New exhibition “Post-Vandalism” blends Street Art and fine art in a vigorous, discordant blend.
As Matt McMurry shows me around the gallery he co-founded, he speaks passionately and eloquently about the art around us, which blend fine-art detachment and Street-Art attitude. McMurry talks about the boldness and grasp of colour that graffiti artists acquire and says this is what excited him about the work he chose for Post-Vandalism (Omni Gallery, 56-7 Eastcastle Street, London, W1, 20 October-12 November 2022).
“These artists have gone beyond the street. They’ve left that behind but you can see it even though these are definitely gallery pieces.” We are standing in front of Moses & Taps’s spraypainted tarpaulin concertinaed over a metal footstep that you would find on a van. It has the appearance of a graffer’s intervention in a haulage yard but after contemplation seems more of a knowing reference to John Chamberlain’s crushed-car sculptures of the Sixties.
Occupying territory, promoting personal brands
McCurry talks about Street Artists occupying territory and promoting personal brands. In his previously gallery (in Seattle) he collaborated with Street Artists; in Omni, located just north of Oxford Street and split over two floors, he sees the opportunity to display art that is more ambitious and considered than what is usually found on the street.
The artists selected here carry a punchy no-holds-barred attitude but apply it to work that is more reflective and allusive than what is limited by temporary surface or hasty execution. Openness to material is apparent in the use of found objects and repurposed grounds. Most of the work bridges the space between sculpture and painting. Bram Bram has taken a slice of wall with bathroom tiles and applied paint and stickers; the printed text has degraded to the equivalent of visual static or Francis Bacon’s meaningless Letraset characters. In this piece – as in many of the others – there is a wilful distancing effect. The artists do not hit you with messages or theses, preferring to remain indirect. There is as much obscured, scoured and eroded on these surfaces as there is assertive paintwork.
When political references come, they are oblique. Ricardo Passaporte’s spraypainted scene of politicians fighting in parliament takes the specificity out of the situation, laconically reducing the struggling figures to fuzzy flat shapes. This instance of sordid degeneration of civic life acquires a comforting decorative quality. His painting of cartoon children dancing in a circle appears like a food dye sprayed on to cake icing. Distanced by not diminished, it still has the charm of an illustration of an idealised childhood. A ceramic bust of a Putin-like figure sports a Pinocchio liar’s nose. Perhaps an understandable swipe – the artist is a Ukrainian refugee, now based in France.
Alexandre Mosa Bavard’s Double Goose (2019) is a cement and resin cast of a puffer jacket, part-horror-movie effect, part rococo ceramic. The rococo comes to the fore in Stephen Burke’s freestanding painting-sculpture This Guy Loves His Job 2 (2022), which is equally playful and aggressive. A simple geometric painting is mounted in a section of railing; around the outside are different repelling devices (spikes, hooks, bladed wheels) that act like decorative flourishes one can find in rococo panels or picture frames. McMurry could have easily named this exhibition “Industrial Rococo”.
In another wall piece by Bram Bram – chain-link and tubular steel enlivened with applied stickers – seems a raffish take-off of 1980s Neo-Geo abstraction. More patterning comes in Bavard’s Auber (2022), which has sprayed paint recording where a (now absent) mesh had been draped as a distorted stencil over the canvas surface. Christopher Stead (part of a South London collective) appropriates Jackson Pollock’s spatter in an assemblage that affixes swatches of linen to the support canvas with eyelets. It is as if the artist is making survival raft out of the revered wreckage of Abstract Expressionism, not at all mocking.
Matt McCormick’s 2001 short film The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal presents us with a proposition more outright humorous. The film follows the work of municipal workmen overpainting graffiti in Portland, Oregon. The simple effacement of vandalism is presented as an art movement, which – in its deployment of rough, floating patches of paint – echoes the High Modernism of Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann and the Russian Constructivists. It is thought-provoking in its thesis that the creative drive emerges unconsciously even in the act of covering vandalism and that these blocks of colour have their own muted poetry.
Abstract Expressionism echoed
A more involved engagement with the Abstract Expressionism (in particular, Willem de Kooning’s black period of the 1940s) comes in Nils Jendri’s Ying Ying (2022). Jendri has used areas of black-and-white spray paint, partially masked to introduce unsettling optical effects. The patches, similarity of marks and consistent palette of black and white combine to fool the mind and eye. The calligraphic tautness and austerity make this the most rewarding picture in the exhibition.
