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Posts tagged ‘National Portrait Gallery’

Beyond the apples: Cézanne Portraits

I have never found an artist better able to reflect the earthy, softly glowing light of a landscape as well as Paul Cézanne captured his native Provence. Whether it be his landscapes of L’Estaque or his obsessive interpretations of the Mont St Victoire, Cézanne’s landscapes breathe and quiver with the the warmth and vivacity of Aix. With their strident, vibrating brushstrokes, Cézanne perfectly replicates the quavering undulations of heated air rising from the dusty ground. And in his palette of earthy tones, Cézanne immortalises the ochre glow which characterises the villages and Mediterranean habitat of his homeland. Even Cézanne’s famous still lives of oranges and apples are characterised by the same Provencal light, and his paintings of peasants playing cards are tinged with a sense of poverty but not without the hope which the light of the Mediterranean climate always provides.

However the one aspect of Cézanne’s oeuvre which often goes overlooked is his portraiture. It’s not a genre which is synonymous with the artist – the man charged with being the father of modern art – who is better known for his first dabbles into cubist forms and semi-abstract expressionism. Yet as the new exhibition just opened at London’s National Portrait Gallery shows to stunning effect, he was truly a master of the portrait.

Madame Cézanne (Hortense Fiquet, 1850–1922) in a Red Dress

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, 1888-90


Gustave Geffroy, 1895-6

Self Portrait Rose Ground 1875

Self Portrait Rose Ground, 1875

Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair 1877

Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, 1877

His virtuosity of the medium is manifold. First it is the intensity of character which he captures in often coarsely applied brush strokes and thickly layered paint – the brilliant portraits of his Uncle Dominique painted with only a palette knife being one such example. Through a mastery of light and shadow, and a multi-tonal handling of colour to represent the contours of skin and the movement of fabric, Cézanne’s sitters have a depth not just of tone but personality too, as his portraits emerge from the canvas as wholly realised individuals. Secondly, Cézanne’s skill resides in that same innate understanding of composition which make all of his works – even the most simple still life – such works of brilliance. For in constructing his portraits, Cézanne’s sitter is but one part of a perfectly balanced whole. Every daub of colour, every angle of sitter and background is fantastically conceived to create a harmonious balance. The result is a portrait which is deeply satisfying to behold, and which touches its audience for reasons which many will be quite unaware.

Self Portrait in a white bonnet 1881-2

Self Portrait in a white bonnet, 1881-2

Boy in a Red Waistcoat 1888-9

Boy in a Red Waistcoat, 1888-9

Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap 1866-7

Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap,1866-7

Seated Woman in Blue 1904

Seated Woman in Blue, 1904

While my regular strolls into the wonderful Courtauld Gallery (happily located so close to my work) have introduced me to the world of Cézanne portraiture before, I had no idea of the scale and prolific mastery with which Cézanne meddled in the medium. With works spanning his entire career including some 26 portraits which demonstrate the same level of self-examinatory intensity as was previously mastered only by the likes of Rembrandt, the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition offers fans of Cézanne a truly unique opportunity to understand a crucial aspect of the artist’s genius. His mastery over fruit and landscapes is undisputed and well documented. But now, happily, this impossibly important third genre sees the light of day, and marks a further reason for attributing Cézanne as the true father of all modern art.

Cézanne Portraits is on at the National Portrait Gallery, London until 11 February 2018

Art in London (Part 3): Giacometti Pure Presence

Say Alberto Giacometti to most art enthusiasts, and for the majority, an image of his long, spindly totem-pole like human sculptures will come to mind. For it is these famous works which made Giacometti’s name, and which today reach eye-wateringly high prices at auction. But for me, the true genius of this artist was not in his sculptures at all, but in his frenetic, impulsive two-dimensional works.

I first discovered the drawings of Giacometti when I attended a short course in life drawing at the Chelsea College of Art. The teacher was trying to ally the many frustrations spreading amongst the students in the room by the changing positions of the models both during the life drawing session, and after breaks. Yet as he attempted to show us through Giacometti’s work, a portrait does not have to comprise a single well-defined line, but can emerge from a series of lines and positions.


