Places of the Mind is the formal title of this exhibition. Having said that I don't often go to the British Museum I have in fact been there quite a few times in reason weeks. One of the reasons is to see this free exhibition of British Watercolours. It is located on one of the top floors, accessed from the back and the top of the central Rotunda.
When you think of British Watercolours you think of the image above right? Well it is both true and not true as this exhibition shows, and I with my poor grainy photographs will try to summarise for you.
The British museum has quite an extensive Watercolour collection, of which I suspect this is a small sample and the exhibition, as you might expect takes you through some of these chronologically. There are three good sized rooms dedicated to these works and probably over 150 pictures. I am not nearly so helpful so will merely display my favourites.
Wistful slightly murky scenes attract me as the two above by Samuel Palmer and Edward Poynter respectively. A similar subject treated in quite a different way, Palmer's bare and autumnal and gloomy shadow where as Poynters is more springy and joyful with sunlight breaking through the clouds. It is interesting also the effect different frames can have with the gold frame of Poynter's supplementing the work.
Hubert Coults now (on the left, and why is no one called Hubert anymore?) with what at first glance might appear to be a colonial scene in north Africa but is in fact a sheep run in Winderemere, who knew. Must have been a blisteringly hot summery to get Windermere like that. I do like the orangey earthy tones. Incidentally there was much reference in the descriptions to body colour which I finally worked out is the same as gouache (or other opaque watercolour type media).
George Boyce produced the other work on the right, a sumptiously green, typically English scene and indeed it is being the river Teme in Shropshire. Interestingly there were in the case behind this the preliminary sketches, both pencil and watercolour with the final work being produced in a studio. I imagine it is just too difficult to produce a work of the detail of this, outside, given the vagrancies of the British weather. I often wonder, when I see things like this, if given the same technology we have artists like Boyce would have taken photographs and worked from them. I suspect the answer is no doubt some of them would
Changing tack entirely and stretching the definition of landscape quite significantly you have these discrete pieces, John Brett's Pansies and Fern shoots on the left and John MacWhirter's (excellent name) Study of heather above right. I like the way the pansies loom out of the night in Brett's piece, and the water effect in MacWhirter's. I do think that both pieces are a bit swamped and a bit lost in their massive mountings. I suspect a standard size frame is to blame. Easier to store etc.
You can't have watercolours without having Turner, and here above, again stretching the definition of landscape is this stormy, menacing seascape of Venice. Turner in his watercolours manages to do the same thing that Japanese and Chinese ink paintings do, that is less paint, somehow showing more. I like the almost skeletal figures in the foreground.
Watercolour excels at water effects. It is also often a second string to those who have excessively talented bows in the first place. So the fine waterfront view, with the superb elongated windows (above left) in the reflection is by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
The babbling brook with the white sprays of water rushing past the multicoloured rock and over the pebbly sand is by John Singer Seargent. For those of us who can barely paint anything in one medium it is always slightly galling to encounter those who flourish in several.
As the timeline advances further into the 20th century more abstract so we have this Daliesque landscape by Ralph Maynard Smith with its soft undulating lines (above left) and Cecil Collins' Seashell- Mysterious Joy (above right) which has a distinctly embryonic feel, like a galactic fetal scan.
Of course with abstraction come weirdness like this terrifying version of the Essex cost by Michael Rothenstein (above left) with the barbed stems rising out the bottom of the picture.
In a similar vein is are the strange spectral hand like quality of what are apparently Pollarded Moon trees, rising blooded and strange out of the darkness.
Death is always going to be a subject matter in painting Nash does it well. John Singer Sergeant makes a re-appearance with this spectral disturbing Graveyard in the Tyrol (above left) contrasting the brutal cubist lines of Edward Wadsworth which I thought at first was first world war tanks wrecked and destroyed but in fact is called Slag Heaps at Leeds Steal Works, it somehow has the same effect.
I shall sign off with this Henry Moore watercolour sketch, a preparatory work for one of his sculpture, I know not which one.