Moritz Neuhoff’s large canvas of gestural space-filling is the least successful piece here, precisely because it seems preoccupied with the abstract painting of the 1990s and 2000s. It fills space rather than occupying it.
Post-Vandalism gathers a very wide array of artists from many countries, including Germany, France, Italy, the USA, Ukraine and the UK. It may not be a movement but it has real vitality and edge and that alone is valuable. On top of which, the art itself is playful and striking. It makes a strong overall impression, one not of unity but of shared attitudes. Omni is a gallery to keep an eye on.
“People talk about the increased moralism of the Victorian age. What often goes unsaid is that there must have been – and was – quite a lot of decadence and debauchery in the preceding era: the Georgian period. If you want evidence of that depravity, there is no better place to go this winter than the Courtauld Institute, London. Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) spent most of his professional life in London. A figure of controversy – acclaimed a genius, denounced as a madman, dismissed as a technical incompetent – Fuseli was a prominent artist in the Romantic movement.
“Fuseli and the Modern Woman: Fashion, Fantasy, Fetishism (ends 8 January 2023) is the first exhibition of Fuseli’s drawings of women, specifically the modern Georgian-period woman. Fuseli’s women can be depraved but are always elegantly attired. His witches are exquisitely costumed as they participate in unspeakable atrocities that Fuseli never reveals.
“At the heart of the exhibition is Sophia Rawlins (1762/3-1832), the artist’s English wife. When they met, she was already an artist’s model, a shady profession at this time. When they married in 1788, she was 25; he was 47. She continued to pose for him, and it seems they developed a collaborative relationship, with her spending hours on her appearance, at least partly to provide a vision of artificial female beauty for her husband to turn into art.”
“What was going through Denis’s mind as he waited for his friend Francis Bacon to visit his solo exhibition? Trepidation, anticipation, pride? Bacon was an artistic superstar, a fierce wit and notoriously capricious. Denis had been his friend since the 1940s and had a hand in some of Bacon’s best early works. By 1977 Denis’s profile was dwarfed by Bacon’s, and the display of his landscape paintings (in a modest East Anglian venue) was only a small affair. Knowing Bacon’s volatility, Denis must have been a little apprehensive.
From Soho to East Anglia
“The extraordinary life of British painter Denis Wirth-Miller (1915-2010) is like a history of the last century. The new exhibition Denis Wirth-Miller: Landscapes and Beasts (Firstsite, Colchester, 1 October until 22 January 2023) presents the best of his art and sheds light on three remarkable men: Denis Wirth-Miller, Francis Bacon and Richard “Dickie” Chopping, Wirth-Miller’s partner.
“Born in the First World War, Denis worked in textiles and window dressing before following his vocation as a painter. The exhibition includes paintings in Cubist and Neo-Romantic styles from the 1930s and 1940s when he studied alongside Lucian Freud. (They did not get on, then or later.)
“During the Second World War, Wirth-Miller met Chopping, and they became lovers. Despite constant rows – often fuelled by heavy drinking – “Dickie and Denis” remained devoted to each other for the next 60 years. In 2005, they became one of the first gay couples to enter a civil partnership. Chopping was a brilliant illustrator, beloved tutor at the Royal College and sometime novelist. His covers for James Bond novels are still hailed as classics. One layout for a Bond novel jacket is exhibited here…”
“Visitors to the current exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings & Watercolours (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, closes 27 November) will encounter some surprisingly contemporary sides to these Victorian artists. Having affairs, taking drugs, chasing famous actresses, developing new fashion and spending long hours outdoing each other with the most outré interior design, these Victorians were like the denizens of today’s coolest districts.
“The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) were a group of British artists who worked from the 1850s to around 1900 who used different styles that resembled England’s pre-Renaissance (hence “before Raphael”) aesthetic. The throng of artists had varied interests but came together in a loose association as the PRB under the guiding influence of author, art critic and (extremely skilled) amateur artist John Ruskin (1819-1900).
