Thursday, 19 January 2017

Fra Angelico 1/12

Fra Angelico was beatified by the Pope and his feast day is 18 February so on the 18th of each month in 2017 I'll post a photo of a Fra Angelico painting. So, for Fra Angelico 1/12 I thought I'd post the predella paintings that are in the National Gallery in London and free for anyone to see. 

The predella is the series of often narrative paintings that go below the main altarpiece painting and in this case there are five small paintings showing Christ glorified in the court of Heaven. This is a special predella since it comes from the altarpiece in Fra Angelico's own church attached to his monastery just outside Fiesole near Florence. Christ is flying the flag of the Resurrection not the flag of St George (it was appropriated at a later date).

The painting I like best is the second from the right in the series which depicts the forerunners of Christ (the prophets) with saints and martyrs. It's the most colourful and most populous of the five panels. I'm particularly taken with Moses left of centre in the top row with his little hat and his two tablets of stone and he's the only one who looks out of the painting at the viewer. 
About 80% of the figures have been identified by their signs and tokens in the National Gallery catalogue of Quattrocento Italian paintings. I hope someone completes that task one day.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

'Australia's Impressionists' at the National Gallery

On a gray, gloomy damp January afternoon in London, what better thing to do than bask in the hot and dusty Australian sunshine of an interesting exhibition at the National Gallery? 'Australian Impressionists' is in the Sunley Room so is relatively small and features four Australian artists - Tom Roberts, Arthur Stratton, Charles Conder and John Russell - that I've not come across before so it's nice to find out a bit about them. I attended a preview of the exhibition before Christmas but this was an opportunity for a more leisurely viewing.

The first painting I really looked at was 'Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West' by Tom Roberts.  It made me want a glass of water to get the hot dust out of my mouth. It's not very big but is filled with small, sketched detail and busy-ness. Just look at all those wagons and the dust cloud kicked up by the trampling of the horses and the people wandering round. There is heat and dust in this painting, midday shadows and the look of people wanting to get into the shadows and out of the hot sun. It's quite easy to translate this scene into a bustling Parisian boulevard by any of the Impressionists, but this one is on the other side of the world.

The next painting that made me gawp at the sun and heat in the painting was 'Fire's On!' by Arthur Streeton, a long, thin painting of exposed rock and rubble reflecting the sun. While I'm basking in the heat of the painting I'm ignoring the subject matter of a mine tunnelling back into the rock and small figures in the bottom right hand side bringing out the body of a miner killed in the last explosion. You can see the small body with his arms crossed across his chest.

I loved the deep blue sky (and the thick brush strokes you can see in the light) and the earthy, sandy colours of the rock face and the rubble, the darker earth streaming from the back of an open wagon and the scrubby trees. It's an interesting composition with the 'action' in the painting taking place in a relatively small section of the painting but it's size gives it a sort of majesty.  'Fire's On' was the shout from the engineers that an explosion was about to happen and everyone should clear away from the mine.

A similar type of painting is 'A Break Away' by Tom Roberts, again big, again hot and dusty and very dramatic. It's a sheep-drive (is that even a term?) in the countryside, moving sheep from one part of the country to another and two cowboys - sheep boys? - on horses trying to stop and direct a panicking herd of sheep. Bottom-centre is a dog who's running so fast he loses his footing and is turning over on his back. The dog and the wildly riding cowboy reaching out his arm give a sense of pace and movement to the painting. The second cowboy is partially hidden in the cloud of dust raised by the sheep. Once again, there's a largely clear blue sky and earthy colours reflecting the heat of the day.

A painting that, quite frankly, had me worrying for the health of the subjects was 'A Holiday At Mentone' by Charles Conder. How can they possibly wear all those ridiculous clothes in that searing sun and the heat?  It was an automatic response (and by this time I was opening a button on my shirt for more air). The gorgeous beach with the brilliant sunshine beating down on the fashionable people strolling along the beach and that poor lady sitting reading a newspaper without even a parasol for protection. It's a really lovely painting of a time long ago when beaches had white sand and people wore their Sunday best to promenade on the beach and pier.