The portraits he showed us by way of example were by Giacometti, and in drawing his sitters, he did not concern himself with the perfect line of the face or body, but instead through a series of energetic lines, he would draw a fragmented impression of the sitter, building up the lines more and more until he got to the face, where the real details were introduced. The result was a drawing which focused so intently on the face that it appeared to be emerging from the paper.

So I was filled with excitement to discover that this autumn, the National Portrait Gallery in London are exhibiting a retrospective focusing on Giacometti’s many portraits. And while the show does this through some of the sculptures which made him famous, it is Giacometti’s two dimensional works on paper and on canvas which turned out to be as thrilling as I had anticipated.


Like drawings and paintings created from wire, or built up through a passionate and continued interaction between pencil (or paintbrush) and paper, Giacometti’s portraits are utterly unique, and, after what appears to be a process of interrogation and exploration of the flesh, result in vivid portraiture full of emotional depth. But while the Goya exhibition at the National Gallery next door tended to bring to life the story of each of Goya’s sitters, in Giacometti’s works, I could sense the passion and intention of the artist himself.

Giacometti: Pure Presence runs at The National Portrait Gallery until 10 January 2016.

Intelligent Insight: Grayson Perry – Who Are You?

Following on from his superb show, Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen at the British Museum in 2010 is the latest collection of brilliantly insightful works by artist and craftsman Grayson Perry. This time fitting seamlessly into the collection of the National Portrait gallery, peppered throughout the museum therefore encouraging visitors on a kind of magical mystery your through the space, Perry’s new exhibition, Who are You? once again shows that Grayson Perry is one of the most intelligent artists of our times. Made in conjunction with a series of channel 4 documentaries reflecting on a series of individuals each struggling with some particular facet of their individuality, these “portraits” are very appropriately located within the hallowed halls of the London’s temple of portraiture. Ranging from etching to tapestry, enamel portrait to glazed pottery, they show Perry at his adroit best. But beyond the skilled execution of these works is the messages they so sensitively and intelligently portray. 

Line of Departure (2014 © Grayson Perry)

Line of Departure (2014 © Grayson Perry)

Jesus Army Money Box (2014 © Grayson Perry)

Jesus Army Money Box (2014 © Grayson Perry)

The Earl of Essex (2014 © Grayson Perry)

The Earl of Essex (2014 © Grayson Perry)

The Huhne Vase (2014 © Grayson Perry)

The Huhne Vase (2014 © Grayson Perry)

In mounting the show, Perry tells how he chose sitters who were each on some kind of identity journey. People who had changed religion or gender, physical or mental facilities, lost status or belonging to a group who are actively trying to change the way others see them. Thus Perry presents a vase representing the fall from grace of politician Chris Huhne, who was imprisoned for perjury after asking his wife to take the blame for a speeding offence he had committed. The vase shows his image and that of his car registration plate repeated over and over like the tire tracks of his car. It was smashed and pieced back together again in gold demonstrating Huhne’s downfall but also the fact that his new fragility in a world dominated by generic status figures will make him a richer more complex individual. There too Perry gives us a miniature enamel portrait hidden away in glass cases with others far older. It portrays XFactor star Rylan Clark as the Earl of Essex because, as Perry says, celebrity is the aristocracy of the day. 

But amongst my favourites was the Ashford Hijab, a brilliantly drafted black, white and red design on a silk scarf (appropriately) illustrating the draw of Islam for young white middle aged women who are sick of consumer culture and sexualised scrutiny of women and seek instead the comparative calm and integral values of Islam. So it shows one woman leading her family towards Mecca, her hijab being the metamorphosis of a road which in turn transforms from the outlet shopping centre of consumer culture from which she flees. Brilliant. 

The Ashford Hijab (2014 © Grayson Perry)

The Ashford Hijab (2014 © Grayson Perry)

Memory Jar (2014 © Grayson Perry)

Memory Jar (2014 © Grayson Perry)

I also loved Memory Jar, the vase sensitively portraying the effects of Alzheimer’s on a couple, as the disease ravages the mind of one man leaving his wife deprived not only of his personality and mental functions, but also destroying their shared memories. As Perry says, two people are the guardians of their shared memories. Once one person goes, so does the poignancy of the memories, and in depicting this he shows a kind of demon cutting up the family photos of the couple also reflected on the vase. It’s a stunning piece. 