“The works on paper in this Ashmolean’s exhibition are rarely shown due to the light sensitivity of the delicate pieces. The display includes art by all the most well-known of the PRB: Gabriel Dante Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, William Morris, John William Waterhouse, and William Holman Hunt. There are many pieces by less famous artists too, including women…”
“In a dramatic self-portrait, Edvard Munch (1863-1944) stares out at us, looking both grand and cautious. Self-Portrait in the Clinic (1909) was painted while the painter was in a clinic, as he was treated for a nervous breakdown. After years of working strain, public derision, disastrous affairs and heavy drinking, Munch had hallucinations and collapsed. He committed himself to a Danish clinic, where he was one of the first patients to receive electro-convulsive therapy.
The current exhibition Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen at the Courtauld Institute, London (27th May–5th September) shows aspects of the Norwegian artist’s turbulent life. The exhibition includes all Munch’s major genres. These paintings are loaned from a museum in Norway, all collected by Rasmus Meyer.
Meyer knew the artist personally and bought pictures directly from his studio. He selected the best paintings, ones that showcased Munch’s core themes and stages of his development. That provides an ideal selection for this small exhibition (only 20 paintings), which distils the essence of the Norwegian genius…”
The exhibition Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty (Dulwich Picture Gallery, 11 September 2021-18 April 2022) displays in the UK for the first time the woodcuts of Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), on the tenth anniversary of her death.
During the 1950s-70s there was a boom in American printmaking, especially in the fields of lithography, screenprinting and etching. The development of new techniques and the rise of styles that were well matched to printmaking (Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism, geometric abstraction) all contributed to a golden age of Late Modernist printmaking. Woodcuts – aside from the related wood engravings, which also had a lesser revival – did not receive much attention but for a painter who always responded strongly to the surface qualities of her supports, Frankenthaler realised the potential of woodcuts. In the use of plates which displayed grain, Frankenthaler saw an equivalence between the grain of canvas (usually cotton duck) and the more irregular and organic grain of the wood block. Additionally, she was used to staining canvases irregularly and these wash, tide or drying edges resemble the swaying swoops of woodgrain. Nature had ready prepared her supports for her.
Tatyana Grosman of Universal Limited Art Editions, New York introduced Frankenthaler to the experience of making woodcut prints in 1973. She would go on to make 29 editioned woodcut prints. Kenneth Tyler of Tyler Graphics, New York proved to be the perfect collaborator for Frankenthaler, expanding the scope and ambition of Frankenthaler as a printmaker. The large size of Freefall (1993) (199 x 153 cm) and its delicately graduated inking providing an intense ultramarine void at its centre, would have been beyond the ability of less experienced printmakers. The graduated colour comes from Japanese woodblock prints, the abrasions to the plate partly come from Surrealism and pre-war abstract art. The use of jigsaw plates for different colours, each revealing the grain of the wood (it would been possible to use cross-cut wood, which would not have displayed grain) inevitably evokes the radical woodcuts of Edvard Munch. However, Munch printed his proofs in one pull with the separately inked blocks assembled, whereas Frankenthaler had her colours separately applied, each carefully registered to make sure the blocks were in position. Munch was not perturbed by the inevitably outlines with no ink that bounded each block. For Frankenthaler, the joints had to be crisp or deliberately overlapping to generate composite colours. Munch’s aesthetic is primal and figurative; Frankenthaler’s is reflective and abstract. Munch reused blocks until they wore out, becoming distressed. (Against standard practice, Munch used to weather his paintings by placing them outside to remove their newness by introducing fading, cracking, staining.)
The exhibition includes finished impressions and some test proofs, along with a couple of paintings. The prints vary in effectiveness. The earliest print is East and Beyond (1973), an 8-colour print which beautifully combined the large organic swatches of delicate colour with slivers and nodes of more intense hues. They work well on the Nepalese handmade paper, with its organic fragments complimenting the grain of the wood. Machine-made paper, especially stark white, often has a deadening or sterilising effect on art. The gentle natural tinting of the paper allows the print to rest easily, whereas a harsh white would fix the edges more, acting as a sharp (almost reproving) demarcation. Similarly, inside the prints, lightly inked plates with fine grain act like veils or muslin, with connotations of delicacy. The weakness of wood – the cracks and splintering – add a human element of flaws and of individual character in a way that the regularity of cotton duck and dilute acrylic paint do not. A certain obduracy obtains and Frankenthaler’s art benefits thereby. Had Frankenthaler ever tackled stone carving, she would have faced such flaws and strengths and had to adapt herself to these qualities. Frankenthaler does seem at her best when she has to negotiate or struggle, which is why her woodcuts are even more rewarding than her paintings.
