In Bath, so off to the Holburne Museum to see their exhibition of paintings by artists associated, by marriage or birth, with Pieter Bruegel. I have seen several Bruegel’s in galleries in different cities over the years but it was a treat to see these paintings collected together. The connections between father, sons and others were well made.
The museum is rightly proud of its collection of works by Pieter Breughel the younger. ‘Wedding Dance in the Open Air’ has been restored and now firmly attributed to the artist. The work that captured my eye the most was ‘The Procession to Calvary’. This was a painting to spend time in front of… lots of time to take in the detail and wonder at the way
‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ has long been one of my all time favourite paintings and this work is similar in the way the import of one event is shown in contrast to the fact that most people are oblivious or disinterested in it. Two paintings: one by the father and one by the son. They both resonate.
In London, so off to Tate Britain to see the exhibition ‘Queer British Art: 1867- 1967’, held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passing of legislation to partially decriminalise homosexuality. The gallery was heaving with visitors heading for the major David Hockney show; somewhat telling that a gay artist drew bigger crowds than this attempt to show how being gay influenced the art.
I had a few problems with this exhibition, the largest being that not all the artists featured were known to be gay. The suggestion that he or she might have been is just a posh version of what the awful tabloid newspapers do when they want to ‘suggest’ a person’s sexuality.
Having grown up in the 70s when being thought to be gay by others was enough to bring around the abuse, it was a bit disappointing to see the same (but more refined) approach being used on people who are long dead and cannot speak for themselves. Lord Leighton’s work is here which seems to be enough to decide he must have been gay. I take the point, made by the curator, that many paintings were coded to convey messages that would have been picked up by gay people but that does not mean that all the Victorian artists here were gay themselves.
The two paintings I loved rose above the rest, with only the door of Oscar Wilde’s cell from Reading Prison of equal poignancy. Lord Leighton’s ‘Icarus and Daedalus’ and Henry Scott Tuke’s ‘The Critics’ were stunning.
In the Calahorra tower at the end of the famous bridge in Cordoba houses a ‘museum’ or audio-visual display telling the history of the city and its place as a centre of learning where three religions existed in harmony and respected each other. The ‘Museum of Three Cultures’ is a fascinating place. Most of the exhibits are reproductions or models but the story of the city’s past is well laid out.
It was here that I saw the reproduction of a painting by Dionisio Baixeras of Abd-ar-Rahman III receiving at his court in Cordoba, the Monk Nicholas, ambassador of the Christian Emperor, Constantine. The coming together of religions, not to convert but to understand each other, was important then and is important now.
I went to the National Gallery in London to see the exhibition ‘Beyond Caravaggio’. I have tracked down many ‘Caravaggios’ over the years in various places around the world and I recently heard Andrew Graham Dixon give a lecture on the artist so I was keen to see this exhibition which examined his influences on other artists.
The great thing about the major exhibitions that London both generates and attracts is that paintings from global collections all arrive in one location; there is the treat of seeing Caravaggio’s ‘John the Baptist’ from a museum in Kansas City alongside works in the ownership of the Queen.
I knew little of the other artists collected here but Cecco del Caravaggio is reputed to be lover model and student of the famous artist. Then we have the aspiring painters who travelled to Rome to study their hero and those who hated him but were influenced by his style, in particular his use of light and reflection. Matthias Strom was a name new to me but two of his paintings stood out for me. His ‘Old Woman and a Boy by Candlelight’ was particularly striking.
This was an exhibition worth seeing but it will still be worth visiting the great cities of the world to search out individual works by Caravaggio. His paintings are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I hadn’t been to Tate Modern for a while so it was good to be back. This time I was here to see the Bhupen Khakhar exhibition. I knew nothing of this Indian artist who spent some time living in the UK but I was attracted by two things: the signature piece used in the advertising for the exhibition; and the fact that Khakhar had trained in Britain with Howard Hodgkin, whose work I really like.
‘You Cannot Please All’ is the title of the exhibition as well as of one of his paintings. I read mixed reviews before I went but I found Khakhar’s work to be interesting, sometimes amusing and, above all,poignant, especially when the context of the artist’s state of health and well- being was taken into account; some paintings were completed when he suffered from cataracts and his fight with cancer provided painful background information for his later work. Of most interest was his expression of his sexuality through his art. Some of his work is explicit but it is the expression of love that comes through most strongly.
Around some of the walls are quotes from Khakhar. His views on the British are the most entertaining. He suggests that our winter lasts ten months of the year and it is best not to smile here as we British prefer to sulk! His comment about the British Empire importing hypocrisy to India over same sex relationships is the most telling of all. Essentially, the artist is right: you cannot please all the people all the time. I was pleased I went.
In London so I went to see the exhibition at Tate Britain about artists and the British Empire. The progress and decline of the Empire has been an interest of mine since boyhood. Rather, I should say that the growth of the British Empire was what I was taught about in school in London in the 60s. In fact, the glories of British history in relation to the Empire were still being taught when the decline was well under way at that stage.
In any case, the exhibition was fascinating as it demonstrated the way Britain used art to construct an image of itself as a benign ruler of the world while being influenced by the artistic traditions of the countries it conquered. This two way street meant that the exotic entered Britain while the British flag went to far flung places.
It is probably due to my British education that most of the significant events portrayed by the artworks here were known to me: General Wolfe dying in Quebec as we defeated the French? I knew about that; the British bravely fighting off the Zulus? Yes; the British East India Company bringing civilisation to India? Of course; The death of brave General Gordon in Sudan? That too!
There were stories that did not fit the great narrative I learned in London all those years ago. The story of Duleep Singh I only came across much later in life. How he was taken away from his mother as a young boy and brought up in the arms of the British in England, practically a prisoner, was not a story of bravery and derring- do. It is fascinating to learn, too, that there is little evidence that General Gordon faced his killers with stoicism at the top of steps but this is the image that resonated when I was a boy and it comes from the famous painting by George William Joy. The Victorians knew how to sell an image.
This exhibition not only sent me back to the classrooms of my youth but made me reflect on the way the years since changed my view on this history.
It has been over 30 years since I first set foot in this amazing museum. I went as a newly arrived student full of wonder at the world that was opening up to me. My new found independence was a treasure in its own right and I used it to explore all the things I had not previously experienced. The Ashmolean was high on my list. I little thought, back in the 80s, that it would take so long to return.
The museum is world famous and has its place in history as the first University museum, dating back to 1677 when Elias Ashmole gave his cabinet of curiosities to the University of Oxford. It is like a small version of the British Museum with a wing of the National Gallery added. In my visit, I was keen to see painting and sculpture but also to see what else was on offer.
Top of my list was Alessandro Allori’s ‘Portrait of a Young Man’. The painting of an unknown young man shows him as a person of refinement and education, illustrated by the items in the picture such as a sculpture in the background and the medal in his hand.
Next was ‘A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids’ by William Holman Hunt. This painting, exhibited in 1850, shows a missionary being rescued while, in the background, his companion is taken.
The sculpture I liked the best was ‘The Catapault’ by William Reid Dick who was most famous for his war memorial sculptures. This piece is from 1911.
The Ashmolean Museum is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?