Category Archives: Review

Reviews of art exhibitions, museums and galleries

Highlights of the National Gallery – Part One

It’s always immensely difficult to choose ‘favourite’ paintings (and one is often asked to do so when people discover you’re an art historian!), but it can’t be denied that there are some works that keep drawing you back.  One of my favourite galleries, not least because of the sheer variety of the collections, is the National Gallery, London.  So I’ve decided to do the unthinkable and attempt to select some of my ‘favourite’ works of art from its hallowed halls.  It can be quite overwhelming being faced by such a large and spectacular collection of art, so it’s sometimes nice to pick just one or two works, and devote your full attention to them.  In this spirit, read on for some of my personal recommendations for those most worthy of your attention.

Vincent van Gogh, Two Crabs, 1889

One of Van Goh’s most famous works, Sunflowers hangs in the National Gallery, but it also houses a number of less well-known, but nonetheless fascinating works by the Dutch artist.  Two Crabs one of these.  The work was painted shortly after van Gogh’s release from hospital in Arles, in January  1889.  It is probably one of the still lifes he told his brother Theo he was planning to paint to ‘get used to painting again’.  The thick brushwork creates a sense of realism we are perhaps unused to in his work, with carefully modelling really putting across the shape and texture of, for instance, the crab’s claws.  The use of tick, short brushstrokes on the legs again emphasises a sense of texture, and brings an almost animated feel to the image.  This is enhanced by the liveliness of the background, with the flatter, wider strokes lending turbulence, and recalling the rocky shallows of the crab’s marine home.  The current title is slightly confusing, as this is probably in fact a single crab, viewed from different angles.  Van Gogh keys into a long artistic tradition of artists practicing by drawing a single object from multiple viewpoints, to examine how surfaces and shapes respond to light, and how to represent this.  His choice of subject was likely inspired by a Hokusai woodcut, ‘Crabs’, which was reproduced in a magazine, ‘Le Japon Artistique’ which Theo had sent Van Gogh while he was in hospital.  It is quite a touching image in a way, as Van Gogh takes a traditionally quite clinical form and brings to it his usual sense of humanity and empathy, all in an attempt to reconnect with his own artistic skill and expression.

As this image is on loan to the National Gallery from a private collection, I have been unable to reproduce an image, but you can see one on the National Gallery’s website here.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-23


Titian, active about 1506; died 1576 Bacchus and Ariadne 1520-3 Oil on canvas, 176.5 x 191 cm Bought, 1826 NG35

And now for something completely different…Titian brings an exuberance to this image of Greek mythology.  Ariadne, abandoned on an island by her ex-lover Theseus, is discovered by the god of wine, Bacchus, who immediately falls in love with her.  Bacchus has a somewhat jovial and jolly image in the pop-culture of the present day, but in Greek and Roman mythology he and his followers (the maenads and the satyrs) were associated with at times violent frenzies.  It is this aspect that Titian has chosen to emphasise, bringing a sense of drama to the image.  The followers are depicted as wild, with one holding a disembodied (and crucially un-butchered) calf’s leg, while the calf’s leg is dragged along at their feet.  It is thus understandable that Ariadne is turning tail to flee.  Theseus’ ship is visible on the horizon to her left, showing how hopeless her situation is.  Titian hides most of her fame from us, creating an image of a terrified young woman in fear for her life.  The painting really appeals to the senses, with the maenad’s clashing cymbals, and the stampede of frenzied figures, treading on the carefully realistic flowers.  This madness and business is contrasted compositionally with the stillness and grace of its opposing corner of the image, with its calm blue skies.  Bacchus acts as a link between these two elements, and the hyperactivity of his followers is juxtaposed by his single-minded gaze, which meets Ariadne’s.  His pose offers a dance-like retort to that of Ariadne, creating a harmonious visual link between them as he leaps energetically from his chariot.  Though it is hard to imagine quite what wind would result in the tight and intricate folds of his garments, it cannot be denied that they give an impression of the speed and suddenness of his movement.  The coy little satyr looks out at the viewer, pulling the calf’s head behind him on a rope, the flowers in his hair and his otherwise cherubic face perfectly putting across the intimidating unpredictability of a bacchant in full swing.  The snarling dog, looking up at him and backing away, perhaps reflects the viewer’s response to this unsettling display.  However, for all the darkness of his depiction, Titian gives us a hint at the story’s happy ending: Bacchus raised Ariadne to the heavens, making her into a constellation.  An alternative version (and perhaps one in which she gets a slightly better deal) is that on marrying her, Bacchus turns her wedding crown into the constellation.  The scale of the painting further emphasises the emotional weight of the image, and the viewer’s reaction to it.