Essence Mulberry (1977) shows a sequence of trial proofs where artist experimented with colour combinations. The edition itself incorporated blank space at the bottom of the elongated vertical-format sheet. Tales of Genji I and II (1998) are less successful. The introduction of graphic lines is a mistake as they are too assertive and intrusive. III is very much more effective, lacking that graphic intervention and relying much more on modulation of intense colour. IV and V are compromises between the two compositions, prettier, more detached in character. Radius (1993) feels both inconsequential and too self-consciously made, redolent of performance. The Grove (1991) and The Clearing (1991) are rougher, closer to Munch, not aiming to please or delight or dazzle. Freefall (1993) is a showstopper, a grand spectacle both visually and technically impressive.
Madame Butterfly (2000) required 46 blocks, producing 102 colours in an extended printing process that required one year. It straddles Abstract Expressionism, Colour-Field Painting and the Aesthetic Movement. Whistler’s japonaiserie and limpid smoky evocations of water and sky are not too far distant from Frankenthaler’s expansive print, composed of three sheets assembled. It has a landscape format and (like many of her woodcuts) evokes the landscape. Japanese Maple (2005) conjures a landscape in its dark central form lying horizontal in a horizontally oriented sheet, with the suggestion of a reflection of mountains on placid water. Madame Butterfly is shown in a room with the original painting on plywood that inspired that painting and a working proof, adjusted by the artist. The final print is beautiful and a fitting end to the exhibition. Personally, I feel Geisha (2003) (23 colours from 15 blocks) surpasses it by a touch, due to its compactness and the vivid conjunction of yellow and crimson. It has a firmness not found in the paintings. The quasi-knotholes act as motifs in disguise, while the jagged parapets do Clyfford Still-style work, imparting a rugged grandiosity to the print. This was made with Yasuyuki Shibata at Pace Editions, who had participated in the creation of Madame Butterfly at Tyler’s workshop. It would be the print I would most like to live with.
The collaborative process and the lengthy indirect means by which the proofs came into being – and came into being piecemeal in a highly artificial manner – was quite different to Frankenthaler’s painting. Most Colour-Field and Abstract Expressionist painting is direct, with material being added or covered over in a sequential, direct and spontaneous manner. It is alla prima and it is observable as it is made. Print-making is highly organised, indirect, slow, technical, sometimes working through composite means which cannot intuitively understood during the making process. Printmaking is also conceptual, because it requires artist, master printmaker and technicians to envisage something that does not exist and cannot be made directly. Shapes are inverted, colour and tonal values reversed, stencils are used for their negative space not positive space and so forth. It requires thinking ahead and deducing from that projection the steps that will be required. The fact that Frankenthaler managed these challenges shows her versatility and her ability to work in collaboration with technicians, a system that required accepting as well as giving advice and responding to technical difficulties. Few Abstract Expressionists and Colour-Field painters made good prints, probably due to these issues.
In a different room, Frankenthaler’s acrylic painting Feather (1979) is paired with Claude Monet’s Water Lilies and Agapanthus (c. 1916-7), lent from Musée Marmottan, Paris. The Frankenthaler canvas does seem a legitimate successor (or offspring) of the Impressionist expanse of colour holding painting motifs. It is an intelligent comparison, out of which Frankenthaler emerges unscathed. Both paintings benefit from the encounter.
