Three Days in London

Paolo Veronese, fragment of the Petrobelli Altarpiece: Dead Christ with Angels (c. 1563), oil on canvas, 221 x 250.5 cm. NGC. Restored thanks to the generous support of the Members, Supporting Friends and Donors of the NGC and the NGC Foundation

On a brief personal trip to London recently, I spent three solid days in museums. There was nothing particularly unusual in that, since for me the study of art is both a profession and a pastime. With considerable anticipation, I had come to see the Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery. Passionate about the greatest colourist of the 16th century, I did not much care what else was on but, as luck would have it that weekend, London turned out to be a feast of complementary shows.

Veronese’s work has been familiar to me from art books since childhood, but it had definitively seduced me only recently. A few years ago, the NGC reunited his Petrobelli Altarpiece after Stephen Gritt, our gifted Director of Conservation and Research, restored Dead Christ with Angels, c. 1563—the work’s remarkable lunette, which he had found in our vaults, mouldering away for nearly a century. The experience of that one-work show was so strong—the book, the lectures, the website, the anecdotes, the conversations with experts and non-experts alike, the sustained and careful looking—that I’ve been seeking out pictures by the Venetian master ever since. In fact, I’ve grown so fond of him that an exhibition boasting 50 works by Veronese would lure me to the ends of the earth. Luckily, a quick trip to London from Ottawa is a piece of cake.

The night flight landed on Friday at 6:30 in the morning. Having no checked bags, I immediately headed for the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station, two tube stops away from my hotel in South Kensington: the London base I prefer for its convenience, familiarity and reasonable rates.

 

After a morning spent on last-minute Gallery business that took me to a suburban warehouse, I headed to the Victoria and Albert Museum two blocks from the hotel to spend the afternoon in the William Kent exhibition. One of my favourite English houses since student days has been Holkham Hall, the Norfolk home of the Earls of Leicester: a stupendous and idiosyncratic Palladian pile in tawny brick attributed to Kent. After longing to see it for some twenty-five years, I finally visited Holkham while on vacation last year. Needless to say, a whole show dedicated to William Kent was a nice surprise.

The most complete example of William Kent’s work: Holkham Hall in North Norfolk, home of the Coke family and the Earls of Leicester. Built between 1734 and 1764 by Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, and designed by William Kent (1685–1748). Photo © Holkham Estate

Made up of drawings, plans, maquettes, furniture, decorative objects and a few paintings, the show is a fine introduction to this unusual personality—the bane of Hogarth, who satirized him mercilessly. Kent is a figure of some mystery, probably because he was largely forgotten after his death, his articulate contemporary denigrators having survived him. Twentieth-century scholars restored Kent to art history, but much of his character and accomplishments are speculation.

He must have been quite charismatic. Despite being a truly mediocre painter, in 1709 this half-educated Yorkshireman of modest origins managed to talk his way into free art training in Italy, where he extracted annual stipends from an ever-more-impressive succession of English lords on the Grand Tour—most notably the wealthy and influential Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, who would be his collaborator for the next three decades. The man his patrons affectionately called “Kentino” attracted still more lucrative relationships once back in England ten years later:  Thomas Coke (pronounced Cook), the 1st Earl of Leicester and builder of Holkham; George II and his wife Queen Caroline; and their estranged son, the extravagant Prince Frederick. Such connections made him the most fashionable jack-of-all-aesthetic-trades for the remainder of his life.

William Aikman, William Kent, oil on canvas, ca. 1723–25. Canvas © National Portrait Gallery, London

Today, we credit Kent for having cleverly anglicized the Italian Baroque in architecture and decoration for the new Hanoverian court, though reined in by Burlington. The French sensibility had fallen from grace in Protestant England after the Catholic Bourbons chose to harbour their cousin the Stuart Pretender. Most significantly, Kent created the first jardins à l’anglaise—the ultimate English rebuke to French taste. 

Exaggeration is the hallmark of Kent’s style. His furniture often appears to caricature the Baroque. For example, his chairs and stools seem more for show than for comfort—in fact, some look rather precarious. Kent’s interiors are not subtle, either, but instead quite lavish with sometimes-outsized detailing, and a fondness for great expanses of marble or white plaster, for a general surfeit of gilding, and for patterned wall fabrics in an opulent red, a tart green or a very royal blue.

