Thursday, 17 January 2019

Anni Albers at Tate Modern

I didn't know anything about Anni Albers but was encouraged to visit the exhibition by the tutor on a course on colour I attended before Christmas. Her husband was Josef Albers, a colour theorist and painted whose name cropped up many times during the course. I finally went along to the exhibition this week.

It was quite odd, in a way, to see and hear people getting excited about weaving and threads and and knots and techniques. I quietly named them textile-heads as they crowded round particular exhibits excitedly discussing something about it. I approve of enthusiasm so that was all ok by me. I looked at colour and design and wondered what I would learn as I wandered around.

Anni Albers was a weaver, an artist who worked with threads rather than paper and paint. She trained at the Bauhaus, almost under duress since weaving was the only course she could do. When the Nazis closed the Bauhaus, she went with Josef to teach in a small college in America - in an video interview with her when she was an old woman she tells us about sitting on the bed reading the offer letter with her husband and both deciding the key word that confirmed their decision to go was describing the college as 'experimental'.

The first thing you see on entering the exhibition is a large wooden loom in the first room. There is a wide variety of exhibits: early works from her Bauhaus days, designs and samples, small woven pieces, some of which were done to be framed, watercolour designs for larger woven pieces, testing out ideas, large wall hangings and rugs, room dividers, all sorts of things. She undertook large commissions such as to commemorate the people who died in the Holocaust and designs for wall hangings for a hotel in Mexico to open for the Olympic Games. She wrote books on weaving and textiles and some of these are on display. There's a lot in this exhibition, a labour of love for the curators, with exhibits on loan from museums and galleries all over the world.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

'Florence' exhibition at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich

The big exhibition in the world of early Renaissance art at the moment is 'Florence and its Painters' at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. The National Gallery can make a claim to that title with its Bellini and Mantegna exhibition but the Pinakothek wins for the sheer number of extraordinary exhibits and the range of artists represented. Sub-titled 'From Giotto to Leonardo' provides the scope of the artists featured in the exhibition and there are paintings, statues, drawings, books and reconstructed altarpieces. There is a record number of works by Fra Angelico with 11 paintings and three drawings, panels by Giotto, paintings and drawings by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his brother Davide, Donatello, works by Fra Filippo Lippi and by Filipino Lippi, Botticelli, Verrocchio and Leondardo and a host of other Florentine artists. The range of exhibits is quite astonishing with excellent labels and explanatory notes in German and English.

The earliest works are a mere 700 years old and are three small panels by Giotto: the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and Christ saving the souls from Limbo (with Adam and Eve at the front of the queue to get out of Limbo). I'm always astonished that small paintings that old have somehow managed to survive over the centuries and retain much of their colour - that is a great tribute to artistry of the masters' workshops and the skills of the craftsmen who mixed the paints for their masters, prepared the panels or cleaned the brushes. We'll never know their names but an artist of Giotto's stature had a good sized workshop to help him in his endeavours. The downside to seeing these panels is that they're displayed in what is effectively a corridor which is busy so there's not the comfort or convenience to really look at them undisturbed.

Also in the corridor are a group of six paintings by Agnolo Gaddi, two large life-sized paintings of St Nicholas of Bari and St Julian. The more interesting is St Nicholas, the forefather of Father Christmas and Santa Claus. Nicholas gave three bags of gold anonymously to the three daughters of his neighbour to provide them with a dowry and prevent their father selling them into prostitution. That was his first kindly act on his long journey into sainthood. Isn't it odd how stories start? The other small panel shows St Nicholas saving a ship at sea during a storm.

Various artists at the time and later tackled the stories around St Nicholas (there is a panel Fra Angelico in the Vatican Museums with the same story of saving a ship) but I quite liked this version by Gaddi and it works well in the context of the exhibition - Giotto worked at the start of the 1300s and Gaddi towards the end of the century, so he makes a nice springboard into the works from the 1400s which make up the majority of the exhibition.

The next room is full of the wonders of Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi as well as others, roughly contemporary but with very different approaches to life and art. Despite being a friar Filippo fathered his son, Filipino Lippi, on a Dominican nun whose name we don't know. That doesn't mean he hasn't created some wonderful art.