Sometimes in Frankenthaler’s paintings there is problematic disjuncture of the stained surface and the impasto paint. These often conflict visually and physically. It is as if one is trying to understand a poem written in two different languages, both of which the audience speaks but one tongue is more comfortable for each member. One comprehends both the physically distant ethereal staining and physically assertive tangible impasto, but seeing them together forces the viewer to switch between these modes in a way that can be difficult or require conscious effort. This is not the case with art by Mark Tobey or Jackson Pollock, where areas of stain and impasto are broken up into pattern, thus dissolving the boundary between ground and motif, staining and impasto. The regularity of the fat paint (vis a vis the lean paint) forms a net, which acts a totalising device, making any single impasto mark uninformative and not singly significant. With Frankenthaler (and Feather is a good example of this), motifs or marks over the ground retain significance. They are large enough and small enough to act as devices and are given space to gain attention; they are not part of a surface covering repetition. This is probably the single greatest obstacle to the acceptance and enjoyment of Frankenthaler’s painting, even though individual viewers might not understand why they do not feel as at home with a Frankenthaler compared to a Lee Krasner Little Image painting or a painting by Pollock or Tobey (or Sam Francis, in his early classic style).
In the woodcut prints, this inherent tension between ground and motif in Frankenthaler’s painting is resolved. The applied ground and motif – and intermediary areas of expansive motifs or shapes – are all on the surface in the prints. Ground and motif have the same optical qualities and density and they lie flatly on surface of the paper. Absorption of applied pigment into the support does not occur, so there is no ambiguity between applied pigment and pre-existing support. In the prints, there is no recession, with pigment mingling with the material of the canvas (or, in this case, paper). Hence, there is no division between the visual qualities of stain and impasto, ground and motif and therefore no need for viewers to struggle assimilating different pictorial and optical languages. This sense of completeness, of containment and parity between elements in a Frankenthaler woodcut makes them easier viewing than her paintings; for some, this make the woodcuts better art than her paintings.
The exhibition is carefully designed, lit and set out, the catalogue is informative and the video presentation is to the point and not intrusive visually or aurally. Best of all, the art is often beautiful and sometimes genuinely great – comparable to the best works in the genre by artists of different eras, traditions and countries. This exhibition is open until April next year and is highly recommended.
Edit: To read my perspective on the interaction between female artists, feminism, the art market and art criticism/history, read my book “Women and Art: A Post-Feminist View”. Details given here.
“I once lived in Belgium by mistake. I moved into a flat in Ixelles, a district of central Brussels, and spent my free time in museums, where I encountered art by remarkable artists of whom I had never heard. Among these artists were two who are receiving current attention: Fernand Khnopff and Léon Spilliaert.
“Symbolism is a late manifestation of Romanticism, the movement dedicated to the irrational, mystical and emotional in art. Symbolism (which flourished from 1840-1914) was an approach which allowed artists to deal with fundamental fears, desires and the meaning of human life through use of general symbols to induce strong emotions in the audience. Both Symbolism and Romanticism were founded on morbidity — a hyperawareness of death and the brevity of life — and a sense of loss at a receding past of heroism. The greatest Symbolists came from Northern Europe (and Switzerland), as if a hostile climate and long cold nights nurture a melancholy attachment to a fantastic past…”
The current London exhibition of David Inshaw (b. 1943) (Redfern Gallery, London, 9 October-29 November 2019) brings together 35 oil paintings, 3 large drawings and a suite of new etchings. Much of the imagery is familiar but there are some new departures. Most of the paintings are of Inshaw’s native Wiltshire and West Country (including Berkshire) and dwell on the downs, farmland, copses and Stone Age earthworks of the region. His Wiltshire Monument (2018) is a statement of intent. It combines disparate motifs from the landscape combined in an artificial yet plausible manner, juxtaposing features prehistorical and C19th with a bonfire, oblongs of baled hay and a patchwork of fields under a sharp blue sky. It is well chosen as the cover for the catalogue (Andrew Lambirth, Redfern Gallery, 2019, £10). Silbury Hill appears in several compositions. Paul Nash’s influence is apparent in the handling of motifs such as barrows, copses and views of downs at sunset, but not intrusively so.
Engine House, Botallack (2018) is a beautiful essay in tonal modulation, Vermeer-like in its evocation of exact visual phenomena noted in painterly shorthand which implies more than it describes. The patterning of the ruined stone wall and vegetation beneath work respectively as zones of loose and tight pattern, the former non-directional in character, the latter directional in character (brisk as hatching in a pencil sketch). These areas impart tension and energy in what is a static composition. The cerulean against the ochre sings, with the cool hue wrapping around the block of warm earth hue. It is the great invention of the exhibition and will leave painters jealous of Inshaw’s skills as painter and composer of pictures.
