Archive for category Subject: Art History

Josef Albers: life & work || Charles Darwent

Josef Albers was one of the members of the Bauhaus, that institution that did much to revitalise creative life in Germany after its defeat in the First World War. Less well-known than names such as Gropius, Klee and Kandinsky, he was, however, responsible for much of the spirit and direction of the school.

Albers’ fame is mainly built on his work in America, where he relocated after the dissolution of the Bauhaus in 1933. It was there, now in his 60’s, that he worked on Homages to the Square, a series of 2000 images that explore the interaction of colours. If this reminds you of Robert Rauschenberg’s Black and White paintings, the influence is palpable. Much of Albers’ archive is devoted to correspondence with John Cage (whose 4’33” was itself influenced by Rauschenberg’s white canvases), Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson. That list itself shows the breadth of Albers’ interests and influence, representing as it does music, art and architecture.

This is an extensive and very complete biography of a figure who, although not now widely known, was one of the Twentieth Century’s great creative theorists. The roll-call of those he taught and who felt his influence is testament enough to his importance and this, coinciding with the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus, is a timely reminder of his genius.

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Conflicting Views – pacifist artists || Gill Clarke

As we approach the anniversary of the end of the First World War, this is a timely publication. Fittingly, it is also not a sequence of proselytising anti-war images, but rather works by artists who were not recording heroic battles or glorious victories. Yes, Mark Gerlter’s Merry-Go-Round (1916) is here, as are George Micklewhite’s cartoon-like drawings of life as a conscientious objector, but there are also images from the home front and of life behind the lines.

There are two main sections, First World War and Second World War, each being treated separately. With a few exceptions, the artists featured in the second part were too young to feature in the first and, apart from attitudes, there are few comparisons to be made that are not immediately obvious to the viewer. It is interesting to note that some of those who refused WW1 changed their views in the 1930s in the face of Nazism. A short final chapter, Coda: a legacy of war and peace, sums up the theme of the book, but conflicts that fall outside the two main wars are outside its scope – to be fair, extending the brief would have made for a very large tome indeed.

The selection of artists is broad, as is the type of work illustrated. It is something of a shame that not every artist gets an illustration, but that could be seen as adding to the book’s completeness, rather than detracting from its appeal.

This is a useful and thought-provoking addition to the literature about war and art and is nicely put together and presented.

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Books do Furnish a Painting || Jamie Camplin & Maria Ranauro

Once you start looking, books are all over paintings. Particularly in portraits, they can be used to provide the sitter with something to do with their hands, suggest serious study or devotion. They can even suggest leisure – nothing says indolence quite like a discarded volume. The more you think about it, the more intriguing the thesis becomes, which I suspect is how this rather delightful book came about.

In the wrong hands, this could easily have become just another tenuous excuse to draw together a collection of paintings from Albrecht Dürer to Stanley Spencer and claim connections that were never there, either on canvas or in the artist’s mind. Books, however, are different and provide not so much a point of focus for the painting as for the subject – the works here are almost exclusively figurative and the important element is the interaction of the sitter with the tome.

The blurb tells me that the first question asked is “what is a book?” I’m relieved to report that this is not a chapter heading and, although there is a brief history of printing, the esoteric debate over whether manuscripts (never mind scrolls) carry more weight than printing is not one that will detain us. I checked that there is no index entry for “incunabula”, a sure sign that any author (unless they’re discussing early printed works, of course) is taking themselves too seriously.

What we do get, though, is ten pages devoted to “who invented the artist?”, a question I’d never really considered before. I visited the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum, so I’m tempted to say that they probably invented themselves. However, the idea of The Artist as cultural icon might be attributed to Vasari, and artists do certainly tend to put themselves forward a lot more than authors. Maybe I’m just cynical (and a writer…)

I’m being unfair. This is well done, scholarly in a way that’s not overwhelming and a lot of fun. The authors are a former Editorial and Managing Director of Thames & Hudson (why, yes, they have published this) and an art historian who has worked at the National Gallery (and is now a senior picture researcher at – you guessed it – Thames & Hudson).

Would this have seen the light of day without those connections? I rather doubt it. The proposal would have been a hard sell, but it was worthwhile. The result is not, as it could so easily have been, a vanity project the publisher simply couldn’t turn down, but a scenic wander through what turns out to be rather more than a byway of art history.

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Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours || P Syme

A band on the jacket helpfully advises that this is “the book Charles Darwin used to describe colours on his voyage on HMS Beagle”. So much, you might say, for that.

This is a facsimile (if you hadn’t guessed) of a book first published in 1814. It was invaluable then and, although mainly of historical interest now, contains information that can still be of use to the artist. This version took a previously existing colour naming system and adapted it for practical use by botanists, zoologists, mineralogists and artists.

Why, you might ask, was it necessary? Two hundred years ago, colour printing didn’t exist in any useful form. Those full-colour guides we’re so used to now are surprisingly recent. Only 30 or so years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for painting books to be illustrated with only some dozen colour plates and those would be concentrated together, not run throughout the text. The quality of the colour reproduction in the present volume suggests that the swatches were hand-tinted, so this would have been a small edition, and by no means cheap.