The first painting in the room is the gorgeous Virgin & Child with it's rich cloth of gold background partially obscuring the Roman columns of the room within while the Virgin looks at her child serenely and the child offers the viewer a blessing. I've loved this painting since I first saw it at an exhibition in Paris in 2011, the gorgeous rich blues and reds of the Virgin's clothes and the passive, almost glowing child, gazing out at the viewer. It really is a wonder. The other paintings and drawings by Fra Angelico are arranged around a reproduction of the former high altarpiece at San Marco in Florence and are included elsewhere in this blog.

A really nice touch is that there is also a small panel by Benozzo Gozzoli near the Fra's paintings - Gozzoli was a pupil and assistant to the Fra who became a master in his own right and he painted the walls of the private chapel of the Medicis in their palace in Florence. On the opposite wall is a small Annunciation painting by Zenobi Strozzi who was also thought to have worked in the workshop of Fra Angelico (although with less documented proof than with Gozzoli). Here's Gozzoli's small predella panel of 'St Zenobius Resuscitating a Dead Child'.

Moving round the room you come to a lovely, delicate 'Annunciation' by Fra Filippo Lippi with the angel Gabriel kneeling before the Virgin while, up in the top left-hand corner we see God the Father channelling his energies through a dove to represent the Holy Spirit and straight down to the Virgin, the moment of conception. Gabriel holds the stem of a lily for purity and the Virigin has just got up from reading a book. Look at the detail of the house and garden, with Filippo practicing his skills at the new-fangled thing called perspective. It's quite a large painting and is dated at around 1444 so other painters had already made inroads into naturalism and perspective. Filippo doesn't sound like someone who followed 'the rules' and his addition of God to the scene and the setting in a well-to-do house would probably have been quite dramatic at the time.

Further round the room you find three paintings of the Virgin and Child by Fra Filippo Lippi from different periods in his career. Two are hung on the walls and one is in a glass case so you can see the drawing of a face on the back of the painting. The earliest painting uses the cloth of gold motif as a screen behind the Virgin while the mid-period painting has a landscape, an emerging skill for artists at the time. The third one uses a conch shell as the background, showing that classical Roman influences were taking hold.

The main room is full of treasures, with a painting of the Virgin & Child by Leonardo da Vinci almost hidden amongst the wealth or wonderful art. There are drawings by Pollaiuolo, bronzes by Donatello, paintings by Filipino Lippi (the son of Lippi senior), Botticelli, Lorenzo di Credi, Botticini, Domenico and Davide Ghirlandaio, Fra Bartolomeo and others. I mean, wow! It's not quite like being in the Uffizi but this is pretty close. I suppose the only real omission was anything by Michelangelo but you can't have everything and I suppose he really belongs to the 1500s. It was actually quite exciting wandering around this large room and finding wonder after wonder with no idea what you might stumble upon next.

Another reconstructed altar was that of Santa Maria Novella in Florence with the large painted altarpiece and two side panels by Domenico Ghirlandaio. I've marvelled at his frescos in that church and was delighted to see a rough drawing of one scene in the frescos showing the birth of the Virgin, but I'd never seen the large, main painting before, showing the Virgin and Child enthroned with saints and angels.

Here we see Saints Dominic, Michael, John the Baptist and Thomas below the Virgin and Child, St Dominic since Santa Maria Novella was and is a Dominican church. Santa Maria Novella is one of the great churches of Florence and it's a delight to see what would've been behind the high altar all those years ago.

A bit further into the exhibition, in the section covering the rise of portraiture in Florence (influenced by the great paintings of the Northern Renaissance) are two paintings of young ladies, one by Davide Ghirlandaio and one by Domenico Ghirlandaio. The brothers worked together in Domenico's workshop. I've only ever seen paintings by Davide in the Academia in Florence and I wasn't all that impressed so it was really nice to see these two small portraits side by side and not be able to tell who painted which. Clearly, there's more to Davide to explore.

The last painting in the exhibition (or, at least, the last big one in the final room) is a strangely surprising 'Lamentation" by Botticelli that has been restored especially for this exhibition. It's a big, almost life-sized painting with colours that glow (my photo doesn't do it justice).

There's none of the frivolity or playfulness of his earlier paintings, this is full-on religious, serious art.  Look at that composition, with everyone at an angle other than St Paul who stands upright, representing the true church. The thing that really caught my eye was the detail of grass curling around the toes and drapery, individual blades of grass, not just generic green foreground. And the body of the dead Christ almost glowing against the black of the Virgin's cloak. This is a very clever piece of art with a very serious subject for an altarpiece. Earlier in the exhibition we see Botticelli's 'Adoration of the Magi' which is a very different work, with his fops and dandies showing off their clothes and tights to best effect. This is most definitely a later piece by a man who's lived, loved and experienced pain.

