Monday, 28 August 2017

'La Bayadere' by the Mariinsky Ballet at the Royal Opera House

A couple of weeks ago we went to see the Mariinsky Ballet in their summer season at the Royal Opera House. Last summer it was the turn of the Bolshoi Ballet so it was a good chance to see another big Russian company. The Mariinsky used be called the Kirov Ballet and, before that, the Imperial Russian Ballet, so it has a lot of history. I'd never seen 'La Bayadere' before so this was an opportunity to see it danced.

'La Bayadere' has a paper-thin plot but that doesn't really matter when it's an opportunity to see some great dance sequences and, once it got started, there were plenty of those. I think of the first act as lots of arm waving and stately movements but not much dancing as we get the basics of the story. Act two had more dancing and act three was lushness itself with some non-stop glorious dancing.

It's the tale of the love of a temple dancer (the bayadere of the title) and a hunter in the forests of India and they swear their undying love over a sacred fire outside a temple. Unfortunately the head Brahmin also has feelings for the dancer so, when the the local Rajah wants the hunter to marry his daughter, the Brahmin spills the beans in the hopes he'll call off the marriage. The Rajah doesn't, but, rather, swears that the dancer will die. The dancer unknowingly dances the wedding feast of the hunter and the Rajah's daughter and is given a bowl of fruit with a poisonous snake inside that bites the dancer. The Brahmin has the antidote but the dancer chooses death. Our rather feeble hero then has a pipe of opium and dreams his way into the underworld to be reunited with his dancer. Some productions take the story further but that's the version the Mariinsky danced.

I expected exotic sets and costumes, exuberant dancing with lots of show-off bits (because that's how the Russians dance) and that's what we got, with a cast of thousands. It was the spectacle of the 'Dance of the Golden Idol' that really brought the ballet to life with the idol leaping unbelievably high into the air and staying there, defying gravity, while he posed and preened, quicksilver fast around the stage.

Then later we had the 'Kingdom of the Shades' with dancer after dancer appearing on stage working their way down a slight hill to reach the stage and create formations of beauty, all 32 of them (yes, I counted). It was a gorgeous, elegant sequence that went on and on, with the dancers wearing diaphanous sleeves to make them seem almost like shimmering swans (a heavy motif for ballet). I loved it as more and more dancers appeared and wended their way onto the stage to take up formation and dance beautifully, virtually perfectly synchronised in their movements. It was truly lovely.

Ten out of ten for the Mariinsky? No, not really. I thought they were better than the Bolshoi last year but still a bit technical and clinical - where was the humanity of our hero and heroine? Where was the love, the little tender moments between them? I really enjoyed it once it got going but I've been spoiled by the Royal Ballet. Isn't it lucky I live in London?

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford

I'd never been to the Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford, under parts of Christ Church College, so, when I had some time on my hands I thought why not? I'm so pleased I went since I counted 38 paintings from the 1300s and 1400s in the first gallery room. An unsought treasure trove, indeed! It's probably fair to say that none of these paintings are really top notch but they're fascinating nonetheless and I loved them.

One of the earliest named paintings was 'Four Musical Angels' by Bernardo Daddi, a lovely thing to behold. It seems like it's part of a bigger altarpiece and the angel on the left is probably looking up towards the main scene of the altarpiece, maybe a coronation of the Virgin or something else celebratory. It's a lovely painting with its greens, reds and golds, the angels immersed in their music wearing heavy robes and cloaks with just a hint of matching wings.

Another early work is a small triptych, quite badly treated over the years and held in place by being embedded in a velvet surround, attributed to the workshop of Fra Angelico. I couldn't find any reproductions online so here's a photo of the postcard I bought in the shop on the way out.  It's not terribly good but gives an impression of what the small altarpiece is like. It's a small, folding altarpiece for personal devotion to be set up in a room in someone's house or possibly for someone who travels a lot and takes the altarpiece with them. It's also clear that the brush of a master was nowhere near this painting but the composition is interesting, especially with it's three Dominican saints.

