Sun, 29 Mar 2015
Experiments in Paint

I've never been a great admirer of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the 18th Century English painter/portraitist, and first president of the newly created Royal Academy. A look around the small exhibition of his work at the Wallace Collection has made me somewhat more sympathetic though.

His paintings often appeared a bit flat, or "dead" to me. I knew his work is well-known as being badly affected by time, deteriorating a lot over the years, but I had not realised that a lot of this was due to his experimentation with the medium. Oil painting is sometimes as much a science as an art, hence the experimentation. It's also another reason many people find oils hard to use.

Some of the pictures are very good but sadly quite faded. Still, there is some beauty here and this (free) show is worth a visit to the superb Wallace Collection to see.

A few pictures I took below, including : a Reynolds self-portrait (downloaded, no photography in the exhibition), some Greek nymphs, a lovely French 18th Century weather gauge ("Beau Temps"?), Pluto abducting Proserpine, The Lace Maker by Caspar Netscher and finally, Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher.

Wed, 25 Mar 2015
Hell Defiled

Matthew Paris, the great medieval chronicler did not think very highly of King John, the English King whose bad behaviour was the catalyst for Magna Carta :

With John’s foul deeds England’s whole realm is stinking - Hell itself is defiled by the foul presence of John

The new exhibition at The British Library, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy takes us through the various ways John was a bad King before following the legacy of this document over the years, from the English Civil War, to the American War of Independence and finally our own troubled times.

If you like medieval manuscripts, the first two rooms are worth waiting for. The actual documents themselves are hard to decipher, impossible if you don't know your latin, but being so close to them is much better than any digital reproduction. On top of the language difficulties however, the writing is often tiny. They must have had good eye sight in the 13th Century.

If you want a short introduction to Magna Carta and its history, the British Library has a good introduction. The "Great Charter" is not unique, and was not the first such document between a monarch and his subjects, but its fame rests on the way it was held up and used in the centuries afterwards. It was important in the transition from the "Kings Law" to the "Common Law", codifying some of the things we take for granted today, such as trial by a jury of peers and no arbitary detention.

Magna Carta is still a rallying cry, and that's a good thing.

Wed, 11 Mar 2015
Doña Isabel de Porcel

Speaking of Goya, this is one of my favourite paintings.

Doña Isabel de Porcel
before 1805, Francisco de Goya

A long time ago, when I first tried my hand at painting in oils, I think I tried to copy this picture. A moment of hubris. I gave up my oil painting attempts quite quickly in fact, and the copy wasn't great as far as I remember. I love the Goya painting though, even though the subject matter is fairly routine in portraiture. There's a vibrancy about her I think and she looks alive.

More about the painting here.

Mon, 09 Mar 2015
Horse of the Apocalypse

London's still toying with the idea of fixing the Fourth Plinth. For a long time, it's been a blue cockerel and now it's a skeletal horse. I have to say that I missed the :

... implied critique of the relationships between power, money, art, privilege and history

I quite like the new plinth for a change.

Sun, 08 Mar 2015
Dark, Very Black

Beyond Black
by Hilary Mantel

True to its title, this is a dark book, but also very funny. But as well as containing well observed comment, great characters and a look at the often mundane nature of life, even for those on the "psychic circuit", there's a lot to unsettle. A ghost story should have a bit of a bite. It's also another beautifully written Mantel novel.

The two main characters are Alison, a psychic, with more than just body problems (she's very large) and her "assistant" Colette, sharp, cold and known as "the monster" at school. Alison Hart had a very murky and extremely painful and brutal childhood, something recollected in snatches throughout the book. A bad past that haunts her present in a literal way, and seems to be getting worse. People can be kind, nasty, maudlin and very cruel. Even when dead.

Very funny, but also very painful to read sometimes. A good book and highly recommended.

Tue, 03 Mar 2015

Goya, at The Courtauld

This small, two room exhibition of Francisco Goya drawings shows his fantastical side. Dozens of small pencil and ink drawings (and some lithographs) are brought together at The Courtauld under the title : The Witches and Old Women Album.

Done for his own amusement, no commissions here, they are uniquely "Goya". Perhaps his most famous drawing in this vein is El sueño de la razón produce monstruos :

This picture has been much discussed and analysed, with it usually considered as meaning that the absence of reason results in bad things happening. I recently came across a contrary view however, by "Spengler" (David Goldman), a conservative, Jewish commentator, who writes :

Francisco Goya's 1799 etching "El sueño de la razón produce monstruos" usually is mistranslated as “the sleep of reason produces monsters.” The word sueño typically (and clearly in this context) means "dream." The mistranslation implies that monsters emerge when reason ceases to be vigilant; what Goya meant, rather, is that "monsters are what reason dreams about."

This is an anti-enlightenment, anti-revolutionary viewpoint, in opposition to the often anti-religious currency common today, and born of the French Revolution. Without Goya around to tell us, it is difficult to know what he meant for certain. However, as human beings, we know that we can produce monsters whether we are reasonable or not (as John Gray would point out).

The drawings on display in this exhibition are of a similar, nightmarish vein. An obsession with age, death and horror. Some quite grotesque, many odd. Quite a strange artist.