Another outstanding work is Wansdyke and Landscape (2016). This is a tour de force of painterly skill. The scumbling of light ochre over burnt umber ground evokes stubble, dry grass and ripe wheat. The scumbled dyke banks form a tawny pelt – feline even. They describe the animal qualities of topography. This is similar to Degas’s monotype landscapes worked with pastel, within which the features of the landscape are made analogous to human anatomy. The combination of foliage greens, raw earth colours and cerulean sky is Inshaw’s most felicitous palette selection. It is one which accurately and plangently captures the English countryside. However, the compression and high horizon make this painting positively Balthusian, with Balthus having taken these compositional devices from Japanese landscapes in woodblock prints. The catalogue illustration does not do full justice to this painting.
Elsewhere common motifs of fireworks, tents and the chalk White Horse are represented. Paintings of birds and cats provide thematic range. There is a painting of Clyro, Wales, where the artist lived in the mid-1990s. It is recognisable to Inshaw followers by the yellow pussy willow. Dating from 1995, this is the earliest painting here, with almost all of the work coming from the last decade and particularly from the last couple of years. It is heartening that so most of the strongest paintings come from recent years, showing Inshaw to be sustaining his invention and attention. The decision to exclude paintings which feature figures prominently is a judicious one in a selection of this sacle. Some of the paintings of small size, which works well in the more enclosed gallery spaces and suggest how these paintings would appear in a domestic setting. Concentrating on the landscape – with a few of animals, trees and buildings – gives the exhibition a pleasing consistency even if it limits an appreciation of Inshaw’s full range and taste.
All of the pictures are in square format. I demure from Andrew Lambirth’s observation in the catalogue about Inshaw’s habitual use of the square format. Far from being “a shape often associated with harmony and serenity” – something which is true in a decorative context – the square is actually an unstable format, which is why it was never used by the ancients or Old Masters. The origin of the Golden Section is the knowledge that the human brain has a preference for mildly asymmetrical formats, which allows the mind to anchor itself to the dominant axis. This gives a sense of “rightness” to a type of imagery in a format of a certain ratio. Hence a vertical landscape (or a very narrow panorama) feels “off” or discordant. In a square format (also the tondo (circular) format, albeit to a lesser degree), the untethered gaze wanders and feels homeless without a dominant axis. Contrary to Lambirth, I would say that Inshaw’s use of the square format for landscape – something that Klimt pioneered – is evidence of his assertive modernity as a picture maker (along with his montage compositions).
Three large drawings of mature trees as single motifs are a departure for the artist. Inshaw has selected large sheets of paper for these and applied a light loosely brushed wash of colour to cut the glare of the brilliant white paper. Inshaw’s exhibition of drawings has been slight over recent decades even though his elaborate full-composition sketches made in preparation for his paintings on the 1970s produced many striking and satisfying drawings. Inshaw is a sensitive draughtsman, whose eye is informed by his painting experience. The modelling, dense blocks of tone, patterning and dramatic fades all come from painting. They resemble the nature studies of Caspar David Friedrich, CC Dahl and the Nazarenes, though whether or not Inshaw modelled his approach on their or simply reached a convergence independently is not clear. These tree drawings (each at 122 x 122 cm) are impressive, sustained efforts and appealing but they lack something compared to the drawings of the 1970s. An emphatic outline? Anchoring within deep pictorial space? Exactly what is missing is hard to identify and it may just be a matter of personal taste.
Inshaw turns his preferences into competencies – or vice versa. His taste for local over atmospheric (or reflected) colour works well in most of these paintings. Sunset from Silbury Hill (2019) shows Inshaw breaking from this to use atmospheric recession in an achromatic landscape. Vale of Pewsey (2019) is less effective. Whether or not the reflection on the underside of the band of cloud is was so exactly similar to the greens of the land below when Inshaw observed it, the resultant effect in the painting is unpleasant and distracting. In Dorset Snow II (2018; ex cat.), a ruddy sunset sky surmounts a dim landscape of hedges and snowclad fields composed in dull blues and charcoal. Some may find the striking dichotomy between warm sky and cool earth too strong. Could a few touches of reflected colour on the snow have leavened and harmonised the painting, even at the cost of pure realism? For whatever reasons, Inshaw’s skies of red and orange seem to work less well than the skies of cerulean or midnight blue.
