Tag Archives: painting

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

Remains To Be Seen, Snape Maltings

I returned today to ‘Remains To Be Seen’, a poetic, meditative exhibition spread over the site at Snape Maltings, showing the work of Paul Benney, Laurence Edwards and Kiki Smith. It is part of the Aldeburgh Festival and runs until 26th June.

It is impressively curated by Isabel de Vasconcellos and feels very much an exhibition for the moment: a meditation on mortality, belief, and survival, and on the fragility and strangeness of the human body.

Laurence Edwards’ stateless bronze figures wander into the reed beds at Snape, carrying the accoutrements of their survival with them. They might be figures returning from, or going to war. Another figure, titled Heft carries a great bundle of sticks in the opposite direction, as if building a shelter from storm-fallen branches.

Kiki Smith’s large bronze sculpture, Seer (Alice I) drifts through the largest gallery, an image of monumental innocence and mystery. Alongside are paintings by Paul Benney which play on the paradox of legibility and mystery in religious painting, and also Minotaurus a self-portrait wearing an intriguing candelabra headpiece.

Elsewhere, Edwards shows a bronze sculpture made from a clay model of a frozen barn owl, with the attached story that the sculpture was lost twenty years ago, but then miraculously dug up by a friend last Easter.

Kiki Smith’s Girl with Stars echoes the form of Seer (Alice I), a childlike figure suspended in a magical space. She looks over a bronze cadaver, A Thousand Tides, by Edwards, itself surrounded by animated paintings by Benney, showing candles burning down in bell jars, turning into smoke.

One of the most striking stories is that behind Benney’s painting of an Icarus figure falling through a large industrial space. It is recognisable, by the skylight and gantry, as the Turbine Hall, now Tate Modern. Benney tells the story that his father, the goldsmith Gerald Benney, had his workshop nearby, and that as a child, Paul and friends would break into the derelict power station and run wild in the Turbine Hall, building dens and camps, like the one he shows illuminated in his painting.