Sunday, 12 January 2014

One Afternoon: Three Exhibitions

Sometimes one exhibition just isn't enough. The plan was to see 'Facing The Modern: The Portrait In Vienna 1900' on it's last weekend before closing. That's where we went wrong since the place was packed and, generally, the rule of thumb is the more people at an exhibition the less enjoyment. That was certainly the case with this exhibition.

It was an interesting concept, showing the portraiture over the years, how it was viewed in Vienna and how it changed over the years. The 'stars' of the show were Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, all producing interesting portraiture and good art.

The first portrait that really grabbed my attention was Kokoschka's 'Portrait of Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat' with its use of colour and shapes. The hands seem to be something he was interested in as opposed to faces or anything else. Later in the show we also see his 'Portrait of Lotte Franzos' with a very different colour scheme but the same emphasis on hands, almost in hip hop stylee. Both paintings are dated 1909 so that might say something.

Another painting that grabbed my attention was the 'Portrait of Albert Paris von Gutersloh' by Egon Schiele. All of his paintings had vigorous, aggressive brush strokes and colour combinations and this portrait of a young man with his hands in the air was quite arresting. I like the detail of how the clothes fall and are exaggerated, of how one heel is higher than the other and the mystery of why both hands are in the air. It's a really striking portrait. I've no idea who Albert was but he is immortal.

The painting that made me stop and look again (and again) was the 'Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl' that is used in the poster for the exhibition. It was painted by Klimt over 1917-18 and he died before finishing it. That is the first note of sadness about the painting. The second is that Amalie converted to Judaism to marry her husband and was sent to a concentration camp in the Second World War in 1942 and that is the last we hear of her.

I can't help but look into her wistful eyes and think that she's seeing her future. She sees what's going to happen to her and knows she can't do anything to change it. I see a brave and dignified woman.

I suspect one of the attractions of portrait exhibitions is that these were real people we're looking at, people with their own hopes and dreams and problems. Some would have been nice people, others not. But they lived their own way in their own time and we can look at them and wonder what they were like.

Just around the corner from the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square is the National Portrait Gallery on Charing Cross Road. It hosts our national portrait collection and, as well as endless portraits of Victorian grandees, includes photographs of the Sex Pistols and Poly Styrene in it's collection.

Over the next few months it's holding a small exhibition of photographs of Vivien Leigh as part of her centenary. There are a few dozen photos of Vivien throughout her career and anyone who's a fan of Vivien will enjoy it. While we were there a couple of old blokes seemed very excited to see a photo of Vivien in big sunglasses standing beside a rather mop-top Ringo Starr.

The third exhibition was about Stanley Spencer whose work I saw at the 'Crisis Of Brilliance' exhibition last summer. He's on at Somerset House for the rest of January and the exhibition is called, 'Heaven In A Hell Of War' and consists of his paintings from the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, Hampshire, a purpose built chapel to house the paintings which were executed between 1927-1932. They are a mixture of war and domestic scenes, with troops in trenches and troops recovering from wounds in hospital.

The exhibition is free and is set out in three rooms, the first of which includes some paintings by Spencer (there's lovely painting of some poppies) and by his friend, Henry Lamb. There are two portraits of Spencer side by side, one a self-portrait and the other by Lamb. There are also two large war paintings by Lamb, one of soldiers bathing in Salonika and the other showing a camp of Irish soldiers being bombarded. Both are quite striking paintings with an interesting use of colour and shape. I haven't come across Henry Lamb before and would like to see more of his work.

The second room is laid out to reproduce the large paintings in the same way as they are in the chapel, with large arched paintings of war scenes on top and the more 'domestic' scenes of troops recovering in hospital below. It's very nice of Somerset House to give visitors a small and quite informative booklet explaining each of the seventeen paintings, especially since entrance is free.

We see scenes of the daily lives of troops in the First World War from wounded soldiers arriving in a truck at the gates of the hospital and soldiers getting washed and dressed in a bathroom to soldiers creating a 'fire belt' around their camp and soldiers relaxing while an officer on a horse reads a map. There is lots to see and puzzle at in the paintings, lots of detail to take notice of. For example, you'd never guess the officer was sitting on a horse if you didn't spot the horse's head sticking out the bottom from under the map.

None of the scenes are of battles or the blood and guts of war, that all happens elsewhere. The altarpiece from the chapel is in the third room. It's attached to the wall of the chapel and can't be removed so we had a photo of the painting projected onto the wall. It depicts the death and resurrection missing from the other paintings.

I think my favourite paintings were the more 'domestic' scenes of filling tea urns, having bread and jam for tea and changing the sheets on a bed while the occupant is bundled up in an eiderdown in a chair. Life wasn't easy or always pleasant in the hospitals for the wounded from the war and for every colourful painting of a bedroom there are also more grimy scenes of scrubbing floors and washing furniture, putting recovering soldiers to good use These days it would probably be more like physiotherapy.

It's an excellent exhibition, well laid out and managed. If you're in central London and anywhere near The Strand you could do a lot worse than pop along to Somerset House for half an hour and see these great paintings. You never know who might be visiting with you - Alan Bennet was there yesterday.

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