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Abstraction and Alcohol, Expressionism and Excess: Jack Jubb

July 24, 2011

Every year, to run alongside its Summer Exhibition, the Royal Academy of Arts hosts an online gallery that showcases the cream of A-Level work by students across the UK. This year’s exhibition contains three works by a young artist called Jack Jubb that immediately grabbed my attention. This piece is not so much a review but a reflection on his work.

Red, Orange, Tan and Purple, 2011

Red, Orange, Tan and Purple, 1954

Jubb’s works engage the art of the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, taking three canvases by the celebrated artist and re-imagining them as alcoholic drinks. Aside from the ingenious aesthetic consideration – each drink, recalling the colour composition of a Rothko canvas, is created in the style of a layered cocktail or shooter that one might find in a bar or nightclub – the works, taken collectively, explore alcohol consumption on a deeper level.

Untitled, 2011

Untitled, 1969

Rothko’s art is an exploration of the emotive effect of colour. Often huge in scale, the viewer is immersed in the emotional spectrum of his vast colour fields: sometimes touching, occasionally disturbing; his canvases can range from ecstasy to anger, joy to despair. By re-envisaging Rothko’s oeuvre as alcoholic beverages Jubb acknowledges not only the emotive power of the artist’s work, but also the passionate and often impulsive extremes that are the result of excessive alcohol consumption. It is a highly accomplished triptych, both aesthetically and conceptually; a refreshing reflection of contemporary society that displays a maturity beyond the artist’s young age.

White Centre, 2011

White Centre, 1950

To view the other entries for the Royal Academy’s A-Level Summer Exhibition, 2011 visit their virtual gallery by clicking here.

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Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Affliction and Infatuation

July 22, 2011

The Courtauld Gallery in London is renowned for hosting some of the most exquisite and concise exhibitions in the country. To cite an example from 2010, Michelangelo’s Dream consisted of a collection of the Renaissance artist’s drawings re-united for the first time in an exhibition labelled ‘breathtaking’ by The Independent and ‘a curatorial and scholarly triumph’ by The Daily Telegraph. This is not to suggest that every exhibition the Courtauld deigns to put before the public is as gratifying and groundbreaking, but there exists a general consensus, supported no doubt by the Courtauld Institute of Art’s academic strengths, that the Gallery’s shows possess an erudite clarity that is sometimes lost in the behemoth exhibitions of its larger rivals. Its latest exhibition Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge continues this impressive tradition.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a Post-Impressionist artist who resided in Paris, is perhaps known as much for his mythologized life as for his art. His growth stunted as a child, Toulouse-Lautrec suffered health problems throughout his life, the result of his forbears’ aristocratic inbreeding. Endowed, it is rumoured, with an engorged penis, he found solace from his underdeveloped legs in the sexual decadence of 19th century Paris, in the prostitutes and clubs and amongst the can-can dancers that frequent his works. One such dancer, the Moulin Rouge’s Jane Avril, immediately captured Toulouse-Lautrec’s attention. In Avril he discovered a muse and confidant whose own disability was the source of the unusual and flamboyant dance style that made her famous. The Courtauld Gallery’s exhibition is a succinct and touching exploration of their relationship; a celebration of Jane Avril through the eye of an accomplished artist.

Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge, 1892. The Courtauld Gallery, London

In Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge (1892) we see her depicted away from the glamour of the stage. Relatively ordinary in appearance save for a mildly quirky yellow bag and floral hat, Avril seems almost world-weary. It is a poignant engagement with her humanity that reveals a more complex relationship between artist and muse than the straightforward voyeurism one might expect from a man as infamously promiscuous as Toulouse-Lautrec.

Comprised almost solely of vertical brushstrokes, the painterly technique of Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge echoes a sophisticated pencil drawing. Indeed, Toulouse-Lautrec’s actual sketches, executed in haste whilst Avril performed, are the most enchanting and exciting of his works in the exhibition. Jane Avril Dancing (1891-92) is a particularly exquisite example.

