Tag Archives: histoiredelart

Animals, Gods, Nature, Ideas..

I’m halfway through giving (and writing) a series of four lectures, based on my book from last year Creation. Art Since the Beginning. They’re being held at St Mary’s Church in Walpole, Suffolk, which has recently become a local venue for art and performance. 

The idea behind the lectures is that the history of art, going right back to the earliest images made by humans, 45,000 years ago, can be divided into four eras. They are the four ages of art, if you like. 

For the first forty thousand years the only subject for art was animals – other animals. This is the theme of the first lecture, ANIMALS, which I (boldly) describe as the Great Untold Story of Art. While there have been some excellent books on the subject, looking at individual periods, this long first era and its aftermath has never (to my knowledge) been tackled as a whole. In preparing the lecture I really benefitted from reading Melanie Challenger’s excellent book How to be an Animal. What it Means to be Human, published a couple of years ago.

Like all the lectures, it is in part an excuse to show and talk about some wonderful works of art, like The Vision of St Eustace by Pisanello, pictured above.

I was very grateful to Jill Cook, the curator at the British Museum for showing me the moving sculpture of the Swimming Reindeer, carved from mammoth tusk about 13,000 years ago, which features at the beginning and end of ANIMALS.

Swimming Reindeer, c.13,000 years old. Photographed in the British Museum Storage

The second lecture, GODS, looks at the period from around 3000 BCE to 1300 CE, the rise of world religions, and the ways artists solved the problem of making the invisible visible, as Paul Klee once put it. At the last minute I discovered Karen Armstrong’s recent book Sacred Nature. How we can recover our Bond with the Natural World, which led to a rapid rewrite of the first part of the lecture.

Here is a little taster of GODS:

The third lecture (which I am currently writing), is NATURE and looks at painting since the time of Van Eyck, before taking in earlier types of landscape painting, particularly those from China and eastern Asia. I’m going back to old favourites, such as Kenneth Clark’s Landscape into Art, but also some excellent recent tomes, including the justifiably (for once) weighty catalogue accompanying the Van Eyck exhibition in Ghent in 2020, a book only Thames & Hudson could produce so well.

There are quite a few images in NATURE from the National Gallery. Here is a preview of the Constable moment (in slow, lecture-giving time, and including a twist at the end):

The fourth lecture, IDEAS, is about what happened after 1890, and the notion that art became a branch of philosophy. As a bit of mental stimulus for the contemporary section I borrowed the 2020 book ‘The Story of Contemporary Art’ by Tony Godfrey from the London Library a few weeks ago (also published by Thames & Hudson). It is an excellent overview of the last thirty or so years, by someone who really knows their stuff, and writes in a clear and engaging way. There may be a few surprises along the way with this lecture. Mal sehen!

Writing lectures is never easy: what to put in, what to leave out, how to get by without reading from a script (deadly boring) — and also how to obtain and show images. 

I dream of giving a lecture again with old-fashioned slides, and am (I think) part of the last generation to have done this, at least as a student. Only artists nowadays are clever enough to carry on using this magical technology. The colours and images of the lantern slide were, at their best, much better than flat digital images, and there was a satisifying ‘clunk’ as the slide went in, which somehow structured the talk.

Nowadays however there is the option of putting different types of slide images together, including films, music, and animations (Keynote is the best application for this I find). You can make cinema-quality clips on your phone, and edit them together on your computer. You can also present online, which is in essence a form of broadcasting. 

I wonder if arts documentaries and these homegrown lecture presentations will increasingly converge. This might offer a rich solution to the problem of the old-fashioned ‘talking head’ arts documentary.

The message connecting the lectures is one put forward in Creation. Art Since the Beginning — that throughout history art has always been a record of our changing encounter with nature, from awe to domination. This, I think, is the most important interpretation for us nowadays.

The lectures will be repeated online at the end of the year, and then, I hope, in person elsewhere in 2023.

Come to Dust

A MINOR COINCIDENCE: reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, I was struck by the moment when Clarissa looks into the window of Hatchards’ bookshop and reads from an open volume lines from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline:

The lines of poetry are from a song in the fourth act of Cymbeline. They are alluded to a number of other times in Mrs Dalloway, becoming a sort of motif in the book:

‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun

Nor the furious winter’s rages

Thou thy worldy task hast done,

Home art gone and ta’en thy wages:

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers , come to dust’.

They seem to underline the theme of of death that runs through the novel, and the importance of grasping time before it runs through one’s fingers.

Quite by chance I read Mrs Dalloway while writing about the paintings of the artist Glenn Brown. One of his paintings, titled Come to Dust, made a strong impression on me hanging in an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery (just up the road from Hatchards’, off Berkeley Square) a few years ago.