There's also the lovely 'The Wounded Satyr' by Filipino Lippi (Fra Angelico knew his dad, Fra Filippo Lippi) along with another painting of 'Five Sybils' by him. There's a very similar painting (and identical in basic composition) of the same subject by Botticelli hanging beside it but I've no idea who did it first.

'The Wounded Satyr' is a lovely painting with its rocky landscape and misty sea and the satyr inspecting the bright quiver or arrows. I don't know what the story of the satyr is (he's probably in Virgil or Homer or someone else) but it's a worthy painting.

There are, of course, many more paintings including a series of small panels of the life of St Francis and a rather lovely painting by Piero della Francesca of the 'Virgin and Child with Three Angels' which has his trademarked foreshortened, flat halos above the heads of the five participants.  It's a very busy painting

Another painting I particularly liked was 'The Deposition of Christ' by the Master of Delft showing three scenes and a crowd of people. We see Christ taken down from the Cross, his being carried to the tomb, and then Christ as the gardener in the background, risen and taking to Mary. What I liked about it was the sheer number of people in different clothes and postures in this painting. It made me smile.

There are a lot of other paintings in the galleries, of course, but it's these early ones (and 'The Deposition') that I was particularly interested in. It's a lovely find, particularly since I was only vaguely aware that it even existed. I will definitely keep my eyes open for news of exhibitions at the Picture Gallery in future - who knows what might pop up there! 

'Raphael: The Drawings' at the Ashmolean Museum

Exhibitions about drawings seem to be flavour of the month so I toddled over to Oxford to see 'Raphael: The Drawings' at the Ashmolean Museum. The exhibition brings together 120 drawings from collections around the world from across Raphael's brief career. The lighting is low to protect the drawings and, according to signs hung where the drawings should've been, two drawings from the Uffizi have been removed to protect them. It's a very popular exhibition and operates strictly timed entry, so don't arrive too early or too late.

The first drawing is a 'Portrait of a Youth', thought to be a self-portrait from when he was about 17 years old. It's certainly similar to other self-portraits so I'm not going to quibble. It's a lovely drawing and a great start to the exhibition, demonstrating quite clearly his skill and astonishing potential. I wonder what his master thought when he saw this drawing?

This also started me wondering about Raphael's drawing techniques. Why is there a heavy line on the right side of his face and neck and around the eyes? For emphasis, obviously, but his face doesn't need that much emphasis. The other lines are quite delicate and gentle in comparison, with the hair being curved strokes to hint at flowing locks rather than actually draw flowing locks. This says that Raphael was making decisions about his drawing, even at such an early age. He knew how he wanted this to look.

I kept looking at the drawings as I passed them, wondering why he did this or that to draw out the image he wanted to create and why that particular emphasis? I stood puzzling at another drawing further into the exhibition and wondering about why he put the emphasis where he did, this time 'Portrait of a Woman' from a few years later. In this drawing the emphasis is on her lower right cheek and along her left shoulder (more so than in this photo of it). The interesting thing about he left shoulder is the way her veil falls and twists over her shoulder, adding more complexity to the drawing. I must've stood there for a few minutes trying to work out why and then gave up - I don't understand how or why, but it works and helps bring the portrait to life. That's the job of an artist, I suppose, to make the decisions we wouldn't generally even think about.

Further into the exhibition we see Raphael under the influence of Leonardo and Michelangelo with even a drawing Raphael did of Michelangelo's 'David' which he saw when he was in Florence. He was clearly learning from the best and adapting it to his own style and needs. Some drawings seem to be to help him plan his paintings - should I put that warrior here, or here? How will the drapery of this Virgin fall, like this or maybe like that? It's really interesting to see him plot some of his paintings out and change them.