Avril’s affliction, Sydenham’s Chorea or, as it is historically known, St Vitus Dance, is characterised by uncoordinated jerking movements. During her confinement to the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris she discovered a love for dance that released her from the tribulations of her condition. Whether Avril’s jerking limbs inspired her choreography or whether her highly individual style was the direct result of convulsions is unclear; what is certain is that St Vitus Dance was integral to Avril’s eccentric dance style. It captivated Toulouse-Lautrec and a host of bourgeois, Parisian men, earned her the nickname La Mélinite after an explosive compound and propelled her to the heights of the Moulin Rouge. Her unique movement is brought to life with ardent vigour in Toulouse-Lautrec’s sketches. Jane Avril Dancing documents her jutting hips and angular movement – note the peculiarly rendered left foot, in-turned and awkwardly positioned. The physical irregularity of Avril’s choreography is captured perfectly by the artist’s swift, sharp brushstrokes creating a dramatic sense of dynamism.

Troupe de Mlle Églantine, 1896. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Her idiosyncrasies are discernible too in Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters. Troupe de Mlle Églantine (1896) was commissioned for the Mademoiselles Églantine tour of England and shows Avril (far left), ever the individualist, out of sync with the dancing of her compatriots.

Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, 1893

Divan Japonais, 1893. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters are perhaps the most famous representations of his relationship with Avril: works such as the promotional lithographs Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris (1893) and Divan Japonais (1893). The most powerful pieces in the exhibition however, are those that offer an insight beyond the glamour; the revelation of two afflicted souls united by artistic passions that, in their own way, serve to distract from the trials of their lives. This poignancy is the real success of this exhibition.

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge runs at The Courtauld Gallery until September 18, 2011. It does incur an admission fee.

For more information and to book tickets click here.

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The Saatchi Gallery and Coldharbour London: Heavyweight Light Sculpture

June 28, 2011

Broadly speaking, the acquisition history of the collector Charles Saatchi reveals a penchant for artworks in which shock value registers above aesthetic consideration. Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Zygotic Acceleration, Biogenetic, De-sublimated Libidinal Model (1995) immediately springs to mind as an example of a particularly vulgar artwork – though not its title! – as does Tracey Emin’s I’ve Got It All (2000). Not all deliberately shocking art is substandard however; Marcus Harvey’s glowering portrait Myra (1995), also bought by Saatchi, has a conceptual level that surpasses its immediate crassness: the marks that make up the child killer’s face are applied using a plaster casts of an infant’s hand. Generally I consider most artwork of this ilk poorly-conceived. With new artists especially, it seems as if their all consuming desire to attract the attention of the infamous Saatchi obstructs considered aesthetic judgement – Myra is one of the few exceptions. It was, admittedly, with a distinct feeling of trepidation that I made my way to the Saatchi Gallery’s latest exhibition of contemporary sculpture.

The Shape of Things to Come is comprised mostly of underwhelming sculpture though somewhat unexpectedly, the shock factor, for so long a staple ingredient of ‘Saatchi art’, is largely absent from the exhibition. There are notable exceptions but even these attempts lack a provocative edge so accustomed have we become to their forebears: The Healers (2008) by David Altmejd rehashes elements of sexual depravity that characterise the Chapman Brothers’ oeuvre, the fissures he renders in his coarse, figurative plasterwork only emphasising the lack of substance in his art.

The Healers, 2008

Where intentional provocation recedes one would expect aesthetic consideration to return, but instead an uninspiring sense of the mundane permeates most aspects of this exhibition. Works by Rebecca Warren, Matthew Brannon and Oscar Tuazon are particularly lacklustre, however Berlinde De Bruyckere’s K36 (2003) offers one of the more intriguing exhibits incorporating beauty and provocation in equal measure. Taking the hide of a horse as a sculptural shell, its glossy coat alluring, enticing, it is only when you come within touching distance that you are impacted by the enormity of its disfiguration. Eyeless and deliberately malformed, this once proud creature becomes an abject entity that borders on formal abstraction.