I was really blown away by this exhibition. Such a great concept, such great works of art and something that must've taken years to put together, getting agreements to the loans and the conditions around the loans. I suspect something like 3-5 years has gone into planning and delivering this exhibition and I must congratulate everyone involved. It really is astonishing. Now that the Alte Pinakothek is on my radar for exhibitions I'll be keeping a watchful eye on whatever it does next. Thank you.

And, just because I can, here's the lovely 'Annunciation' by Zenobi Strozzi with Gabriel dressed in Fra Angelico pink.

Fra Angelico in 'Florence' at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The big exhibition in the world of early Renaissance art at the moment is 'Florence' at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. In particular, the exhibition boasts 11 paintings by Fra Angelico and three drawings. Most of the paintings are small predella panels but there is also the richly coloured 'Virgin and Child' that greets you at the entrance to the room that holds the collection of Fra Angelico works (as well as works by other masters).

This Virgin and Child is a late work from about 1445/50 and the Fra is at the peak of his considerable powers. The delicacy and detail of the painting, the Christ Child gazing out at the viewer offering a blessing and the serenity of the Virgin gazing at her son make this a very contemplative piece. The Virgin's halo includes the words 'Ave Maria' and the baby's halo includes the cross of the resurrection - even as a baby he was destined to die and be resurrected. The Child is also a source of light in the painting, almost radiant against the deep blues and reds of the Virgin's clothes.

A sign that this is a late painting is that the traditional cloth of gold behind the Virgin (the Fra did many paintings using this approach) does not fill the background but it is drawn back to reveal the classical columns of a Roman chamber - the influence of the ancients is starting to be felt and reflected in art. This painting was the centrepiece of the Fra Angelico exhibition at Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris in 2011.

The predella paintings are displayed as a reconstructed altarpiece to display them as they would have originally been seen. The photo was taken in a lucky rare moment when the crowds parted in front of the predella. This was at the high altar of San Marco in Florence and the main painting is in the museum at San Marco but there's a black and white copy of the painting on display to give the predella paintings their context. Six of the seven panels along the front of the altarpiece have been brought together from around the world (including paintings loaned from Dublin and Washington) and the two paintings that were on the sides of the altarpiece are also on display. The panels are slightly larger than A4 size, but that'll give you an idea of the size. These paintings tell the stories of the lives of Saints Cosmas and Damian, the doctor saints and patrons of the Medici family (Medici means 'doctor'), and their three brothers. The saints were quite popular at that time in Florence due to the Medicis and, for a time, they kept popping up in paintings.

In order, from left to right, we have 'The Healing of Palladia' (left side painting)

'Saints Cosmas and Damian and Their Brothers before the Proconsul Lysius'

'Saints Cosmas and Damian and Their Brothers are hurled into the sea and saved by an Angel; They liberate Lysius from Demons'

'Saints Cosmas and Damian and Their Brothers Surviving the Stake'

'The Entombment of Christ'

'Saints Cosmas and Damian and Their Brothers are Crucified, Stoned and Pierced with Arrows'

'The Funeral of Saints Cosmas and Damian and Their Brothers'

 'The Dream of Saint Justinian' (right side painting).

You need know the tales of the saints to fully understand what's going on in these paintings but they are very narrative and easy to follow. It's sometimes the details that are the most interesting in the paintings, such as seeing the brothers being hurled into the sea as punishment in the background of the painting, with the foreground seeing the brothers getting rid of demons - why did the Fra focus on that part of the story rather than the brothers being saved by an angel? And the very graphic way that the killing flames at the stake burn the captors rather than the brothers, all down to divine intervention. I also really like the 'Entombment' which, in context, sits directly below a small Crucifixion scene in the main altarpiece, nicely continuing that story.

The two final paintings are an annunciators angel and the Virgin, small paintings with a gold background, both early works and likely to be from the early 1420s. They were probably part of an altarpiece back then but it's not known which one. Altarpieces were often broken up and elements sold as paintings over the years, particularly during and after the Napoleonic Wars, so it's not that unusual to have parts of altarpieces framed separately and sold to raise funds for the church or monastery. That's also how paintings have ended up all over the world and bringing them together again in exhibitions like this is a great attraction.

