Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933

TATE LIVERPOOL 

23 June – 15 October 2017

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Self-Portrait with Easel 1926
(Selbstbildnis mit Staffelei) 1926
800 x 550 mm
Leopold-Hoesch-Museum & Papiermuseum, Düren
© DACS 2017. Leopold-Hoesch-Museum & Papiermuseum Düren. Photo: Peter Hinschläger.

“Photography has presented us with new possibilities and new tasks. It can depict things in magnificent beauty but also in terrible truth, and can also deceive enormously. We must be able to bear seeing the truth, but above all we should hand down the truth to our fellow human beings and to posterity, be it favourable to us or unfavourable.” August Sander

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933 is an overwhelming experience and a profoundly relevant exhibition in a “post truth” world. It combines two extraordinary shows Artist Rooms: August Sander and Otto Dix: The Evil Eye, each giving context, insight and new perspectives to the other. With over 300 works on display there is a lot to take in, including Dix’s devastating War etchings. Visitors are directed first to the Sander exhibition which is completely absorbing, so allow yourself ample time to spend with Dix’s compelling work in part two. (You may well need a break inbetween!)  Entwined with a historical timeline in handwritten script, August Sander’s black and white photography brings humanity and compassion into focus, in perfect counterpoint with the psychological extremities of Dix’s paintings, drawings and prints. Curated by Dr Susanne Mayer-Büser, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Francesco Manacorda, Artistic Director and Lauren Barnes, Assistant Curator, Tate Liverpool in collaboration with Artist Rooms (a collection jointly owned by the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate) and the German Historical Institute, the exhibition is an inspiring collaboration, moving beyond words and essential viewing.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne 1931, printed 1992
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 149 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

The Weimar period in Germany between the first and second World Wars has always fascinated me, because the outpouring of Art it produced illuminates the best and the very worst that human beings are universally capable of. Art has a pivotal role to play in acknowledging, understanding and potentially altering human perception. It can confront us with uncomfortable truths and with the timeless necessity for ongoing ethical, social and cultural reappraisal. Weimar Germany produced astonishing, disturbing and visionary work in film, literature and visual art, dancing on the edge of an abyss, or peering courageously into it as Germany descended into Nazi radicalisation. Sander and Dix were witnesses to the monumental collapse of civilization around them. Their work is testament to “magnificent beauty” and “terrible truth” of the human condition, encompassing our propensity for creation and destruction as a species. To have lived through such a time is something of an abstract to 21st Century eyes, which is why this work needs to be seen, doubly so in the times we’re now living in. This history lived visually displays how chillingly easy it is to deceive ourselves, individually and collectively.  In terms of freedom of expression and tolerance, Art is a matter of life and death, something totalitarian regimes have always understood and that we forget at our peril.

The effect of seeing this exhibition may be jolting, shocking and highly confrontational to some viewers, especially in relation to the savagery of Dix’s work, but grinding poverty, dispossession and the depravity of war exist all over the world today and that should shock everyone.   Sander’s epic photographic project People of the 20th Century, which began in 1910 and was still unfinished when he died in 1964, endures as a creative act of responsibility, reconnaissance and remembrance. The exhibition presents 144 photographs from the series, mixing the various categories and portfolios: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City and The Last People. Sander sought to create “a social atlas of Germany”. His categorisations responded to the descent into fascism with the addition of The Persecuted and Political Prisoners portfolios, the latter made by his son Erich Sander in prison before his death in 1944. Significantly August Sander doesn’t preach or denounce, but allows the character and dignity of each sitter to speak for itself. These aren’t portraits taken for aesthetic reasons or commission, but with the objectivity demanded by the political, social, cultural conditions and constraints of the time. Sander’s lens, like his mind  and heart, were egalitarian by nature. He was leftist, antifascist, aligned with the Cologne Progressives and worker’s movement, politics that made him a target for the National Socialist party. In 1936 stocks of his first book Face of our Time (German: Antlitz der Zeit), published in 1929, were confiscated by the Nazis and the photographic plates destroyed. His work was considered “un German “by the Third Reich in its essential connectivity. What speaks to the viewer across time are the faces of individuals and the humanity at the heart of Sander’s life- long project. Photographing German society according to hierarchical occupations and class was entirely in keeping with his worldview. To contemporary eyes, categorising human beings may seem extremely clinical and ironic given the systematic application of that methodology to the Holocaust. We may also perceive categories such as The Last People; idiots, the sick, the insane, and the dying or The City; Travelling People, Gypsies and Transients as dispassionate and potentially inflammatory, however Sander’s intent was inclusion, highlighting marginalisation in German society.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Disabled ex-serviceman c.1928, printed 1990
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 190 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

In Disabled Ex-Serviceman (1928, gelatin silver print on paper) for example, we see the human cost of industrialised warfare in his image of an amputee at the bottom of the stairs, literally and metaphorically, unable to rise. After the disastrous First World War, the pointed gaze of the soldier confronts us with the pariah status of an entire nation and our own complicity or resistance in the world. There is no glory or heroism, just damaged, desperate lives in a climate of inflation, unemployment and poverty.  Sander’s portraits affirm the relationship between photographer and sitter as one human being beholding another, appealing directly to the emotional intelligence of the viewer. Whether fixing his gaze upon a Mousetrap Salesman, Proletarian Intellectuals, Blacksmiths, Bricklayers, Mothers, Artists, Circus Performers, Industrialists, Philosophers or SS Officers, Sander’s grasp of humanity allows him to craft an image of everyone without judgement, a quality that should never be mistaken for neutrality. The eyes of his sitters meet ours in moments of recognition that are immensely powerful, poignant and prophetic. We see in Sander’s photographs so many people who would have been reclassified by the Third Reich as less than human. We will never know how many of these people were tortured, starved and murdered as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. Political activists, so called “degenerate” artists, disabled people, homosexuals or anyone of non-Aryan descent were all marked for extermination by the regime. Thankfully in Sander’s work we can still see some of their faces, long after the generation who survived WWII have passed.

One of my favourite Sander images is Girl in A Fairground Caravan (1926-32, silver gelatin print on paper). Framed by a small window with just her head and shoulders visible, her hand extends to the outside lock on the door, within a stain-like pattern on the side of the caravan. On the cusp of adulthood her face is solemnly fixed on the viewer, poised, wary, with eyes far older than her years. Far from a youthful, carefree existence, we feel her confinement and the edge of trust in the camera as witness. It is an intensely psychological portrait of a threshold stage of life and its attendant fears, together with a burgeoning climate of isolation and persecution. With the hindsight of history, the caravan resembles a railway carriage. Whenever I look at this photograph I wonder what became of this young woman, how her story unfolded in the gathering storm and whether she survived, existed or eventually prospered. Sander’s images are timelessly potent in that respect. Even though many of his sitters are nameless, they are real, relatable and hauntingly empathic, as fragile as we all are in the midst of events we cannot control. The girl looks as though in the next moment she could turn the key in the lock and step outside, but here she remains, held in a single breath of hesitation, suspended forever in the photograph between childhood and adulthood, life and death.

There’s unexpected beauty and grace in Sander’s image of two Blacksmiths (1926, silver gelatin print on paper), part of the Skilled Tradesman / The Worker- His life and work portfolio. The older man, hammer in hand is so positively strong, proud and confident in his skill, gained through years of experience. We feel that he is at a stage of life where he is comfortable in his own skin, whilst his younger apprentice, with a heavily defined and doubtful, creased brow, hasn’t matured into his profession or himself yet. Side by side with the anvil between them they are level, part of an endless cycle. Humanity is Sander’s baseline in every shot.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Turkish Mousetrap Salesman 1924-30, printed 1990
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 191 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

In the photograph Turkish Mousetrap Salesman (1924-30, gelatin silver print on paper) from the portfolio The City/ Travelling People, Gypsies and Transients, we see strength, resilience, weariness, fear and sadness in the face of a man, perhaps in his late 40’s or early 50’s. His intense eyes convey vulnerability and stature, transcending his position in society. Economic hardship and uncertainty are etched across his face. Sander’s choice of a large format camera, glass negatives and long exposure times, capture with care every detail of the person. We feel the rough texture of the salesman’s worn jacket, delicate wisps of aged hair and patches of loss, his scars, beautifully defined mouth and soulful eyes. Rejecting the latest photographic equipment, Sander favoured the daguerreotype, declaring that it; “cannot be surpassed in the delicacy of delineation, it is objectivity in the best sense of the word and has a contemporary relevance.”  The choice of analogue in our own time and what it signifies in terms of Craft and human values, equally so.