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnieres, 1884


Georges Seurat, 1859 – 1891 Bathers at Asnières 1884 Oil on canvas, 201 x 300 cm Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1924 NG3908

This painting was one of the first that I ‘officially’ studied, as part of my A-level in Art History, and it seems that I have been studying it ever since but I still find so much of interest in it, and can’t say I’ve ever got bored of it.  I intend to write a longer post about this, so watch this space, but I couldn’t not mention it as one of my favourite works in the National Gallery.  Begun before he has developed his famous Pointillist technique, it does represent his engagement with what he called ‘chromoluminarism’ (also called Divisionism), the use of contrasting colours in an attempt to create optical mixing, the mixing of colours in the eye.  He hoped to mimic Nature, and to bring a brightness and vivacity to his works.  Thought it is debatable how effective this is, and how much he truly engaged with scientific theory, it represents a radical move and a desire to improve upon the Impressionist’s depiction of light.  But the painting is not merely interesting on a technical level, it also gives us an insight into Seurat’s political, specifically Socialist, leanings.  Asnieres was an industrial district, and Seurat depicts the factories in the distance, and their workers in the foreground.  It was a time of labour reforms that enabled factory workers to have time to engage in leisure in a new way, and have a greater degree of freedom.  The boating, bathing, and relaxing that was once the preserve of the middle classes (and was still undertaken by them in more fashionable areas along the River Seine), but was now opening up to the Parisian majority.  While some met these changes with distrust, Seurat and his friends welcomed them, and saw it as an important step towards a more egalitarian future.  He celebrates this by raising the workers to a level, and a physical scale more commonly associated with the grand subjects of history paintings, the highest genre in the official scale endorsed by the academy.  He thus combines his scientific experimentation with his interest in the politics of his time, and presents his own political optimism and hopes for the future.

Also of interest in the National Gallery are the preparatory drawings he produced for the painting, hung alongside it, which give a real sense of how it developed, and how he experimented with both the composition, and how to represent the light in the scene.


Georges Seurat, 1859 – 1891 The Rainbow: Study for ‘Bathers at Asnières’ 1883 Oil on wood, 15.5 x 24.5 cm Presented by Heinz Berggruen, 1995 NG6555

Three is clearly far too few to choose from such an extensive collection, so this will be part one of a series.  I would be fascinated to hear if you have any favourites in the National Gallery (or anywhere else for that matter!) which you just can’t stop yourself from going back to.


Ruskin Drawing Sale

This year I paid my first visit to the Ruskin Drawing Sale.  Feeling something like a cross between the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and a car-boot sale, this is an annual opportunity for students at the Ruskin to sell works and raise some funds for their degree show, and for art enthusiasts to pick up a piece by up-and-coming young artists.

These photos should hopefully give you a good idea of what it is like; there are drawings pinned all over the walls of the school, up the stairways and on the windowsills, each one being replaced as soon as it is sold by another.

View from the foyer into the sale

View from the foyer into the sale

There are no labels, just a tiny price-tag on each item (sometimes this had fallen off, and was to be found on the floor beneath, leading to an amusing guessing game as to which went with which artwork).  Despite the name, the works on sale are not exclusively drawings, there are also photographs and painted works, the unifying feature is price, with most works for sale in the region of £15-20, with the highest I saw about £60, and others for less than £5.   This results in a very democratic

A selection of handmade jewelery

A selection of handmade jewellery

feel, there’s something for every budget, and it’s presented as suitable for the (ostensibly very small) student budget.  The works are varied, but strangely not so varied as one might expect, perhaps because they’re all studying at the same school, there is some sense of many of them being from a family of related artists.  It runs for two days, and I have to say that I was left with a slight sense of missing out, in that the works were changing all the time, with new ones being added, so I did feel as if I should make several trips in order to be able to get a real sense of the scope.  I didn’t see anything that really jumped out at me, there were some interesting works, and works by artists I’m familiarwith, which always please me, but I came away empty handed, and slightly disappointed. 20141122_144908


This piece was sold for a price, plus a drink with the artist!

This piece was sold for a price, plus a drink with the artist!



