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So what exactly was the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood? Forget the bodice-ripping TV drama Desperate Romantics, which belittled the pre-Raphaelites as sexual desperadoes. These were ardent, ambitious and serious artists and poets. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais were the leaders of the movement formed in 1848. The pre-Raphaelite brotherhood embodied protest. William Morris was later to describe it as a “really audacious attempt” to reject the prevailing academic forms of art in favour of truth to nature. It was an audacity that applied to literature as much as to painting and the decorative arts.
They called themselves pre-Raphaelites defiantly, taking up the purist values of pre-renaissance art of the period immediately before Raphael, drawing on the past to make their own mid 19th-century artistic revolution. We need to remember these were still very young men. Holman Hunt was 21, Rossetti only 20, Millais just 19. They formed a cohesive in-group, shutting out the unbelievers. Their dazzling manifesto on the true meaning of art proved terribly obscure to both the critics and the public.
They were clever and sardonic. Their irreverence still makes them seem curiously modern. Alison Smith, co-curator of the Tate exhibition, is surely right in seeing the pre-Raphaelites as the first modern art movement and in subtitling her show “Victorian Avant-Garde”. They were radical in their ways of looking, viewing their subjects with an intense psychological acumen. They were radical, too, in their techniques of painting. That pre-Raphaelite super-realism was achieved through meticulous attention to detail. The artists preferred painting outside the studio, the strange and often shocking candour of their vision exaggerated by the effects of natural light.
As Sir Howard Hodgkin CBE, Turner prize-winning artist and arguably Britain’s greatest living painter, celebrates his 80th birthday next month, it’s worth reflecting on how much poorer the world would be had he jumped. Frequently pigeonholed as the last great English romantic painter in the vein of Constable and Turner, Hodgkin is more incendiary than that – a sunburst of an artist who exploded counterintuitively from a British visual culture temperamentally uneasy at depicting sensuality or expressing intellectual thoughts.
In a five-star review of new work at Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010, Guardian critic Jonathan Jones pegged Hodgkin as giddy colourist and daring philosopher in paint. “Ideas, associations, affinities, memories, longings constitute, for Hodgkin, our real experience of the material world,” he wrote.
Painting is a lot of things: resilient, vampiric, perverse, increasingly elastic, infinitely absorptive and, in one form or another, nearly as old as humankind. One thing it is not, it still seems necessary to say, is dead.
Maybe it appears that way if you spend much time in New York City’s major museums, where large group shows of contemporary painting are breathtakingly rare, given how many curators are besotted with Conceptual Art and its many often-vibrant derivatives. These form a hegemony as dominant and one-sided as formalist abstraction ever was.
But that’s another reason we have art galleries. Not just to sell art, but also to give alternate, less rigid and blinkered, less institutionally sanctioned views of what’s going on.
New York Times
Damien Hirst, Lucian Freud, David Hockney … they may be very different artists but they have something in common, apart from the fact that all have blockbuster exhibitions this spring. A certain universality and ambition, an ability to voice the experience of Everyman … Wait a moment. Yes, it is Everyman. After all the revolutions in art over the last couple of centuries, the gender bias is apparently as deep as ever.
This year – quite apart from the Cultural Olympiad that will foreground artists like, er, Mr Anish Kapoor and Mr Martin Creed – a crop of big exhibitions are focusing not so much on the diversity and energy of British art as on the greats, the big boys … and boys they are. Women play a big part in modern British art. But when it comes to awarding the gold, silver and bronze medals the idea of excellence in art remains as macho as it was in the days of Michelangelo, Rodin, Rothko. Why is that?
Oddly enough, the only blockbuster British art star of this season who is not a man is Gillian Wearing, showing at the Whitechapel Gallery, whose director Iwona Blazwick is also a woman. Is there a male conspiracy elsewhere? I think it is more that ideas of greatness in art are so steeped in centuries of sexism that their effect is as hard to pin down as it is vicious. Women are judged differently.
A great and stately unfolding occurs in the “Ocean Park” paintings of Richard Diebenkorn, among which can be counted some of the most beautiful works of art created in America, or anywhere else, since the Second World War.
To stand before these austere but drenchingly beautiful canvases is as close as art gets to the feeling of taking refuge on a cold day under a warm shower. The larger paintings, in particular, impose a physical, almost drug-dragged restraint against removing oneself from their ambit.
Between 1967 and 1985, Diebenkorn (1922-1993), who had already earned acclaim first as an abstract painter, then as a figurative one, settled with his wife Phyllis in southern California. In a beachfront community called Ocean Park in Santa Monica, he occupied first a small, windowless room and then, after six or eight months, a larger, light-filled studio that had just been vacated by his friend, the painter Sam Francis.
There, at the age of 45, and without quite knowing what he was doing or why, Diebenkorn threw himself back into abstraction. Over the next two decades he created 145 “Ocean Park” paintings, some as large as 8½ by 6½ feet, others much smaller.
