JJ at the RA

Last weekend we visited the vast retrospective exhibition of Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

“One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work” – Jasper Johns 2006. Part of this quote has been used as a subtitle for the exhibition “Something resembling truth.”

It’s been said about his work, the American flags, targets and numbers amongst them, that as he didn’t have to design them, he could move beyond that in his paintings, as these were images that the mind already knew, it gave him room to work on other deeper levels. It certainly made you want to take a closer look at his work, to explore the surfaces and textures of the paintings, and to see what has got entrenched in them, as he worked. This in turn affects what you get out of them by looking.

261117 - JJ1“I am interested in the idea of sight, in the use of the eye, I am interested in how we see and why we see the way we do.” – Jasper Johns 1969. This is not just the mechanics of seeing that he is talking about, but also at the psychological level. I must admit, it took me 10 minutes looking at various versions of the American flags to realise that the number of stars varied in them. Doh! This is probably because I had it in my head that I already knew what the Stars and Stripes looked like, so I didn’t actually have to take in what I was looking at – not a straight copy – but a lot more besides. That thick textured encaustic medium that he uses, it seems to be so versatile in it’s uses. Wonderful – perhaps I ought to investigate it.

I’ve included above a little drawing I did a couple of years ago. It is not a copy of anything that Jasper Johns did (you’d probably already guessed that), but it is the closest I have. Perhaps you could view it as a take on one of his Target paintings if you wanted, or an eye, or the centre of a sunflower, or lots of bubbles on the surface of some water. Whatever you want really, I will leave it up to you to see what you want. Your eye will see it differently to mine. The only thing I would say is that I won’t be repeating the exercise – It was so very tedious to do, but once started I forced myself to finish.

This retrospective is a big exhibition with so many great things to take in. I loved the large cast aluminium “Numbers” from 2007, that not only has the various textures of the repetitive numbers, and their backgrounds, but also within the sheen you can see newspaper text coming through. So much to look at, oh and there is the impression of a foot at the top of the picture – the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham has left his mark.

Then there is the series of cross-hatching paintings called “Between the Clock and the Bed” with the obvious reference to Edvard Munch’s painting of the same name, and the pictorial cross hatching used on the bedspread. This examines the passage of time from birth to death with you stuck somewhere in between the two. (As a complete aside, I googled inbetween as I wasn’t sure whether to put that, or in-between, or in between, and this was number 1 in the charts: “You grow old and die anyway. And then there is everything you have to endure in between/inbetween: grief, loneliness, sickness” – that was courtesy of http://www.ellstackexchange.com. Munch (and Johns?) would have loved that!)

Nearby there was a much smaller pastel drawing, basically solid black with the name TENNYSON spelt out at the bottom. Although the exhibition doesn’t mention it, this for me again links Johns with Munch, echoing the lithographs “Self-portrait with skeleton arm” or even more strikingly the portrait of “August Strindberg”, or “STINDBERG” as Munch had originally misspelt it, before correcting it at a later stage. Jasper Johns’ picture doesn’t depict anyone, instead he leaves it in the mind of the viewer to either come up with their own image, or perhaps to conjure up some of Tennyson’s poetry from the great storehouse of their memory.

261117 - JJ2I would wind up this review of a great exhibition (which I have merely touched upon), by sharing my thoughts on a series of states of the Aquatint called “Regrets” (16 of them in total) on display in the last room, which come from an old photograph of Lucien Freud commissioned by Francis Bacon. Wonderful as they are and great to see the progression, I must return to earlier rooms to see some works that depict the cosmos above us, a late Untitled painting from 2016 clearly depicts the Big Dipper or Ursa Major if you prefer. The only reason for taking you back here is for the selfish reason to finish up with 2 further sketches of my own from 2015. The first was drawn rapidly on a freezing clear morning before dawn which showed a magnificent line up of the Moon, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter all in a row. You can’t get much better than that, and you have to take the opportunity to sketch them when you can. I make no apologies for the roughness of this, it just shows the immediacy of the spectacle.

The second sketch drawn a few days later shows as it says the moon trying to break through some cloud. A failure it suggests (try again), but I can’t remember if that referred to the drawing (probably), or the moon (unlikely), or both. I think I will leave that up to you to decide. It could be that “one hopes for something, resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.”

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Chocolate teapots in the studio

Way up in the attic of the Royal Academy of Arts in London at the moment is a studio I wanted to visit, although I wasn’t sure if the artist was going to be at home or not.

First possible mistake: I took the frosted glass stairway up. This was disorientating to my aging eyes and I took a step that wasn’t there much to the amusement of the children who nimbly followed me up. I bet the Queen took the lift when she opened the Sackler Wing in 1991. Sensible girl!

The front door was open, and in we went – Matisse in the Studio. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this exhibition; I knew that it tried to marry up Matisse’s work with the various objects that he acquired and he used as props that appeared, and re-appeared, in his paintings and sculpture throughout his life. Immediately I am confronted with a green vase – with it’s hands on hips. What is it I want? I could see it was slightly contorted in it’s hand-blown (mouth-blown / hand-made) state. It wasn’t my eyes, or Matisse’s, or necessarily the way he depicted it – it really was like that. Green vases, all with hands on hips, looked back at me from the walls. Although more of them, they had lost their aggressiveness, I saw through them, and marvelled at the art instead.