K36 (The Black Horse), 2003

There are few artworks in this exhibition that appeal on a primarily aesthetic level; the most visually stimulating pieces however, incorporate artificial light. David Batchelor’s Brick Lane Remix I (2003) is a sculptural installation of recovered light boxes transformed to project vibrant colours and, my personal favourite, Anselm Reyle’s Untitled (2006) constitutes a seemingly chaotic assembly of found neon tubes. Both artworks belie their material origins as vestiges of modern life, their discarded light sources rejuvenated into sculptural works that recall twentieth-century modernism: Batchelor’s contribution revives the pure, effervescent colour palette of Fauvism with nuanced, Modrian-esque structural rigidity, whilst Reyle’s piece evokes the vigour of Abstract Expressionism in three-dimensional stasis.

Brick Lane Remix I, 2003

Untitled, 2006

The appreciation and manipulation of light has been integral to artistic representation throughout history and particularly in painting, yet its use in contemporary sculpture reflects, in all its glorious hues, the cultural ubiquity of artificial light: firmly rooted in the now as the small, flickering sign in the kebab shop window, the car lights on the motorway, the brash advertising of Piccadilly Circus. Its prominence has seen it utilized increasingly in artistic practice, fascinating examples of which can be found in the inaugural exhibition of contemporary sculpture at Coldharbour London.

A gem of an exhibition, Illumination brings together the work of emerging and established artists in a celebration of the sensory and the surreal. Unlike the light works in The Shape of Things to Come that comprise of glaring, structured neon, the sculptural installations of Illumination explore the meditative qualities of light, focusing less on physicality and more on experience. The exhibition opens with In My End is My Beginning (2011), an elegant triptych of light boxes by Kirsty Macleod that possess a cosmic, spiritually-evocative undertone enhanced by compositional parallels with Hindu motifs.

In My End is My Beginning, 2011

This otherworldly trope is continued in the work of Lawrence Lek whose sculpture Twins (2011) looms impressively from the rear of the gallery. Formally organic yet immediately alien, its wood and steel frame casts an intense, complex shadow on the wall behind as light plays off its undulating surface. Its surreal qualities are magnified by the accompanying Twins Photograph (2011) that recalls the simple horizons of Salvador Dalí’s dreamscapes. A video of Twins can be accessed by clicking here.

Twins Photograph, 2011

Disco Volante, 2010

The most mesmeric work, however, is an installation by Adam Barker-Mill. Disco Volante (2010) exists in a private, purpose-built room wherein a continual cycle of pulsing, luminescent and pastel-coloured light washes over you. In a very short time all sense of physical surroundings is lost as your eyes lose focus and colour seeps into your very being. It is a joyous demonstration of the emotive power of light and colour that elevates mood and manipulates orientation.

As a means of artistic expression artificial light is capable of extraordinary aestheticism rendering bold physicality as well as the subtly sensual. Indeed, if the light-incorporating works of these two exhibitions are anything to go by then, superior to the other uninspiring sculptures in the Saatchi collection, in artificial light we have an exemplary modern medium for a technologically-aware age.

The exhibition Illumination runs at Coldharbour London until July 13, 2011.
And The Shape of Things to Come runs at the Saatchi Gallery until October 16, 2011.

Both exhibitions are free.

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Richard Long and Giuseppe Penone: Touching the Earth

June 7, 2011

When the first human footprint marked the dust of Africa, a fascinating relationship began between humanity and the natural world. For as long as humankind has embraced civilisation – from the first attempts at irrigation to the more recent concerns of global warming and the means of sourcing sustainable energy – we have sought to manipulate the Earth and tame its elements to our advantage. With the explosion of Land Art in the 1970s, this relationship between man and Earth came to the forefront of artistic exploration: art escaped from the confines of the studio and embraced the wild qualities and vast expanses of the natural world, which in turn became a malleable artistic medium. The artists Richard Long (British) and Giuseppe Penone (Italian) have long been exponents of this particular artistic approach and their dual exhibition at Haunch of Venison, London showcases a continued investigation of this relationship, drawing on their own experiences to create unique and engaging pieces that explore mankind’s imprint on the natural world.