And of course mention has to go to Comfort Blanket, a huge banknote tapestry representing everything that is so intrinsic to British culture and which makes the country such a stable, lawful, integral place, drawing people from all over the world. Of course fish and chips looms large, as well as words like “fair play” and “Posh and Becks”. Everything on it was so English I stood in awe at how masterfully Perry had managed to capture the essence of an entire nation in one tapestry. It also felt particularly poignant for me, an Englishman, as I prepare to leave England to move overseas in only a few days time. 

Comfort Blanket (2014 © Grayson Perry)

Comfort Blanket (2014 © Grayson Perry)

Grayson Perry: Who are You? is showing at The National Portrait Gallery until 15 March 2015. Entrance is free.

WW1 Centenary | The Dead Stretcher-Bearer

This year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War, and there will no doubt be a series of events commemorating the start of the Great War as the year goes on, especially towards the end in the months when the actual conflict began. One of the first events to mark the centenary in London is the latest temporary exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The Great War in Portraits looks at the war, not through the more typical Nash depictions of ravaged landscapes and desolate trenches, but through portraits of the people who began the war, led the armies, fought and, all too often, gave their lives.

The exhibition is a small but perfectly formed homage to this most terrible of conflicts, which ranges chronologically from the period immediately predating the conflict (in which portraits of the relevant royals of Germany, the United Kingdom and Russia are on display, as well as Frans Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary whose murder precipitated the whole war) and continues into the conflict, right through to the end when artists used their skills to depict the horrific injuries inflicted upon soldiers, and struggled to find a way of expressing the true horror of the conflict through creative means.

But one artist who certainly didn’t struggle to depict that horror, and who created what for me was the star painting of the show, is Gilbert Rogers. In 1919, when the general censorship on morale-destroying honest depictions of war had slipped away, and representations of its true horrors began to surface from beneath the censors, Rogers painted this work, The Dead Stretcher-Bearer, which represents the horror and futility of war with unflinching directness. Doing what the title of the work suggests, the painting shows a stretcher-bearer dead on the very stretcher which it was his duty to carry, probably killed in the course of trying to rescue another injured soldier.

Gilbert Rogers, The Dead Stretcher Bearer (1919)

Gilbert Rogers, The Dead Stretcher Bearer (1919)

The paint has been applied coarsely and liberally without too much detail – instead the application of white to mark the shine on the masterfully conceived folds of the tarpaulin covering the soldier’s body attracts all of the viewers attention, focusing our mind at the very heart of this tragedy. Meanwhile the muddied colour palate and the pools of water demonstrate in simple brushstrokes the horrific conditions of trench warfare, while those limited colours are interspersed with dashes of red, the colour which has later become such a hallmark of the conflict.

This painting is but one brilliant canvas in this moving and enthralling show. To see the works yourself head along to the NPG – The Great War in Portraits runs until 15 June. Admission is free.

BP Portrait Prize – Hyper-photorealism is all very well, but I want to see the Artist’s soul on the canvas

As something of a postscript to my post on Friday about the Queen’s Portrait exhibition is a short note about another exhibition currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery, the BP Portrait Prize (It’s clever marketing that requires an exhibition’s integral name to be precursored by the name of an international petrol conglomerate, although I’m not too sure how happy I am having to represent said marketing on my own blog just by nature of naming the exhibition). Anyway, I digress. The exhibition, which is now in its thirty-thid year, features some 55 works selected from an open submission of 2,187 international entrants. The sole requirement of entry is that the work is a portrait, painted in the last year.

The height of photorealism – Lindsay Lohan © Ben Ashton (2012)

This year, like most years before it, the Judges of the Prize seem to have been unashamedly seduced by the skills of artists painting photorealistically, rather than with soul. It’s now as predicable an aspect of this show as the British summer is full of rain that when you wander into the exhibition, you double-take, wondering whether you have strolled into a photography exhibition rather than a painting one. The artist paints so fantastically well, and plies his craft with such faultless skill, that one cannot see a single brush stroke and one would swear blind, even upon being 10 centimetres distance from the canvas, that this is a photo before you. This is all very well – there is no denying the skill, and absolute kudos needs to be given to these artists for executing the works with such sophistication – but the problem for me is that, if I wanted to see an exhibition of photos, I would be elsewhere. It is also, to my mind, the inherent problem of the annual offerings of the BP Portrait Prize, and what, for me, makes it all a bit boring.