August Sander, 1876-1964
The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha 1925-6, printed 1991
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
205 x 241 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

Sander’s double portrait of The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha (1925-6, silver gelatin print on paper) presents an interesting dynamic of equality. Martha, a fashionable socialite, faces the camera in a frontal pose, whilst her husband with his unmistakable profile is positioned behind her, blonde hair slicked back in an “American style”. We are left in no doubt that the primary subject is Martha and she’s confident in the role. The image is from Sander’s portfolio The Woman and the Man’, classified in the group ‘The Woman’, part of his ‘People of the 20th Century’ project. In spite of the classification of “wife” Martha is in no way subordinate and in her direct gaze we see a person in her own right with a strong, intellectual presence. It is a fascinating partnership which reveals itself further in Dix’s paintings and drawings of his wife, clearly in a different league to many of his other depictions of women. Referred to affectionately as Mutzli, we see her dignified profile in Woman in Gold (Mutzli) (1923, watercolour, gold paint and pencil on paper), her face partially concealed by a sophisticated, decadent hat. In Dix’s beautiful drawing Portrait of Mutzli Koch (1921, pencil on paper) we see only her face and neck, draped in the suggestion of a luxurious fur, hair pulled back into a bun with arched eyebrows framing her gaze. Dix draws the curve of her cheekbones, nose and cat -like almond eyes with the strength and delicacy of a caress, every mark declares his love for her, a quality more frequently absent from his Art.  The tenderness and sensuality in this drawing is equally met by Mutzli’s direct gaze at Dix. The artist’s picture books for Hana, his wife’s child from her first marriage, are fantastic and delightful, with scenes from Fairytales, the Bible and hybrid creatures rendered in watercolour and pencil. Although they are not without a Dixian edge, fused with the dark spirit of the brothers Grimm! Dix’s Bremmen Town Musicians, part of his Cornucopia for Hana (1925) are rather demonic looking in contrast with scenes such as Knight Hans at Hoher Randen and His Family on Horseback with its bright, buoyant palette. This aspect of the artist’s work, combined with domestic family life is a recent discovery, bringing a surprising dimension to an artist famed for his acute lack of empathy.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor) 1924
Etching on paper
196 x 291 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

Serving as a machine gunner in WWI, Dix was exposed to unspeakable violence and killing on an unprecedented scale. We cannot begin to imagine the horror of trench warfare, the loss of life or the social disintegration which followed the annihilation of an entire generation, but in his series of 50 etchings War/ Der Krieg (1924) Dix gives insight to his experiences on the front line, attempting to purge himself

“All art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself. There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time.

Like Goyas cycle of over 80 etchings and aquatints The Disasters of War (1810-1820) which he consciously studied, Dix’s War etchings are among the most powerful, visceral and damning images ever created in response to human atrocities. The process of etching was intensely physical for Dix, like scratching his wounds, a cathartic bloodletting, burning away the surface metal with acid to banish his nightmares. It is hard to describe the way that these monochrome images of a modest scale conjure the smell of death and rotting flesh, the terror of men driven mad by fear, hollowed out by exhaustion and the relentless shelling, reducing the earth to a pitted, desolate landscape of body parts. Dix leads us into his memories of the Western Front, battlefields where the horizon is ruptured, disappearing into broken lines like lost hope. Human bodies are caught on barbed wire, impaled, mutilated by machine gun fire or dismembered by bombs. Surprisingly one of the most disturbing images is the most still, completely uninhabited by the human figure. Shell Holes near Dontrien Illuminated by Flares (1924, etching on paper, 195 x 260 mm, Otto Dix Foundation, Vaduz), conveys a moment of profound, out of body stillness, when the world slows in the face of severe shock and trauma. This is a print that you can actually hear, held in the breath of the artist/witness and the viewer beholding it. It is an image etched in my mind forever.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Dying Soldier (Sterbender Soldat) 1924
Etching on paper
198 x 148 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

In Soldier and Nun (1924, etching on paper, 200 x 145mm Otto Dix Foundation, Veduz) the artist depicts the desecration of rape, placing the viewer behind the soldier in the composition. This voyeuristic positioning on the threshold mirrors the scene before us, amplifying the horror of bearing witness. There is also, in the context of Dix’s oeuvre, a very uncomfortable edge of complicity in how the image is composed. The print was withheld from the original cycle, deemed too shocking to be shown, but like all of Dix’s war etchings it is a document of modern warfare that needs to be seen and acknowledged. Dix’s Sex Murder (Lustmord) (1922, Etching on paper, 275 x 346mm, private collection, courtesy of Richard Magy Ltd, London) displays a bloody crime scene, clotted in black with two dogs copulating in a corner like a cartoon. There is no empathy in Psychopathy and none here either in the rendering of the female figure as a mutilated, discarded doll. The misogynist violence in early pulp fiction, the plotlines of contemporary thrillers, TV cop shows and interactive games like Grand Theft Auto aren’t so far removed from Dix’s Sex Murder as a recurrent obsession in 20th and 21st century popular culture.  Dix often depicted himself as a predatory, lurid and monstrous figure in his work. He projects severity and power in his self-portraits, a veneer of fashionable respectability that is prone to disintegration in the fluid immediacy of his watercolours and hard-edged drawings. Dix displays his own morality and logic in chaotic and highly disturbing scenes which would be confessional if they weren’t so entirely without remorse.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Corpse Entangled in Barbed Wire (Leiche im Drahtverhau) 1924
Etching on paper
300 x 243 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

There is undeniable madness, depravity, societal decay and death in Dix’s Neue Sachlichkeit /New Objectivity, elements shared with fellow artists George Grosz and Max Beckmann. Satirical and abhorrent depictions of the human figure were weapons Dix and Grosz used to attack middle class complacency, the military, church and state. The unflinching reality of their work is grounded in human behavior and experience, their rejection of Romantic idealism and expressionism. In the aftermath of WWI and the “Golden Age” of the roaring 20’s, Dix declared that;

“People were already beginning to forget, what horrible suffering the war had brought them. I did not want to cause fear and panic, but to let people know how dreadful war is and so to stimulate people’s powers of resistance.

Whilst I don’t doubt the artist’s intention of resistance, there is also an aspect of his personality, arguably unleashed by his war time experiences, which revels in the adrenalin fueled excitement of killing and sexual violence. It is a source of masculine power for Dix, coupled with personal revulsion and disgust. The artist’s commitment to depicting “life undiluted”, to “experience all the darkest recesses of life in order to represent them” is a double-edged credo. He admitted that “the war was a horrible thing, but also something powerful. I was not about to miss it. You have to have seen people in this untethered state to know something about humans”. Dix’s response to what he saw around him, later manifested in immersion and participation in the underworld of Weimar Germany’s streets, nightclubs and brothels, a search for truth devoid of nobility or redemption. His works on paper explore a nocturnal world distorted by fear, loathing and collective psychosis.

Otto Dix, 1891–1969
Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin 1927
(Liegende auf Leopardenfell) 1927
Oil paint on panel
680 x 980 mm
© DACS 2017. Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. Gift of Samuel A. Berger; 55.031.

Dix’s grotesque, almost hallucinogenic depiction of prostitutes and their clients, including sailors and soldiers (including  himself), achieve a heightened state of animalistic abandon and debauchery. Even his society portraits, rendered with the finest technical precision, amplify the prevailing sense of Nietzschean annihilation, a philosopher Dix was drawn to at an early stage of his development. The artist’s extremism is centred on the body, in the coupling of sex and death, the dominance of instinctual drives and inevitable decay, which he projects onto the human figure as Germany personified. His iconic portrait of nightclub dancer Anita Berber (1925) in garish, pursed lip red is a parody of glamour. Reclining Woman on a leopard Skin (1927, Oil paint on panel, 680 x 980mm, Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Gift of Samuel A. Berger, 55.031) is a superb example of the dangerously mesmerising spirit of the age. The woman in the painting with her cat-like eyes and claw-like hands holds the mask of her pale, made up face temporarily in place, coiled like a caged animal about to strike. The red folds of fabric and leopard skin feel strangely alive, with the figure positioned in the draped, though spartan, recess of a boudoir/ lair.  The acidic green gossamer dress garishly clashes with opposing red, while the woman’s glazed eyes are remarkably cold and fixed, seeing right through to the flesh and blood that you are. In the background a Hyena-like creature lurks in the darkness, teeth bared, a manifestation of raw instinct and animus/anima depending on your point of view. The arrangement of the body is a series of highly articulate serpentine curves, painted with consummate skill. The calculation in this image is frighteningly compelling, concealed and revealed by the artist’s technique. We sense that we are only a second away from the mask of the subject or artist being torn away and that anticipatory tension permeates much of Dix’s work.

In Vanitas (Youth and Old Age) (1932, tempera and oil paint on canvas) the subject is at once a rendering of Death and the Maiden, derived from the medieval Dance of Death and a visual statement of Dix’s contemporary Germany. The proudly smiling, golden haired nude, every inch a beamingly healthy Aryan maiden, could easily be a poster girl for the Nazi propaganda machine. However, Dix places her on a distinctive edge of shadow, framed in judgement within an allegorical tradition. We feel immediately that she would not be out of place in a tableau of the Seven Deadly Sins. Her expression is so righteous and sure of itself that it is faintly ridiculous, whist a skeletal crone hovers in the background. It’s a reminder that the girl in the foreground is just food for worms as we all are and that her idealised beauty is preposterously shallow. It’s an ugly, repulsive image in the association between ethics and aesthetics, but that is precisely the point. The artist’s rendering of the figure is sharp as a blade in his exposure of the subject as part of a cultural tradition of seeing.

Dix was acutely aware of his German artistic heritage like a Faustian pact. His use of tempera techniques, oils and the woodcut reflect the influence of German Renaissance masters such as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Crannach the Elder and Hans Holbein. The fastidious delicacy of his paint handling meets the savagely critical depiction of the rich, privileged and famous. Even at this level, flattery is exceedingly rare in a Dix painting and sentimentality categorically dead. Then as now, the gap between rich and poor was ever widening and Dix captures the outrage and repugnance of those conditions, whilst denying political motives in his art. His searing body of work remains anti-war, in spite of the revelry he conveys in minute details of violence. The objective recognition and striking calm of a prostitute meeting the gaze of the artist in Dedicated Sadists (1922, Watercolour, graphite and ink on paper, 498 x 375mm), suggests that although Dix defended his art as a moral imperative, on a deeper, personal level he is confronting aspects of himself with the same brutal honesty. Dix’s humanity ultimately resides in his complexity as a man and an artist, holding up a mirror to the ugliness every human being is capable of. Dix doesn’t just paint, etch and draw death as the great human leveller, he strips it naked and makes no apologies.