Finally, on 19th August I am having an exhibition.
I don’t go to the British Museum very often. Don’t get me wrong I like it very much but it is enormous and overwhelming and while I am there I often have the sensation that I am missing out. Like all such museums it has its relatively quiet areas, and the enlightenment gallery that leads off the Great Court is often relatively quiet.
The Hokusai exhibition is half way up the central rotunda, housed in a space I didn’t even know existed. I went early one Friday morning and it was still quite crowded. This is going to be a popular show.
The exhibition itself treads the familiar path of taking you roughly chronologically through Hokusai’s life. There are a couple of things that make this slightly different. Firstly you don’t see Japanese art of this quality and in this amount that often in Europe. Secondly Hokusai really hit the big time in his 60s and so the preponderance of the work on display comes from his later life. There is quite allot though as he was active and painting until he died, in his late 90s. Still it is refreshing to see the work of an older artist.
The exhibition can basically be split into three types of work: The woodblock prints for which he is justly famous, silk paintings, and drawings or notebooks. Incidentally the exhibition also told me the origin of the word Manga. It means a quick or informal sketch. So there you go. And indeed you can quickly see a style and form that is very familiar if you are aware of Manga.
These note books are in fact wood book printed instruction books and include examples of birds, flowers etc and are produced for students. There are some also some illustrated black and white books, which look very like modern Manga (apart from the cover). In addition to this there are some informal sketches. Hokusai had a habit of doing morning demonic drawings which he threw out the window to bring good luck. His students and his daughter would go and get them and keep them. There was a very good one of this dragon like demon figure. There are some also informal pictures. My favourite is a self portrait of Hokusai in his 80s. He looks like an entertaining man, full and life and mischief.
The silk scrolls are often very formal paintings, often with a religious theme. Dragons swirling smoke like up the screen quite often as Hokusai was born in the year of the dragon. . These are always long thin pieces, in traditional Japanese painting, perspective is shown by having things that are further away higher up the painting. Nature features often too and these were ones I prefer. The colours are quite vivid and the display is often almost cartoonish in their presentation. You see more and more where the manga and modern Japanese comic tradition comes from.
The wood block prints form the bulk of the exhibition. Mount Fuji is a prominent feature. In his 60s Hokusai produce a series of images of Mount Fuji and these established his fame and fortune. He has the mountain in different seasons and different lighting conditions. There is a beguiling simplicity about them and a very effective use of blue, Hokusai being a pioneering user of Prussian blue a colour he used with consummate skill. He also used the western perspective tradition so you have this superb synthesis of traditions.
The mountain also appears in the background, giving a setting to some other activity, people washing rice, just looking at the mountain and of course most famously trashing their fishing boats against an enormous wave the title piece of the exhibit.
While being perhaps the most famous picture it was not the only one. There was some interesting stuff on how wood blocks are made an original drawing (of which a few survive) which is used as a template to etch out the pattern in the wood block. The drawing is destroyed in the process and a number of different wood blocks are needed to get the various layers in the drawing, background, foreground, detail etc. In addition then to the mountain there are scenes of people working such as this one below of people crossing rivers (below right), flowers and birds. Bridges are quite a common theme I suppose because they work well aesthetically.
Hokusai had quite a few children and one of them, his daughter Katsushika Ōi was a consummate artist in her own right, looked after and assisted her father. There are a couple of her pieces no display. The suggestion is that towards the end of his life she assisted and possibly even completed entirely the work which he merely signed. Looking at the later work I think this is certainly the case. You can see a subtle shift in style to work that looks more like hers. It is unfortunate that she did not get the credit she deserves but it was ever those. The exhibition is on until 13th August 2017.
Afterwards, while it is still all fresh in your mind I suggest you nip along to the House of Illustration. There they are showing the original drawings and paintings used in the background of famous anime movies such as Ghost in the Shell, Millennium and Patlabor in an exhibition called Anime Architecture. If you are a fan of these things or not it is fascinating. There are these very detailed architectural pencil sketches and concept art which leads to the original finished background paintings used in the animation themselves.