Then there are strange drawings like 'A Man carrying an Older Man on his Back'.  What is this about? Was Raphael just experimenting with what a man burdened with weight would like or was this a sketch for a possible painting? The Older Man is taller than the Man carrying him and he can't hold on, so the Man is leaning forward to take his weight and keep him on his back. It's an awkward composition but the Man is clearly holding a weight on his back, his feet planted firmly on the ground. I wonder how long the models could hold this pose?

Another drawing that grabbed my attention was 'Studies for Three Standing Men' from about 1514-15. The man on the left reminded me of Michelangelo's statue of the 'Risen Christ' (in the recent National gallery exhibition) holding his staff and feet planted apart. It's an exploration of anatomy and trying to find the right pose for some other work.

The really interesting thing about this drawing is the writing on the right of the drawing. It's very spidery and I couldn't read it but, according to the label beside the drawing, it's by Albrecht Durer, dated 1515, and it seems that Raphael sent this drawing to drawing as a gift. Raphael was in Rome at this time and Durer was in Nuremberg but they clearly knew of each other. I don't know enough about Raphael or Durer to know how or why they knew each other but Durer is rightly known for his drawings so, perhaps, seeing prints of each other's work drew them together?

Raphael also drew women, of course, and I couldn't help but wonder who the models were back then, since getting naked in front of a stranger wasn't something just any woman would do. There were lots of drawings of clothed women, not so many naked, but I loved this drawing titled 'Study for the Three Graces' which seems to be the same woman drawn together in three different poses. I like the way the bodies overlap and the poses are different but it's the same face. I'm not sure how we know this is a study of three Graces rather than a study of a woman in three different positions - again, possibly experimenting with poses for a painting - but it's incredibly graceful (if you'll forgive the pun).

One small drawing I was particularly keen on was a 'Study for an Angel'. It's one of the smaller drawings at the exhibition but look at that composition - it says so much. See the sleeve of the angel's robe falling down his right arm while his left hand points up towards heaven. He's clearly in flight, maybe even flying backwards away from something to emphasise the thing he's flying away from rather than his own existence. He's praising heaven and telling us to praise heaven at the same time. It's a marvellous little drawing and I'd love to know whether this drawing was ever copied into one of Raphael's paintings. I'm hoping the catalogue will tell me.

Another drawing that I found astonishing is an unfinished drawing, 'Studies of a Seated Male Nude'. There are at least two studies on the paper plus smaller details that don't really show in this photo, but the astonishing thing is the man's right leg. Just look at the foreshortening of his thigh and calf - that's plainly just unthinking showing off! I've never managed to get the hang of foreshortening and this simple drawing is a masterclass in that art.

There is so much more going on in this exhibition and so many drawings on show, some rough sketches and some more finished. Some were clearly Raphael trying to decide on a composition - or part of a composition - in his own head rather than meant to be finished works and that makes them even more fascinating.

The final drawing in the exhibition is this large 'The Head and Hands of Two Apostles', a study for Raphael's large painting 'The Transfiguration' which is now in the Vatican Museums. Just look at those expressive heads, especially the old man's head and he's holding up his arms in shock or defence. The creases of his brow and the stressed tendons of his neck, the weariness in his eyes, his open mouth about to say something. It's a marvellous piece of drawing, more so when I saw the photo of 'The Transfiguration' on the other side of the wall that this drawing hangs on and see these two men straight away. They're directly under the figure of Christ in the lower portion of the painting and they're in these poses. How wonderful is that? I wonder who these two models were and wonder if they had any inkling that we'd still be looking at their immortal faces 500 years later?

Just as the supposed self-portrait was the perfect way to start the exhibition, this glorious drawing was the perfect way to end it.

This is an excellent exhibition with a good selection of drawings that tell us so much about Raphael while still leaving so many mysteries. Well done Ashmolean! It's only on until 3 September so you'd better book tickets quickly to see it. I'm so pleased that I got to see it. I even bought the book!