The rooms that followed were arranged by themes: The Object as Actor; The Nude in juxtaposition with African Sculpture; The Face with Masks; The Studio as Theatre; and the last room was Signs where the late cut-outs adorn the walls in a triumph of colour and shape overseen by a Chinese calligraphic panel given to Matisse by his wife. You can see the link.

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Matisse’s Chocolate Pot

But, having moved around the rooms I sneak back past the green vase, who’s attention had been diverted by other visitors. The star of this show is undoubtedly the Chocolate Pots in the Object is an Actor room, and to mis-quote Bob Dylan: ” There is no actor anywhere better than the Chocolate Pot!” So much so, Matisse has 2 of them! Perhaps one was an understudy for when the principal was ill. A more likely story, is the first was a wedding present from his first marriage, and as that marriage disintegrated the first Mrs Matisse understandably held onto this Chocolate Pot, and Matisse full of bereavement and loss had to replace it. What beautiful objects they are! The wonderful large bulbous pot-belly of the silver supported on 3 tiny legs that don’t look strong enough for the job. The spout to pour the frothy hot chocolate out (you have to imagine the contents), and a lid to flip up and peer in (if you were allowed – hence imagination required). Best of all though is this great wooden appendage of an arm that sticks out perpendicular to the whole contraption. The pot must be hot I guess, and this is to aid the picking up and pouring. Matisse’s depictions of this are manifold. An early predecessor of the cut-outs on the wall next to the pots shows how it got moved about, and eventually, literally, pinned down in position as shown finally in the painting “Still Life with Seashell on Black Marble” on the wall by it’s side. My attention was more drawn to a small insignificant colour chart on show where dowsed with various colours the coffee pot appeared several times upstaging simple sketches of herons that also appear rather bizarrely. What a delight. It is great to see these snippets that show how the artist is really thinking.

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Our Teapot

This exhibition that focuses on the sources for Matisse’s work, does ultimately depress me when thinking about my own work. In Matisse’s time, it wasn’t that long ago, mass production was not at the forefront of everything. There was not the straight-lined perfection of some machine, but hand produced objects that had character and love already built into them with their imperfections and wonkiness that captured your heart. When I got home I looked at our teapot. I drew our teapot. It wasn’t the same. “About as useless as a chocolate teapot” as the saying goes, but that would be far better than what we have. Perhaps I need to start searching the second-hand shops and auction rooms (and chocolate shops!) for my own objects to train up as actors and appear in my artistic dramas.


Egg, Exbury Egg, Uncle Tom cobnuts and all…

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 081017 - Wood pigeon eggI think autumn is definitely here now that we can go foraging for cobnuts. They have really beautiful seasonal colour (he says giving you a drawing in black and white – how did we survive before colour TV?) with the green only being glimpsed between the yellows, oranges and browns of the foliage.

For some inextricable reason a wood pigeon (at least I think it was a wood pigeon) decided to place an egg bang in the middle of our garden path as well. So pure, and beautiful with such a delicate lustre. Although bit of a stupid bird to 081017 - Exbury Egg Drawinghave dumped it there.

All this back to nature stuff, really brings me on to a real down to earth and great bit of rustic art from Stephen Turner who did a residency living in the small capsule of the Exbury Egg which spent over a year floating on the Beaulieu river. Since then it has gone on tour around various locations in the UK before ending up at it’s last mooring place, outside the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, where we came across it. I felt privileged in having the chance to climb up the little ladder and enter this Aladdin’s cave full of gems. I don’t know why, but it seemed much bigger on the inside than the outside. Dr. Who has a new Tardis! The egg 081017 - Exbury Eggfeatured a bed, kitchen, shower room, a tiny stove, and a work area. There was also a skylight above and as well as the 2 doorways, it had a peephole when Stephen could spy on the wildlife around him.

As the accompanying exhibition “everything comes from the egg” showed, Stephen Turner really interacted with the environment around him, including making dies, charcoal, clothes and garnering food from the local habitat as much as possible. Really going back to nature and looking at sustainability within this increasing urban world. As well as a larder of food and clothing, there are a lot of packaging items reused to make artwork, and some very small exquisite eggs made out of natural materials found around the egg, including one made of feathers. Wherever the Exbury Egg is the artist also interacted with the community making new collaborative works; this seems to go hand in hand with being at one with the surroundings.

I am waffling on too long. The links to Stephen Turner’s blog posts of his egg residency, and the website of the touring exhibition explain it all much better than I can. So I leave you with them.

Purple kohlrabi, Quentin Blake and me.

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I thought I would put a big startling image to start with to wake you up! This one is drawn using Conte crayons.

Jane brought this lively looking character back from the farm shop today, and I just had to draw it. The knobbly bits on top looked like numerous goggly eyes, and the light slashes where the leaves had been removed took on mouths, smiling, sneering, smirking. This guy just had to sit for me and have his portrait taken.