There is a profound sense of darkness, light and the internal struggle between the two present at the beginning of his practice, when Dix was experimenting and finding his voice. Birth (Hour of Birth) (1919, Woodcut print on paper, 180 x 156mm, Galerie Remmert und Barth, Düsseldorf) in starkly, chiselled monochrome is a fine example. The sun and moon are attendants, the nipples and belly button are stars in a body bisected by the absolute values of black and white. The child’s path into the world is, at least initially, an angular projection of light from its mother’s open thigh. There is a trajectory of fate in this black and white vision of the world that feels inescapable. Dix’s painting Longing (Self Portrait) (1918-19, Oil on Canvas, 535 x 520mm, Galerie Neue Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) is a fractured face in deep blue/ black with red mouth agape, a man divided between a quartet of dualistic elements. Between sun and moon, the impulse of life in the pink embryonic form in the top right-hand corner and a red devilish goat in opposition. A green star and branch springing from the artist’s head implies creativity and intellect as the anguished man’s only means of survival and integration.

Dix had eight works in the infamous “Degenerate Art Exhibition” held in Munich in 1937. He lost his teaching position and 260 of his works were confiscated by the Nazi’s between 1937 and 1938, some of them destroyed. Looking around this phenomenal exhibition, it is a miracle that the works we see today survived. Like Dix, August Sander created a prolific body of work and whilst their images may confront us with uncomfortable truths, their New Objectivity is pertinent to unfolding events on the contemporary world stage. We are witnessing the largest displacement of people ever seen since WWII, growing inequality, economic turmoil, modern slavery, increasing radicalisation of politics and the threat of environmental catastrophe. In viewing this exhibition, we cannot hide from the powers of creation and destruction wrought by human hands and are forced to examine our own resistance, complicity and responsibility for the history we are making today.

Tate Liverpool, Portraying a Nation Germany 1919 – 1933 exhibition trailer:

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True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s

a1 July – 29 October 2017

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern 2) Edinburgh

Harold WILLIAMSON (1898–1972) Spray, 1939 Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 85.8 cm. Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth: purchased from the artist, 1940. © Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum

In the world of Art Realism is an entirely relative term. Between what appears real and the truth lies a world of interpretation. The desire to faithfully render what an artist sees before them is never without projection of one kind or another. When this SNGMA exhibition of Realist painting was announced, I was interested to see what forms it might take in the context of 1920’s and 30’s Britain, both in terms of Art and curation. Having had a typically European/ USA and Australian centric exposure to Art History of this period, dominated by movements and manifestos, the work of individual British artists of the era were less well known to me. Although familiar with the work of Laura Knight, Stanley Spencer, Winifred Knights, James Cowie and Edward Baird, among the fifty-eight artists on display with nearly 90 works between them, there were many unexpected new discoveries. Drawn from public and private collections across the UK, the “untold story of a forgotten generation…of British artists” proved quite definitively that “there is more than one way to be modern” and many ways to be true to life. Surprising works by John Luke, David Jagger, Meredith Frampton, Henry Epworth Allen, Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein), Glyn Philpot, Harold Williamson and Winifred Knights surpassed all my expectations.

I must confess that when confronted with anything too perfect, I’m not naturally inclined to react with instantaneous trust and admiration. In my mind “True to life” means penetrating the surface, however technically adept or gorgeously rendered, something I learned from very early exposure to the reality/ Art of photography, the writings of John Berger and Surrealists like Magritte. The more faithful, real or truthful something professes to be, the more my critical suspicions are aroused about being duped or sold something!  Growing up in Australia, I remember seeing Charles Meere’s Australian Beach Pattern (1940, Oil on canvas) which even then struck me as highly composed, but with all life drained out of it. As a child, I could see the pattern, but it left me as cold as the artist’s blue-tinged palette.  I realise now that what I felt immediately was that Meere was unable to transcend its own time to be convincingly alive in my own. My prejudice walking into this show was anticipating the same and I was glad to have the assumption challenged. This isn’t just about subjective personal taste. There are certain modes of representation that are too easily appropriated in the service of mass consumption. Images of youthful Brits and families enjoying the outdoors, engaging in healthy physical pursuits in a coolly detached, highly perfected realist style are merely a stone’s throw away from Nazi propaganda posters or Stalinist Social Realism. The visual history of fallible human beings has taught me to always take anything trying too hard to be “real” in the absolute sense with a handful of salt. Regardless of the subject, whether an artist paints in a realist or totally abstract style, we will feel the truth of it. What is real is what we believe and belief is (hopefully) about more than what we see with our eyes. As Magritte stated visually in his 1929 Surrealist work “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, also known as “The Treachery of Images”, a precisely rendered painting of a pipe is still not a pipe.

Gerald Leslie BROCKHURST (1890–1978) By the Hills, 1939 Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.5cm. © Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston-Upon-Hull., purchased 1939.

Intriguing subversions of appearance abound in this show. The highly plausible society portrait By the Hills (1939, Oil on Canvas, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull) by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, with its glossy, brushless technique and signature aloofness, looks astonishingly “true to life” but is in reality a composite of two different models, tempered with a darkly atmospheric background of oncoming storms, conflict and war. The painting is very apt as the main PR image of the show, which is far more complex than its aesthetically pleasing, glamourous veneer might imply. Although perceived as conservative rather than “dramatic” or revolutionary, compared to contemporary developments in European Art, as this exhibition clearly shows, there is much still to be written, discussed and celebrated in the history of British Art. Overlooked until very recently by art historians, resisting PR by never being a coherent group and culturally aligned with the national British tendency to be backward in coming forward, this is a ground breaking show in bringing these works out of storage and into the public eye.

Many of the artists in True to Life exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, were well known and highly successful in their own time, then fell out of fashion into obscurity. Stuck in the 21st Century cult of NOW, we often forget that being radical sometimes means reviving the past. In fact, you can’t be innovative or shift perspective without understanding the historical foundations of your chosen discipline, even if you choose to completely reject them. As I walked around the exhibition I heard numerous remarks about “what a shame” it was “that this kind of Art is now out of fashion”, how “beautiful” and “unbelievable” the “technique” was and that “you don’t see work like this in galleries anymore!” Art that looks real, is figurative and therefore relatable on a primal level, that people from all walks of life can respect for its Craft (if nothing else), is rather at odds with the dominance of Conceptual Art in 21st Century practice. Too often there is either technique on display or ideas which on their own, in the Art of any era, aren’t enough. They have to equal each other. There are plenty of Realist, representationally “true to life” works which are just soulless technique, manipulation or created in avoidance of feeling. You only have to walk around the annual (and very popular) BP Portrait Award to find countless images of perfectly rendered human beings devoid of insight. In times of great social and cultural upheaval we like to be reassured by the familiar, the popularisation of Retro fashion and design in our own age is a good example. The British stiff upper lip approach to the monumental upheavals and losses of WWI and WWII did not produce a Pablo Picasso or a George Grosz, but equally the sensibility of reserve (or subtlety) and seeing value in tradition produced, in the work of some British artists, works which still speak very powerfully today and will do for generations to come. This certainly isn’t the result of vacuous technical precision, retreat into the idyllic, the idealised or wallowing in nostalgia for times long past. The best artists in the show, each in their own unique way, represent confrontation with the here and now.

Winifred Knights (1899-1947) The Deluge 1920, Oil on canvas, Tate, purchased with assistance from Friends of the Tate Gallery 1989.

Winifred Knights (1899-1947) is undoubtedly one of the most exceptional Realists of her generation. Knights studied at the Slade School of Art and was influenced by early Italian Renaissance composition and painting techniques. She was a superb draftswoman, with a breath-taking command of complex figurative groups, based on extensive drawings. Her paintings are supremely balanced, bordering on abstraction in their understanding and orchestration of the essential, raw elements of painting; form, tone, colour, line and texture. Like a great symphony, it isn’t the structure or design that hits you first, but the level of emotional intelligence.  Knights reveals herself in this exhibition as a socially enlightened, visual activist, positioning female protagonists at the centre of her paintings. In Scene in a Village Street with Mill-Hands Conversing (1919, Tempera on canvas, re-lined on board, UCL Art Museum, London) her use of tempera harks back to Italian Fresco painting. What emerges out of these fine washes of pigment suspended in egg yolk are harder edged (but no less fine) linear pencil marks, defining individual honest faces, modelled on friends and family. Tempera is a labour intensive and rapidly drying medium, with a delicacy sympathetic to the vulnerable human form, saints and angels. Here workers are being addressed by the main female protagonist, dressed in vital red crimson with open palms. There’s a curious mix of social realism and religiosity in this woman as a spiritual leader or potential agent of political change. Knights has a less is more approach to colour, therefore heightening its impact and compellingly leading the eye into the painting, a quality which reaches its zenith in The Deluge (1920, Oil on canvas, Tate, purchased with assistance from Friends of the Tate Gallery 1989). Knights won the prestigious Rome Scholarship for Decorative Painting for this work. The award was initiated in 1913 by the British School in Rome as an opportunity for artists under 35 to work and study on the continent. Fellow recipients of the scholarship included Colin Gill, (whose portrait of Knights appears in his painting Allegro /Allegory (1920-21) in the exhibition), Knights’ future husband Sir Thomas Monnington and Edward Halliday.