Monday, 21 August 2017

'Committee' at the Donmar Warehouse

We went to see 'Committee' at the Donmar Warehouse a few weeks ago, the new 'musical' based on transcripts of the Parliamentary hearing about Kids Company and how it went bankrupt.  It was big news for a few days, about his successive Government grants had kept Kids Company afloat for years until the Cabinet office said 'no more'. Everyone with a public platform, including Prime Ministers had said what marvellous work Kids Company did, helping young people that social services couldn't reach so it was a brave minister who said 'no'. No doubt he already had everyone lined up behind him for when the proverbial hit the fan. Which it did with threats of civil disturbances that didn't really happen.

We see the select committee getting ready for another hearing, alerted that it might actually get some publicity since the people involved are Camila Batmanghelidjh and Alan Yentob. The script and songs are lifted from the transcript of the hearing, which is an interesting idea but I'm not sure it worked terribly well. When this play was first mentioned I didn't want to see it at all since I was involved in the margins of briefing for the hearing, but then I thought 'why not?'. It's only 80 minutes without an interval so it's not like it's a full evening wasted if it's not good.

Was it good? Well, not really as a whole. There were some nice performances (Sandra Marvin was excellent in all the padding as Camilla and Alexander Hanson is always worth watching) but it didn't work for me as a play. What was it meant to do? Send us out into the night commiserating with Kids Company or congratulating government on finally having some balls and saying no? Or something else? Simply presenting us with a highly edited version of the transcript of the hearing doesn't really take us anywhere. And calling it a 'musical' was a mistake. Where were the tunes?

Where it dd work were the impersonations of some of the politicians, like Rosemary Ashe as Kate Hoey (accent and all) and Rebecca Lock as Cheryl Gillan. I particularly liked Cheryl since I worked to the real Cheryl in the '90s in the dying days of the last John Major government. Her apparent inability to pronounce Camilla's last name was so on target.

It wasn't a wasted evening by any means and I'm pleased to have seen it but I don't think I'll go to any future revivals... if it's ever revived.

'The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt' at the National Portrait Gallery

The current drawings exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery proudly proclaims we'll see works by artists from Leonardo to Rembrandt and that's what we get. We only get one drawing each by those big name artists and there's a goodly selection of Holbeins (as there would be) but it was the lesser known drawers that I found fascinating and it's them that I'll focus on. Not lesser know artists, for they are great masters, but not necessarily known for their drawings.

The first one I noticed was 'Man Wearing A Cap' by Filipino Lippi (the son of Fra Filippo Lippi). I've seen his glorious paintings in the National gallery and elsewhere but I've never thought of him as a drawer in any medium. That's clearly daft since he must have drawn to design his paintings but thinking of him sitting in his studio or in a tavern sketching away is something I've never considered. It's the same thing for Benozzo Gozzoli and his small drawing of a 'Boy with Curly Hair' - Gozzoli painted jewel-like panels and frescoes but he also drew.

I never expected to see drawings by Gozzoli or Lippi and that's why I enjoyed this exhibition so much. It gives us a glimpse into another side of artists we're familiar with but haven't considered in this way before. Was it just part of the job or was it recreation for these artists? Did they draw too relax or was it to collect faces and bodies to use in their painted works?

Another unexpected thrill was to see a drawing of a 'Woman Wearing A Hood' by Domenico Ghirlandaio. I love Ghirlandaio's series of frescoes around the high altar in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, with the variety of scenes and bright colours making the altar shimmer. There are lots of faces in those frescoes - they're full of crowds - and now I'll be wondering if this woman is one of them. Who is she and where did Ghirlandaio see her? Maybe he saw her in a market and wanted to catch her slight air of solemnity thinking that expression would look good in whatever work he was currently painting. Who knows?

One of the quotes on the walls around the exhibition was attributed to Leonardo who says, "Do you not see that among the beauties of mankind it is a very beautiful face which arrests passers-by and not their rich adornments." In a real sense, all faces are beautiful.