Spanning the top floor of the building you traverse the gallery space in a generally circuitous fashion. At the top of the grand staircase is a central landing leading off from which are the east galleries housing the works of Long, and the west galleries in which you discover Penone. Whichever artist you choose to begin with, the gallery’s layout means that you will encounter the other before returning again to the landing, your circuit completed. This central landing area acts, therefore, to physically connect the east and west galleries. Fittingly it also unites, by way of the Penone artwork displayed there, a concept at the root of both artists’ practice. Projection (2000) takes the intricate whirls of a fingerprint and reproduces them three-dimensionally in bronze. Initially small in scale, the castings increase in size and magnitude forming a telescope-like shape supported amongst upright branches. It is a clear metaphor for the way man imposes himself upon the natural world; the suggestion of a telescope indicating, given its position at the crossroads of both artists’ endeavours, the scrutiny with which they critique our place in the order of things.

Projection, 2000

Projection (detail), 2000

Long, renowned for turning walking into an act worthy of artistic merit, engages the same topic through his tried and tested concept. Autumn Snowline, Switzerland (2010) is a photograph depicting the furrow created by the artist as he ploughed through a layer of settled snow. Because nature exists in a state of constant flux, works forged from the landscape often hold true to its ephemeral characteristics and, accordingly, the concept of time becomes nuanced in the work. In the case of Autumn Snowline, not only does the photograph document Long’s individual impact on a particular area of wilderness at a particular time, it engages notions of ephemerality as the only lasting record of Long’s act – all trace of his passage having eventually succumbed to the elements.

Autumn Snowline, 2010

Another of Penone’s works in the exhibition succinctly marries the ideas of human impingement and time. In Maritime Alps – It will continue to grow except at this point (1968-78) a bronze cast of the artist’s hand is attached to a sapling that, over the course of ten years, distorts the growth of the tree.

Maritime Alps - It will continue to grow except at this point, 1968-78

Similar conceptual concerns, in so far as they relate to the significance of time, can be found in Long’s textual works. Being at Midday (2011), to cite one example, is a description of a precise moment during his walk in France, superimposed onto the wall of the gallery. Having carefully planned the walk so that he would be in a specific place at a specific point in time, Long alludes to the interplay of the human and the cosmic, of measurement and movement.

Being at Midday, 2011

The conceptual nature of these works requires a considered approach and Haunch of Venison provides a fitting setting for such contemplation. Its vast galleries are quiet; its white walls offer no distraction from the art. Just metres away from the clamour of Regent Street only the soft sound of your footsteps breaks the silence. You feel as you imagine Long must have felt on one of his walks: surrounded by beautiful things, contemplating the world around him and his position within it.

The exhibitions Richard Long: Human Nature and Giuseppe Penone run at Haunch of Venison until August 20, 2011.

Click here for more information.

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Joan Miró: Of Passion and Politics

May 11, 2011

The artistic career of Joan Miró flirted with an array of modernist influences drawing on, among others, aspects of Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism and (Semi) Abstraction. His manipulation of these influences, coupled with his prolific output, earned Miró a reputation as one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished artists.

Born in Barcelona in 1893, Miró reserved a fierce Catalonian pride that reflected the region’s prevailing desire for autonomous identity and political independence from Spain. Tate Modern’s current retrospective Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape seizes on this ideology as the starting point from which to explore Miró’s oeuvre in relation to his political sensibilities. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, artworks that hold connotations to the social and/or political landscape of their time form some of the most exciting and ambitious contributions to art history: Michelangelo’s David is ensconced in the flux of Florentine power-politics; Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii is a stylistically austere reflection of French social excess; Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is a haunting response to the bombing of the Basque town by the fascist forces of Germany and Italy during the Spanish Civil War. Accordingly then, given that Miró lived through two Spanish dictatorships dissected by a failed attempt at Republicanism, as well as two world wars, a politically-inspired re-examination of his work is a greatly appealing premise for an exhibition.

Head of a Catalan Peasant, 1925

Designed to trace Miró’s career chronologically, the exhibition begins in somewhat underwhelming fashion with the display of a selection of his earlier canvases. Amongst these are works from Miró’s Catalan Peasant series including the painting Head of a Catalan Peasant (1925) – for me a painting that fails to make any sort of impression, compositionally or emotively. In the context of the exhibition, however, this series can be seen to establish the artist’s inherent Catalanism. Set against a history of political instability in Spain with the military coup of Miguel Primo de Rivera occurring in 1923, followed by the subsequent subjugation of Catalan autonomy as the General sought to centralise his dictatorship, the Catalan Peasant series can be interpreted as the representation (effectively or otherwise) of a suppressed people.