 

 

The Victoria and Albert Museum presents William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain, on view at the V&A until July 13, 2014.

Despite the surface bling, however, there is sensitivity to accompany the boldness that, for me, translates into a kind of friendliness. To my way of thinking, this is good-natured, corn-fed Classicism: imagine a slightly ungainly but hale country boy in a brand new tuxedo who dressed up more to please than to impress. Kent’s style reminds me a bit of Gianni Versace’s, if you will pardon the anachronism: a pastiche that loves the model, but wants more. This approach worked brilliantly in Kent’s revolutionary landscaping, which was based on paintings that imagined the Arcadian paradise of the ancients—such as works by Claude Lorrain, of which there is a roomful at Holkham. When it comes to the buildings, though, it is hard to know how much was Kent’s, and how much reflected the sensibility of his “managing” partner Lord Burlington. And there are also frequently other hands at work, such as with—again—the sometimes-gauche Palladianism of the still-impressive Holkham Hall.

 

Mirror attributed to William Kent, probably for the White House, Kew. Carving attributed to John Boson. Gilt pine, mirror glass, 1733–34. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Produced, like the show itself, by the Bard Graduate Center in New York City, the accompanying book is a massive compendium of new scholarship. Despite the size, I was too eager to have it, and carried the behemoth home, along with an erudite and irreverently entertaining biography of Kent by Thomas Mowl. 

 

 

Exterior, National Gallery. © National Gallery, London

Saturday morning belonged to my beloved Paolo Caliari, detto il Veronese, so it was with some solemnity that I descended toward the eastbound platform of the District Line at South Kensington. Even at 10:30 in the morning the National Gallery was busy. Not surprisingly, I heard plenty of Italian around me, but an equal amount of French. The French are certainly familiar with “Paul Veronèse.” Indeed, when they invaded the Serene Republic in 1796, Napoleon’s troops hauled off twice as many works by Veronese as by any other Venetian Old Master. A mammoth trophy from that raid, The Wedding Feast at Cana, 1563, now hanging in the Louvre, is too big to travel, and is not part of the exhibition.

Parenthetically, when I lived in Paris many years ago, the Cana picture—that storied wonder of the painted world—was being restored in public in a gallery divided, as I recall, by a huge plate-glass wall. The herculean cleaning was not without controversy, and made the front page more than once. Much was made, for example, of a brown tunic worn by a foreground figure, which conservators revealed to have originally been a very Veronese green. Some eloquent sensibilities were bruised by the change, arguing that the restoration was a gratuitous correction of the artist’s own self-correction. The Louvre’s experts were unmoved, so green it is. More alarming by far: one day the gigantic picture fell off the wall and onto scaffolding standing in front of it, causing a four-foot gash, among other holes and scrapes. The gallery was promptly closed and the restoration took, well, longer.

Generally, I enjoy retrospectives. They confirm my belief that a genius is not born, but rather made through the agency of encouragement and the honing of concentration. Admittedly, the young Paolo Caliari had more going for him than the young William Kent. For one thing, he was Italian—an enormous advantage in the 16th-century art world; for another, he had a real gift for pictures. His early works in Verona are wonderfully sophisticated for a young man who had started out as a stonemason. Though not as ravishing as the magnificent products of his best Venetian years, a big picture like The Anointing of David, 1550, with the compositional complexity (albeit a little squished) of its two dozen figures, including a sacrificial bull and a stoic goat, is mighty impressive for a 22-year-old.

 

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), Allegories of Love – Happy Union (c. 1570–75), oil on canvas, 187.4 × 186.7 cm. © The National Gallery, London (NG 1326)

Colour is the first word on the lips of anyone who has been looking at Veronese; it is as if he invented his own greens and blues, mauves, pinks, rusts and yellows. But really, he is the unrivaled master of grey, which is why his colour looks so magical. Has anyone made better dramatic use of shadows, for example? I can’t think of a single filmmaker or photographer who has matched the shadow across Saint Sebastian in the miraculous Virgin and Child with Saints for sheer dramatic power. This altarpiece, not in the show, was painted by Veronese for his Venetian parish church, which is dedicated to the martyred centurion. His most elegant (and disquieting) use of grey, however, was inadvertent. The flat grey heaven of Veronese’s Four Allegories of Love resulted from his use of smalt in these pictures: a glass- and cobalt-based pigment that reads blue—well, for a while anyway. I could not pull myself away from the octagonal gallery where these gorgeously strange pictures hang together in the exhibition, high up on the wall were they belong.