The biblical subject of The Deluge, or great flood from the Book of Genesis, reimagined by Knights is a strikingly contemporary, post-industrial, apocalypse. The female figure in the foreground is a self-portrait, her body twisted in frozen flight, hands pushing away in one direction, with her face turned back towards calamity. The extreme angularity of the figures takes British Vorticism’s short lived machine age dynamics to an entirely different level. Grey flood waters flow like liquefied steel, pale grey concrete barriers divide the canvas and the palette of industrial green/ grey are contrasted with accents of stylised red clothing on isolated women and girls in the crowd. The formal geometric structure of disjointed buildings, the bunker-like island and floating debris, together with the uniform stylisation of humanity is pure dystopia. Natural forces like flowing water become solidified, like congealed factory waste as men and women flee, massing as the grey water rises, arms in the air appealing for salvation, attempting to climb up a steep incline towards an idea of safety that cannot be seen. From a distance, human movement is accentuated by the pattern of high toned hands and feet, but as you move closer the chaos of directional gazes takes hold, conveying the feeling that the threat is all around, permeating the entire atmosphere. It is a remarkable, highly charged work, where perspective, colour, tone and form are completely unified. The impact on the nervous system is immediate and illuminating. In the background, a grey panel of light extends from the sky to earth like the natural phenomenon of “God’s fingers”, but here it takes on the appearance of an artificial searchlight, in a world where human forms cast long shadows over land engulfed by the inference of man-made catastrophe. Made two years after the end of WWI the context of this work is resoundingly real and of its time, but significantly it is more than that. Place this painting anywhere in the world today and it would be understood through the prism of religion, wars, displacement of people or the truth of climate change. It’s a stunningly faithful rendering of a universal human narrative, piercingly relevant in the present.

Another painting inspired by biblical text, transformed by modernity is John Luke’s Judith and Holofernes (1929, Oil on board, Armagh County Museum, purchased 1980). The story of Judith seducing and beheading Holofernes in defence of her homeland combines female sexuality and male aggression/ violence within the central female protagonist. Luke’s composition sets the scene in a contemporary home of the 1920’s, where a young woman with a bloody knife in one hand and the severed head of a man in the other forms the apex of the composition. The traditional female servant is replaced by an undefined female companion with her back to us, about to place the head in a sack. The rest of the man’s body lies prostrate on the floor at the foot of a bed. Like a blonde Hitchcock anti-heroine, the intense resolve contained in “Judith’s” dark eyes fill the room. The only warmth afforded in Luke’s subdued palette of greys, greens and brown are her flushed cheeks, lips and the Horror of blood which is heightened by its sparing application. In total contrast with the rest of the painting, the smeared unfinished hands of the man on the floor give the appearance of flailing movement. This unexpected animation in the perfectly rendered scene is masterful. The sense of control and violence is a fascinating twist in relation to the cool glamour seen in fashionable images of women at the time. The 1920’s youthful ingénue becomes something altogether different in Luke’s painting, a psychological and societal threat to the ruling power of masculinity, perpetuated for centuries by male scribes and Old Masters.  Luke reimagines Judith as a force in her own right in a new era of emancipation, in the form of a young woman who looks only in her late teens. Dressed in a plain green collared drop waist dress and dark stockings, she has the stance of an avenging angel and the command of a general. Positioned centre stage in a room of flattened perspective like that of Italian Quattrocento painters of the early Renaissance, there is drama here outside tradition. Unlike the treatment of the subject by many European Old Masters, it isn’t the deed itself that is depicted but a state of calm self-possession immediately after, alive in the here and now.

Marguerite Kelsey 1928 Meredith Frampton 1894-1984 Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery.

Another British Realist with an intensely psychological edge is Meredith Frampton. Don’t let the air of cool concealment in this artist’s work fool you into thinking he’s just being decorative- the longer you look at his paintings the more they reveal beneath the surface! Woman Reclining (1928, Oil on canvas, Tate.) is a good example, appearing brushless, highly refined and almost clinically detached. The sitter was Marguerite Kelsy, a professional model, whose faultless skin, carefully groomed hair and ethereal beauty is part of the emotional distance between artist and subject. Her stance is elegantly dignified and professional, dressed in red shoes and a plain white dress purchased by the artist for the sitting, accentuating the warmth of her skin. The composition is as impeccable as her formal pose, hands crossed in her lap, gazing steadfast to the right, way beyond the picture plane, the artist and the viewer. The triangulation of red shoes, pink lips and red flower stamen is contrasted with an understated palette of warm reddish brown, cool sage green and grey blue. The paint feels like it has been applied with the artist’s fingertips. The woman on a sofa/ pedestal, isn’t reclining at all, but still possesses a sensuous beauty in the eyes of the artist. The flower basket reads like a bird cage, sat on a round table beside the serpentine curve of a charcoal coloured couch. In many ways this is an idealised, passive image of womanhood, steeped in classical goddess-like stillness. Her pure blue eyes aren’t focused on the male gaze beholding her, but on her interior thoughts and she is giving nothing of herself away in her expression. In terms of form, colour, tone and composition the artist could do no more. There’s a cultured edge of irony in this highly staged painting from life that feels Austenesque and quintessentially English. The suggestion of repressed (or confused) impulses of adoration and desire seem to inhabit the canvas. Painted with immense care and conviction, Frampton emerges as amazingly complex artist and a fascinating Realist.

Meredith Frampton, A Game of Patience (1937, Oil on canvas, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull)

A Game of Patience (1937, Oil on canvas, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull) takes these qualities to another level. “A critic in the Scotsman” at the time remarked that the painting was “a tour de force of fastidious craftsmanship. Since Lord Leighton died surely no Englishman has painted in a way so learned and deadly smooth.” It feels very much in this portrait that more is being communicated about the learned man behind the easel than the female subject. Her white porcelain complexion and face turned in half shadow tells us that she’s not actually playing solo. Like an unlikely fortune teller, she holds up a card which we cannot see. Her other hand is poised over another card about to turn it over, paired with an upturned King of Spades in the centre of a circle of hidden cards. The warmth in the painting is outside the room, in golden agricultural land seen through the open doorway to the far right. The stylish curve tipped frame fits the interior psychology of the image as perfectly as the pink turning lavender blue crisscross pattern, like a protective fence on the backs of the playing cards. There is so much being concealed and revealed in every detail of this image, reminiscent of the heavily codified portraits of the Renaissance.  There are apples on the table to the left of this modern-day Eve and on her right, sheaths of wheat, together with poppies cut before they’ve had a chance to bloom. Her puritanical white collar and sphinx-like poker face are contrasted with the red sash around her waist, accentuating her figure. There’s no hint of understanding the woman behind the porcelain mask in this portrait, but in terms of the male gaze, it is a totally absorbing projection of the male psyche perceiving the Feminine.  Having survived WWI there is also a sense of the artist constructing order and purity in the form of his female protagonists and within himself. The psychological depth and impeccable technique in Frampton’s paintings is quite breath-taking and one of the highlights of the show.

David JAGGER (1891–1958) The Conscientious Objector, 1917 Oil on canvas laid on board, 55.2 x 46 cm. Private collection © Estate of David Jagger

David Jagger’s The Conscientious Objector (1917, Oil on Canvas, laid on board, Private Collection) is a powerful response to the Military Service Act 1918-1941 by the pacifist artist. In stark contrast to many of the adjacent paintings, Jagger’s brushwork delivers a spirited defence of non-violence. Clearly influenced by Dutch Masters, out of the dark ground, beautifully lit with what feels like firelight, a young man in a hat and pink scarf, immediately confronts the viewer, meeting our gaze. Earthy umber and vibrant flesh tones convey engagement with humanity, together with the strength, hope and determination of the individual in his expression. Believed to be a self-portrait it also captures the heat of the creative process. Jagger strikes a pose as if about to turn away from the mirror to the canvas or move off into a dark city street. This painting feels like a statement of integrity and defence, in a society that did not accept refusal of duty. The portrait is as alive as when it was painted 100 years ago. Although there is self-projection on the part of the artist woven into the canvas, generations to come will look at this portrait and know immediately that this is the face of a man who stood for something. His strong features, straightened brow and fiery expression reveal a fighting man, but not in the name of war or conscription.

One of the most poignant images in the exhibition is Henry Epworth Allen’s The Timber Dump (1935-37, Tempera on board) which borders on expressionism in its immersion in the psychological aftermath of modern warfare. A self –taught artist who fought and lost a leg in WWI, Allen’s painting is like a no man’s land. You don’t have to know anything about his personal history to feel it. I certainly knew nothing about this artist when the painting first drew me to it. It isn’t just the visual associations with the ruined tractor and the tank-like alignment of a tree trunk, workmen sunk into the earth or the stark, annihilated trees. It’s the fact that in this emotionally realist image, we can’t see or feel a horizon. The protruding trunks sunk into upper picture plane, extend beyond it, leaving the viewer sunk in the mud. This is no rural idyll but a landscape of fractured buildings and “creeping urbanisation” informed by witnessing slaughter on an industrial scale. It is a trench view of the world in decaying hues of green and grey, infused with the eerie acidic light of a gas attack and entirely without the light of redemption. Allan’s realism is in complete contrast with the “British landscape as sanctuary and symbol of what they fought for in WWI”. You know from this one painting that this man’s soul and vision have been shattered, it is so palpably real.