Flight of a Bird over the Plain III, 1939

As we progress through the exhibition it becomes clear that Miró’s reputation is not built upon his ability as a draughtsman. His formal imagery is largely incomprehensible and consists, more often than not, of an amalgamation of loose lines, assorted symbols and blobs of paint. One particularly intriguing trope that reappears in numerous artworks is the depiction of birds (in the loosest figurative sense), reflecting, as we are reliably informed by the curators, Miró’s concern at the spread of war across Europe and, as a visual metaphor for bomber aeroplanes, the race for aerial dominance in the skies. Birds can be found in Flight of a Bird over the Plain III (1939), reoccurring in his Constellations series in Women Encircled by the Flight of a Bird (1941) and Awakening in the Early Morning (1941) – the latter, its heightened colour insinuating a cautious optimism perhaps, reinforces Miró’s comparison between bird and plane with a more distinct resemblance.

Women Encircled by the Flight of a Bird, 1941

Awakening in the Early Morning, 1941

Whilst on a pictorial level Miró’s birds are little more than rudimentary symbols, it is increasingly evident that his works are infused with expressive, emotive weight through his adept manipulation of colour. Still Life with Old Shoe (1937) is a joyous union of this talent with the exhibition’s political subtext. Painted a year after General Franco had launched his military rebellion against the Spanish Republic (established in 1930 after the fall of Primo de Rivera), Still Life with Old Shoe is imbued with an unshakable sense of tragedy that embodies the anxiety of the Spanish Civil War: the fluorescent colours contrasted against voids of dense black disorientate; its otherwise apathetic iconography appears unhinged. Miró himself would later reflect on the symbolism in his painting describing: “the tragedy of a miserable crust of bread and an old shoe, an apple pierced by a cruel fork and a bottle that, like a burning house, spread its flames across the entire surface of the canvas.”

Still Life With Old Shoe, 1937

In contrast to the emotional turmoil of Still Life with Old Shoe, perhaps the most impressive work in the exhibition is representative of a happier period in Miró’s life, one of artistic inspiration and innovation. Having visited New York and been inspired by the ambition and scale of the works of the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist movement, Miró painted a triptych of unprecedented size and serenity. With its three panels aptly titled Blue I, Blue II and Blue III (1961), the triptych offers a blissful immersion in a sea of blue pigment. It possesses a calm majesty that surpasses even the Rothko canvases – celebrated for their meditative qualities – on the floor below. The kind of artwork that (literally in my case) stops you in your tracks, the triptych holds you captivated, motionless, as the intensity of colour washes over you.

Blue I, Blue II and Blue III, 1961

As an exploration of the relationship between Miró’s art and politics, Tate’s exhibition is ambitious in scope offering an intriguing and largely successful platform from which to re-examine his art. The enduring impression of the exhibition, however, concerns Miró’s eminent colour work, making political connotations appear auxiliary by comparison. Writing for the Evening Standard, the acerbic (though often magnificently so) art critic Brian Sewell questioned the legitimacy of Miró’s standing in the pantheon of modern art, labelling him “naive, childish and even infantile… an amiable idiot”. Certainly as a draughtsman Miró is found wanting: his utilisation of line is particularly fraught. Yet when it comes to expression by colour there are few who traverse the emotions like Miró. From the depths of fear and political anxiety to the lucent intensity of hope, he lays bare his soul through his paintbrush.

Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape runs at Tate Modern until September 11 2011 before touring to Barcelona and the National Gallery of Art, Washington. It does incur an admission fee.

Click here for more information.

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Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance: A Nude Dawn

April 24, 2011

The title for the National Gallery’s latest temporary exhibition Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance suggests a high level of artistic individuality and the attribution of special significance to the work of Jan Gossaert. In many respects this is an accurate reflection of his merits and, having suffered the indignity of being largely eschewed from the Northern Renaissance canon, this retrospective exhibition offers a welcome exploration and re-evaluation of the Flemish master.