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565–67), oil on canvas, 236.2 × 474.9 cm. © The National Gallery, London (NG 294)

You have to travel quite a bit to get your fill of the great Veronese, to whom this show is far more than just a fine introduction. Of course, his ceiling paintings were not pulled down to send to London—notably the Queen Esther suite from the aforementioned San Sebastian, which I once had the good fortune to see up close on easels when the three paintings were being restored—but this exhibition is the furthest thing from frustrating. I loved every satisfying minute of my nearly three hours there. It is a chance to get close to many pictures that are usually tucked deep into inaccessible side chapels of gloomy churches that no amount of coins in a meter box will ever light brightly enough to properly see. And yes, there were pictures long overdue for cleaning, but not many, and none of these belonged to the National Gallery. Their own marvels—no fewer than ten—looked fresh and serene, notably The Family of Darius before Alexander, 1565–1567, one of the U.K.’s greatest treasures, and a picture that never fails to move me. The Gallery’s large and architecturally complex altarpiece The Adoration of the Kings, 1573, was spruced up in advance of the show, and it looks terrific.

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), The Adoration of the Kings (1573), oil on canvas, 355.6 × 320 cm. © The National Gallery, London (NG 268)

I was seeing many pictures for the first time here, such as the innovative Martyrdom of Saint George, c. 1565. As Director Nicholas Penny notes in the audioguide (recommended), the protagonist is sitting on the ground, untypically but most effectively at the very bottom edge of the large canvas. He looks completely transported by his faith, and oblivious to the horrors that await him. And then there is the gallant but wary Saint Menna, c. 1560, in full armour (caught at the moment of conversion?). Like so many pictures by Veronese, he has the likeness of someone you don’t recognize from any other picture by the artist: one of his many convincing character studies of un-idealized Northern Italian types. 

The survey ends, predictably enough, with late works, a number of which are not likely to be entirely by the artist’s own hand, if at all, but rather the product of his studio. Although there are some good pictures in this gallery, it has a tragic cast as my beloved Veronese, losing energy from failing health, passes the baton to his sons when he was around my age. These are not my favourite pictures in the show, but this room is perhaps the most emotionally charged.

 

   Curator Xavier F. Salomon introduces the exhibition Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, on view at the National Gallery in London until June 15, 2014.

Exit through the gift shop, where I bought the catalogue, authored by the impressive young scholar—and exhibition curator—Xavier F. Salomon, who had also worked on our Petrobelli project. In fact, he is the fellow who sleuthed out the missing head of the archangel in the centre of the altarpiece, having remembered an orphaned Veronese head from a visit to the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin. I also picked up a travel guide to the major Veronese sites in and around Venice, in anticipation of a future pilgrimage.

With people swarming around me, and lost in the memory of the great exhibition, I slowly descended the stairs on my way out through the Portico entrance on Trafalgar Square. My eyes suddenly fell upon what looked for all the world like a portrait of Greta Garbo in mosaic on the floor. Laughing to myself at the unlikeliness of such a thing in the august National Gallery, I decided to investigate further, dodging tourists, and soon found Virginia Woolf.  A bit giddy from the abrupt change of subject, I approached a guard, “Excuse me, did I just walk on Virginia Woolf?”

“You did indeed, sir.”

With both of us smiling broadly, I was directed to the Information Desk, where I was handed a printout with everything you would ever need to know about the mosaic floor—one of four that Russian artist Boris Anrep produced for this staircase, with leading figures from the arts and sciences of the 1920s playing the gods and muses of antiquity. It seems that Anrep was quite popular in his time, and even did a floor in Westminster Abbey. This one is certainly impressive, though hard to see through the crowds. 

After a quick but satisfying little lunch in the National Dining Rooms of the Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing, I thought I would wend my way through the back alleys around the rear and towards the many private galleries behind the Royal Academy in nearby Piccadilly. It dawned on me, though, that I hadn’t looked up what was on at the RA so I went there first, just in case. Besides the annual print fair, which felt too much like work to me, they advertised a show of Renaissance chiaroscuro prints—something I knew nothing about, and was not exactly dying to learn. I was intrigued, however, by the fact that most of the prints in this show, organized by Arturo Galasino, belong to Georg Baselitz, the famous contemporary German painter whose violently hacked-up wooden sculptures I particularly enjoy. The show turned out to be fascinating.

