As you know if you’re up-to-date with my posts, last month I was in the UK. Amongst all the administrivia involved in my visit, I did manage to visit four art galleries even though I didn’t have time then to post about what I saw. I began with a few hours to spare in Liverpool, so I went to the Tate Liverpool to see Chagall: Modern Master. Unfortunately, this exhibition has now closed. It was well worth seeing just for the opportunity to see so many paintings by the artist together in one place. I also found it a little personally surprising. Having seen Chagall’s work primarily only in reproduction before this visit, I found his palette perhaps more subtle than I expected. His colours glow and are interestingly juxtaposed, but, at times, there is a quietude to them, something ethereal. I particularly enjoyed the paintings of Jewish life in Vitebsk, where Chagall was “trapped” by the First World War after returning from Paris to marry Bella. There is, perhaps, an added contextual poignancy to those pictures because we know, as Chagall did not when he painted them, that the life of the Shtetl was doomed. The Tate’s website http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/chagall-modern-master is still active if you are interested.
A couple of weeks later found me at the National Gallery for the opening day of Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900. I can do no better here than to quote from the National Gallery’s own guide: “Through portraits of startling variety, Facing the Modern tells the story of Vienna’s middle classes—their rise and fall in political power, their hopes for the future, and their claims to the past.” The pictures range from “traditional” nineteenth century portraits of the Biedermeier period to the more “experimental” works of artists such as Schiele, Kokoshka, and Klimt. There is also work by Arnold Schönberg. I have to admit that I was unaware that he had painted. I had hoped for more Klimts. Again, I was conscious of a certain sadness. Portraits, no matter whether realistically or more imaginatively rendered, force one to engage with the sitter, to look him or her in the eye. The subjects of these portraits are for the most part the haute bourgeoisie. They engage us with varying levels of confidence, sometimes with wistfulness, with a prescience that their society is transient and their place in it perhaps insecure. The whole edifice of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was about to crumble. Unsurprisingly, Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, his memoir of his family the Ephrussis, came to my mind as I made my way from picture to picture. The book is for sale in the Gallery Shop. I also found myself thinking of D. M. Thomas’ The White Hotel and the movie A Dangerous Method. We have the benefit of hindsight when we look back at the beginning of what we understand as the modern. Perhaps I was reading too much into those painted faces and seeing them as “the” Freudian generation. Perhaps not. This exhibition runs until 12 January and is well worth the visit.
My mind still focussed on portraits, I went round the corner to the National Portrait Gallery and discovered another exhibition, also now closed I’m afraid: Laura Knight: Portraits. Some of the images on display are still viewable via http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/laura-knight-portraits/exhibition/dame-laura-knights-life.php. The paintings include images of the ballet, of the circus and of Romany life in England. Her subjects are vibrant, individual, and realistically portrayed. Her work completed as a War Artist is particularly strong. Seen back to back as it were with the Viennese portraits, Knight’s works seem perhaps more defined, more grounded. If, as I suggested earlier, the Viennese painters were painting psychological images, Knight perhaps outlines her subjects’ characters more than revealing their subconscious existences. For more information on Knight and for reproductions of her work, Dame Laura Knight”The Official Website http://www.damelauraknight.com is highly informative.
My last encounter with pictures in Britain was a very quick, almost duty, visit to the Manchester Art Gallery on Mosley Street. I wanted to revisit the Pre-Raphaelites and the Valettes. The BBC has a great website http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/artists/adolphe-valette (you may have to type this in full) that includes works by Valette, who at one point tutored A. S. Lowry. His renderings of nineteenth century, industrial Manchester, damp, grey, and solid are, I find, very moving. The Pre-Raphaelite pictures I have always found disturbing. Their sense of colour is indeed what strikes one immediately, but there is always a haunting sense of near decadence, something that is just too close to being over-ripe about Pre-Raphaelite fruit; their flowers, too heavy, their drooping petals on the point of falling. I find Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World a little hard to take, and yet it is one of the most popular Christian paintings there is. And then there is Ford Maddox Brown’s Work. It dominates the room. Surely a quintessential statement about the Victorian world and its attitudes. Again, there is a website for the Manchester Art Gallery and as part of that website an interactive exploration of Work. http://www.manchestergalleries.org/ford-madox-brown/fmb-page-one/ It’s aimed primarily at school-aged children, but . . . .
Overall, I find myself mulling over thoughts about context and reading the text of the paintings. How much of my response is dictated by what I know about the works, about the artists, about their subjects and about their subsequent histories, and how much is created by the works themselves? Thoughts for another time perhaps.
I’m glad I made time to look at these pictures, and as always, after a trip to Britain, I am jealous of the fact that public art galleries in the United Kingdom offer free admission to their collections. The ability to just “pop” in and revisit a favourite picture or get to know another one is not a benefit to be surrendered lightly.