These paintings do not look like paintings, and as such they do not strike me as bursting with the emotional impact that a very paint-plastered canvas exudes. In the manic multitude of Van Gogh’s plentiful brush strokes, you can identify with the bursts of energy expressed by the artist when he went about executing the work, while in the fragmented, abstracted portraits of Picasso, you can identify with an artist bursting with innovation, with a rebellious streak who wants to give more, to change art as we know it, to pioneer new forms of expression.

Swallow, © Alexandra Gardner 2012

By contrast when you look at the works hung in the BP Portrait prize, first you need to challenge your preconception that the work is actually a photograph, and then you spend your time staring at the work wondering how it is painted. But all of this emphasis somewhat takes away from the story of the sitter. The emotion is somehow lost in the perfection. When you can see no sign of an artist’s presence on the canvas, it becomes craftsmanship, and not art. It loses it’s soul. I compare these works to an exquisitely well crafted table – I would glance at the work and admire the virtuosity of the craftsman, but I would not attempt, nor be able to engage with the work in the same way as I can when an artist’s soul is poured onto a canvas.

The Dialects of Silence (Portrait of Michael Longley) © Colin Davidson 2012

There were some exceptions in this year’s show, and it is therefore unsurprising that these were my standout favourites. In Colin Davidson’s The Dialects of Silence (Portrait of Michael Longley), there is a superbly executed focus on his sitter’s melancholy eyes, which are practically photographic, but then as the work spans outwards, it becomes more and more fragmented, as swathes of paint are hastily applied to the canvas, but with no less effect. This work demonstrates both the soul of the sitter, and the passion of the artist, and that is why, for me, it works incredibly well as a portrait worthy of artistic merit. I also liked Alexandra Gardner’s Swallow which had something of the Gauguin about it. Yes it’s just a portrait, but the insertion of the striking yellow wall paper and the presence of a swallow around the sitter’s neck makes you interact with the work, wondering about the significance of the swallow, and no doubt captivated by the use of bold colour, and realism contrasting with the two dimensional black outline which circumnavigates the figure.

Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar, Tokyo
© Carl Randall

However my favourite work of the show was undoubtedly this one, Carl Randall’s Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar, Tokyo. This “group portrait” is startlingly original for a number of reasons: the viewpoint from above, its composition: customers on the right, servers on the left, the slice of city life seen through the window, and the exclusive use of black, white and shades of grey. I love the apathetic, indifferent stares of the customers, minding their own business, indulging in quick dinner in a hostile urban environment, thinking no doubt about work and the pressures around them. On the left we are met with the equally impassive stares of the workers, tired after cooking all day and bored of the relentless monotony of their work. But in the middle of this we have this almost embrace, the only human contact in the whole work, when the worker gives a bowl of food to a customer, or the other way round – because they both hold the bowl with two hands, it is akin to a loving embrace, a fusion of worker and customer, and composition-wise it provides the work with a horizontal variance to otherwise brash vertical lines. Brilliant.

Is that a photo?: Silent Eyes © Antonios Titakis (2012)

If the BP Portrait Prize included more works like this every year, it would be a startlingly interesting show. But as ever with exhibitions judged and chosen by a group of outdated art professionals and even a representative from BP (who clearly knows so much about art) we will continue to be shunned by a group of high-gloss works which, like any photo, reflect the viewer and push him away, rather than a show of works which, because an artist has bared his soul or painted a scene of such dynamic composition and interest, the viewer is captivated and invited in. For me, it’s this relationship between artist and viewer which is not just integral to the power and purpose of art, but central to the very definition of what “art” really is, whether it be triggered by a portrait, a landscape or an abstract clutter. Remove the soul of the artist, and the painting becomes just one more image to add to the ever changing visual landscape of the fast-moving world around us. A fleeting encounter, without a lasting impact.