Come to Dust, by Glenn Brown. Oil on panel, 115 by 71 cm. 2017.

Come to Dust is an eyecatching, unsettling image of St Catherine, using as a source a seventeenth-century painting by Bernardo Cavallino in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

St Catherine, by Bernardo Cavellino. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Brown takes older paintings, from Rembrandt to Auerbach, and makes his own versions of them, distorting them, altering the colours, and rendering the brushmarks in his distinctively flat, illusionistic style. 

Brown also used the words from Shakespeare’s song for his title, Come to Dust. The theme of death and decay, of a troubled relationship with the past (in his case with the history of art), runs throughout his paintings. I began to wonder (particularly because it was Dalloway day) how you might draw, if at all, a connection between these two very different artists, Brown and Woolf.

I do not know if Brown reads or likes Virginia Woolf. What would Woolf have thought of Brown’s paintings? Perhaps she would have appreciated his quotations, his refined technique, and often highly emotional subject matter, as well as his literary titles. Perhaps not. 

Beyond that it is all just a coincidence, but of a type that seems fitting for Mrs Dalloway, as if the writer and artist had collided for a moment on the corner of a street in Marylebone. One moment in Mrs Dalloway, at least, seems to mark a sort of imaginative convergence between the two: the famous description of the elderly woman Peter Walsh sees outside Regent’s Park Station, singing of love:

‘As the ancient song bubbled up opposite Regent’s Park Tube station still the earth seemed green and flowery; still, though it issued from so rude a mouth, a mere hole in the earth, muddy too, matted with root fibres and tangled grasses, still the old bubbling burbling song, soaking through the knotted roots of infinite ages, and skeletons and treasures, streamed away in rivulets over the pavement and all along the Marylebone Road, and down towards Euston, fertilising, leaving a damp stain’.

Woolf’s description doesn’t make me think of any particularly painting by Brown. It is more that her description of the old, bedraggled woman, both elegant and putrid, singing of love on the Euston Road, seems so close to the ‘Come to Dust’ atmosphere of Brown’s paintings. 

When We Return You Won’t Recognise Us, by Glenn Brown. Oil and acrylic on panel, 120 by 93 cm. 2020
Darsham Songs, by Glenn Brown. Oil, india ink and acrylic on panel, 82 by 129.5 cm. 2016

Chatsworth, Arcadia, Now

The US edition of Chatsworth, Arcadia, Now, published by Rizzoli, arrived here in Suffolk last week. I slightly prefer the cover to that of the UK edition (published by Penguin), not because it has my name on it (although that is of course a factor), but because it shows one of my favourite views of Chatsworth, from the south, with the rolling hills and woodlands behind.

The ‘Seven Scenes’ mentioned in the subtitle are episodes that begin in the present, and go back, as if down the corridors of time, into the deep history of the house and its great holdings of art. They mirror my own discovery of the collection, and the feeling you get in such houses of time and experience distilled and preserved.

It was fantastic, and at times mind-boggling, to stay in a house about which I was writing. At one moment I set up a little office in the famous Sabine Room when the house was closed for the season, and also had the chance to work in the great library – otherwise unused – until I was obliged to flee to escape a terrible blizzard.

What struck me above all, visiting the house regularly over a period of a few years, was how much had changed each time since the last visit. Unlike other great houses open to the public, Chatsworth never feels like a museum, where everything is set in stone. You half expect on arrival to see a new wing having gone up, or an old one pulled down. You will always find new and unexpected works of art, and never leave with the feeling that you have reached the end of what it has to offer.

My book, I hope, captures this restless spirit of change, but also (and I imagine American readers might prefer this aspect), describes the timeless impression of such a great house and collection, set in an idyllic landscape, which always struck me as a sort of contemporary Arcadia.

The Choice of Hercules

Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? by Richard Hamilton. Collage, 1956.
Hercules at the Crossroads, by Annibale Carracci. 1596

RICHARD HAMILTON ONCE DESCRIBED THE TWO PRINCIPAL FIGURES in his 1956 collage, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, as being contemporary versions of Adam and Eve, placed in an American consumerist paradise.

It occurred to me some time ago that the bodybuilder figure (in fact a photograph of Irvin ‘Zabo’ Koszewski, as I wrote in the last post on this collage), is not so much Adam as the figure of Hercules. In Hamilton’s version, he doesn’t have his lion skin – one of the traditional attributes of Hercules – but he does have a club – in the form of an over-sized lollipop. 

Hercules is famous for his twelve labours: including stealing the apples of the Hesperides (which appear on the television in Hamilton’s collage); capturing the Cretan bull; killing a lion and a hydra; and also, in a subsidiary set of labours, carrying the heavens on his back – hinted at by the image of Earth visible through the ceiling.