Philpot, Glyn Warren; Resting Acrobats, About 1924, Oil on canvas; Leeds Museums and Galleries, gifted by H.M. Hepworth 1934.

There were many surprising images which I felt in my guts to be true to life rather than simply representing or illustrating it. Heavily influenced by German Neue Sachlichkeit/ New Objectivity figurative artists such as Otto Dix and the early work of Picasso, Glyn Philpot’s The Resting Acrobats (About 1924, Oil on canvas, Leeds Museum & Galleries, gifted by H.M. Hepworth 1934) was one of my favourite works in the show. As if channelling the spirit of Weimar Germany, Philpot’s style and ethereal paint handling captures the pariah status of the defeated. His performers in the circus of life stand in straw like beasts of burden, their haunted faces drained bloodless through sheer exhaustion. One acrobat with his hand extended, supporting himself the corner of a backstage set has the gaunt pallor of someone deceased. His young male companion stares sideways at the viewer with only a dim glint of life in one eye, like the opaque creep of death in the eyes of a fish, half dead out of water. Suspended ropes ominously frame the whole figurative group whilst the youngest boy on the far right is absorbed in petting a small costumed monkey. The female trapeze artist sits amidst their semi-circle, her face whitened with stage makeup and the fake merriment of rouged cheeks, with glacial blue eyes staring out into nothing. By the 1930’s the rise of Nazism and the shadow of a second World War was looming, once again altering the lives of this generation forever. Philpot’s The Resting Acrobats presents an image of the real cost of the Roaring Twenties, experienced by ordinary people. There is no high wire escapism or glamorously lit, immortal star performers here, just a feeling of desolation and a generation utterly spent. This is Realism and painting at its most potent, transcending time, place and technique.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/true-life-british-realist-painting-1920s-and-1930s 

Looking Good : The Male Gaze from Van Dyck to Lucian Freud

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

24 June to 1 October 2017

David Williams (b. 1952) Michael Clark. Dancer, 1989. Silver gelatine print, 35.2 x 35.4 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland. Commissioned by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1988. © David Williams.

What attracted me to this show initially was the whole idea of turning the tables. We are so habituated to seeing the male gaze directed at women in the history of Art, Photography and popular culture in general, I was intrigued to see what the nature of the masculine gaze turned inwards might look like. Or to be more accurate, what the exhibition curators might do with the overarching theme of “male image, identity and appearance from the 16th century to the present day”, selecting 28 works from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, London. Kate Anderson (Senior Curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) assisted by Ola Wojtkiewicz, have created an interesting show, exploring changing “attitudes to status, wealth, sexuality, masculinity and beauty.” The exhibition is part of a national tour of Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s final Self-Portrait c.1640, recently acquired for the nation by the NPGL with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund. For a relatively small exhibition it packs some punches, contains some fascinating work and gave me a lot to think about, particularly about inferred narratives through curation.

Jonathan OWEN (b. 1973) Untitled (Patrice de Mac-Mahon, Duc de Magenta), 2013. Sculpture (bust), marble, 58 x 30 x 56 cm. Collection: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, © Jonathan Owen
Photo: © National Galleries of Scotland.

At the entrance to the exhibition Jonathan Owen’s Untitled (Patrice de Mac-Mahon, Duc de Magenta) (2013, Sculpture (bust), marble, 58 x 30 x 56 cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) is an appropriate metaphor for masculine reconnaissance and the deconstruction of enshrined ideals. Taking the historical white marble bust of a bearded aristocrat, decorated for military service, Owen abstracts the head, re-carving and excavating marble until the individual face is transformed into  an arrangement of geometrical hollows, resembling an architectural atrium and guarding an inner sphere.  Traditionally the marble bust elevated on a plinth celebrates and memorialises ideals of masculine power, duty and nobility, reinforcing social hierarchy and individual status, but here the artist takes a sculpture from an age of Empire and critically reimagines it. The rigid Neoclassical form of masculine authority becomes something much more ambiguous, an interplay of positive and negative space, expanding form and ideas in the imaginative cavity of the head. Strangely there’s a cyber quality to this human form without an individual identity, potentially a new code of etiquette at work in a face composed as a structural framework. It has that sinister Dr Who feeling of something familiar and seemingly benign, comfortably relegated to history and yet alive in its altered form, as cold and intellectualised as marble so often is in the hands of men and state. It’s a portrait bust lacking humanity and individuality, focused on the power of intellect. The artist’s psychological archaeology conceals as much as it reveals about masculine identity past, present and future, which is an incredibly interesting position for the audience in terms of projection.

The intimacy of the exhibition space, accompanying soundscape and video by Mercury prize winning band Young Fathers (AKA Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and ‘G’ Hastings) encourages deeper contemplation of the works on display. The looped sound accompaniment to the show operates as an undercurrent of provocation, informing the images in unexpected ways as you encounter them. The timing and associations for each viewer will be different as they move through the space  and within their own connective loops of sound, image, memory and meaning. The visitor meanders through fragments of haunted piano, natural sounds like wind moving through aged buildings, human breath, voice and chanted commands conjuring the playing, athletic or military training field. The video by Young Fathers, which is the final statement in the show and by far the edgiest work, is a brief, edited sequence of young men half in shadow, illuminated momentarily in the heat of red light, being directed in the manner of a photoshoot to express emotions or adopt a certain stance for the camera/ director/ viewer. The male voices in charge of the camera prompt the sitters; “snarl”, “laugh”, “batter your eyelids- you’re pretty, really pretty”, “have you given enough?”, “be a man, cry for me!”  “look over here- smile”, “who loves you?”, this last question unsettlingly underscored by the kind of cheering background chorus you’d hear at a competitive sporting event. It’s survival of the fittest, the threat of being prey to whoever holds the camera and what that means in the political arena of gender. There’s the contradiction of public intimacy and the power differential between the filmed subject and film makers, provoking questions about the nature of the dialogue. I liked what this added to the visual/ auditory interpretation about what masculinity means, individually and collectively, in the 21st Century and in the context of the whole show. Although the directions given by male voices are not to female models or sitters, they are very familiar as such. It’s a dynamic of inequality which plays out terms of self-worth through dominance or submission to the commanding voice over. It’s a dialogue we’re not used to seeing between men in this kind of setting, but very telling in human terms. The real point is not just “Looking Good” but how the gaze is directed and to what ends socially, culturally and politically.


Francois-Xavier FABRE (1766–1837) Portrait of a Man, 1809. Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 50 cm.
Collection: Scottish National Portrait Gallery Purchased with the aid of the Art Fund (Scottish Fund) 1992. Photo: © National Galleries of Scotland.

The works on display are incredibly varied from the dashing, highly Romanticised Portrait of a Man by Francois-Xavier Fabre (1809, Oil on canvas, Scottish National Portrait Gallery), John Pettie’s haughty, highly coiffed portrait of Sir David Murray (1890, oil on canvas, Scottish, National Portrait Gallery), in which facial hair becomes as potent a calling card as the artist’s signature, to much rawer, more confrontational works by artists such as Lucian Freud and Robert Mapplethorpe. What I found myself doing, going through the exhibition rooms several times, was reimagining the signposted hanging sequence. The five exhibition themes: Dress Code, Good Grooming, Men in the Mirror, The Male Icon and Modes of Manhood were provocative for me because they proved a bit too safely boxed. Less obvious labelling/ hanging, with works juxtaposed in more challenging ways to actively interrogate different themes or underlying questions, rather than comfortably illustrating them, might have been a better overall strategy. For example, why place Richard Ansett’s image of Grayson Perry (2013, chromogenic print, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London) in the status of “other” by hanging it in what is essentially the alternative “Modes of Manhood” section? Give the man his due and challenge public expectations of masculinity by placing Perry in the Male Icon section! Not just to disrupt the perfume ad portraits of brand Beckham and super broody Gerard Butler, but because Perry’s status as a contemporary artist, social commentator, journalist and television documentary maker is Iconic. Single handed he has done more than anyone in recent years to encourage debate about what it means to be a man in the 21st century. Although visitors are free to draw their own conclusions about the Male Icons VS Modes of Manhood face off on opposing walls, this relegation seemed strangely at odds with the open stance towards masculinity present in individual works and in the aspirational nature of the show.