Another beach scene is 'A Holiday Sketch At Coogee' by Tom Roberts. This time it's more of a landscape painting that could have been painted in the south of France with it's blue bay and white sand except, I expect, there'd be more green in the vegetation. I noticed this one for it's colours and also it's name of Coogee Beach which was in the news at Christmas for an illegal rave party on Christmas night 2016 that left the beach covered in tonnes of rubbish after a beach party. It's nice that the beach is still there and still used after all these years and that people care about it enough to make a fuss after the 'party'. I wonder what Mr Roberts would have thought about it nearly 130 years after he created this painting?

I'll leave you with a painting by John Russell, 'Les Terraces de Monte Casino' from 1889. Russell is the odd man out in this exhibition since he actually lived in Europe for around 40 years, had some of the Impressionists as friends and even tutored Matisse for a short time. This painting, with its pink and purple landscape and clouds, is reaching out to the post-Impressionist use of colour and simplicity. It doesn't have the heat of many of the other paintings in the exhibition since it was actually painted in France. I love the candy-floss clouds and mountains and would be happy to wander in this colourful wonderland.

It's not a big exhibition - around 40 or so paintings, I think - but it's worth seeing and is perfect for this time of year (check your coat and scarf before you go in otherwise you'll boil in the heat of the paintings). I'll go again when I need to warm up!

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Fra Angelico Feast Day

Fra Angelico is known by various names. The Angelic Friar, Brother John and Giovanni of Fiesole to name but a few. He was a Dominican friar and a painter in the early 1400s in Florence and then Rome and regularly conversed with angels which is how he could paint their wings so accurately. Brother John believed.

There are no contemporary pictures of the Good Brother but this is thought to be a likeness of him painted after his death.

Shortly after his death he began to be known as the 'angelic' due to his devotion and his paintings and his reputation was confirmed when Vasari wrote his history of the artists in 1550, a hundred years after the death of the Good Brother. In 1982 Pope John Paul II beatified Brother John in his original friary of San Domenico in Fiesole outside Florence. I've seen the plaque on the wall beside his wonderful altarpiece that commemorates the event.

Since he is officially beatified then that means he can intercede for you if you pray to him. It also means that he has a feast day and, for Fra Angelico, that is 18 February each year. I don't know how the date was decided but it's a special day, as is Wesak for Lord Buddha and Christmas Day.

On the 18th of each month in 2017 I will post a photo of one of Fra Angelico's paintings that I have seen. You can never have too many Fra Angelico paintings in your life and these will be paintings I have seen 'in the paint', so to speak.  Reproductions, no matter how glossy, rarely show the beauty or greatness of a painting and you have to see them in front of you. I first visited San Marco in Florence which is full of Fra Angelico paintings in 2005 and I've been lucky enough to see many more of the Fra's works over the years, including the marvellous exhibition at Musee Jacquemart-Andree in Paris five years ago. I want to share their glory with you.

Friday, 6 January 2017

'Portrait of the Artist' at the Queen's Gallery

A few weeks ago I popped into the Queen's Gallery on the side of Buckingham Palace (yes, *that* Queen and *that* palace) to see the exhibition' 'Portrait of the Artist'. This exhibition is all about portraits and self-portraits in the Royal Collection and the poster girl is Artemisia Gentileschi who is currently prominently featured in the Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery.

It's quite a small exhibition and is nicely laid out, a nice mix of drawings, prints and paintings from the last 600 years or so. One of the earliest is a portrait of a man either by Raphael, his pupils or by one of his pupils of Raphael. It's confusing. I certainly don't think this is by Raphael but it's a lovely painting, three-quarter face with a hazy landscape beyond. He looks a bit young to me but he was a prodigy. The quality of the painting and its preservation were wonderful, the frame looks like it was added later (a plain frame always works better on portraits so the emphasis is on the face) and I love the texture and folds of the under-shirt. Is this really the face of Raphael?  Part of me hopes it is but another part of me can't help but think he'd wear something more colourful.