An artist I'd never heard of is Francesco Salviati and he's represented by 'Young Man Looking to His Left' which is exactly what he's doing. It's a lovely, delicate drawing and is more than a sketch - some serious work went into this drawing with all it's delicate shading. Look at that ear and then ruffle his hair. I wonder why Salviati wanted him looking to his left but not simply turning his head - what was he trying to capture? I'll never know.

There are, of course, a lot more drawings and artists in the exhibition than these I mention. There's a series of drawings by Holbein, almost a court-ful of Tudor faces and clothes, from the royal collection. It's odd to think that we all look broadly the same as people did all those centuries ago. I wonder if some enterprising soul will put on an exhibition of 20th and 21st Century drawings in a few hundred years time? Wouldn't that be something?

I'll close with one final drawing, this time by Leonardo who everyone knows as a drawer of rare distinction, and here's his 'Study of a Nude Man'.

The final quote on the wall, just as you exit, is from Cennino Cennini who wrote 'The Craftsman's Handbook' in around 1400. His words are wise:

"Do not fail, as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is it will be well worth while, and will do you a world of good."

'The Tempest' at the Barbican

The Barbican isn't my favourite arts venue but it's producing the latest version of 'The Tempest' but the Royal Shakespeare Company with Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and loads of technical floo-flam so I had to go. I want to see Ariel fly and create storms and one day I will. This was a step in the right direction but didn't quite do it for me - Ariel actually flies, y'know, he doesn't just pretend to fly.

You know the story of 'The Tempest' right? Prospero is the deposed Duke of Milan and is exiled to an island with his daughter where he finds Caliban and Ariel. He conjures a storm to shipwreck his enemies and extract his revenge, finally giving up his magic to return to Milan. O yes, a nice straight forward narrative that's anything but straight forward. But is full of magic and amazing verse.

Layered on top of this is a set decked out like the carcass of the great ship that is wrecked at the start of the play. The ribs of the ship like a giant whale on the stage. This is where the magic starts, with lighting that makes the ship rock and move like a ship in jeopardy before sinking. The magic lighting continues with Ariel as a physical actor and as a magical sprite playing in and around the lights on the stage, bound in the tree and escaping to see his new master, Prospero.

It was great to see the special effects that tried to bring the magic in the play to the stage. We see Ariel trapped in the tree by Sycorax, Caliban's witch mother, and freed by Prospero to then enslave the sprite to his will. It was all pretty spectacular and very well acted. but it was't quite the magic I expected. I don't really know what was missing but it seemed a bit contrived and over-worked. I liked the wedding scene when Proposer summons the three goddesses and I thought that worked better than some of the more tech-heavy scenes.

Overall, I'm pleased to have seen this new version of 'The Tempest'. It wasn't all that I'd hoped for but will any production have the seal of magic around it? On the plus side, this had Simon Russell Beale as Prospero, deposed Duke and master manipulator.  I also enjoyed Mark Quartley as Ariel slinking around the set when he wasn't captured in video shots somewhere in the air. It occasionally felt as if the set ruled the production rather than the play or the actors. Trying to fit everything into the stage is a problem particularly when the basic stage remains the same (ie the wreck of a ship) but it just about managed to rise above this.
I'm pleased to have seen this production but I'm still waiting to see my perfect 'Tempest'... one day ...

'Coming Clean' at the King's Head Theatre

A few weeks ago we went to see the last play by Kevin Elyot - 'Twilight Song' at the Park Theatre - so it was only appropriate to go to see his first play, 'Coming Clean' at the King's Head Theatre, this week. Kevin Elyot wrote 'My Night With Reg' a decade later and it's interesting to see the similarities in characters and themes. He clearly had his own agenda and he stuck with it.