Another pleasing windowsill display





I particularly like the work of the artist at top left. This shot gives a good sense of the range of work on show

Works out on the tables

Works out on the tables




The view up the staircase

The view up the staircase

People were also selling printed T-shirts, cakes, and there was a henna tattoo stall, which gave it a more fun atmosphere.  It’s an event well worth visiting if you get the chance, it’s a good opportunity to see behind the closed doors of the art school, and it showcases some very talented young artists.

Review: Gainsborough’s Landscapes: Themes and Variations, Holburne Museum of Art

Runs until 22nd January.  Curator: Sue Sloman

Only the second temporary exhibitions since the Holburne re-opened in May 2011, the museum could hardly have found a greater contrast to its previous exhibition ‘Peter Blake: A Museum for Myself’.  But once again the exhibition runs along the theme of the artist’s personal tastes.  Highlighted throughout the exhibition is Gainsborough’s preference for landscape painting over the banality of the society portraits which made him his fame and fortune.  While landscapes often made up the background for portraits, here we see Gainsborough exploring landscape as a genre in its own right.  The exhibition is based around six major oil paintings, accompanied by a large number of sketches and studies in a variety of media, which inform the viewer’s understanding of the paintings.  Each of the paintings acts as the centrepiece of a chapter of movement in the exhibition, leading the viewer through the development of Gainsborough’s style as we move through his life.  The exhibition has drawn together pieces from museums and galleries across the country, as well as some from private collections, making it a pleasingly comprehensive display.  We are able to see a side of Gainsborough little known, or little known to the public.  His sketches, in pencil, charcoal and inks among other media, reveal his deftness of execution, some verging on abstractions by how radically he has reduced forms to their essentials.  In one piece a cart named in the title is portrayed with so few strokes that it is almost impossible to make out, in another, sheep are simple to the point of possibly being shrubbery.  The paintings themselves develop from this deftness, creating charming pastoral scenes, and cleverly developed compositions, executed with precise calculation of the overall effect this will have on the viewer.

The exhibition offers rare insights and is substantial content well worth the £6.95p ticket.  However, at some points the exhibition disappoints.  Sloman, or the Museum, seem to have focused on some slightly tenuous links.  Gainsborough’s love of music (himself a skilled musician, playing the viola de gamba) and his many musical friends are used to justify a comparison between his process and the composition of a piece of music.  This idea of ‘themes and variations’ thus refers in the exhibition to the way he returned to compositional ideas and explored similar subjects within his landscapes (something that could be said of most artists, whatever their subject).  One cannot help but feel that this is an unnecessary cluttering of ideas.  This is justified by Gainsborough’s practice of using broccoli and coal to make models exploring possible landscape compositions, a practice which was common among artists exploring landscape at the time, and which is surely simple to understand without the allusion to a classical composer or conductor.  This desire to add an extra layer of interest (seeing Gainsborough as blurring the line between music and painting) detracts from the genuine interest of the artists exploring his own pleasures and interests, with no aim of material gain.  It is arguable whether such an angle was needed to guide the viewer through an exhibition which is already essentially chronological, and easy to follow.

A fact that cannot be denied is that of the six major oil paintings, only three specifically focus on landscape.   The others focus, ideologically and compositionally, on the human figures in the landscape.  One presents a farmyard scene of work-horses resting after a day’s work, the second, on peasants travelling and their home in the background, and the third taken up largely by a young girl, who sits watching three pigs drinking from a dish of milk.  All three of the purer landscape paintings include human stories, allying themselves with the landscapes dressed up as classical myths that became popular around this period.  Only in the latest painting ‘Mountainous landscape with shepherds and sheep (Romantic Landscape)’ c1783, does he seem to feel comfortable subordinating the human stories to the landscape itself.  So in a way the exhibition seems to have accidentally highlighted the reluctance to accept landscape as worthy of major works that was present at the time.  This is not to suggest a failing in Gainsborough himself, but while the exhibitions seeks to champion the landscape genre, and demonstrate it as flourishing earlier than general opinion suggests (which has the rise of landscape linked with the Romantic movement, Turner and Constable), it in fact seems to demonstrate the extent to which artists still struggled to have landscape accepted, and were themselves unable to pursue it as a means in its own right, even in the diluted form offered by Gainsborough’s landscapes, populated by peasants and shepherds.  He often gave landscape sketches to friends, as gifts.