Let us hope we soon have a chance to see a selection of Inshaw’s best work over his whole career in a full retrospective at a major venue. Inshaw is the only living British painter of our era working in the figurative tradition who is deserving of such attention.
[Image: Rembrandt, Jan Lutma, goldsmith (1656), etching]
To mark the 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt (1606-1669), the Holburne Museum, Bath is hosting an exhibition of Rembrandt etchings (4 October 2019-5 January 2020). All 50 of the exhibited prints are from the Ashmolean Museum collection, Oxford. The turquoise walls and spotlighting create an air of drama within the single gallery housing this exhibition. The impressions are good and not disfigured by collector stamps. The range is also representative, though the more earthy subjects are largely omitted from the Ashmolean collection. Alongside his Biblical and mythological scenes, self-portraits, portraits and landscapes, it has oddities such as an impression of the 1650 etching of a sea shell, Rembrandt’s only still-life in print form.
Rembrandt was an unusually experimental printmaker. He stands alongside Callot, Seghers, Degas and Picasso in his drive to reshape the parameters of his field’s possibilities in order to accommodate his artistic ambitions. Rembrandt began his career as an artist at a time when certain eras were ending and others beginning. He used silverpoint just as it became an anachronistic material and fell into disuse. He became a printmaker as a time when engraving was being supplanted by etching for artists, while engraving continued to be favoured for copyist print cutters for reproduction prints. Rembrandt favouring etching, using its flexible and correctable form as a kind of drawing with the looseness of sketching but the potential to be built up in elaborations that generate chiaroscuro similar to wash-drawings. This search for darkness was aided by the use of drypoint, which could be periodically reworked as it got worn down through repeated passes through the press. He used etching as a form of drawing not due to ignorance of the medium’s capacities but with the intention of expanding what was done with the medium. In Rembrandt’s prints we find use of hatching, crosshatching, contour shading and silhouette and contre-jour effects. In pursuit of these effects, the artists pushed printmaking to its limits by combining etching, drypoint and engraving. In prints we find dense blackness that is effectively a mezzotint avant la lettre. In pursuit of the effect and the evocation of emotion, Rembrandt reaches for any tool, any method.
The grandeur of Rembrandt’s expanses of darkness – his shadowy rooms, billowing thunderclouds at dusk and stygian night – is matched by daintiness of needle lines and minute details. The latter remind us directly of why full-time print cutters had short careers, curtailed by damaged eyesight. The museum has provided several looking glasses to aid visitors in appreciating the fine work.
One innovation of Rembrandt was the use of multiple sketches on single plates. Among sketches of peasants is an unrelated view of Rembrandt’s wife ill in bed, perhaps with the tuberculosis that killed her a few later. It is possible to describe Rembrandt as a point of origin for autobiographical art, that is, when the private life of the artist intrudes into the public art (as opposed to the private sketching). It inaugurated the aesthetics of incompleteness – something that we can find Rops fetishising in his own printed sketches.
The portrait of Jan Cornelius Sylvius, preacher (1646) has the subject reaching through his framing oval towards the viewer. It is typical of the painting style of the time, with its play of verisimilitude and deception. So universal is Rembrandt’s art, it is possible to overlook how much of an artist of his time he was. The illusionism and trompe-l’oeil tricks were very current in Dutch Seventeenth Century painting. When we encounter them in Rembrandt’s art, we might wonder why such a master of narration and emotional nuance was engaging in trite or ignoble attention-grabbing eye-deceiving viewer-impressing strategies.
The realistic nudes and one erotic mythological scene are placed on a pink-beige wall. (A symbolic choice?) The realistic nudes break new ground by showing models with few or no attributes as characters. Thus we have the advent of the nude as nude in art for consumption by the public – albeit a rarefied, discreet public of print connoisseurs. No longer does the nude have to be a character from history or the Bible. Caravaggio had previously painted nudes that were realistic but grounded in canon and artists had drawn for reference unsparing nudes but these were not public. Rembrandt’s nudes have canon set aside and assume their places as subjects of human interest.