'Coming Clean' is the tale of four gay men in the early '80s, two of whom are in a committed relationship of five years but are allowed to 'play away', their long-term friend and the out of work actor who becomes their cleaner. There are only the four of them in this play (well, five, I suppose, if you count the friend who comes on as a German leather queen at the end) so it's very intimate and needs a strong story to keep it going. That's what puzzled me for a while - what is the play about and where is it trying to go? It took a while to get going.

Something that rather irrationally annoyed me was that Tony and William came on stage ten minutes before the play started to 'do acting' as the audience came into the theatre, being camp and eating with open mouths. Why? I mean, why? What does that add to the experience? It just annoyed me.

So, there we have it, with Tony and William talking about last night's cruising adventures when the would-be cleaner arrives in the shape of out of work actor Robert. William instantly fancies Robert who we subsequently learn in gay. Later we meet Tony's partner, an American writer and teacher, Greg. Their fifth anniversary dinner is cooked by Robert but William arrives late with black eyes from being gay-bashed in his own flat by a pick-up in a gents toilet. Tony takes William to hospital and, we later find out, that's the night that Greg and Robert get together for the start of their affair.

Four months later Tony arrives back early and finds a naked Robert bent over for Greg in their living room. An open relationship is one thing but being confronted by it is quite another thing. This spurs questioning about the nature of their relationship and whether it can continue. It took a long time to get there but this is the core of the play.

It was an interesting journey but I didn't really care for any of the characters. It was probably a brave play back in 1982, to explore gay relationships before the threat of HIV/AIDS when sleeping around and hedonism was ok. But it didn't touch me and I didn't care whether Tony and Greg's relationship worked or not. I didn't care about the disingenuous Robert or the uber-camp William. They didn't matter much to me. Not like the more fully-rounded characters in 'Reg' a decade later.

What really irritated me about the production were two relatively minor things, I suppose. Firstly was Tony's incessant faffing with this hair and putting it behind his ears. Not a minute went by but he faffed with his hair. Is that meant to be a gay trait or something, to signal that he's gay? Just stop it! The other irritant was the set, yes, the whole thing. It's set in Tufnell Park so it's not that glamorous but having worn through paint work on the door and wall paper that looks like it's going to fall off with damp is hardly the flat of a successful writer and teacher. And which writer only has about ten books on his bookshelves? Most annoying of all was having a shelf full of records above the stereo - why on earth would you have the records above the stereo waiting to fall on it rather then under the table the stereo sits on? I hated it.

I also had deep sympathy for the actor that played Robert who wandered round the set naked in the second half and who then knelt down at the front of the stage waiting to be buggered within a foot of the front row of the audience. He had nothing to be embarrassed about expect that none of the other actors even got down to their pants, so it was a bit obvious and hardly fair on the junior actor.

So there you have it, criticisms of the play but more so for the production that was just annoying in various parts. But it's well worth putting this on if only for the historical context. 

Sunday, 20 August 2017

'Matisse in the Studio' at the Royal Academy

The current exhibition at the Royal Academy is 'Matisse in the Studio' upstairs in the Sackler Gallery, up all those glass stairs, and it is exactly what it says on the tin. We see a collection of M. Matisse's 'stuff' that also featured in or influenced his paintings. Matisse collected stuff and used it in his paintings, a vase here, a mask there, a table with more stuff on it or a silk screen in the background. He didn't make these things up, they were there in his studio ready to be called onto his canvases. This exhibition tells the story of his stuff.

The theme of the exhibition is kicked off in style by the first painting called simply 'Vase of Flowers' from 1924 and, beside the painting, in a glass case, is the very same green glass vase that features in the painting. On the other side is another painting featuring that vase. That nicely summed up this exhibition to me - see that thing there? it's in *that* painting. And it is.

The artefacts aren't always as obvious as the vase, of course, and they're sometimes in the background but all help to make up the totality of a painting. According to one of the signs in the exhibition Matisse described his stuff as a 'working library' waiting to be called up for duty in this painting or that.