There are some lovely portraits of the 'greats' in this collection. There's a great painting of a self-portrait of Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun by Leopold Dumini that he completed on his travels as an exercise and a marvellous self-portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds with 'wig glasses', i.e. glasses that stretched around his wig. Who knew such things existed or that people would paint portraits with them on. I walked past this painting and then had to take a few steps back to look at it again. Glasses? On Sir Joshua Reynolds? 'Wig' glasses? O yes, they had everything back then! They were (apparently) designed to go round the expanse of wig that men wore.

There were also a few enormous paintings that supposedly included portraits of artists. One of the biggest - and most unbelievable - was 'Cimabue's Madonna Carried in Procession' by Lord Frederic Leighton which is supposed to include portraits of both Cimabue and Giotto.

Given that no-one knows what either Cimabue or Giotto looks like then it's a bit of a con but it's delightful in showing the reverence to art that an altarpiece deserves a procession. Cimabue is the man in white on the middle of the painting with Giotto the boy, his pupil, at his side. I can't help but wonder if Leighton had ever seen any real Cimabue paintings in his life?

That brings me back to Artemisia who clearly paints herself as an artist, a powerful statement of 'this who I am'. She's outlining a sketch of a painting while wearing a satin frock and a lock of hair falls free as it would when you're concentrating on your work. It really is quite marvellous.

There e also some great paintings by Zoffany (such as his painting of the Royal Academy in the nude drawing room and more 'moderns' painting and drawing the royal family. There's a lot here to see, even if it is quite small, and it's well worth seeing.

'Abstract Expressionism' at The Royal Academy

The Royal Academy has a grand tradition of putting on great exhibitions such as the excellent 'Modern Gardens' exhibition early last year. So I walked into the courtyard of the Academy to see the 'Abstract Expressionism' exhibition with high expectations of being amazed and taught great things. Teach me about these painters who splashed on their wet paints and dribbled it onto canvas, teach me about this oddly immigrant American form of art.

Before this exhibition, the only abstract expressionist I had any kind of liking for was Mark Rothko and his mesmerising and meditative massive works. I well remember walking into the Tate in the 1980s and sitting in front of a giant painting being pulled into it's oddly autumn colours by it's dazzling simplicity. Wondering where was the skill and artistry and giving up and surrendering to it, being pulled into the painting and held hostage. That was one painting. Imagine being in a room surrounded by giant canvasses by Rothko and that's the Royal Academy exhibition.

Before you get to the Rothko room, of course, you see so many other imaginative and experimental artists. One artists I fell for was Jackson Pollock. Now, we've all heard of Mr Pollock, him of the dribbling paint, but have you been in a large room surrounded by his huge canvases? My jaw dropped. It was also strangely exciting. How can they be so big and so random, paint splatters here and there, and then you start looking and see which paints were applied first and which went on top of others to create spaces in the paintings. I really wanted to reach out and touch these paintings, feel the lumps and bumps of oil paint, touch them and trace the patterns. The textures must be marvellous.

The 'problem' with artists like Pollock is, I think, that there's little point in looking at reproductions in glossy books, you really need to see the real thing to get the full impact. That's the case with every painting, really, but more so with these enormous works. And that struck me as another problem - the sheer size of most of the paintings in the exhibition. It's something I've commented on before and it's sort an undemocratic format for art. A format designed for show on huge walls in art galleries or corporate buildings or the walls of the very rich. Not for my living room wall or (probably) yours. I don't understand enough about this 'movement' to know why they had a tendency to go big but it's something I always feel uncomfortable about in 'modern' painting.