Broadly speaking, the Renaissance can be split into two artistic and geographical groups: the Italian Renaissance with its philosophy of Humanism and scientific and classically-inspired stylings of proportion and perspective, and the Northern Renaissance with its overriding Gothic aesthetic, realism and attention to minute detail. Born in what is today known as Belgium and patronised by Philip of Burgundy, Gossaert was, geographically, a product of the Northern Renaissance. Uniquely among his peers however, his work came to represent a fusion of Northern and Southern European influences. This aesthetic union is the primary focus of the National Gallery’s exhibition and accordingly, it recounts Gossaert’s artistic evolution in splendid fashion.

Adam and Eve, 1520

In 1508 Gossaert accompanied Philip of Burgundy to Italy on a diplomatic mission to Pope Julius II. Arriving in Rome in 1509, Gossaert’s visit coincided with both Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine ceiling, and the Pope’s summoning of Raphael. It is tempting to assign special emphasis to the impact of these High Renaissance masters on their Northern contemporary, yet this exhibition suggests otherwise. Whilst not discrediting their influence entirely, it instead maintains that it was Gossaert’s exposure to classical sculpture that, evidenced by the numerous sketches on display, profoundly altered his art culminating in an appreciation of the nude in his subsequent work. Adam and Eve of 1520 is an excellent example of Rome’s influence on Gossaert’s undoubtedly Northern aesthetic: the meticulously detailed landscape complete with elaborate Gothic architecture (in this case a fountain) is a bastion of Northern Renaissance art; the nude figure of Eve recalls the pose of an antique Venus, and Adam, particularly his tensed lower torso, evokes comparison with the Hellenistic sculpture Spinario.

Spinario (detail)

Gossaert's drawing of Spinario, c.1509

The late eighteenth century and France in particular, would later see the sincerity and virtuous qualities of classical sculpture re-vitalised by Neo-classicism in the face of social and artistic hedonism. For Gossaert, however, almost three centuries earlier, the impact of the antique on his Northern aesthetic of detail and realism produced an entirely different effect. His newfound appreciation of the classical nude gave rise to a unique level of earthly sensuality in his paintings. It is the representation of this quality – grounded in a distinctly human psychology – that is the crowning achievement of Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance.

If one re-visits the aforementioned painting Adam and Eve, then Gossaert’s unique corporeal intimacy is evident in their shared embrace, and even more so in a pen and ink representation of the same theme: the couple’s legs are interlinked as they lean in towards one another, their imminent sin represented by their intense, almost passionate grasp of the apple they hold between them.

Adam and Eve, c.1520

The painting Hercules and Deianira (1517) contains a similar physicality. Whilst it is an excellent example of Gossaert’s classical inspiration, both narrative and formal, with its mythological subject and relief-adorned, marble architecture, it is the corporeal sensuality of its characters that is most striking: the lovers’ legs are entwined and their affection made all the more evident by fervent eye contact.

Hercules and Deianeira, 1517

Overall, the success of Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance lies in its clear portrayal of the Flemish master’s exclusive artistic evolution. The rooms are separated by concise colour schemes that demarcate the exhibition into well-defined sections: devotional subjects, portraiture, the erotic nude etc. This makes the potentially composite representation of Gossaert’s unique union of classical and Northern visual language more lucid and accessible. It is a curatorial triumph that has propelled Gossaert out of the shadow of his European contemporaries, granting him his own twenty-first century renaissance.

Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance runs at the National Gallery until May 30 2011. It does incur an admission fee.

Click here for more information.

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Norman Rockwell: Good For Another Generation

March 11, 2011

Throughout the twentieth century, the ‘American Dream’ has been arguably the single greatest export of the United States of America: the promise of freedom accentuated by the achievable prospect of affluence and success. The career of American illustrator Norman Rockwell spanned a considerable part of this century and, in keeping with his country’s capitalist idealism, his work documented the ‘American Dream’ for an entire nation. Accordingly, Rockwell’s illustrations depict idealised, cosy visions of American life, often with a cleverly understated humour. As Dulwich Picture Gallery’s current exhibition illustrates, this imagery was largely realised as paintings that were then reproduced as magazine covers.