As well as the paintings, there are also three drawings, a delicate crucifixion attributed to Fra Angelico and two others attributed to him and his workshop. They're all quite small drawings in various media. The thing that really stands out is the use of red ink for blood and for the cross of the resurrection in the halo - even while dying it's a sign that Christ will be resurrected.

The other two drawings are on different sides of the same piece of paper. One is a portrait of a cleric and the other sheet of paper holds three small drawings of St Lawrence, a woman holding a child and a young man with clasped hands. I don't know if these were simply practice drawings or meant as sketches to use at a later date in a painting. The woman and child could easily be the basis of a Virgin and Child painting at some point. The man with clasped hands reminds me of some of the figures in the frescoes in the Nicotine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome, but who knows?

It was a great thrill to see so many works by Fra Angelico brought together in one room of the 'Florence' exhibition, alongside works by other masters. Having 14 works by the Fra in a single exhibition is an astonishing number and it's amazing that these delicate, small paintings and drawings have survived in such good condition over the past 600 years. The Alte Pinakothek is lucky to have quite a few of these works in its own collection so, when the exhibition closes, they'll still be available to see upstairs in the main galleries. Thank you very much Pinakotheken for putting on such a great exhibition with so many works by Fra Angelico. Well done!

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

The Plastic Bag Awards 2018

The awards season is upon us again and it's no different in the Plastic Bag. It's been a very difficult years for the independent judging panel but, hey, that's their problem not mine. So here we have it, the Baggies 2018! The categories and nominees are:

Best Shakespeare

It's been a good year for seeing Shakespeare plays, particularly plays I haven't seen performed before like 'The Two Noble Kinsmen' and 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'.  The 'biggies' were produced as usual and I liked the Globe's version of 'Hamlet' with Michelle Terry as our prince and her bringing new life to Shakespeare's poetry. The nominees are:

Macbeth @ National Theatre
The Two Noble Kinsmen @ Shakespeare's Globe
Hamlet @ Shakespeare's Globe
The Merry Wives of Windsor @ RSC Stratford upon Avon
Anthony & Cleopatra @ National Theatre

The winner is 'Anthony & Cleopatra' at the National Theatre for the great performances and great staging. The two leads were excellent, particularly Sophie Okonedo, and I also really liked the two main supporting actresses of Gloria Obianyo and Georgia Landers.

Best Drama

A bumper year in the theatre with revivals and new works and I'm pleased to see that three new plays have made it into the nominations. I saw 'The Humans' in Boston earlier in the year and was pleased to see it again at Hampstead. 'The Lehman Trilogy' was a mammoth production with three actors and many, many words telling the story of the rise of the Lehman brothers in America. On the other hand, we had some great revivals of Oscar Wilde plays and my favourite was 'Lady Windermere's Fan'. The nominees are:

Red - Wyndham's Theatre
Lady Windermere's Fan - Vaudeville Theatre
The Lehman Trilogy - National Theatre
The Human's - Hampstead Theatre
The Inheritance (parts 1 & 2) - Noel Coward Theatre

The winner in this category must go to 'The Inheritance', a great piece of writing and acting over six hours on stage and spread across two performances. I never knew where the play was heading but it was a cohesive narrative and a thoroughly believable tale of modern life. Well done to everyone involved in the play.

Best Musical

It was a a bit of a mixed year on the musicals front with big names and new productions, some having a lot of hype built around them and not always living up to expectations. 'Caroline, or Change' was outstanding with its serious themes alongside a fun production and 'The King and I' was a glory from start to finish. The nominees are:

Caroline, or Change @ Hampstead Theatre
Hamilton @ Victoria Palace Theatre
The King and I @ London Palladium
Company @ Gielgud Theatre
Hadestown @ National Theatre

The winner is 'Hamilton' for it's novel approach, great songs and unbridled energy. Be prepared for a series of copycat musicals in the next few years until the next big thing arrives.

Best Entertainment

This category is for staged events that don't necessarily fall into any other categories. To show the diversity there's a great interview with Linton Kwei Johnson followed by Linton reciting some of his poetry; Zippo's Circus in a big tent; Bianca del Rio swearing all over the shop; a production of dance, music and words telling the tale of Elizabeth I;  and a political dance show by Scottee about what it's like to be a fat bloke.