Richard Ansett Grayson Perry, Commissioned for BBC Radio 4’s Reith Lectures 2013 © Richard Ansett/BBC. National Portrait Gallery, London

The image of Grayson Perry dressed as his alter ego Claire is one of a “plethora of masculinities” forming his identity and a vision of what masculine and feminine outside the box might look like. Hung adjacent to Robert Mapplethorpe’s Smutty (1980, Silver gelatine print, Artist Rooms, National Gallery of Scotland & Tate) and an exquisitely beautiful, melancholic portrait of dancer/choreographer Michael Clark by David Williams (1989, Silver gelatine print, Scottish National Portrait Gallery) notions of masculine and feminine become more visibly fluid through the lens, despite being thematically confined in the exhibition space.  Ansett’s portrait of Grayson Perry/ Claire speaks resoundingly of the Self as masculine and feminine. Claire’s gaze meets the viewer’s, her red drawn eyebrows raised in confident punctuation, silently addressing the camera/viewer with a mature, worldly gaze. Standing steadfast in orange platform shoes, the exit door in the corner of the plush, red room appears too small, giving an Alice in Wonderland shrunken quality to the surroundings and heightening Claire’s dominance in the room. This photograph, taken for the BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures, is a vibrant, unmissable statement in recoding dress and viewer expectations. The pattern on Perry’s dress incorporates his childhood teddy bear “Alan Measles”, it’s colourful and intensely psychological, an element that speaks of the formation of identity in childhood.  Claire’s flamboyant style combines youthful bobbed hair with middle aged 1970’s party host dress, a contradiction of doll-like red lips and intellectually loaded “blue stockings”. Claire launches a “so what?!” stare to the viewer/ photographer, the playfulness of the outfit in tandem with the artist’s impending public address. Perry’s everyman status integration into the mainstream comes through in his TV appearances. All of his work raises a mirror to Self and society, never shying away from the complexity of being the masculine/ feminine humans we all are psychologically. Perry/ Claire is not just about fashion, grooming or being outrageous, he/she’s about being visibly him/herself, a living, creative force for reflection, empathy and positive change; a true male icon acknowledging the Feminine within himself.

A portrait that feels real amongst the pumped-up sport/ rock/ film star “Male Icons” wall is Nadav Kander’s image of Tinie Tempah (Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu), (Ink jet print made in 2011, National Portrait Gallery, London.) What shines through is masculine beauty through self-possession. Tempah is a rapper, singer, songwriter, with his own fashion and independent record labels. The portrait exudes confidence, pride and ambition but without aggressive dominance. He’s a man looking beyond the viewer and the confines of the frame, rather than measuring himself against them. Dressed in a white shirt, bow tie and diamond earing, his groomed success is refreshingly stained with shades of purple spray paint from the street. The fine paint splatter isn’t makeup, but identification and strength in the knowledge of where you come from. It feels like the foundation of the man and his character inhabiting the image. Tempah exudes the beauty of self-possession not in posturing but from his pores, nuanced with the purple sheen of nobility, the anti-establishment spray of graffiti and a natural blue/black lineage of pride. Although the head a shoulders image is traditionally composed, the introduction of different hues and attitude of the subject subverts this, becoming a much more layered statement of gender, class, race, artistic intent and individuality. The adjacent photographs of actor Gerard Butler and footballer David Beckham seem doubly one dimensional by comparison, simply selling a celebrity line on masculinity in black and white, as if the name / brand/ macho snarl were enough- and perhaps they are for a two second hit. However, in the Art and specifically portraiture, it isn’t just about looking good, flattering the sitter or selling a product, but being human and vulnerable on some level- traditionally considered a very un-masculine trait, especially for men in the public domain. In that respect, the relationship and trust established (even in a single sitting) between the artist/ photographer and the subject is critical. Individuality and identity are often about revealing that which is hidden, because in the words of T.S Eliot we all “prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet”. For men, being strong is often a necessary part of that self- projection to the world, but strong doesn’t have to be overly aggressive, physical and in your face. It can be found in quiet, contemplative dignity, as we see in Kander’s very masculine, equally beautiful image of Tempah, subverting the super machismo normally associated with the Rap music industry. The independent spirit of this portrait is about more than the ego or status of the sitter, displaying layers beneath his worldly success, sprayed onto his skin and clothing, not to conceal who he is, but to reveal something about his core self, not just as a man but a human being. It’s exactly that kind of insight that sorts out the men from the boys; a level of understanding, integration, mutual respect and sensitivity in collaboration between the artist and subject.

Gerard Jefferson-Lewis. Untitled (Butcher Boys) Portrait Number 472. Photograph, three framed C-type digital prints, each: 59.4 x 84.1 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, gift of the photographer 2013. © Gerard Jefferson-Lewis.

A very ambiguous, intriguing collaboration between artist and subject unfolds in Untitled Man (Butcher Boys) Portrait No 472 by Gerard Jefferson-Lewis (Digital chromogenic print, made 2012, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Gift of the photographer 2013. NB/ in the exhibition this consists of one image only rather than a sequence of 3)  The butcher’s white frock becomes a generic uniform, intensifying our sense of the individual face emerging from the ground of white and grey. The young man’s sensuous lips, eyes in mutual exchange with the male presence behind the camera, coupled with his “unfixed identity” in uniform is a compelling exploration of power, or perhaps the illusion of it. The series “Butcher Boys” has homoerotic undertones, of youthful, raw meat and (at least to this female viewer) the ironic suggestion of how women are often posed for the male gaze in a very different type of uniform. Jefferson-Lewis’s portrait is arguably more understated and complex. The male subject here is clothed in a metaphorical blank canvas, a frock of service and the purity of white. On one level, he can be whatever the viewer imagines him to be and yet his individual face stands out from the adopted costume with an expression that contains and projects his own desire. There is conformity and individuality in this image of a masculine presence that is seductive without resorting to clichés of rippling muscles and obvious physical virility. Here the proposition and exploration is sensuously cerebral.

Daniel MYTENS (1590-1647) James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, 1606 – 1649. Royalist, 1629
Oil on canvas, 221 x 139.7 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased with help from the Art Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Pilgrims Trust 1987. Photo: Antonia Reeve.

Daniel Mytens’ portrait of James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, 1606 – 1649. Royalist, (1629, Oil on canvas, 221 x 139.7 cm, National Galleries of Scotland) presents a face to the world befitting Hamilton’s status as chief advisor to King Charles I. It’s the theatre of the portrait flanked by drapery on one side and an Italian marble column on the other. This richness becomes opulence in the silver threads and bobbin lace of his clothing, soft kid gloves, fine shoes and spurs. His eyes meet ours as sharp points of light like the tip of the rapier which hangs at his side. The background suggests dominion over sea and land. We are clearly faced with calculated masculinity, standing above us in the context of the royal court and the nobleman’s sovereignty over his own estate. Nearby is Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Lord George Stuart, 9th Seigneur of Aubigny (1618-1642), (Oil on canvas, circa 1638, 86 in. x 52 1/2 in, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London) displaying an equally opulent but almost mythological persona in union with nature. The spring of flowing water, roses, foreground plants, together with the hoe or fork he’s carrying  symbolically hooking into the tree in the background, position the male figure at the centre of the composition, but there’s a twist. Stuart is leaning on an ancient stone in this pastoral idyll with the inscription; “ME FIRMIOR AMOR” (Love is stronger than I am), an encoded admission of personal vulnerability from a member of the ruling class, harking back to the Classical world of Gods and nymphs. He’s not showing us his whole hand though, one is hidden beneath his robes of ochre/ gold and blue, as if holding something back from the viewer and this mysterious air keeps us on the backfoot as spectators. His luxurious hair and embroidered boots make him look effeminate to contemporary eyes, but this is a heroic image of manhood and learned passion which commands the space he occupies.

Sir Anthony VAN DYCK (1599–1641) Sir Anthony Van Dyck, circa 1640. Oil on canvas, 56 cm x 46 cm oval. Collection: National Portrait Gallery, London.Purchased with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund in honour of David Verey CBE (Chairman of the Art Fund 2004-2014), the Portrait Fund, The Monument Trust, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Aldama Foundation, the Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation, Sir Harry Djanogly CBE, Mr and Mrs Michael Farmer. Matthew Freud, Catherine Green, Dr Bendor Grosvenor, Alexander Kahane, the Catherine Lewis Foundation, the Material World Foundation, The Sir Denis Mahon Charitable Trust, Cynthia Lovelace Sears, two major supporters who wish to remain anonymous, and many contributions from the public following a joint appeal by the National Portrait Gallery and the Art Fund, 2014

Anthony Van Dyck’s final self-portrait (circa 1640, Oil on canvas, 56 cm x 46 cm oval, National Portrait Gallery, London) speaks of masculine confidence in maturity, secure in his position as one of the most celebrated court painters of the age. Although dressed as a gentleman, the loose painterly handling of his clothes suggests that fashion isn’t the focus of the image. He’s reached a stage of life where he doesn’t have to accentuate the finery to know or tell the world who he is. What he sees in the mirror is his skilled accomplishment as an artist in his own right. His stature emerges in the presence of the man, his head turned towards the viewer in a three-quarter pose. He’s utterly composed and assured; intelligent eyes acknowledge his self-regard in the mirror and address the viewer. His turbulent hair gives him a strong, independently spirited air. He’s not playing at being anything, he’s just convincingly painting himself. The clothes he wears feel unfinished, almost abstracted from his conscious being. The man in the mirror can be the truth or a lie and here the former triumphs over the latter in an image that feels sketched, unfinished and imperfect. The focus is very much on capturing the face and identity of the artist as an individual and it continues to speak across the ages.