In some ways, having drawn it, I realise that it has vague similarities to either Dennis the Menace’s Gnasher from The Beano, or the wonderful:

011017 - Huge head on wheels

featuring in the Quentin Blake exhibition: “The Only Way to Travel” that is currently on at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings. (Actually, the image above is a bit I copied from the margin of the wonderful quirky ink drawing of the same name and is, relatively speaking, quite small.)

In this exhibition, Quentin has done some really massive brushed drawings (where did he get that size paper!), that cover complete walls of the gallery, which you literally have to walk quite a few paces to get from one end to the other; a journey in itself. The title gives a theme of getting from A to B and allows for the artist to give full rein to his imagination. There are lots of Heath Robinson-esque contraptions or vehicles / animals / planes (or more accurately flying machines) / and birds to transport us around in.

I mentioned Heath Robinson, but perhaps there is a myriad of influences that seems to underlie Blake’s drawings here: Salvador Dali comes to mind with the elongated legs or crutches that appear regularly; there are some very free drawings where ink is dripped and swung over the paper that nod to Jackson Pollock. Perhaps the most dominant feature is a lack of features, especially with the smaller framed drawings with deliciously coloured suns, here we have wasted landscapes where nothing appears to grow, trees are mere stumps, and in one picture we have refugees huddled, wandering aimlessly, looking for a place to call home. Stand up Paul Nash and his World War pictures. I also think that WALL-E from the Disney-Pixar film of the same name would have fitted in well here looking amongst the rubble for signs of life.

Quentin Blake’s long career has given people of all ages great joy, and I hope that the crutches and vulture like birds, that appear in several of these works, is not an omen that things are about to come to a catastrophic end.

011017 - Quentin Blake - The only way to travel

Portrait of Portraits – a lesson from the masters

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As it was the last weekend of the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and I was in London, I thought I would sneak in and take a look. To be honest, I’m glad it was free of charge to enter, as not a lot grabbed my attention. I get bored of the super-enlarged photo-realism pictures that seem to be a common occurrence at these shows over recent times; admire the technique, but the imagination and creativity seem to be severely lacking. Most of the other work seemed to be paintings. Just paintings – nothing else, they lacked the feeling, the essence, and the true soul of the sitter. A couple of the smaller more intimate works had much more going for them than the 2m giants by their side. But it’s not saying much, and I don’t want to linger here any longer. Where is the exit?

I moved on and paid my money to delve into the past, an exhibition with the epic film-like title of “The Encounter” (cue dramatic music). This is wonderful! The subtitle: “Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt” hints at what to expect. In truth, there is only one figure study by the big L, and one sheet of studies by Rembrandt, which are great in their own right, but this isn’t what the exhibition is really about. I assume that by shoving these two heavyweight names to the forefront it will draw the punters in, but it wasn’t as crowded as the BP Portrait Awards – more fool them.

The real theme of the exhibition was the relationship of the artist sitting in front of the sitter and the interaction between the two of them. Were they relaxed, or tense? Was the occasion formal or informal? Did the two of them get on? The period of time that the exhibition covers is also significant. The advent of freely available paper in all it’s forms (some of a wonderful colour – see Durer) led to a loosening up of the artist’s abilities allowing images to be created quickly, simply, and at little cost. They could be used as studies for the artist’s apprentices, or as preparatory work for bigger commissions, and finished oil paintings. Throughout this exhibition, you feel that there is a real dialogue between the two antagonists, artist and subject, a spark of energy that fizzles and cracks to and fro. Sadly, I didn’t feel this with any of the BP Award works next door.

Between the bookends of Leonardo and Rembrandt are a host of other gems to be seen. Her Majesty the Queen has lent a whole royal household of drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger that really shows a connection with the various sitters. Their eyes meeting the artists gaze, or alternatively, definitely averting the eyes to avoid contact – what is going on there? The sitters supremely confident, used to the attentive gaze of the portrait artist, or nervous and shy in having their likeness depicted. Some drawings were evidently more quickly laid down, whilst others are laid down with great care and accuracy. Attention to detail.

The portrait of Giulio Pedrizzano: The lutenist Mascheroni (why don’t they have easier names!) by Annibale Carracci is simple, but very arresting; his stare just won’t let you go. I’m not surprised that this picture was chosen to adorn the poster for the exhibition.

Domenico Beccafumi (come on now – who dreams these up!) has done us a wonderful self-portrait the broad dense hatching and beautiful colour looks superbly modern, and belies it’s near 500 years of age (dated c.1525) only given away by the paper and the wash of other designs on the verso of the sheet (it was originally a sketchbook) that have seeped through.

My personal favourite though, is the small oval portrait by Filippino Lippi of “Man wearing a cap, probably Mino Da Fiesole.” This is drawn in metalpoint with white heightening on a prepared paper of a neutral colour. Vigorous lines, expressive handling, and great sense of tonal values gives this man a staggering gravitas that really pulled me in (again and again! – I had to keep returning to it) – wow!

Not a massive exhibition, but truly awe-inspiring stuff from some true masters that really does show the modern pretenders how it should be done.