Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Exhibitions in London

Caspar David Friedrich,  Moonlit landscape, around 1808, The Morgan Library & Museum
Picture: Courtauld

This small exhibition shows watercolours from the Courtauld Instute and the Morgan Library, but these two museums have such rich holdings that it's not much of a restriction. Both are 'collections of collections' and show the taste of some refined connoisseur-collectors. The recent Scharf bequest to the Courtauld includes some particularly good English watercolours, but many of the stand-out works are from the dealer-collector E.V. Thaw, including Samuel Palmer's Oak Tree and several Friedrichs. The fine and well-chosen frames on the Thaw loans augment the works; much better than the usual plain frames on drawings and watercolours. 

The comparison of a Turner and a Friedrich (above) on the basis that both show the moon is a bit strained, but the wall text is mostly excellent. It's an accomplished and enjoyable exhibition. Do try to get there if you're in London before it closes later this month.

Diverse Manieri: Piranesi, Fantasy and Excess to 31 May 2014 Soane Museum
Small exhibitions are often the most satisfying. Curators can take more risks because the smaller shows don't bear the burden of high expectations that come with blockbusters. This whimsical Piranesi display at the Soane is only a qualified success, but it's tremendous fun and perfectly suited to the Soane. They've created some of Piranesi's fantastical decorative designs using 3D printers, showing the new objects alongside original designs. I prefer my Piranesi on the page; the imagination's the thing. You can see the limitations of the technology on its own. The best objects, like the fireplace, have been finished by hand. The 3D printing only takes you so far towards Piranesi, and I thought a skilled craftsman could have produced these objects without needing the latest technology. It's all a bit tricksy, but a nice idea and worth seeing.
Picture: National Gallery of Art
Turner and the Sea National Maritime Museum to 21 April
This is not a novel or daring theme. Turner's seascapes are particularly well known, and it's rather an obvious subject for the National Maritime Museum. But this thoughtful and impressive display surpassed my expectations. It shows Turner's seascapes in the context of the old masters that inspired him, presenting a chronological display of Turner's seascapes culminating in a small display of his latest, almost abstract works. The highlight for me is the marvelous Keelman Heaving Coals in Moonlight (above) from Washington, a gritty work that I find so much more appealing that its pendant Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore, a superficially prettier picture. There is nothing especially revelatory in this show, but the well-chosen and sensibly displayed exhibits give a clear sense of Turner's artistic development and of his genius. It's straightforward, but very good. The substantial catalogue is also excellent.
Casa Tomada
Picture: Saatchi Gallery
These giant ants are fun, but a bit gimmicky. The hessian sacks lining another gallery look a bit like the interior of a fashionable nightclub. It's immediately impressive, but it resists engagement or deeper reflection. People say it's hard to relate to old masters, but I struggle with contemporary art. I just don't know how to go about judging what makes one artist worthy of the Saatchi, and another not. I turned to the catalogue hoping for enlightenment, but I didn't understand it and couldn't relate the words to the images. I suppose some people find that with old masters; the visual language of renaissance artists and the jargon of art historians does take some getting used to, so maybe I'm just being a bit philistine. I did like Martine Poppe's strangely veiled paintings, and Virgile Ittah's decaying wax bodies, in the same gallery on the top floor. There are some duds, and some dreadfully obvious social commentary, but lots of visual delight here too. I enjoyed the show, even if I'm not sure I understood it.

As ever I thought Sewell got it right.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs Tate Modern, ended.
The show I'd love to see is the Matisse collages at Tate Modern. The critical reaction has been a bit de trop,  but how wonderful to see the giant cut-outs assembled together. But everyone who is going to see them has already been. Now that it's open to the hoi polloi there will be no chance of seeing anything; Tate is already bragging about how many people they're expecting. Small works by artists like Paul Klee are just about possible to see even in blockbusters, if you queue up and nudge along to the front of each picture. But seeing ten meter wide pictures through a crowd is ridiculous; if you're tall enough, you'll just get a glimpse of the top half. This exhibition is effective over already. I won't be going, and I recommend you save your money too. It shows again how blockbuster exhibitions are designed solely for the benefit of the art world and the very rich, for the relatively large number of people who can attend the special previews and private shows that are literally the only opportunities to see any of the art. Stick to the smaller exhibitions; they're often intrinsically better and more interesting, and you might actually see something.

The Craze for Pastel to 5 October, and others at Tate Britain
There are several shows on at Tate Britain at the moment. Neil Jeffares has the last word on the display of pastels, which I thought a wasted opportunity. The Gainsboroughs are worth seeing, but they're not really pastels. Forgotten Faces is better, a display of Edwardian stars that are now forgotten. Some are not missed; the once-celebrated Diana of the Uplands is a forgettable sub-Sargent portrait. But there are some good and delightful pictures too, like Ambrose McEvoy's The Ear-Ring. It's a good idea to rotate works from the store. Even bad pictures have their place in exhibitions like this, illustrating the history of taste and helping us develop a feel for relative quality. 

On Tate Britain as a whole, Waldemar Januszczak is right: it's a right old mess, and its director should go.


  1. Thanks for this - a useful round up in time for the weekend. CB

  2. Are you really reviewing shows before you've even been now?!

    1. No, writing about a show that I won't be seeing - very different thing!

    2. As you (and I) have found with Veronese - there's always a time to go when the exhibition can be seen sensibly.

      And, at any rate, much of the Matisse cut outs really are large and high enough to be seen over the densest of London exhibition crowds (I wholeheartedly agree that the London institutions need to rethink their idea of what 'capacity' means).

      Yes, the reaction has been a bit over the top - a situation clearly not helped by the likes of Serota proclaiming Vence the equal of the Sistine Chapel - but the reason for this is that it is a genuinely sui generis, once in a generation exhibition.

      The spectacle of Matisse's work becoming bigger and more ambitious as his life became smaller is genuinely very moving. That's not a judgement of quality or art historical significance but... so what? Having said that, it certainly compares favourably with what Picasso produced in his dotage - every visitor should be marched to this, in the Tate Modern permanent hang, to make the comparison:

    3. Agree with second half of your comment. I think the cutouts are fabulous, the exhibition is a rare opportunity and I'd love to go. But Veronese is possible only with a season ticket. I think Matisse will be inherently much busier, and I'll only get one shot at it. I don't think you can see over the crowds - you're only seeing the top half. Yes, it would be nice to see the show - but the circumstances of seeing would remove all pleasure from the experience. It will just make me grumpy! Not worth it, in my opinion.

  3. Believe me, the press view was completely rammed. But you might reconsider going when the hype dies down a bit: it is a splendid show and I'd be interested to know what you think. I was annoyed by all those who haven't been, but are convinced a child could do it just as well, so I experimented with my 4 year old:

    1. Thanks - I liked your post, and your blog. I'm sceptical that the crowds will ever die down, and probably won't go to this exhibition. But I do admire the cut-outs, even if I don't think they're his best work (the 1940 still lifes are probably my favourites, conventionally enough). I've been fortunate to see many of them around the world, including at the wonderful Beyeler, which offers for me the best viewing conditions. Blockbusters are just such a bad way to experience art, and I worry that the crowds will tarnish my perception of the work itself.

    2. I do know what you mean and, more than anything else, the exhibition has inspired me to go to Vence at some point.
      As a contrast, Building the Picture at the NG is well worth a visit (but am sure you've earmarked it already).