Linton Kwesi Johnson @ Queen Elizabeth Hall
Zippo's Circus @ Figges Marsh
Elizabeth @ The Barbican
Bianca del Rio @ Hammersmith Odeon
Fat Blokes @ Purcell Room

This is a difficult category to judge since, by its nature the nominees are all very different, but the Baggie goes to Scottee's 'Fat Blokes' and their brave performances, sharing their personal stories, dancing and making the audience laugh as well as cry. Well done chaps!

Best Dance

I saw lots of dance this year, from experimental modern dance in Florence to a version of 'Romeo & Juliet' choreographed by John Cranko in Boston. The Royal Ballet feature strongly in their productions at the Royal Opera House with their one act ballets in triple bills as well as full length ballets. The classic 'Swan Lake' was updated by Liam Scarlett and Matthew Bourne updated his own great version of that tale.

Romeo & Juliet @ Boston Opera House
Manon @ Royal Opera House
Swan Lake @ Royal Opera House
Les Patineurs @ Royal Opera House
Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake @ Sadler's Wells

The winner is the Royal Ballet's new production of 'Swan Lake' which was a wonder to see. Great dancing, great staging, some beautiful scenes and the tragedy at the end. A very spectacular and engaging production.

Best Gig

I didn't go to many gigs this year but they were all very good and special in their own way. Kim Wilde was touring her latest album with as great band and stage show, Suzanne Vega delivered a set of hits and the Human League with synthtastic.

Kim Wilde @ The Sage, Gateshead
Suzanne Vega @ Queen Elizabeth Hall
The Dresden Dolls @ The Troxy, London
The Human League @ Hammersmith Odeon, London

The award for best gig must go to the Dresden Dolls for their first London gig in12 years, full of old songs and some new songs with the tease of a new record.

Best Performance

This award is for that one-off performance by a particular individual which could be acting, singing, reciting, just something a little bit special. Kelli O'Hara was magnificent as Anna Leonowens with her marvellous voice, particularly touching when singing 'Hello Young Lovers'. Jennifer Saunders was perfect as the Duchess of Berwick in 'Lady Windermere's Fan', coming out at the start of each act with the servants to do a comedy song. David Troughton was a formidable Falstaff, all fat and half-cut, especially when he demanded there was no pullet sperm in his drink. And Sophie Okonedo as Cleopatra delivering the Queen's final speech was spot on, she is an imperious queen, not some mere courtier.

Sharon D Clarke for 'Caroline, or Change' @ Hampstead Theatre and The Playhouse
Kelli O'Hara for 'The King and I' @ London Palladium
Jennifer Saunders for 'Lady Windermere's Fan' @ Vaudeville Theatre
David Troughton for 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' @ RSC Stratford
Sophia Okonedo for 'Anthony & Cleopatra' @ National Theatre

The award has to go to Sharon D Clarke for her blistering final song in 'Caroline. or Change' when she lets rip and the anger and frustration of a lifetime pour out onto the stage, a masterclass in how to deliver a song.

Best Exhibition

There have been a lot of top class exhibitions this year and it's been very difficult to whittle them down to just five nominations, let alone one winner. From the variety of the collection of Charles I to the Burne-Jones exhibition - and it was a delight to see so many of his works for a change, rather than the two or three he gets whenever there's a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition - there's been so much to see. Travelling to Boston to see four reliquaries by Fra Angelico reunited for the first time in hundreds of years and the treasures of Mantegna and Bellini.

Charles I: King and Collector @ Royal Academy of Arts
Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth @ Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
Picasso 1932 @ Tate Modern
Mantegna & Bellini @ National Gallery
Edward Burne-Jones @ Tate Britain

After much deliberation, the Baggie goes to the Picasso exhibition at Tate Modern for the sheer range of works Mr Picasso produced in only one year, how experimental he was and the careful curation of the exhibition. I particularly liked dating each exhibit to the actual day it was created. Such a great idea for an exhibition.

Best Film

I've seen more films this year than i have for several years, both documentaries and blockbusters. I particularly liked 'McQueen' the documentary about Alexander McQueen which was a thing of beauty in and of itself.

Punk & The Pistols
Black Panther
Avengers Infinity War
The Happy Prince

The winner has to be the blockbuster to end all blockbusters (until the next one, of course) in the shape of 'Avengers: Infinity War'. What big film and such great special effects and that ending ... ah yes, whatever can happen next?

So there you have it, the Baggies 2018! During the year it often didn't seem like it was all that good, but, looking back over it, there have been some spectacularly good productions and exhibitions with actors giving the performances of their lifetimes with lots of good memories. Thanks everyone and congratulations to the winners.