as Titian. The Agony depicts the suffering of Christ the night before his arrest and subsequent execution. The colour is used to narrate the agony of Christ and heighten the emotional resonance. The ominous clouds overhead give way to the bright dawn of what is to come. Apparently this scene depicts the first sunrise in western art although this has not been confirmed! But certainly it’s a very early attempt to capture the special light and colour qualities of such a natural phenomena. I also like the way the figures have been handled with the foreshortening of what is probably Saint Paul in the foreground leading to the kneeling figure of Christ.

 Titian Bacchus and Ariadne 1520-1523 oil on canvas 176.5 x 191cm

Unlike Bellini's sky, Titian's brilliant blue sky doesn't so much convey a linear narrative but announce the cost of the painting. Ultramarine derived from lapis lazuli was more expensive than gold in the 15th century and usually reserved for details but here the patron has insisted on the huge expanse of iridescent blue for the sky and mountains in the distance. Ultramarine not only announces the value of the materials used but represents the celestial heavens of the Gods above and comes through the trees to interact with the orangey, earthy colours of terra firma. The blue and orangey brown, warm and cool contrasting narrates the union of heaven and earth as Bacchus meets Ariadne for the first time. This early work by Titian contrasts with his later palette of darker, earthier hues as this typically Venetian style of bright and rich use of pigments shows Titians colour intuition before colour theory was derived.

 Diego Velázquez  Christ contemplated by the Christian Soul 1628-9 oil on canvas 165.1 x 206.4cm

Velázquez's Christ contemplated doesn't blow us away with the bright Venetian palette but like some painting that rejects colour altogether Velázquez augments colour and puts it on a low setting. Through absence and subtle use of tones we are able to see objects in another way. The subtle use of greys with different biases are used to induce colours where there might not be colour as in the smock of the kneeling angel. The streak of light from the halo of Christ towards the angel intensifies the relationship between figures.

 Joseph Mallord William Turner The Fighting Temeraire 1839 oil on canvas 90.7 x 121.6cm

Turner's use of colour delivers information. The fiery, flaming oranges, reds merging into the blues, greys and lilacs of the sea towards the horizon tells us that this is the melancholic moment that the famous Temeraire is made redundant. A symbol of power and patriotism returning from the battle of Trafalgar has come to the end of its life and Turner has used contrasting warm and cool colour to heighten the sentimentality of the moment.

 Pierre-Auguste Renoir The Skiff 1875 oil on canvas 71 x 92cm

Renoir's Skiff continues the theme of pairing colours together for visual sensation. Renoir with the Impressionists broke with tradition by liberating colour as a description and instead used colour for its own inherent qualities, its own beauty.


 Vincent van Gogh Head of a Peasant Woman 1884 oil on canvas 40.3 x 30.5cm

Head of a Peasant Woman represents Van Gogh's early style painted in the Netherlands. Darker and more sombre than the style Van Gogh has become more synonymous with it does reflect his conditions and state of mind. This is a study for the larger; Potato Eaters.

 Vincent van Gogh Sunflowers 1888 oil on canvas 92.1 x 73cm

The 19th century saw a break with tradition in painting. There was now no necessity to attempt to seduce the viewer into believing the image is real. Van Gogh had a major focus on nature and used Sunflowers to evoke hope as the essence of yellow. It is the secular equivalent to the gilded medieval altar pieces prevalent before the Renaissance and the work of Bellini and Titian.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture

Garrowby Hill,1998, oil on canvas © David Hockney

The winding road simultaneously visible from a birds eye view and slowly receding into a distant, farm divided rural landscape, fragmented like broken glass is typical of Hockney's inventive scenes created from memory or imagination. These multiple view points inventively create space in which to involve us in the view like a traveling rambler or lost hitchhiker. They provide different points of view and reactions to the landscape in a sort of panoramic attempt to evoke an overall sensation of the land. The road sharply descends into glowing rectangles of yellow and green which almost vibrate against the cool blues in the distance. Painted in the studio from memory Garrowby Hill depicts an emotionally evocative, powerfully charged and expressive landscape.  

The shifting point in this huge exhibition came in the fourth room with work entirely produced by direct observation. The wonderful, exuberant landscapes suddenly fell flat and became more formal and conventional. Although the accurate recording of nature and painterly brushwork continued to impress it seems the main ambition became about scale and production volume rather than about innovation. Based on theories developed in his book; Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, Hockney seems to have rebelled against the limitation in the use of cameras and optical devices only to limit his own imagination and then go on to use cameras and iPads in his own work! That is not to say that these work do not show incredible skill and inventiveness in depicting the world with a brushstroke but they have become less edgy and less dynamic by using single point perspective, measured proportions and formal composition. * "he runs very close to a school of mucky, chancy English landscape painting that is already ubiquitous – and degraded by its overfamiliarity."  

Winter Tunnel with Snow, March 2006, oil on canvas 36  x 48 in... © David Hockney
Hockney's series of 'tunnel' paintings for example rely on capturing seasonal changes between a series of canvases painted from the same formal fixed viewpoint as opposed to the converging views and ideas in previous work. 
The tunnel motif is a traditional pictorial device used to draw the eye into the painting with a central focal point at the end of the row of trees which stand out against the open sky. Based on this compositional template the images function in depicting change and movement is only effective in a series and each image becomes more subtle in itself with less boldly painted colour contrasts and relationships.    