You can see not only in the style but in the brooding use of blues how the influence of people like Hokusai still reverberates in the modern day. More synergistically these frames are built up in several layers with a background and then more elements put on in the foreground to give extra depth on shooting, much like a woodblock.
They are artistically superb and I marveled at the detail and skill used in producing these things. The exhibition culminates in a screen showing shots with the original backgrounds you have just been looking at in them. Well worth it.
Incidentally on the 19th August I am having an exhibition:
I have written about Giacommetti before when the National Portrait Gallery put on an excellent display of his portraits. That one focused on his paintings. This monster exhibition at Tate Modern focuses mainly on his sculpture. All the photos in this post are taken from the Tate website.
It is a big show, occupying some 10 rooms and running until 10th September. I knew I was going to enjoy this, already being a fan of Giacommetti and I have to say I was not disappointed. It is not all sculpture though, there are some portraits and there were some pieces I had seen at the previous exhibition but it was nice to see them again, in amongst the new stuff, and there is allot of new stuff
The show takes you through roughly chronologically but it is also thematically laid out. The first room you come to is just heads (or busts), sculpted in a variety of different media, usually either plaster or bronze. Some strictly figurative, some more abstract, some completely so and of course featuring the flattened elongated heads for which Giacommetti is most famous. It was an eye opening example of both his skill and his diversity. I was more of a fan of the more abstract or different pieces. I find most figurative sculpture to be strangely unemotional and difficult to engage with. I can appreciate them as aesthetic objects but that is often where it ends. The more abstract ones though provide more of a depth for me to engage with.
The next room contained some of my favourite pieces. More conceptual movable sculptures that reminded me a bit of Alexander Calder’s mobiles. They had that same sense of joy and fun to them. I often think it is a shame that these pieces and firmly strapped under glass and you cannot move them, in a way that they are crying out to be moved. The picture below of a sort of melon slice being intersected by a ball on a string is a good example.
Along the side of this room were a series of small abstract sculptures. The ones I liked best were at the end, very minimalist flat sculptures, in marble and sort of plectrum shaped with only very faint markings to suggest the head or face the represent.
The next room is where the big stuff starts appearing. Giacommetti had an obsession with ancient Egyptian sculpture and this is shown in sketched in text books and various sketch books both on displayed in person and in digital form on I-pads. The inspiration for this flows through to his sculpture specifically walking woman, a sensual rendition in soap stone.
Giacommetti also tried his hand at these very endearing tiny sculptures. I mean really tiny, barely do they top an inch high. They are cute, and also fascinating, their tininess inviting intense examination. They were some of my favourite things in the exhibition. I think that all you have to do is a sculpture is suggest a figure and a face, and if you do it in an effective way the human brain will fill in the detail and add its own character. Certainly I think this happens with these small pieces.
In the next room you see the arrival of the famous flattened sculptures, not just people but also a very ill looking dog. Partial sculptures like a pointing hand and a tall figure without a head also appear. They have that gaunt textured appeal, almost elf of wood spirit like in some respects but at the same time quite threatening. As mentioned previously these provoke an emotional reaction in me which most sculpture does not.
The show has manage to get back together Giacommetti’s sculptures of women that he did for a Venice biennial. They are large pieces, not quite life-sized but still large and made of plaster. One of the things I appreciate about these pieces is that they are feminine without being sexual or sexualized. This is true of most of his later female sculptures.
I also like the way he used his wives (he had two) and brother as his most frequent subjects. The brother is I think the inspiration for the archetype flattened male figure. They appear both in sculpture and in painting form. His strange dark paintings often with the face almost scratched out. I like his paintings. More in fact than I like his sculptures. The paintings have a wistful sorrowful quality and the consistent use of grey and white almost monochrome is interesting. You would think this would act as a barrier but it does not.
Oh yes and because I am organising an exhibition now I am going to shameless plug it every chance I get hence:.... .
