Sunday, 20 August 2017

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.

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