Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Exhibitions in brief: shows I saw in December and January

Picture: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013
Castiglione: Lost Genius Queen's Gallery to March 16*
There are two Castigliones in my home town, one of them excellent, so I grew up assuming he was a Very Famous Artist. In fact he is not well known, though his best drawings have always been prized. This exhibition is a quite comprehensive retrospective, though it is entirely from the Royal Collection. Castiglione is an interesting character, a hot-headed artist who traveled widely and borrowed promiscuously as he sought a 'style'. Early influence of Poussin and Rembrandt is shown in the exhibition. I also noted the influence of Parmigianino on some of the later drawings (e.g. Venus & Adonis), as if he'd only come across him late in life but was still assimilating new ideas. His work varies widely in quality; he wasn't up to the task of composing grand history paintings in the manner of Poussin, for example ('operatic tableaux rather than dramas of life and death'). I liked the late oil sketches of St Francis best, vivacious independent works of art with virtuoso brushwork. 

The presentation of this exhibition is superb - the best I've seen in London. The wall text is honest in its assessment of Castiglione's variable quality, and clearly explains why some are better than others. The curators' personality comes through, which is rare in the bland committee-vetted text at some London venues. The catalogue is good, too. The catalogue of the 1971 Philadelphia exhibition of Castiglione drawings is more traditional, with a scholarly introduction followed by catalogue of exhibits. The Royal Collection catalogue is an extended essay that discusses the exhibits without separate entries on each. The authors suggest that Anthony Blunt's catalogue of the Royal Collection's Castigliones was too uncritical, and accepted as autograph many sheets from his studio. I do hope they follow up with a revised catalogue, or better still a catalogue raisonné of all his drawings.

Here are two good longer reviews by Leander and Brian Sewell.
*Updated 5 Feb to remove point about Biblical pedantry, as it turns out there are two different accounts of Moses Striking the Rock, one of which accords with the wall text. So the exhibition was even better than I had first realised!

This exhibition opens mentioning the 'three greats' of Flemish painting: Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens. I'm afraid it reminded me of the Blackadder episode where the German spy is caught out because Blackadder mentions the three great English universities: Oxford, Cambridge and Hull. It is later revealed, of course, that Oxford is a complete dump. And I'm afraid that only two of the Flemish greats were really great; Jordaens isn't quite in their league. But this well-curated show convinced me that I'd underestimated him based on assessment of the more pedestrian studio productions; sometimes he was really quite good. This exhibition is well curated, showing every aspect of his art and explaining well the deterioration as he relied more on his studio. Catalogue is available in French only, but I still bitterly regret not buying it. For quality of presentation this was the best show I saw in Paris.

Masculine/Masculine: The Male Nude in Art from 1800 to today Musée d'Orsay closed 12 January 2014
The Male Nude: Eighteenth-century drawings from the Paris Academy Wallace Collection closed 19 January 2014

Studying the male nude was central to the classical tradition of art, but its very centrality means that it has rarely been a subject of independent exhibition. But I recently saw two very different shows on that very theme. Masculine/Masculine in Paris is a big show at the Musée d'Orsay tracing the male nude over two centuries. The Male Nude is a tiny show of drawings made in the life drawing classes at the Paris Academy between 1670-1790.

The Wallace Collection exhibition is marvelous; a lovely, small selection of life drawings made at the Royal Academy in the eighteenth century, including early works by really major artists. It complements the Wallace's own collection, and gives a great insight into artistic production. Unfortunately poor quality glass that made it hard to see the drawings through the glare. And both wall text and catalogue claimed that one drawing dates from two years before the artist's birth (Jean-Gustave Taraval 1765-1784 apparently drew a Man Standing in 1762). A typo is not a serious flaw, but the glazing and lighting was a real let-down. It's sad to see such a splendid show marred by small details.

The Paris show was just a mess. It's not really about the male nude. It's about 'masculinity', which has been in 'crisis' in the twentieth century (ask a sociologist). The show is about ideas, not about art. Many of the exhibits are worth seeing, particularly the earlier academic paintings. But there is a switch in the middle of the show, when it turns from academic studies of the human body towards more sexualised, often homo-erotic treatments of the male nude. Either half of the exhibition would have been interesting in its own right. The first half could perhaps have been taken forward with examples of academic studies from the twentieth century. Or the second half could have sought precursors, perhaps drawing on literary sources as well as visual art. But the two parts together implied connections that were not obvious and not explained.

There is a brilliant review of the Paris show on The Art Tribune (in French). The Art Tribune's reviews of all the shows I saw in Paris were spot on; it's an indispensable source. 
Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples - Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Picture: Wikipaintings
The Sisters of Napoleon Musée Marmottan closed 26 January
A trivial exhibition with lots of portraits of Napoleon's sisters. I like early nineteenth century academic French portraits, but this show was wearying rather than enlightening. The highlight was a chance to see a picture in a private collection that I've wanted to see for years: the much-reproduced Ingres Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples (above). 

Georges Braque Grand Palais closed 6 January
Fabulous retrospective of one of my favourite modern artists. Roomfuls of cubist Braque were a pleasure, and its good to see them alone, without ubiquitous comparison to Picasso. Wonderful to see most of the Studio series together too. I was struck by how often Braque failed. Some of his post-cubist, vaguely classical pictures were bad, and the post-war work is mixed. But many wonderful pictures, interspersed with small sections of documentary material. Overall presentation was superb.

The Young Dürer: Drawing the figure Courtauld Institute closed Jan 12
There was some controversy over this exhibition, mainly because some reviewers wanted it to be a different exhibition. I enjoyed it on its own terms. Not all of the drawings on display were masterpieces; it was a focused and scholarly exhibition focused on the Courtauld's own study of the Wise Virgin. The differences in quality were interesting and enlightening. Wall text and catalogue were excellent.

Springtime of the Renaissance Louvre, Closed Jan 6
I saw this exhibition when it opened at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence (review here). It looked much better in the Louvre because the lighting was so improved, with many sculptures lit from above and below. In Florence it was hard to see some of them at all. The wall text seemed blander in Paris, but that may be a fault of my memory.

1925, When Art Deco Dazzled the World Cité de l'Architecture to 3 March
Fabulous small show, sadly very crowded. It's based around the 1925 exhibition that included the great House of a Collector by Ruhlmann, the great designer. Wonderful displays showing the adoption of Art Deco around the world, clear demonstration of the difference between Art Nouveau and Art Deco. I loved the posters of fast cars at the entrance. It nicely illustrated the association of Art Deco with modernity and progress at a time when it's commonly assumed people were disillusioned in the aftermath of the Great War.
Daumier Royal Academy, closed 26 January
This exhibition surprised me. I knew Daumier from innumerable boring pictures of washerwomen, cute caricatures and sometimes acute cartoons. This show presented him as a painter, and some of the pictures I didn't know were superb. The two versions of Man on a Rope (above) are outstanding. Sadly it's let down by a truly dreadful catalogue, with some banal text by art history celebrities like T.J. Clark but no proper catalogue entries and a too-brief introduction.

Masterpieces of Chinese Painting Victoria & Albert Museum, closed 19 January
Astonishing, brilliant show about an entire artistic tradition that's almost entirely unknown to me. The early landscapes are just fabulous. I feel utterly unqualified to review this exhibition; I can only fall back on superlatives. The catalogue is magnificent and substantial, and really helped me appreciate the exhibition. I desperately want to learn more and see more after this show. A good longer review here.

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