Lucian FREUD 1922-2011. Self-portrait, 1963. Oil on canvas. © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

The artist’s touch also speaks volumes in Man’s Head (Self Portrait III) by Lucian Freud (Oil on canvas, 1963, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London). Rendered entirely in potently, earthy flesh tones, the artist’s furrowed brow of impasto hides his eyes as he squints to perceive the truth in himself. It’s a visual statement of Freud’s belief; “As far as I am concerned, the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as the flesh does.” We can feel that physicality in animated strokes defining cheeks, brow and chin and in the caress of his parted hair. This life in paint is contrasted with the horizontal linear pattern of marks in the uniform brown background. He makes himself stand out, in an audacious and highly accomplished visual statement, making the most of a reduced palette and the immediacy of brushstrokes which have their own distinctive rhythm. Hopefully how various rhythms and themes harmonise, contradict or clash, leading to examination of the viewer’s underlying beliefs, stimulating debate about the nature of masculinity, will be triggered by the works on display. It is wonderful to see, even on a small scale, collaboration and exchange between national collections so that audiences can experience works which may not have otherwise toured to different parts of the country. On one level I can’t comment on what it means to be a man in the 21st Century, but this exhibition provides a window to the complexity and interconnectedness of masculine and feminine and the need for both definitions to be expanded, in our own minds and in the wider world. Portraiture is above all else the study of humanity, faces which are public, private and potential agents of change in how we perceive ourselves.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/looking-good-male-gaze-van-dyck-lucian-freud

Beyond Caravaggio

National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.

17 June – 24 September 2017

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, 1602 On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson. Photo © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) remains one of the most radical, explosive and influential artists in the history of Art. Although his undeniable brilliance, profound insight and consummate skill as a painter attracted esteemed patrons during his lifetime, he was also a man of the street and a murderer, spending the final four years of his tragically brief life as a fugitive. If he were alive today his rise and fall would be meteorically tabloid. “Brilliant, challenging, argumentative and violent, our image of his work is inseparable from his tumultuous personal life.”  Despite his deeply conflicted, volcanic temper and fatally impulsive personality – or perhaps because of it, he dared to simultaneously level and elevate humanity in his art. Controversially using ordinary people as models for the saints and placing them in everyday settings, he consistently “blurr[ed] the lines between [the] sacred and profane.” His highly dramatic compositions are designed for inclusion, bringing the viewer into the frame, regardless of the Age. Caravaggio’s theatre of the human condition spills into our foreground, combining desire, divinity and illuminating darkness. Profoundly moving, dazzlingly theatrical and intimately cinematic, the technique of Chiaroscuro is very much about the light and dark of the soul. It appeals to our primal instincts and higher senses, the creative drive to construct meaning, alive in shadow play on cave walls, Silent Film, the black and white morality of Film Noir and in the work of this 17th Century Master. Caravaggio’s protagonists erupt from an intense, dark ground of worldly experience. On the high altar of Catholic morality Caravaggio is a burning contradiction, accessibly grounded in the language of everyday mortal life with the breath-taking ability to transcend it. His masculinity admits the feminine in fascinating ways and his ability to convey essential truths through visual narrative is truly spectacular.

This exhibition of works by the artist, his ‘ Caravaggesque’ followers and contemporaries from across Europe including; Artemisia Gentileschi, Orazio Gentileschi, Orazio Riminaldi, Mattia Preti (Il Calabrese), Giovanni Antonio Galli, Nicolas Régnier, Francesco Buoneri (Cecco Del Caravaggio), Matthias Stom, Willem Van der Vliet, Jusepe de Ribera, Valentin de Boulogne, Gerrit Van Honthorst and Nicolas Tournier, is the first of its kind in the UK and part of this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival programme. The touring exhibition is a collaboration between The National Gallery, London, the National Gallery of Ireland and the National Galleries of Scotland, sponsored by Credit Suisse International. Over forty works are on display, “normally housed in museums, stately homes, castles and private collections within the UK” and Ireland, providing a fantastic opportunity to discover the artist’s influence on an entire generation of painters in juxtaposition. Many works and artists in the show will be unknown to visitors and the artist’s influential scope is extremely varied. Caravaggio’s individual brand of naturalism, focus on human gesture, the symbolic narrative of light and his proficiency as a storyteller have enduring appeal, significantly influencing other art forms in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Something which begs exploration out with the parameters of this show is wider exploration of Caravaggio’s influence on Theatre Design, Photography, Cinematography and film directors such as Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, Vincent Corda and Martin Scorsese. Taking a cross-disciplinary approach could provide alternative pathways into Caravaggio’s work for those not immediately drawn to the work of a ‘Master’ from the canon and that of his 16th and 17th Century contemporaries. In the world of gaming, illustration, photography, writing, animation and filmmaking, this artist has much to teach contemporary artists about storytelling through body language, expression, gesture, positioning of the figure in space and the physical/ metaphysical power of lighting. There are many hands-on approaches to Caravaggio’s work that would have tied in beautifully with EIFF just around the corner, enhancing both programmes and appealing to younger audiences. Hopefully Caravaggio’s billing as the “bad boy” of Art History will make people curious and encourage those unfamiliar with his work and that of his contemporaries to visit this amazing exhibition. For visitors who are familiar with the artist’s work, there are new, dynamic connections to be made.

There are certain images that are masterpieces in the holistic sense of the word-perfection on every level in terms of composition, Craft, emotional intelligence and expression. I can say unreservedly that Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (1602, Oil on canvas, 133.5 x 169.5 cm, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) is one of them! From every angle, at distance and up close, it drew me back to it like a magnet. It is hung facing another sublime painting in the largest RSA gallery space, Caravaggio’s much celebrated The Supper at Emmaus (1601, oil on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm, The National Gallery, London). Both were commissioned by Ciraco Mattei and it is wonderful to see them reunited in the space as examples of an artist at the height of his powers. In a wider thematic context and in terms of influence it is fascinating to see the relationships between works and how they bounce off each other. The technical influences are obvious; positioning of light, use of shadow, the naturalism of live models and everyday settings, but there are many more nuanced connections to be explored in the show. One of the most humbling aspects of The Taking of Christ for all its sophistication and artistry is what Caravaggio achieves in terms of expression. It is a story told through the hands, body language and gesture, the most basic means human beings use (primarily unconsciously) to communicate. The artist didn’t labour over preparatory drawings, he reacted very directly to life within and around him in an immediate, visceral way. It doesn’t matter what age you happen to be standing in, your education, cultural background, what your religious beliefs are or if you have none, the gesture and psychology of this composition appeals to human hard wiring to read each other and construct meaning visually. It is an absolute masterclass in the artist transcending themselves to create something timeless and revolutionary.

The Taking of Christ is like a single frame of a film frozen for the spectator to fully contemplate a moment  and the condition of betrayal. Unfolding biblical drama aside, it is a story communicated progressively through the hands and with the power of light. The artist is literally and metaphorically holding a lamp in the scene, creating balance in the composition with a line of light bisecting the arrow of arresting light on the arm of an armour-clad soldier. This clash of hard metal and vulnerable flesh contains violence in what is a compressed pictorial space and a dark night of the soul. The figures in closest relationship to each other (Jesus and Judas), one gripping the shoulder of the other in an extension of the arresting arm of the soldier makes the character complicit. The intimate space between the two men is divided by shadow and we feel in the downcast gaze and hands turbulently entwined beneath the weighted burden of deepest blue the psychological anguish and gravitas of human betrayal. The betrayer looks past the betrayed, his furrowed brow communicating the conflicted nature of the act, whilst the figure in the far left of the composition cries for help with his arms raised, beyond the picture plane into darkness. We understand in the darkness beyond the frame it is too late and the call for deliverance will not be answered. The scene is highly charged and intensely dramatic, but crucially not melodramatic. Its emotional core is interior, rather than being trapped in exterior performance and that is the real source of the painting’s power and appeal. Even if the viewer does not know the story of Christ and his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane prior to the crucifixion, the image appeals to our emotional intelligence in portraying the complexity and conflict of betrayal, beautifully, miraculously through hands which reach across time to touch our own. These are men in the dress of the day feeling as we do, not gods or heroes, even though the central character is the son of the Christian God. That piercing light of intentionality like a sword hits us immediately, instinctively and emotionally, requiring no further explanation. Interestingly, as Aidan Weston-Lewis suggests in his exhibition catalogue entry, it is Caravaggio inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s depiction of The Betrayal of Christ (1509), which for me is one definitive, singular personality and trajectory of creative intent, inspirationally leading another.

Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino, ‘Christ displaying his Wounds’, about 1625–35 © Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council

Displayed in the same room, we see how humanity is communicated in the figure of Christ in a painting by Giovanni Antonio Galli (called Lo Spadarino, 1585-1682).  Christ Displaying his Wounds (about 1625-35, oil on canvas, 132.3 x 97.8cm, Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council, Scotland) shows Christ illuminated in resurrection, emerging from the dark, mysterious ground of death. His fingers of his hands part his own flesh, opening the wound for us to see with the felt sense of our own body, coupled with an expression that calls for us to examine the truth of what we are witnessing. Although lit from above, Christ’s eyes directly, inescapably address the viewer; furrowed brow and mouth slightly open, questioning not as an elevated being but eye to eye. The biblical text/concept of “blood of my blood and flesh of my flesh” made real and relatable.  This arresting painting aligns with Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-2) in terms of the doubting disciple/ human doubt, poking a finger into belief. The resurrection Galli’s risen Christ suggestively affirms is within our own souls. It is the gesture and the immediacy of touch which flows between the hand of Caravaggio, Galli, the human/ philosophical subject, the painting as object and the viewer. The link between Caravaggio and his followers is often more complex and visionary than simple aesthetic or stylistic imitations. Throughout the exhibition it is extremely interesting to see what aspects of his Art appeal to different artists from Italy, Switzerland, France, Spain and the Netherlands and how this manifests in their individual approaches to the secular and sacred.