But still, why place so much importance on how colours are described? Well, if you can’t reproduce it in print, you need a reliable way of writing about it so that the reader can mix it for themselves, and that requires a standard approach. Enter Mr Werner, ably assisted by Mr Syme.

To see how this works in practice, let’s look at Bluish Green. It “is composed of Berlin blue, and a little lemon yellow and greyish white”. The accompanying table tells us that it’s suitable for a thrush egg, the under disc of wild rose leaves or the mineral beryl. And that’s how you get the colours right, even if you haven’t got a reliable chart.

Yes, this is mainly of historical interest, but it’s a fascinating read and a reminder of how the world got on when everything really was black and white.

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Modernists & Mavericks || Martin Gayford

This remarkably thorough and authoritative account of the development of painting in London from the Second World War to the 1970s draws on extensive interviews Martin Gayford conducted with its participants and personalities. Gayford, art critic of The Spectator, offers what is effectively an insider view of an important period in, and strand of, contemporary art. Although it was not a movement as such, it was inevitable that any group, however diverse, that was working in reasonably close proximity would develop friendships and rivalries and share experiences and ideas both deliberately and unconsciously.

Just about everyone who was a part of the scene gets a mention somewhere here and luminaries include Hockney, Freud, Bacon, Bridget Riley, Gillian Ayres, Peter Black, Allen Green and Howard Hodgkin. The book, however, is very much more than a simple trawl through the notes and a tour of the exhibits. Gayford, an insightful viewer and incisive commentator, demonstrates how the group (as we might just get away with calling them) were influenced by teachers such as David Bomberg and William Coldstream and also drew on American Abstract Expressionism and more traditional Western art.

Comprehensively illustrated, this should be set fair to be the definitive history as well as an appreciation of its period. The published version will have an index, the lack of which I felt dearly in my proof copy, indicating how essential it will be.

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Misère || Linda Nochlin

This is, on the face of it, a seemingly unlikely subject for a book about art history. However, it fits with the Victorian style of narrative painting and fascination with – and often glamorisation of – the lower orders of society. Many nineteenth century artists depict working people in suspiciously well-kept clothes, but there were others, themselves living hand-to-mouth, who shared the world of the underclass and understood the conditions of their companions all too well.

Linda Nochlin concentrates for the most part on these latter: there are no Stanhope Forbes, William Powell Friths or Ford Maddox Browns here, although Landseer’s The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner (his dog) is reproduced and is a masterpiece of sentimentalisation. Her thesis, expressed in the cover blurb, is that the rapid changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution caused displacement and destitution for those whom it did not benefit. This is, I think, to stretch a point somewhat and potentially to fall into the trap that artists themselves sometimes did, distinguishing between the happy, free, rural poor and their downtrodden urban counterparts.

The book itself, however, does not bear this out and begins with a lengthy examination of what Linda calls The Irish Paradigm. This is the rural poverty brought about by the potato famine and which was documented in publications such as The Illustrated London News, many of whose images are reproduced. Linda also includes illustrations which show a less charitable viewpoint: that of drunkenness and simple depravity; not everyone idolised the “deserving poor”.

It is, I think, important to take note of the fact that the title of the book is Misère and not Misery, although that word does appear in the subtitle. The difference is subtle (Linda explains its genesis from a discovery in a Parisian bookshop) and represents a construct rather than a state of existence – the representation of poverty rather than its sociological fact. It is easy to fall into another trap: that of assuming that all the people here are unhappy. I’m not suggesting that Courbet’s agricultural labourers, Gericault’s street-dwellers or Degas’ prostitutes are happy noble savages, but the works illustrated are perhaps more documentary than comment. No-one likes being at the bottom of the heap, but there is sometimes, maybe often, a degree of acceptance. These are people and they survive, at least after a fashion.

This is an interesting work that explores a corner of nineteenth century art that is, while not forgotten, not frequently commented on. The narrative maybe stretches a point sometimes, but Linda is also careful not to wear a campaigner’s hat; she is an art historian, not a social one. Reading the book, I was reminded of the Kasmin’s Postcards series, which shines another light on our forebears’ fascination with poverty and disaster.

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Emile Nolde : Colour is Life

Colour is strength. Strength is life.
Only strong harmonies are important.

Emile Nolde wrote this in the final volume of his four-volume autobiography and it serves as a manifesto for his art – indeed it could stand for much of art in general.

Nolde was part of the German Expressionist movement, but lived in the northern part of the country near the border with Denmark, and was in fact a Danish citizen when he died. Much of his imagery reflects the landscapes and, above all, the people that surrounded him.

This survey of his life and work, which is much more than a catalogue of the exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Ireland, stresses that he was, for all that, not merely a regional artist. He was fully up to speed on trends and movements in contemporary art and also a master of both technique and colour. His use of the latter can, in the Expressionist manner, shock, but that’s designed to get attention and make the viewer think. It also provides a vibrancy and, in figurative works, a depth of character that is not always possible by other means.

As well as a generous format and some superb reproduction, there are also considered essays on a variety of aspects of Nolde’s work that make this, while more of a survey than an in-depth study, a thoroughly worthwhile assessment of the man and his work. It also stands well even when separated from the exhibition.

Note: the edition reviewed is that with the imprint of the National Gallery of Ireland. It is, however, also published by the National Gallery of Scotland and that is the edition linked to below.

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