A couple of years ago I blogged about putting on an exhibition, here and here. This year I am finally doing it. I have ignored a number of the rules or suggestions I posited when I wrote about this earlier as I realised, when setting up your first exhibition it should be as easy as possible to do.
Also this year I have a larger body of work, and a better quality body of work to justify such an endeavour. Gone then are extravagant plans for a group show or a themed show or anything like that. I shall simply be putting on an exhibition and seeing what happens.
The date is Saturday 19th August. The venue is Chalmers Bequest Gallery, behind the Stoke Newington library on Stoke Newington Church Street. In fact here:
I had originally thought about having a multiday exhibition with perhaps an opening night party and so on. Perhaps next time though. Instead it will be one day. My father is very excited about this having earlier in his life assisted my grandmother with her exhibitions. He has been emailing me with all sorts of useful advice like, having labels for the paintings with room for the traditionally dictated red dots that signify a sale, having a list of everything on display to hand out to people, having a book to record sales and another book for people to write their contact details and comments in. All good stuff.
Why then the venue. Well it is cheap to hire. Just over £60 a day. For one’s first foray into such not getting to carried away with such things is a prudent step. Secondly it is quite well located. Admittedly not directly on a main thoroughfare but close to one, and well signposted from the main street. Stoke Newington Church Street is quite busy. It tends to be populated by a combination of hipsters, mid 30 somethings and people with young families. I am hoping this mix will bring in some punters. The venue is nice too. The library itself has a nice frontage as does the gallery.
The gallery was though, amusingly difficult to hire. One has to email the library to establish available dates. 19th August was one such. Then they send you a form to complete. You send this back. You send it back again in a format they can open on their email. You are then sent a different form. You have to take this form to the library to pay for the hire. You go to the desk. The man behind the desk disappears to summon the supervisor for only he can accept payments. You wait for a few minutes. A dignified quite man, with reading glasses, the type of man indeed produced from those factories that specialise in library supervisors appears. He slowly examines your form, types away on a computer then requests payment. You attempt to pay to only then be informed they only take cash (or cheque). Fortunately the post office 3 doors down is open you go and get cash. You return, the supervisor is summoned again and finally you pay, being given a receipt and leave wondering vaguely if in fact the venue will be available when you pitch up on the 19th.
Slightly irritatingly other than people capacity there are no dimensions available for the venue. I have been there before though a good few times and it is quite large. Probably 3 meters by 10 meters. It also has good lighting and cables hanging on the wall for the putting up of pictures. In one corner is a useful curved bar thing which will be handy for the wrangling of people, taking of payment (hopefully). A stage sits at one end and I’m not too sure how I’m going to use that. It is also, not too far from my house, making logistics easier.
Why then the 19th August. Well for a number of reasons. Firstly it is the only Saturday they had available in August. Secondly it gives me enough time to plan and promote the show and thirdly various people, including Hugh Mendes, are not available in July and August allows me to secure attendance of as many of my family, friends and associates as possible.
What then is the purpose of the show? Well there are two systems at work. The first is to try and sell a painting, any painting to someone I don’t know. The second is to see which of my works attract the most attention and have the most appeal.
I have a number of types of paintings that I do. I do big paintings. These fall into basically two groups, abstract or figurative landscapes. Are people interested in these?
I then have smaller paintings and these also fall into basically two groups, still life and landscapes. Which of these will have the greater appeal.
I then do small experimental pieces. Are people interested in these?
I have my mostly abstract palette knife paintings such as these below. Are people interested in these?
Finally I have my gouache patterns.
In addition to this perhaps I will be able to produce commissions for the pet portrait side of my work, promote myself generally and of course, I think it will be fun.
At present I have 45 possible paintings to go in the show. This is probably more than the gallery can hold and one of my tasks between now and 19th August is to figure out a hanging scheme.
In the meantime the publicity drive begins. The excellent Owen Smith who took the better of the photos that appear on this post, also produce me some fliers. One is at the top and the rest are below. Good aren’t they? These shall soon be posted on-line and also printed in various sizes and distributed. It’s all quite exciting.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.