Late Spring Tunnel, May 2006 ,  oil on canvas, two parts, 48 x 72 in © David Hockney

More Felled Trees on Woldgate, 2008, oil on canvas, two panels, 60 x 96 in.. © David Hockney

Hockney seems to have tried to make a reprieve for these duller observations by reintroducing an acidic colour range and naivety which was prevalent in his student work and studio landscapes in rooms one to four. One visitor commented that; " I'm sure if you took LSD thats what woods would look like!". Using complimentary yellow's and purple's, or clashing red's and green's, the paintings that dominate the last quarter of the show contain moments of beauty (in the form of the Woldgate Woods series) but also straddle the line between the eye wateringly garish and the chocolate box, pretty picture. So much so that;* "Bambi would be comfortably at home in all these paintings".   

Woldgate Woods III , May 20 & 21 2006  Oil on 6 canvases 72in x 144 in © David Hockney

I enjoyed the Woldgate Woods series based on the same principle of examining the same place at different times they successfully intrigue the eye by using the vertical tree trunks as visual obstructions and framing devices as a way into the scene. By stepping back you notice how some of the rougher brushwork fades into areas of flat colour and how they work well as reproductions. 

iPad drawing

The central room is filled with iPad print outs which Hockney has been using as an alternative sketchbook. I thought these were the worst part of the show. These cringe worthy doodles look like they have been made on any generic scribble program as the dislocated, pixelated dots, glassy blurring effect, and spaghettied lines float above each other on visibly different layers. * " They look almost wipable. They can never hide their electronic origins, no matter how painterly they appear. There's something inescapably dead and bland and gutless about them."  

Although it has its problems I enjoyed this show, especially the first half, and found it reassuring to see some inconsistencies in a place like the Royal Academy.  

 *  Adrian Searle, The Guardian 16/01/12 

Brian Sewel, The Evening Standard, 19/01/12
* Adrian Searle, The Guardian 16/01/12

The First Surrealist

*"ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life. The following have performed acts of ABSOLUTE SURREALISM: Messrs. Aragon, Baron, Boiffard, Breton, Carrive, Crevel, Delteil, Desnos, Eluard, Gérard, Limbour, Malkine, Morise, Naville, Noll, Péret, Picon, Soupault, Vitrac."

Catalogue of the exhibition held at Galerie Les Yeux Fertiles Jun 04 - Jul 17, 2004 in Paris

Malkine's life reads like one big act of "absolute surrealism". From being deployed in both World Wars to hunting elephants in Africa, being captured and tortured by the gestapo, acting in over twenty films to working in a biscuit factory, it seems like the least he could do was join the Surrealists on the side!

He joined the Surrealist group in 1924.   

Malkine (left) Masson, Breton, Morise, Neveux in 1924 in Malkine's studio

This street scene evoking the chance encounter between strangers reminds me of the work of fellow surrealist Alberto Giacometti. The elongated painted and sculptural forms which Giacometti produced are often visions and memories of desired subjects on the periphery of perception. Unaquianted lovers, unknown companions and possible partners disappearing into the distance were subjects that fascinated artists in Paris at turn of the 19th century in a newly urbanised city that offered new, random, exciting experiences. I like how in the reality of the picture the two characters walk unknowingly past eachother while their shadows teasingly come face to face.


Malkine's paintings resemble and have a thematic affinity with the more famous Surrealist members work. For example, commencing in 1966 his series of 'mansions' or weirdly extended, fantastical, labyrinth-like architectural structures were created as metaphors for Surrealist friends and colleagues including; ' the house of André Breton' and resemble Salvador Dali's metaphorical; Archeological Reminiscence of Millet's "Angelus", 1935.

This endless dream-like landscape reminds me of Yves Tanguy's vast, desolate scene's. With subtle tonal shifts merging foreground into background and rendering time and place indestinguishable it leaves you spellbound and hypnotized.    


Sirènes by Georges Malkine, 1925

For some reason this reminds me of Monty Python's; The Meaning of Life!

Les Plus Beaux Yeux Du Monde Ont Connu Nos Pensees, c.1929
gouache on paper
11 x 7 1/2"

Robert Desnos (1900 - 45) oil on canvas 1921

Having a musical upbringing with his father being a violinist, Malkine later produced paintings described as 'abstract lyricism'. These diferent styles are testement to Malkine's experimentation and erratic production due to seemingly random lifestyle and events.

Georges Malkine (October 10, 1898 – March 22, 1970)

* André Breton The Surrealist Manifesto 1924

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Larry Feather

Here are a selection of paintings by my great uncle, the painter Larry Feather:

Haddon Hall Banqueting Hall watercolour 22 x 30 inches

Winterscape acrylic

Kids At Play oil

Demo Painting acrylic 20 x 16 inches

Fun At The Sea Edge acrylic

House Portrait watercolour

Gresmont Rail Station North York Moors Railway acrylic