However the exhibition as a whole remains an interesting and worthwhile undertaking; even if its conclusions are far from overwhelming or game-changing.  Curating does not seem to be of the highest standard, with labelling inconsistencies and in places an almost irrelevant choice of information.  Prime example is ‘Going to Market’ also known as ‘Landscape with Peasants returning from market’.  Yes, this is as glaringly obvious as it seems.  The frame proclaims the title ‘Going to Market’, while the label sides with returning.  This is at odds with what is depicted.  While the lighting is ambiguous, and could be interpreted either as a sunrise or sunset, the peasants travel away from home, their bags laden with vegetables, produce typically grown at home during this period.  No explanation of this discrepancy is made on the label, and it was only by reading the accompanying book (priced £14.95p) that I learnt Sloman’s justification: that people sitting outside the house suggests the evening after work.  Research I have done into this since visiting suggests that this is also at odds with the accepted interpretation of the piece, not simply the obvious interpretation I have undertaken.  Another tenuous link to blight the exhibition is the suggestion that the girl with pig’s pose is carried through to a later sketch of a maid on a doorstep, in a slightly strained attempt to follow through with the title ‘Themes and Variations’.  While I must not become bogged down in these trifles, such tenuous links and outright inconsistencies detract from the overall experience of the exhibition, and lead one to question whether a little more effort could not be put into informing the visitor, rather than simply presenting them with as many similar sketches as possible.

Having said all this, I feel I should clarify that I genuinely enjoyed the exhibition, and did so on multiple visits, the quality and interest of the paintings and sketches, and the many varying techniques displayed, easily making up for the at times confused and confusing ideas expressed by the curator.

Urban Wastelands Project – Ideas on Pieces

These are some proespective labels I started writing for an exhibition at a gallery I work at, the Black Swan Arts.  The Urban Wastelands Project is a collaboration between the artist Day Bowman and the film-maker Ian Knox, exploring the abandoned spaces of our towns and cities, and bringing this together with ideas about mass migration, loss and modern culture.  These pieces thus take into account the film as well, with the music of Transglobal Underground, a multi-national band who are greatly interested in themes of emigration and social movement.  To fully understand these pieces I would highly recommend seeing the exhibition, running until the 28th.  It explores some interesting concepts, and is particularly interesting through the interplay between the three arts: painting, music and film.  These were written as labels (not actually applied yet, I was asked a bit late in the exhibition) to help people unfamiliar with this style of art to work their way into the pieces, and to see the connections between the paintings and the film.

Downstream Looking Towards Gasometer 1

This piece links most clearly with Ian Knox’s film, and expresses many of the ideas at the centre of the Urban Wastelands Project.  The palette reflects the bleak reality of the urban wastelands, while trecurring shapes act as symbols for common sights and sounds.  The spiralling charcoal is reminiscent of the kites of Ian Knox’s film, while the sharp rectangular shpaes reflect the pragmatism of the abandoned concrete structures of the docklands and waterside spaces.  Splashes of orange and grey connote the sounds of water crashing, adding an almost confrontational element to the piece.  Over all is the arching shape of the gasometer itself, reminding us of the scale of the landscape, and the ideas of loss, and migration away from these spaces, which Bowman seeks to present throughout the exhibition.

Gasometer 3

In this piece colour is significant in portraying mood and evoking sights.  The palette is dominated by white, grey, black and blue, in places layered upon eachother.  The streaks and splashes of grey here indicate scratches in the industrial concerete, as seen in Ian Knox’s film.  The gasometer itself becomes the main feature, ominous at the back of the picture space, over which is layered rectangular forms which are a tribute to the domination of these man made forms over nature’s flowing, expressive forms, represented by the floating and twining lines of charcoal, and in the rolling forms of lightly applied white paint.


This collection of 12 collages skilfully and concisely draws  the themes of the Urban Wastelands Project into smaller piece, on a more domestic scale than the previous paintings, which have all been at least four foot square.  Each of the collages can be approached  individually, or as part of a larger collage of the collected pieces.  Gasometers again dominate, but here we also see the industrial forms of chimneys are warehouses, with the scaffolding of piers and docks.  While some retain the palette which brings us to reflect on waterside wastelands, others have a richer, orangey palette, reminiscent of the evening skies of active industrial towns.  Recurring forms of rectangles and splashes of paint connote the sights and sounds of the Urban Wastelands, and create a link between these small works and the larger pieces.  The bleakness and absence of any humanoid shapes strikes home the ideas of loss, absence and isolation that Bowman so strongly wishes to connote in her piece, based on her own experience, and on her view of society as a whole, and society’s relationship with its urban and industrial spaces.