In the Painting from Life: Music/ Drinking/ Gambling themed room Nicolas Tournier’s Dice Players (about 1620-25, Oil on canvas, 127 x 172.7cm, Attington Park, The Berwick Collection, The National Trust) conjures the atmosphere of illicit activity and potential violence in a quartet of men assembled around a makeshift gaming table. The light invested in the faces and hands of the three central protagonists skilfully pulls us into the game, aligned with the three die cast on the table top, an expression of their individual personalities, attitudes and fates. The gaze of the central figure is fixed on his opponent. His hand assertively placed on the table operates in dialogue with the players flanking him and the illuminating placement of their hands and bodies frame the tension of the scene. It is taking place in the shadows, perhaps in an alley or the back room of a tavern. It is absorbing how the merger of everyday faces and settings enters into more religious subject matter in the show and the levels upon which this operates, especially in the context of Faith under threat in later generations. Caravaggio’s rebellious introduction of traditionally unworthy models; street urchins, prostitutes and crimminals as the faces of religious art caused a sensation in the early 1600’s. Anchoring storytelling to familiar settings and dress, or the use of dark, ambiguous spaces into which the viewer can project themselves, is aided by the artist’s choice of foreshortened views. Rather like the eye of the camera in modern cinematography we imaginatively enter the scene, we can’t help it because the artist has placed us very deliberately in the foreground of the composition. He doesn’t just want us to see, he wants us to experience and more importantly to feel.

Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), an artist who knew Caravaggio in his lifetime, brings this dynamic into play with his rendering of David and Goliath (about 1605-8, oil on canvas, 185.5 x 136 cm, The National Gallery of Ireland) which spills emotively into the viewer’s space. The scene of the boy David about to slay the giant is presided over by a drawn sword. The active steel engulfs the top of the composition, whilst the background plays a subtler role in establishing the internal, unconscious Nature of the image. Behind David’s head is a living tree with an arched branch following the curve of his sword about to deliver the decisive blow, whilst just below it a dead branch inclined at a precarious angle, aligned with Goliath’s hand as he lays on the ground. David’s slingshot and the arrangement of stones topple into our foreground and we’re effectively cast as participants in the emotive tension of the scene.

Artemisia Gentileschi Susannah and the Elders, 1622, Oil on canvas, 1615 x 123cm
Signed and date on lower centre, above Susannah’s knees. ARTEMITIA GENTILESCHI LOMI /FACIEBAT.A D. MDC XXII. The Burghley House Collection, BH no. 218.

Hung opposite this painting in the thematic “Sacred and Profane” room is one of the finest, most subtly nuanced paintings in the show by Orazio Gentileschi’s daughter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-about 1656). Her stunning treatment of the Old Testament subject of Susannah and the Elders (1622, Oil on Canvas, 161.5 x 123cm, The Burghley House Collection) outstrips the adjacent skills of her father and introduces, perhaps for the first time in Art History, the biblical tale from a Female point of view. Her beautifully crisp treatment of detail and acute emotional intelligence shine through a highly unusual treatment of the subject. It’s the only painting by this artist housed in the British Isles and brings into play a much more highly evolved sphere of influence, engaging fully with the complexity of emotion at work in Caravaggio’s paintings. Curator Letizia Treves comments on the mistaken attribution of this work to Caravaggio “throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries, the signature confirming Artemisia’s authorship [ signed and dated in the lower centre, above Susannah’s knees] only becoming apparent after cleaning in 1995.”

The influence of Caravaggio on Artemisia Gentileschi’s work is multifaceted, arguably operating on a deeper level than many other followers. Something that has always struck me about Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard, an early work painted between 1594-5 (Oil on canvas, 66 x 49.5cm, National Gallery, London) is that even then, the technical prowess is matched by the artist’s capacity for expression of complicated emotion and desire. It’s a quality that elevates his Art and enables it to speak in a modern, secular world. Caravaggio’s audaciousness and tenacity puts many contemporary artists in the shade in that respect. Whilst many have written about Boy Bitten By a Lizard as an expressive study of surprise, reacting to the physical stimulus of the young man’s finger being bitten, there’s a whole lot more going on in this picture, not just in acknowledging the homo-eroticism of it, but how the artist achieves a multi-layered rather than a simplistic reaction to desire. The exquisite attention to detail in the ripe, glistening fruit you could reach out and touch, the glass vase with running beads of water and delicately modelled blooms, certainly establishes the painter’s ability as a calling card, but the function of the image, sold on the street, is more than the artist working from a live model to convincingly capture a single expression. The youth’s shoulder is sensuously exposed and the directional light catches the rhythm of his robe, the curve of his hands and fingers in a highly animated serpentine curve as he leans into the table. His open mouth, curvaceous lips and tongue combine with his furrowed brow, creating an expression not simply of surprise but of pain mixed with the suggestive promise of pleasure. It is a moment of experience, a twist in the tale of innocence transformed and a projection of desire on the part of the artist and potential client. It’s an intimate view of a street wise Bacchus and the worship of a different God through the body and senses. Caravaggio isn’t afraid to confront challenging subject matter, he is who he is, fuelled by impulse and instinct, refined here with the unnerving clarity and transparency of glass. There’s a sense of unease and anticipation in walking that knife edge, a precariousness that strengthens his compositions. He is supremely confident, isn’t prone to overworking the painting, is spontaneous in his reaction to the subject/ aspects of Self and equally controlled in how he composes the world within the frame.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Boy bitten by a Lizard, about 1594-5
Oil on canvas, 66 x 49.5 cm. The National Gallery, London. Bought with the aid of a contribution from the J. Paul Getty Jr Endowment Fund, 1986.© The National Gallery, London.

What Artemisia Gentileschi brings to understanding Caravaggio is to take command of the composition in painting and in life. She grasped from a very young age what many mature followers of Caravaggio do not, namely the emotional complexity, sensitivity and internal power of his work. The light and shadow in her Susannah and the Elders comes from within, depicted as never before in the history of Art. She’s not just a follower, like Caravaggio she is uniquely herself in this work and eclipses her contemporaries in the processThe biblical tale of Susannah and the Elders is (unsurprisingly) a very popular subject amongst male artists and patrons as it provides the opportunity for the appearance of Old Testament piety, coupled with imaginative wish fulfilment and sexual gratification in the female nude.  In Gentileschi’s version, the core of the image is Susannah herself, she isn’t cowering or running for cover, but is self-possessed and symbolically lit from above. Her eyes are raised beyond the space in the high right hand corner of the painting where the two elders lean into the frame, leering at her. Pushed to the edge of the painting their presence is balanced on the left-hand side by the heavy, oppressive form of an urn, which cuts into the blue sky and torn grey clouds as negative space. This feels very much like the archetypal woman as a vessel, establishing a masculine / feminine power differential in a society led by male elders. The putti in the fountain cast a sinister show as her private bath is invaded. Susannah’s back is literally and metaphorically to the wall and in deflecting the advances of the two elders. Her body twists in on itself, one arm across her torso and the other crossing her knees as she tries to wrap her white chemise around her body. Her form isn’t idealised beauty but voluptuous and real. Although some viewers might confuse the arrangement of form with erotic display in one breast being revealed, it is also protectively enclosed by her bent arm and elbow. The painting commission may have dictated an open treatment of the subject in terms of the female body but the artist delivers this on her own terms. Susannah’s entire expression and posture denotes shielding herself, but still being the woman she is and that gives us hope for her and her story. There is a feeling of psychological survival in her separation from the elders’ close proximity and threat of violation. In the minds of contemporary viewers the story would have completed with her vindication and reputation restored. The artist’s empathy with the female protagonist is impossible to separate from her own experience of sexual violence and the horrific public rape trial which profoundly affected the course of her life and Art. As we see it in her painting of Judith and Holofernes (about 1614-20), a composition inspired by Caravaggio’s image of the same subject painted between 1598-9, but far stronger as a pure, visual expression of revenge and rage. She is the strength behind the composition, resoundingly bound together by her skill, insight and experience as a true Master. That same self- possession tempers the extreme distress we see in Susannah’s face and her vulnerability, communicated in tiny details such as her earrings which catch the light not as adornments, but rendered in the same manner as her tears. The posture of the elder in blue is one of appraisal of her body as property, something to be used, while his voyeuristic companion crassly clambers to get a better look over his shoulder. Their fine clothes and status amplify the statement of moral hypocrisy and corruption, but do not overshadow the virtue and resilience of Susannah, or indeed Artemisia herself. This is a hugely important painting, not just in terms of the artist’s development, but in what it reveals about gender equality, society, politics and culture not just in Artemisia’s time, but in our own century which has only begun to question and re-evaluate our visual inheritance. Like Caravaggio, Gentileschi can stand alone in any century. She makes Nicolas Régnier’s beautifully painted Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant (about 1626-30) look like staged artifice by comparison. She has Caravaggio’s fortitude and guts, but without the misdirected brute force of inherited masculinity and arrogance that was his downfall.

Styles of painting fall in and out of fashion and even painting in recent years has fallen out of favour but as this exhibition demonstrates, holistic engagement with the human figure still has a far reaching influence. Generations after Caravaggio’s death, the nature of his influence as a Master without a School is as potent and fresh as ever and what a joy it is to see the work of other artist’s inspired by him step out of the shadows and into the public domain.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/beyond-caravaggio

www.edinburghartfestival.com