The exhibition includes works from throughout Matisse's career and shows us how he continually used his stuff to illustrate and augment his paintings. He seems to use his stuff to add more patterns and shapes to his paintings and there's nothing wrong with that. One of my favourites was 'Yellow Odalisque' with it's lush, bright colours and balanced composition that make it part still life and part portrait. Which is it and does it matter?

The little table beside the chair is the object on display in the exhibition beside this gorgeous painting. It's not an exact rendering of the table by any means but that's not the point - it's there, it's part of the whole.

There are a few of Matisse's 'odalisque' paintings in the exhibition and they're all gorgeous. Another is the 'Reclining Odalisque' beside a tray with an elaborate tea pot like a samovar (I assume) and this is what is on display.

We see the photo that inspired 'Standing Nude' in the Tate collection, bronze busts, African masks that feature in paintings and inspired Matisse's developing style. We even get a few of his cut-outs. That old man never stopped creating.

One of my favourites of his later works was 'Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table' and, by this time, I'd stopped looking for the artefact near the painting and just indulged in the colours and shapes in the painting. I couldn't help but look through the open window towards the garden and wonder what flowers were out there under the trees, what shapes the flower beds were in and whether the flowers were ready to pick to put in a vase and paint them. There's always something else to paint.

It's not a very big exhibition but it is really gorgeous. If you even vaguely like Matisse then you must visit it and drink in the paintings and the objects that feature in them.

Alma-Tadema at Leighton House Museum

The latest exhibition at Leighton House is 'Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity' and I've been looking forward to seeing it since it was announced a year ago. It's the biggest exhibition of Alma-Tadema's works in ages and it's so appropriate for it to be held in the former home of his contemporary and friend Frederick Leighton. 

I hadn't heard about Alma-Tadema until I saw some of his works at an exhibition about Victorian paintings at Leighton House a couple of years ago and it was his paintings of scenes of antiquity that made me sit up and take notice. So I started looking for more wherever I went and found a few in the Guildhall collection and elsewhere and was pleased to see his self-portrait in Vasari's Corridor in Florence. There's even one of his painting's in the Prado in Madrid. To see so many of his paintings in Leighton House - along with some by his wife and daughters - is really quite fun, wondering what you'll see next. Sometimes there are some big surprises too.

Born Lourens Alma Tadema in Holland in 1836, he wanted to be an artist, not a lawyer his parents thought he should be. So he painted a self-portrait in part to show his parents his skill with a brush and what an amazing work it is for someone who was only 16 at the time. Naturally, he paints himself as an artists with easel and brushes. It seems to have convinced his parents since he went to the academy to train as an artist. 

This is one of the first paintings you see in the dining room at Leighton House. Other paintings on the ground floor include a lovely little portrait of his mother and scenes of folk-lore and history, all very colourful but in rather dark tones. There's a change in his work after his first trip to Italy and the Mediterranean in 1863 and his colours grew brighter. 

One of his earlier paintings in his new style is a rather fun painting of a Roman matron getting out of her chariot with her son at the theatre. Another is 'The Flower Market', a lovely painting of what Alma-Tadema imagined a Roman flower shop might look like, with a man in a toga, presumably the owner, surveying his wares as a couple of potential customers enter stage left. It's the detail that caught my eye, the bricks, the discoloured flagstone pavement, the many leaves and flowers of the plants spread around and a woman tending them. No doubt there are more wonders in the shadows of the shop. This is not a traditional 'history' painting, depicting a specific historic event. Here we have Alma-Tadema imagining what an everyday scene might look like but set in the antique rather than his contemporary world. We are also given exotic flowers, and flowers and plants feature in so many of his paintings.