The frankness of the nudes is verisimilitude and humane – recognising the weaknesses and imperfections of the body. It is also related to carnality. The erotic scenes (Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, Monk in a Cornfield, Lit à la française and two plates of Jupiter and Antiope) are as honest about the artist and viewer’s sexual curiosity as it is about the physical impulses of characters in the pictures. The desire and abandon we see depicted is also a reflection of our own weaknesses. Rembrandt’s nudes and erotic scenes are carnal mirrors. The exhibition includes Jupiter and Antiope, larger plate (1659) is an etching with engraving for emphasis and drypoint for shading. Jupiter gazes as Antiope’s crotch with undisguised fascination.
There are a few of Rembrandt’s many self-portraits, an uncommon genre in printmaking at that period. Rembrandt plays the role of Rembrandt-as: Rembrandt-as-gentleman-of-yesteryear, Rembrandt-as-actor, Rembrandt-as-businessman, Rembrandt-as-brooding-prophet, Rembrandt-as-husband, Rembrandt-as-artist, Rembrandt-as-everyman. A wall of portraits shows the market impetus behind the making of prints. Some are of notable figures who would have bought copies and of whom people could have been expected to buy portraits. The print of Jan Lutma, goldsmith (1656) is typical of Rembrandt’s male portraits: detailed, atmospheric, grand yet also reflective. Some portraits, like The Great Jewish Bride (1635), seem to have been of emblematic archetypes which would have been of interest to scholars, collectors and educated men with historical, literary and ethnographical curiosity. This is true of the heads of Orientals (not in exhibition). Jan Uytenbogaert, the Goldweigher (1639) is more of a genre scene or interior than a portrait. The subject is wearing his finest clothing (or perhaps a selection of Rembrandt’s grandest costumes?), seated at his desk, the balance before him, gold in small cloth bags. His assistant is crouched at his feet, packing the bags into caskets.
The Flight into Egypt, altered from Seghers (c. 1653) adapts a plate already used by Hercules Seghers (c. 1653). The landscape has been retained but the figures by Seghers were burnished away and new figures added. (Rembrandt also did this with an oil painting by Seghers.) Another Flight into Egypt (1651) is as dark as a mezzotint with its drypoint tonal scratching. (The blur of drypoint ink is like the bled quality of wetted water-soluble ink. This is most apparent in the lightly worked topographic views around Amsterdam.) The iconic landscape Three Trees (1643) is the most powerful, tonally dramatic and pictorially deep composition. It embodies the greatness of Dutch landscape painting of the Seventeenth Century in a small etching of only black and white.
[Image: Rembrandt, Three Trees (1643), etching]
The first state of Christ presented to the people, oblong plate (1655) is the version with the figures in the foreground. Masterfully presented as the crowd is, Rembrandt realised that it detracted from the focus upon Christ, so he removed it in the second state. It is one of his few drypoint-only prints. St. Jerome reading an Italian landscape (c. 1654) shows Rembrandt’s familiarity with Italian art. It remains unfinished but we must come to understand this as a stylistic and conceptual step in the artist’s thinking. As the sketch montages were a demonstration of the fragmentary as an aesthetic proposition, so prints such as St Jerome are an assertion of the unfinished aesthetic. Whereas Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi was appreciated for its unfinished quality, it was understood at the time as an incomplete picture. In the Rembrandt etchings, the premature halting of a picture is the preservation of the open quality that an unfinished picture has.
The exhibition is a good survey of Rembrandt’s prints. It does not include alternate proofs or proofs of different states of plates, so one could call this a layman’s display rather than an art-historical display. There is no dedicated exhibition catalogue but a catalogue of Ashmolean’s Rembrandt’s prints is available at the venue.
Henri Matisse: Master of Line (4 October 2019-5 January 2020) is the accompanying exhibition of a collection of prints of the 1920s and 1930s, mainly from the collection of London dealer Paul Kasmin. Most of the etchings are of female figures and portraits. Matisse does not consistently hit the target with his etchings in the way he does with his paintings. Unable to significantly revise the etchings the way he habitually did with the paintings, the etchings have the precariousness of ink drawings – linear, spare, fast and uncorrectable. There are some fine prints here and it is well worth spending time with this complementary exhibition.