Another painter much in evidence was Willem de Koonig with his brash, colourful paintings, sometimes feeling almost violent.  His thick layers of paint on the canvas, dragging his brush through he paint so you cans see the textures. I couldn't help but wonder how paintings like this were framed without the glass smearing the paint. Some were figurative such as his paintings of a 'Woman' but others were slabs of paint and untitled. Why do artists do that 'untitled' thing?  Is it just to confuse people - it can't be that they lack the imagination to title something since by this time that know paintings are collected in books and things.

I really enjoyed this exhibition but wouldn't classify it as one of the Royal Academy's 'greats'. It told me I need to learn more about this 'movement', to try to understand the intellectualism behind the forms of painting and what the artists were truing to achieve. The exhibition is now closed but I wanted it in the Plastic Bag since it's an important exhibition.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

The Plastic Bag Awards 2016

The awards season has arrived again so it's time for the Plastic Bag Awards for 2016. The judging panel has been locked away scrutinising the nominations and they're ready for the big announcement. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Baggies 2016!

Best Theatre - Shakespeare

2016 was the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare so there was lots of Shakespeare all over the place, not only productions of his works but also exhibitions and a host of events. I saw quite a few and saw big productions at The Globe but it was productions at the small Sam Wanamaker Playhouse that got the most nominations. The nominations are:

Cymbeline @ Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Richard III @ the Almeida
The Winter's Tale @ Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
The Tempest @ Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
King Lear @ The Old Vic

The judges were split between 'Lear' with the astonishing performance from Glenda Jackson and 'Richard III' with Ralph Fiennes in the title role but it came down on the side of Richard for the instant menace he seemed to be able to turn on at the drop of a hat. He was scary!

Best Theatre - Drama

There doesn't seem to be much 'drama' in the West End at the moment - or, at least, drama the appeals to me to buy tickets, so these nominations span the far east and west on London as well as the Southbank.

The Philanderer @ The Orange Tree Theatre
Kenny Morgan @ The Arcola Theatre
Ivanov @ The National Theatre
The Plough and The Stars @ The National Theatre
Amadeus @ The National Theatre

The Orange Tree Theatre at Richmond is doing a good job of introducing me to old plays that are rarely performed and the Arcola came up with a gem of a play in 'Kenny Morgan'. The National Theatre's short Chekov season was worth a visit over the summer and it's another National Theatre production that wins the Baggy - 'The Plough and The Stars' at the Lyttelton. The Sean O'Casey play was hard work and emotionally exhausting and I regret only seeing it once.

Best Theatre - Musical

There were lots of musicals on in 2016 and it looks like there'll be more in 2017. I could easily have added 'Kinky Boots' to the list but I think that was nominated last year. This years' nominees are:

Billy Elliot @ Victoria Palace
Showboat @ The Crucible
The Threepenny Opera @ The National Theatre
Titanic @ Charing Cross
She Loves Me @ Menier Chocolate Factory

'Billy Elliot' has been on for a decade or more but I finally saw it in 2016 shortly before it closed in Victoria. The other four nominees are much older and that makes me wonder what's happened to the modern musical (but not too much). I loved 'Showboat' and 'She Loves Me', both classic musicals, and 'Titanic' is a show that should be on in the West End at some point, it really is that good. But the Baggy goes to 'The Threepenny Opera' for it's songs and plot, it's menace and threat and all the rolls of brown paper used in the sets - well done people, I loved it!

Best Entertainment

An 'entertainment' is something that doesn't really fit into any of the other categories and this year we have one-woman shows, poetry readings and walks up and down the Southbank and Bankside to see short videos of all Shakespeare's plays. And mad juggling and acrobatics, obvs.

Ellen Terry With Eileen Atkins @ Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Poems That Make Grown Women Cry @ The National Theatre
The Complete Walk @ Southbank & Bankside
Barbu by Cirque Alphonse @ Wonderground
Longing Last Longer by Penny Arcade @ Soho Theatre

The award goes to Penny Arcade for her latest show, 'Longing Last Longer' at the Soho Theatre. Challenging, scary and familiar as Penny paints a picture of modern living I recognise and, in parts, abhor as she leads us through her urban jungle with words and performance. Well worth seeing.