Hans Burgkmair the Elder, St. George and the Dragon (c. 1508–10), chiaroscuro woodcut printed from two blocks, the tone block in beige, 32 x 22.5 cm. Collection Georg Baselitz. Photo: Albertina, Vienna

Chiaroscuro prints are made from multiple woodblocks—between two, and as many as five in some cases—inked and pressed onto the same sheet. The effect will be familiar to you from modern two-colour printing: first, the mood is set by areas of colour from a mid-tone block or two, while the darker ink lines of a standard woodcut fill in the drawn details on top.

Just as interesting as the prints themselves is their history. Although a German invention, perfected by Lucas Cranach the Elder, some famous Italians also explored the technique. Beccafumi and Parmagianino, for example, supplemented their incomes by teaming up with printmakers who would translate their work to paper for a mass market. The wall didactics told of dastardly doings, from stolen drawings to rampant copyright infringement. Dürer was a frequent victim, especially his still-popular rhinoceros. 

Ugo da Carpi, after Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (c. 1523–27), chiaroscuro woodcut printed from three blocks, the tone blocks in red, 23.4 x 25.7 cm. Albertina, Vienna. Photo: Albertina, Vienna

I was particularly taken by the smallest prints: rough, schematic, but graceful little depictions of usually allegorical figures. It’s easy to see why Baselitz would love these things. The off-register of some blocks reminded me of his own deliberate flouting of register, occasionally with the use of colour, on his painted sculptures. Apparently, he has accumulated the largest private collection of these often-beautiful prints. So, there went another two hours, and a third catalogue was added to my luggage.   

Tate Modern, London © Tate Photography

A friend had invited me to dinner on my second day, and one of the other guests suggested that, given my interest in William Kent, I might enjoy seeing The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714–1760 exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery. This year marks the three hundredth anniversary of the Hanoverian dynasty on the English throne. I was indeed looking for something to do after the Matisse cut-outs show—a visit I’d already planned for the following morning—so the suggestion was doubly fortuitous.  

The conversation at dinner was broad ranging and interesting enough to keep me up past my bedtime—then again, it was Saturday night. The next morning, having lingered in bed with the Kent biography, I didn’t get to the Tate until around 11:30. Service disruptions on the Circle and District Lines caused me to walk a good part of the way, but despite plenty of construction, the path along the south bank of the Thames is quite pleasant, especially for people-watching.  

Henri Matisse, Large Composition with Masks (1953), National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund 1973.17.1. Digital Image: © National Gallery of Art, Washington. Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

Because I have known Matisse’s cut-outs since as far back as I can remember, it was more out of Modernist duty than burning anticipation that I went there, and I had already seen the excellent Richard Hamilton show on a previous trip. Yes, yes, I am as crazy for Matisse’s work as the next guy, but surely there is life after Fauvism, and the cut-outs are old news. Given my attitude, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional clobbering that this faultless show had in store for me.

 

 

 

 

Trailer for the June 3, 2014 screening event, Henri Matisse Live from Tate Modern. The exhibition Matisse: The Cut-Outs is on view at Tate Modern, London, until September 7, 2014

 

Like Veronese, Matisse owns colour. It is as if their respective eras knew nothing about colour before them. In fact, they are sort of equivalent artists in my imagination, with Picasso standing in for Titian. Unlike the last gallery in the Veronese show, however, where we witness the extinguishing of genius, the entire Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern—co-curated by the Tate network’s uber-Director Nicholas Serota and Nicholas Cullinan of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, along with colleagues from the Tate and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City—celebrates the artist’s inexhaustible psychic energy, defying old age, illness, frailty and gravity. We watch in awe as the momentum of Matisse’s sensibility keeps building and building towards ever more radical form . . . and then he dies. Very moving.  

Henri Matisse, Memory of Oceania (1952–53), gouache and crayon on cut-and-pasted paper over canvas, MoMA. Digital image: © 2013. The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala Florence. Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

It is not exactly fair to say that Matisse reinvented himself when, bedridden, he switched from paintbrushes to scissors. In fact, I recognized one of his most brilliant early ideas in the giant Zulma, 1950, near the end of the show.  Even though I’ve seen this big collage countless times, only now did I finally flash back to his iconic The Green Stripe, 1905, painted almost a half-century earlier. It is the same idea, but in reverse; in both cases, colour stands in for Veronesian shadow. The insight gave me goosebumps. 

