Archive for the ‘20th Century Painting’ Category

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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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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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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.