Norman Rockwell’s America focuses on the artist’s cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post – the most widely-read American magazine of its time. It charts Rockwell’s career from his breakthrough works of the 1920s through to and beyond his departure from the publication in 1963. Every one of his 323 covers for The Saturday Evening Post are prominently displayed throughout the length of the galleries, alongside some of the original paintings. The display is unashamedly linear; the gallery space which shapes this exhibition is essentially a corridor with pictures. Consequently, Norman Rockwell’s America is not a groundbreaking reinvention of exhibition presentation. Nevertheless, by displaying the fruits of Rockwell’s career in a straightforward, chronological format, the show not only reveals how his illustrations changed with the times, but allows the warmth, charm and simple pleasures central to his work to shine through.

In Bridge Game- The Bid (1948), the viewer is treated to a scene of middle-class, domestic contentment complete with emblems of 1940s prosperity: stylish spectacles and opulent upholstery. Contemporaneous fashion abounds – the image is pure sentimentality.

Bridge Game - The Bid, 1948

This kind of aspirational imagery was entirely in-keeping with twentieth-century America’s capitalist consumerism. Bearing in mind that Rockwell was primarily commissioned by periodicals, it is unsurprising that product promotion occurs regularly in his work. Good For Another Generation (1923) is a tongue-in-cheek advert for varnish, implying that the varnish it endorses will outlast the elderly couple using it to coat their grandfather clock. Moreover, No Christmas Problem Now – Santa with a Parker Pen (1929) does exactly what it says on the tin (excuse the varnish pun!): a combination of Christmas and consumerism. The advertising culture projected by publications such as The Saturday Evening Post was instrumental in shaping the emerging middle-class, and Rockwell’s art was undeniably influential in this success. Indeed, his output has secured him a reputation as one of America’s best-loved artists.

Good For Another Generation, 1923

No Christmas Problem Now - Santa with a Parker Pen, 1929

Conversely however, Rockwell’s work can be perceived as excessively sentimental – a criticism I heard on more than one occasion as I made my through the galleries. Given the current climate of financial insecurity and political disillusionment in the UK, it’s difficult to relate to his rosy depictions of an ideal, well-to-do society. Perhaps this has imbued his paintings with a hollow ring; they resemble a short-term papering of the cracks rent by two World Wars and the Great Depression.

For me personally, some of the most engaging artworks of the twentieth century are those that critique the society in which they were made; the chronicling of scathing displeasure through fine art. Take Georg Grosz’s Pillars of Society (1926), a mocking representation of a fraudulent Germany in which politicians – quite literally with shit for brains – contribute to continuous cycles of increasingly desperate coalitions.

Pillars of Society, 1926

Rockwell’s artworks, by comparison, are inescapably romanticised. There is no biting satire here; no documentation of hardship, only idealistic visions of middle-class prosperity. Whilst Rockwell’s America was not confronted by the level of political upheaval that marred Germany, it certainly experienced the ramifications of the aforementioned global crises. Rockwell’s determination to see the glass as half-full (however much dictated by his commissions) meant that his artworks are largely devoid of any weight beyond superior technique (he was an exceptional draughtsman), subtle wit and gentle charm. To dismiss them entirely on these grounds however, is to do Rockwell a disservice. For me his legacy lies with a series of works known collectively as The Four Freedoms (1943). For these Rockwell drew inspiration from a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt in which he listed the four freedoms that everyone in the world should have: freedom from fear; freedom from want; freedom of worship, and freedom of speech. By illustrating these four freedoms, Rockwell’s catalogue of idyllic, domestic scenes assumed a powerful new significance. They became at once an escape from the horrors of war and a motivation for the continual pursuit of liberty. It is for this reason that his work retains such a broad appeal.

Freedom From Want, 1943

Norman Rockwell’s America closes at Dulwich Picture Gallery on March 27 2011. It does incur an admission fee.

Click here for more information.

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