Best Gig

I only went to four gigs this year and all were 'oldies':

Pet Shop Boys @ Royal Opera House
Petula Clark @ Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
Suzanne Vega @ Cadogan Hall
The Human League - Royal Festival Hall

Pet Shop Boys and Suzanne Vega were promoting their new records and it's nice that they're still recording. However, the Baggy must go to the Pet Shop Boys for a truly spectacular show at the Royal Opera House with lasers shooting all over that grand old building and me wondering if the balconies would survive the bone rattling volume.

Best Live Performance

This award is for an individual performance that leaves you feeling 'wow!' Spoken word, song, dance... anything that moved me.

Eileen Atkins as Juliet in 'Ellen Terry With Eileen Atkins' @ Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Petula Clark singing 'I Can't Live Without Your Love' @ Drury Lane
Rebecca Trehearn singing 'Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man' in 'Showboat'
Itziar Mendizabal as Paulina in 'The Winter's Tale'
Victoria Serra singing 'Lady's Maid' in 'Titanic'
The Human League singing 'Love Action (I Believe In Love)'

Eileen Atkins playing a 13 year old girl and making me believe she really is Juliet and the sheer elegance of Itziar Mendizabal as Paulina were both astonishing. The sad truth of Rebecca singing about love and the simplicity of Victoria as she throws her arms wide in joy at the prospect of becoming a maid were heartbreaking moments. Petula and the Human league singing their classics were a joy to behold. There has to be one winner however and, after  tie-break, the panel awarded the Baggy to Rebecca Trehearn for her marvellous and tragic performance in 'Showboat' and, in particular, *that* song.

Best Dance

This is only the second year for this award since I discovered the beauty of classical ballet and the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House. I was also lucky to see four productions by the Bolshoi Ballet that took over the Opera House for a three week season over the summer. The nominees are:

Giselle by the Royal Ballet @ the Royal Opera House
The Winter's Tale by the Royal Ballet @ the Royal Opera House
Jekyll & Hyde by the McOnie Company @ The Old Vic
Swan Lake by the Bolshoi Ballet @ the Royal Opera House
The Red Shoes by Matthew Bourne/New Adventures @ Sadler's Wells

I loved the drama of 'The Winter's Tale' and the freshness of 'Jekyll & Hyde' but the Baggy must go to 'The Red Shoes, the new Matthew Bourne production that I saw just before Christmas (and have booked to see it again at Wimbledon on tour). The sheer originality of the thing, the characterisation, the marvellous dancing and the great sets all make this an instant favourite.

Best Exhibition

I saw lots of exhibitions in 2016 due to having the time to visit them. From a fascinating exhibition about the history of Sicily at the British Museum to a small Punk exhibition at the British Library to a lovely little exhibition of the paintings of Caillebotte at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. Exhibitions about all sorts of things so it's a little bit strange that all the nominees are exhibitions  about paintings.

Painting the Modern Garden - From Monet to Matisse @ the Royal Academy
Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art @ the National Gallery
Georgia O'Keeffe @ Tate Modern
Paul Nash @ Tate Britain
Impressionists and Moderns @ CaixaForum Madrid
A Thyssen Never Seen @CaixaForum Barcelona

The O'Keeffe and Nash exhibitions helped me to explore artists I wasn't particularly aware of and both were really good, giving me a glimpse into the artists in a way I haven't had before. The two CaixaForum exhibitions were excellent - brilliant paintings well laid out in light and spacious surroundings and I'll certainly keep my eyes on CaixaForum in future for interesting exhibitions. The Baggy, however, must go to 'Painting the Modern Garden', the best exhibition I've seen at the Royal Academy for years, gorgeous painting after gorgeous painting, a marvellous flower tent and Kandinsky in shorts tilling his garden. What more could you ask. I'll treasure memories of that exhibition for a long time to come.

So there we are, The Plastic Bag Awards 2016. Some of the winners are a bit of a surprise but all deserve it. Let's see what 2017 brings!