Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Art Recently

If you can ignore the crowds, long weekends are a great time to catch up on some art. Although, to be fair, neither the Sonia Delaunay at the Tate Modern nor the Joshua Reynolds at the Wallace Collection were that busy. I mean, they were busy, of course, but they weren't unbearable. The Wallace Collection isn't quite such a tourist hub and their exhibition space is discretely separate from the main house but I was surprised by the Tate Modern. I can't remember the last time I visited and it wasn't a total scrum. It was very refreshing. The John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery was completely packed on a weekday morning though so, really, you never can tell.

I love me some Reynolds and the WC exhib is only two rooms but the selection is excellent and it is free. I find his 'fancy' paintings of small children rather cloying but the larger of the two rooms is dedicated to actresses and courtesans and it is awesome. The focus of the exhib is on Reynold's technique (what he put in his paint, how he used his canvases etc.) and there are some interesting x-rays but I would happily take a hundred annotated rooms of 'Reynolds and the Bad-Ass Ladies of the Late 18th Century'. There's a free idea for you, art folks. Kitty Fisher, Mary Robinson, Nelly O'Brien, Mary Nesbitt, I admire your hutzpah and I'm sure you must have been pleased by these portraits.

The Sargent is the best thing I have seen recently even if the viewing experience would be much improved by a drastic visitor cull. I love him so much and the NPG have put on a truly fab exhib. He was the first artist I really clicked with as a child and then I went off him because I decided that his work was too neat and pretty and polished but now I'm back! Clearly I can be fickle but my fandom has held steady for the last few years and it shows no sign of shifting. Across artists and styles I love a portrait and this exhib is nothing but people. And so many interesting people - Henry James and W. B. Yeats and Ellen Terry and Auguste Rodin and Vernon Lee... The Yeats is a pencil sketch and I'm not sure if I've ever seen a Sargent pencil drawing before and it is remarkable. He captures beauty and character with such apparent ease, it's marvellous and baffling. The exhib really highlights his technical skill and it's fascinating to see him playing with styles. Impressionism? Yeah, I can do that too, nbd.

I liked the Delaunay least but it left my brain the buzziest. I don't think the exhib is very clearly narrated; Delaunay had a very varied career and turbulent life and I still don't understand how a lot of her work and history interacted. She was born in the Russian Empire, raised by a Jewish uncle and lived in Nazi-occupied France, which is a LOT of context, but the exhib still felt strangely ahistorical. I also don't necessarily care for her abstract paintings which is just personal taste. But her early portraits are very strong, she has an amazing eye for colour and pattern, I would happily have seen and read more about her graphic design work (lots of book/magazine/album covers) and when you come to her textile work it all falls into place. This exhib raised so many questions for me.
Delaunay clearly had a natural talent for textile design but did she find it satisfying? What are the risks vs. benefits of a very varied career? Would Delaunay have been more successful if she had been more focussed? Should you focus on the thing you love or the thing you show aptitude for? Did Delaunay's eye for products (fabrics, magazine, fashion, costumes, books) 'mean' anything? What might she have achieved if she hadn't put her energy into her husband's legacy after his death? Why did someone who made such a massive jump in her early artistic development (between her portraits and her abstract work) not make another jump later in her work? Was abstract art her end point or was she just exhausted by her commercial work?
The exhib doesn't really attempt to answer those questions and may or may not have intended to raise them but I can't help thinking about women-and-art and commerce-and-art and the nature of a career/portfolio. That's probably me though. Or maybe it was The Blazing World which I finished last week and which I will be living with for months. I'd recommend any of these if you are in London with time to burn and a friend/family member with a guest card. If you can only see one then I would rep the Sargent but there is food for thought all round.


  1. Charlotte, let's go check out the new Whitney in New York