Most weeks, choosing the armchair lady to put at the top of this column is easy enough, exhibitions being consistently good, bad or so-so. Not this week. No armchair lady exists who could encompass the horror of some works in David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture, and the wonder of others. Given that our designers might struggle to devise a figure throwing streamers with her left hand while putting a gun to her head with her right, I am going to award this schizophrenic show two armchair ladies, one standing and clapping, the other slumped in despair; the first time I’ve done so in 13 years as a critic for this paper.
The problem is one of power. As artists get older and more established – Hockney is 75 this year – so their position becomes less assailable. If England’s greatest living painter wants to put 200 works in his Royal Academy retrospective, rather than, say, 50, who will tell him not to? This is especially problematic because Hockney’s fame rests on his fecundity.
Once upon a time, there was Hockney, the painter of Speedos. Now, there is Hockney the set designer, Hockney the returned Yorkshireman, Hockney the iPad doodler, Hockney the film maker and a number of other Hockneys, each jostling to make their voices heard. The artist himself is clearly of the view that each of these voices is worth hearing. I am not.
David Hockney’s Bigger Picture exhibition includes landscapes of the same spots painted through different seasons. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
The biggest ever UK exhibition of landscape paintings by a living British artist opens this weekend, with the Royal Academy of Arts bracing itself for large numbers wishing to view David Hockney’s collection of his pictures of the Yorkshire countryside near his home in Bridlington.
The 150 works, many of them gigantic and most of them painted in the past five years, fill an entire exhibition floor at the RA’s Piccadilly headquarters in central London.
The much-hyped exhibition, A Bigger Picture, runs from this Saturday until 9 April. It will subsequently tour to Bilbao, Spain, this summer and Cologne, Germany, next autumn.
In 1953 Helen Frankenthaler, who died this week at age 83, received a visit from Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, two artists from Washington who were stuck in an Abstract Expressionist rut. In her studio they saw “Mountains and Sea,” of the year before, a characteristically abstract work painted by pouring pigment onto a canvas laid on the floor.
The poured-paint technique had been pioneered by Jackson Pollock a few years earlier, but in this work the 24-year-old Frankenthaler made it her own. In place of the older artist’s looping and whipping lines of gray, black and tan, her imagery consisted of spreading pools and washes of luxuriant pinks, blues and greens nudged here and there with a sponge. The painting was a revelation to the two men—a “bridge between Pollock and what was possible,” Louis later said. Her novel technique, combined with a chromatic freedom and mastery unprecedented in recent American art, helped launch them, and others, on their own paths of color abstraction, thus ultimately changing the course of American art.
Wall Street Journal
Willem de Kooning’s difficult masterpieces, recently so unfashionable, can now be seen with new eyes. De Kooning’s work for decades was virtually blacklisted by Greenbergian formalists, but MoMA makes amends with a well-chosen and complex survey. “Willem de Kooning, A Retrospective” at MoMA to January 9 is the must-see of the fall season. Jackson Pollock was great, but so was de Kooning, and we are here reminded why.
Of course, the single minded cannot allow anything but a single line. Art-historical descent does not allow dissent, or anything beyond clear-cut teleology. De Kooning’s error is that he seemed not to have left behind descendants who needed justification by patrimony to boost their prices, whereas Pollock supposedly fathered Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski, and maybe, just maybe, Kenneth Noland. We need a new schemata.
Last season’s MoMA survey of Abstract Expressionism was not good enough to bend the curve. The MoMA de Kooning show might. Anger, angst, and ambiguity can no longer be repressed. De Kooning descended from Picasso; Pollock from Thomas Hart Benton.
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam counsels visitors not to interpret his last works as clues to his suicide – which, according to conventional wisdom, took place when the artist shot himself in a field near the doctor’s house that was his last refuge in a world he found almost impossible to inhabit. Last time I was there, a label advised against taking an overly melodramatic view of his roiling blue, black and gold late vision Wheatfield with Crows.
Now the museum has once again urged caution, this time about the claim in a new biography that Van Gogh did not shoot himself after all but was mortally wounded in a bizarre accident. Well might the Van Gogh Museum express scepticism. After all, it seems like only yesterday that “scholars” were claiming poor Vincent did not cut off his own ear after all but was injured by Gauguin with a sword. That claim soon vanished into thin air and rightly so. Will this theory be as short-lived?
Both claims have the instant appeal of challenging the “myth” of Van Gogh the tortured artist, the man “suicided by society”, in the words of Antonin Artaud. Yet both come up against the mystery of why he never mentioned that he had been injured by others. In the case of his ear, it would seem strange that he allowed himself to be hounded by locals as a dangerous madman and incarcerated in asylum without mentioning that, oh, by the way, he was the victim of an assault. Similarly in this case, asks the BBC’s Will Gompertz, why let his family think he’d killed himself if that was not the case? He managed to walk back home and survived the gunshot to his chest long enough to speak out.