Alibis

Matisse in the Studio (Royal Academy of Arts, 5 August-12 November 2017)

A few years ago, Tate Modern had a large exhibition of Matisse’s paper cut outs and collages — making grand claims for his having invented the form and ignoring Mrs Delaney and various Bluestockings in the process. I was more impressed by a smaller show (I think an Arts Council Collection tour?) I stumbled upon in Berwick whilst on a Lowry trail. It was impressive, but I realised that I had not knowingly seen a Matisse oil painting.

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Three Views of Karl Johans Gate

A couple of years ago I had about half an hour in the Rasmus Meyer Collection (aka KODE Three) to look at the Munchs. I knew The Scream, of course, which if memory serves is the painting destroyed in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (unless it was Melancholia) and of which I had an inflatable version. The collection — assembled by one of Munch’s first collectors — has a lithograph version, and it was great to see that. There were three other rooms, exclusively Munch.

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Trolling the Uncanny

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I seem to be constructing a history of Norwegian painting, in part because I’ve failed to find a decent book. In part this is so I can understand Edvard Munch and Nikolai Astrup’s better. There’s a list of names in Øystein Loge’s Nikolai Astrup: Betrothed to Nature I need to follow up, but it might be interesting to see what I can construct myself.

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Sickert to ’em (Down, Down, Diepper and Down)

Sickert in Dieppe (Pallant House, Chichester, 4 July—4 October 2015)

So, in my head, I get him mixed up with James Whistler. Or possibly John Singer Sargent. He’s the one that Stephen Knight and Patricia Cornwell reckon to be Jack the Ripper. Whatever. So, he’s born in Munich in 1860, son and grandson of an artist, who initially wanted to be an actor in London, but became a pupil of Whistler (ha!). In 1883 he went to Paris and met Edgar Degas – whose paintings and sculptures include dancers – and learned from him about impressionism. Oddly, he seems to have learned to avoid all the en pleine air nonsense and was advised to make drawings and work in a studio. Splendid. Back in London, he started making pictures of music halls. Splendid. Later he was to become part of the Camden Town group.

He was described as flamboyant and bohemian — and the portraits and photos endorse this. He’d later hang out with Audrey Beardsley and give him a painting lesson. And so it is somewhat of a surprise to me that he first came to Dieppe on his honeymoon with Ellen Cobden (daughter of the anti-Corn Law guy) in 1885. Dieppe was a fashionable seaside resort, increasingly popular with the Bohemian fraternity, and initially Sickert produced seascapes, on small oak panels, before focusing more on architecture. Whilst apparently he had been more interested in portraiture in Britain, now he moved to landscapes. Having spent a number of “seasons” in Dieppe (alongside a trip to Venice), he settled there as his marriage disintegrated and before his divorce was finalised. He found a mistress, Augustine Villain, and lived in the harbour area for a period. In 1912 he bought a house in the Dieppe countryside, with his second wife Christine Angus, but was forced back into town by the outbreak of war. Having returned to England, it was not until 1919 that he got back to Dieppe, but within a couple of years Christine died of tuberculosis. Degas worked once more on the seafront also sketched then painted people at the casino. There were also a series of dark pictures of figures in bedrooms – probably alluding to the Camden Town murder.

The paintings are mostly street scenes – the Hôtel Royal, the Rue Notre Dame, the church of St. Jacques and the statue of Admiral Duquesne – and the tone is overall rather brown and muddy. Wendy Baron writes: “His main harmony was generally based on hardly more than two colours corresponding to the dark and midtones, with the addition of creamy buff for the lights [… h]e often used blue-black with brown or mauve.” (69). Four commissioned landscapes intended for a restaurant – but rejected by the owner – seem to distill this and you face one of these as you enter the exhibition. There is clearly the essence of Impressionism here, with wet paint applied on wet paint in layers, but you get the sense that it is planned to appear improvised. There are various squared drawings and canvases that show the careful recording of buildings, which then can be painted back in any of his several studios.

I’m pleased I saw this exhibition – on a day I’d anticipated that I’d actually be in Brighton and after a journey from hell – but I can’t say I warmed to him. He was described as “the Canaletto of Dieppe” – and of course his time there included him working on canvases imagined in Venice. There is a sense of the mysterious to some of the pictures, and the moral commentary that may be in the late casino paintings. There’s a room of painters influenced by Sickert that’s also worth a look – and elsewhere a fascinating if largely black and white collection “St. Ives and British Modernism”, the George and Ann Dannatt Collection.

I can’t help but share a (paraphrased) comment from George Dannatt: “The objection to this art is often that ‘My child can do it’. So give it to a child. The answer is often silence.”

Bibliography

  • Wendy Baron, Sickert (London: Phaidon Press, 1973).

Don’t Mention Mike Yarwood

Inventing Impressionism (National Gallery, London, 4 March-31 May 2015)

There are two groups of painters that to my mind seem awfully old-fashioned and chocolate box, and having seen their work I feel the need for a blast of Howard Hodgkin or Leonora Carrington. And yet, despite being immensely popular crowd pleasers now, in their time they were as revolutionary as YBAs. I mean the Preraphaelites and the Impressionists.

This seems an innocent enough landscape, a suburban church on a spring day. It’s Sydenham, in 1871. The church is still there, although Camille Pissarro makes the tower taller.

And here’s Monet’s Westminster in 1871. That tower looks wrong.

These and about eighty other paintings were brought together in an exhibition at the National Gallery, based around the dealer,  Paul Durand-Ruel, who was a champion of the Impressionists. He had inherited the painting business from his father, and saw potential for an emerging group of artists in Paris in the 1860s. He bought cheap when the market was low, then sold at a huge profit. He seems also to have manipulated the market at times to bid up prices. In 1870 he left Paris, to get away from the Franco-Prussian War, and in a London gallery began a series of shows of French artists. He also met artists such as Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, who were also living in London. If the French weren’t interested, maybe the British would be. He paid artists a monthly wage and focused on individual artists for catalogues and exhibitions. Whilst his business was subject to the rises and falls of the French economy, he clearly was a hugely successful dealer. And he looked from Europe to America, where a new market awaited, sending one of his sons out there to manage affairs.

And yet critics had conniptions at some of the paintings. Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Study: Torso, Sunlight Effect” (1875-6)

 

Albert Wolff in Le Figaro wrote “Try to explain to Monsieur Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with those purplish green stains that denote a state of complete putrefaction in a corpse.” Imagine if they saw a Paula Rego or a Lucian Freud. They’d have heart attacks.

I guess it’s a failure on my part to think myself back into the 1870 mindset — it doesn’t feel revolutionary. It feels nice.

 

 

 

 

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