Something I like about Alma-Tadema is that he's not afraid to return to a subject. There is a pair of matching paintings in the exhibition called 'An Audience at Agrippa's' (1875) and another called 'After The Audience' (1879) - in one we see a guest arrive and in the other, almost exact painting, we see him leave. There are also some lovely long, thin, paintings set on a balcony overlooking the blue Mediterranean with a young man wooing a maid, one called 'Pleading' (1876) and the other 'A Question' (1877). Both paintings shimmer with the bright Mediterranean sunlight.

There are other paintings using this same light and a similar setting high above the sea with the potential for panoramic views cut short by walls, just hinting at what lies beyond, such as 'An Exedra', 'A Foregone Conclusion' and 'A Kiss'. There's also the lovely 'Coign of Advantage' with three young women looking out to sea. I particularly like the statue of a lion resting with a wreath of flowers around his neck. Those girls are very high up - impossibly so - given the size of the ship below. Are they waiting for their betrothed, their lovers, their fathers? Who knows, but I'm sure the Victorians had a field day making up their stories. This painting is the poster advertising the exhibition and rightly so since it's a lovely painting.

I wonder how and why Alma-Tadema hit on this setting of marbled terraces high up overlooking the sea? It's certainly a romantic and dramatic setting and allows viewers to weave tales around the paintings. It also allowed him to demonstrate his skills with colours and light.

The two highlights of the exhibition, and the largest paintings on show, are hung side by side in the final exhibition room: 'Roses of Heliogabalus' and 'The Finding of Moses' painted 16 years apart. 'Roses' has been on show before at Leighton House a year or two back with the addition of the smell-o-vision of rose petals in the air since the Roman emperor in the painting is smothering his dinner guests with rose petals for his entertainment. He'd wasn't emperor for very long.  
'The Finding of Moses' is a painting I've never seen before and it is drenched in small details that really benefit from a detailed viewing of the painting. It is incredibly realistic and I couldn't help but think you could see the faces of those slaves anywhere in London today - those are real people that might be on the bus to work or going for a night out. 

 There is so much more in this exhibition too, such as some theatre designs he did for various plays and a fun section that showed how film-makers from Cecil B DeMille to Ridley Scott used Alma-Tadema's paintings as the basis for the world they tried to bring to life on the big screen. Alma-Tadema was noted as the 'archaeologist artist' who visited Pompeii and made sketches, took measurements and studied the subject matter of his paintings.   
This really is an exhibition worth viewing, with paintings on loan from institutions and collectors in 12 different countries and I'm so pleased I've seen it (I will return again to drink in these works). I'll leave with another self-portrait painted in his 50th year in 1896 and by which time he was known as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a bastion of British society in Victorian London. I was very surprised to see this self-portrait in its ornate golden frame since the last time I saw it was a couple of years ago in Vasari's Corridor in Florence where it is part of the Uffizi collection. 

The exhibition is on until October at Leighton House so pop along if you're around High Street Kensington with an hour to spare - it's well worth it.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Fra Angelico 8/12

It's the 18th of the month so it's Fra Angelico day again! To celebrate Fra Angelico's feast day on 18 February I'm posting a painting of his that I've seen on the 18th of each month this year. This month I've chosen 'The Crucifixion' in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It's a relatively early painting by the Fra and I always think it's a painting of two parts - the upper more traditional part of Christ on the cross, angels carrying symbols of the passion and the golden background. The lower half is more interesting and experimental with it's crowd of soldiers and saints. Mary has collapsed to the ground in shock at her son's death, surrounded by the Marys and with John looking on and twisting his hands in anguish.

Behind Mary and the saints there's a cluster of soldiers in contemporary dress and a soldier holding the pole with the sponge of vinegar looking up at Jesus. The Fra is experimenting with perspective in the man's head and with realism by giving him a hairy chest - how many hairy chests do you see in Renaissance painting?

The painting is full of small details in the clothing and the horses and all those faces are different and might be based on fellow friars and the donors who paid for this painting. It really is a bit of a gem. It would be lovely to see it freshly (and very carefully) cleaned.

Photos by me.