Back outside, I had yet another quick lunch: a plate of fish and chips that I soon regretted. No matter, I made my way back along the south bank to the Hayward Gallery, where I caught the last day of the Martin Creed show, organized by Canadian Cliff Lauson. One of the U.K.’s most brilliantly inane artists (he has tough competition), the first thing you see as you enter is the word MOTHERS in giant white neon on an steel I-beam rotating with frightening speed just above your head. Now I understood the headroom warning at the entrance to the show. Had I been six-foot-two, the concussion from this thing would have been fatal.

 

Installation view, work no. 1092 (2011), Martin Creed: What’s the point of it? Hayward Gallery. ® the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

Many of the works were familiar to me from previous shows, notably Vancouver’s Rennie Collection exhibition in 2011. Visitors to the NGC last winter will recall his funhouse installation, Half the Air in a Given Space, made up of hundreds of black balloons that are well over your head. Fighting your way through the balloons is a dry variation on swimming underwater. For the London show, the balloons were white, and a bit depleted on that last day. Having already experienced the blue, black and pink versions, I let the many small children visiting the show enjoy it without me.

Paul-Emile Borduas would have scowled at Creed’s art. When it came to working in the studio, his motto was “Never begin with an idea.” Each of Creed’s works starts from an idea that probably came to him well away from the studio: a white baby grand rigged out to slam shut with alarming euphony at regular intervals; a similar interval of room lights going on and off; a very large series of prints made from halved broccoli in never-repeating colours; videos of various bodily functions (off limits to the swarming children); a striped wall of bricks in various colours and course styles, etc. Actually, the outside terrace where that last piece stood was closed temporarily. According to the guard, “Someone is being sick back there.” Given my sketchy lunch, I knew better than to venture into Creed’s notoriously nauseating video room. Despite clear warnings, someone may have overestimated their tolerance for contemporary British art.  

Installation view, Martin Creed: What’s the point of it? Hayward Gallery. ® the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

Creed, a Turner Prize winner in 2001, seems very fond of taunting people who think the art being made today is mindless nonsense. So many of his works give the impression that he wants to pick a fight with the uninformed, as if he were building a catalogue of things your kid could do, but would never think of. Whatever his intentions, I usually get more than just a good laugh out of him, though a good laugh is good enough in this short life.

By the time I got to the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace to see The First Georgians, William Kent’s erstwhile patrons, there was maybe an hour and a half left before closing, but I took my time with the audioguide and read all the labels I could. Put together by Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, this informative show, although dedicated mostly to the material legacy of the line that ended with Queen Victoria, is more than just an homage to limitless wealth. The early Georgian rulers were careful people, uninterested in squandering their great luck. They were relatively frugal, and actively assimilated to the ways of their new homeland. Within the context of the more generously funded and adventurous sensibilities on the Continent, English art and design was somewhat rustic in these early years of the eighteenth century, but guardedly ambitious. I was particularly struck by the intelligence and cultivation of Queen Caroline, an astute politician and knowledgeable patron not only of art, but also of science. She seems to have been the brains in that shrewd family.  

William Hogarth, David Garrick and his Wife, Eva-Maria Veigel (1757–64). Image copyright of Royal Collection Trust/c Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

Perhaps the most interesting moment in the show for me was the story of Hogarth’s suites of prints, of which Queen Elizabeth has a great many. Biting and wonderfully drawn satires on modern life, they were so popular that illicit copies of them began popping up relentlessly. Hogarth had funded his work by subscription, promising to limit the edition, so integrity prevented him from reissuing the prints. I was reminded of the problem that vexed Cranach and Dürer before him with their chiaroscuro woodblock prints. Hogarth’s lobbying of government to protect his interests soon led to the first copyright laws, thus beginning the intellectual property struggle that has only increased in complexity and frustration with every technological advance.

After a good night’s sleep, my first (and last) in that time zone, I made my way to Heathrow and flew back to Ottawa a bit less ignorant than I had been when I left, weighed down once again with new art books, and recharged from a three-day mini-vacation filled with beauty, knowledge and general delight.

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