But there is another Hercules story, first told in antiquity, and popularised during the Renaissance, known as The Choice of Hercules, or Hercules at the Crossroads.

When Hercules was a young man, two women appeared to him: Vice, offering a short road to pleasure, and Virtue, indicating the more arduous route to wealth and renown. The best-known painted version of the subject was made by the Bolognese painter Annibale Carracci in 1596, which now hangs in Naples.

Carracci’s Hercules seems lost in the process of making this very tough decision. His body inclines to the figure of Vice on his left, but the all-important club sides sides with Virtue, who gestures up the long incline, the path to fame and fortune. 

Hamilton’s Hercules is offered a very similar choice, between the easy pleasure of a burlesque pin-up girl, and a steep staircase, at the top of which his paragon of virtue has just finished hoovering.

‘Ordinary Heroes reach only this far!’ you might rewrite the arrow label half-way up the staircase.

Unlike Carracci’s Hercules however, the body of Hamilton’s hero inclines to Virtue, but his pop-club points eagerly towards Vice. 

We can only guess what Hamilton would have thought of such an idea. Yet it does seems natural that an image so much about fame, made by an artist who was obsessed by the image of male heroism, and the legacy of antiquity in the modern age, should be open to such an interpretation.

Just what is it….?

Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that make today’s homes so different, so appealing? 1956. Collage of printed materials and gouache. 25.7 by 25.4 cm. Kunsthalle Tübingen.

IT HAS BEEN FIFTEEN YEARS since my article ‘Pop in the Age of Boom. Richard Hamilton’s Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’, appeared in the September 2007 issue of The Burlington Magazine.

It was, in a sense, the first part of a longer article that was never completed. The article was commissioned by Richard Hamilton late the previous year to settle a strange dispute over the authorship of his 1956 collage, often cited as the first great work of Pop art, which had been raging for some time on the edits page of the wikipedia article about Just what is it… The son of the artist John McHale was arguing that his father, who had collaborated with Hamilton around the time the collage was made, had in fact designed the collage, and Hamilton had merely assembled it.

I spent a long time talking to Hamilton, or rather, listening to him, at his home in North End, over leisurely lunches, after which I had the chance to consult his personal archive. It was easy to dispute McHale junior’s claim, but it seemed to me there was a much more interesting piece of work to be done, which was to discover which magazines had been used as a source material for the collage. Hamilton had no idea where the images had come from, as they had been found by his then-wife, Terry Hamilton, and the artist Magda Cordell, working through a list compiled by Hamilton.

I spent the first half of 2007 searching through magazines, in the British Library and the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris, as well online, which was still then a rather new way of conducting research.

It was in Paris that I discovered the advertisement that Hamilton had used as the basis of the collage, for Armstrong Royal Floors, in the June 1955 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal. You can see why Hamilton was attracted to the image, a perfect piece of mid-century art direction and photograph.

Advertisement for Armstrong Floors, reproduced in The Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1955.

It was also from this ad that Hamilton had taken the title for his collage, a fact that he had forgotten some fifty years later.

Detail of above.

In searching for other sources Ebay was helpful, as were some quite niche websites, such as the detailed archive of vintage ‘physique photography’, created by Tim in Vermont, which yielded the source of the muscle man in Hamilton’s collage, cut either by Terry or Magda from the September 1954 issue of Tomorrow’s Man, a body-building magazine.

Irwin ‘Zabo’ Koszewski. Photographed by Bruce Bellas. Reproduced in Tomorrow’s Man, September 1954.

The period of around six months searching for the source material was pretty exciting, and took me not only to Paris, where the national library has an excellent collection of vintage magazines, such as The Ladies’ Home Journal, and Saturday Evening Post, but also to New York, to the John McHale archive at New Haven (which wasn’t greatly revealing), and also to meet Magda Cordell, in a care home just outside of Buffalo. It was a very interesting, very long meeting, during which she chain-smoked, spoke at length about her younger life, berated me for not having been interested in her work before, and also spent a lot of time watching television in silence. After a number of hours she managed somehow to call the Canadian Mounted Police, whose arrival amused her greatly, and ended our meeting.

I also spoke to the artist Jo Baer, but could never quite corroborate her story that she was the pin-up model in the collage, having posed for nude photographs while a struggling artist in New York in the early 1950s, although it seems to me highly likely.

After an intense period of work, I realised that I would have to publish the article with a number of the sources unidentified, as they would take too long to find. The most surprising of these was the portrait on the back wall, obviously not John Ruskin, as was previously thought — but who?

I’ve often thought that others might have wanted to pick up the hunt, but nobody seems to have done so.

There is much more to say about the research for this article, and what happened after it was published. More posts to follow.