Saturday, 31 October 2009

Nicholas Poussin

The Dance to the Music of Time 1634-6
Oil on Canvas 82 x 104cm
The Wallace Collection, London
29th October 2009

Hung in a corner of the great gallery on the first floor this modestly sized painting is easy to miss amongst the competition from the numerous Old Master Paintings, French and Italian furniture and bronzes.  This decorous but powerful painting is said to depict the perpetual cycle of the human condition: from poverty, labour leads to riches and then pleasure, which if in excess reverts back to poverty.

Poverty is the only male dancer and he is seen from the back wearing a wreath of withered branches and leaves. Labour, the female dancer on the right of the group has bare sunburnt shoulders and feet; Poussin expresses in the turn of her head weariness and fatigue and seems to be straining to glimpse at the figure of wealth over her shoulder. Riches wears a golden coloured skirt, gold sandals and has gold and pearl jewellery in her hair; her pose is one of self conscious dignity and she gazes at Saturn, the God of Time playing his lyre. Pleasure, the last of the dancers, is the only one to make eye contact with the viewer, she wears a blue robe, white sandals and has a crown made of roses.

The inclusion of Saturn isn’t the only reference to the passage of time and the brevity and futility of life. Apollo, the Sun God rides in his chariot, high in the sky above the dancers carrying the wheel of the zodiac. He is preceded in his journey by Aurora, the Goddess of the dawn driving away the clouds of night. The daylight it brings falls only indirectly on the figures below and lights up a few of the remaining Autumnal leaves on the trees. Either side of the dancers is a putto, one blowing ephemeral soap bubbles and another watching sand trickle through an hourglass. The Janus (double) headed statue is of Bacchus; his old head watching the dancing whilst the young head looks out of the side of the canvas at the unpainted future coming with the new day. Saturn himself is playing the music and is therefore not watching, but activating the dance.

Much has been written about the structure of this painting, including the placing of figures, background and subsidiary elements, and balance of colour and light being dependent on the geometrical expression of ratios. These in turn are shown to relate to musical intervals and the painting demonstrates Poussin’s adherence to classical models, reinforcing the concept of logic and order as an expression of beauty.

Seeing the painting for the first time I was surprised at just how muted the colours and brushwork are, but not as amazed as I discovered by looking closely that Poussin had used his left thumb to texture the entire primed surface of the canvas by pressing it into the wet primer. This seems to have no relation to the subject of the painting and is perhaps the first instance the artist immortalising his “self” in the artwork.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Adolph Menzel

Room with a Balcony, 1845
Oil on Cardboard 58 x 47cm
Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Not Seen

I regret missing the chance to see this painting in 2001 when it was shown in the London National Gallery in the exhibition of 19thC paintings Spirit of an Age: Paintings from the Berlin Nationalgalerie. Menzel is perhaps best known for his work as a “court” painter following the history of Prussia from the time of Frederick the Great (since Menzel did the illustrations for a popular book on Frederick's life) to the splendour of the court of King Wilhelm I.

This painting of an interior shows a different side of his artistic talent. One of a number of oil sketches from the 1840’s that explored his Berlin apartment and the views from its windows. Painted purely for his own pleasure, these uncannily modern works are argued to presage the French Impressionists through its use of light and the loose brushwork. Menzel didn’t go to Paris until in 1855 he visited the Exposition Universelle and saw Courbet's 'Pavillon du Réalisme' and is painted 30 years before the exhibition of impressionism in 1874.

Not having seen the painting yet I cannot comment on the paint handling, but it does look as though he has applied it freely using a variety of brushstrokes that suggests objects rather than closely defining them. Despite being a classed as a sketch (it wasn’t shown until a commemorative exhibition was held at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin after Menzel’s death in 1905) it is signed and dated on the front indicating that he felt that his surroundings were a valid subject to paint rather than just an exercise. It is unusual for a painting of an interior of this period, to be neither occupied nor a formal study for a still life. This invites us to focus on the atmosphere of the room rather than on a subject within it.

The balcony doors are open and the curtains billow inwards on the breeze through the window. Today that could be read as a sexual metaphor, but I suspect he was just observing reality rather than trying to imply any moral narrative. The edge of a rug intrudes into the image from the left and a streak of sunlight brightens the floor and shimmers on the empty wall. It is a strange patch of light and suggests that a picture that was hung on the wall has been removed. There are two formal chairs turned away from each other either side of a long mirror in which we see the reflections of a sofa with a gold-framed picture hanging above it. For me it is the positioning of these chairs that give the painting a melancholic aura; whether intended or not I read them as a metaphor for an uncommunicative couple, facing away, and arguing despite the languid quality of the light suggesting a beautiful summer’s day.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Michael Andrews

Lights III: The Black Balloon 1973
Acrylic on Canvas 160 x 129.5cm
Not Seen

Unfortunately I hot seen this piece, but have seen some of his paintings; the very popular and atypical work "Melanie and Me Swimming" and two of the deer stalking paintings from 1980. Whilst the later are more in keeping with his artistic vision, I have instead selected one of the series of seven “balloon” paintings from 1970 to 1974 called Lights. The title of the series, borrowed from Les Illuminations, a collection of poems by the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, evokes this state of enlightenment: a view of the world seen objectively, undistorted by subjectivity.

In the series, Andrews takes as his motif a helium-filled balloon hovering over the earth, disconnected from the hurly-burly of human contact, detached and serene. It becomes a metaphor for the artist’s own ego, present but disengaged, observant but not intrusive, which is seen on a sort of symbolic journey through life.

Andrews himself is quoted as saying that a balloon would serve as vehicle, a think bubble pursuing the theme of "sudden enlightenment", a spiritual steeplechase, a Zen take on that shining seventeenth century metaphor "the voyage of the soul"(1).  He was inspired by the writings of Alan Watts on Zen Bhuddism, which described 'the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin' and the work of the psychologist R D Laing.

In Lights III, the dark melancholy balloon sinks low over the Thames approaching Waterloo Bridge, passing over the street lamps, hardly airborne. The balloon is like a black sun, and the image speaks of solitude and a sense of isolation, as the balloon follows the river silently and inevitably towards the infinite sea. In the final painting, the balloon drifts out to sea, conveying a sense of a continuing quest.

The images are painted not with a brush, but with a spray gun to achieve the visual equivalent to weightlessness and silence. As Richard Dorment points out in his review of the Andrews retrospective at Tate Britain in 2001, by “removing all traces of the artist's own touch, Andrews brilliantly symbolises the detachment of the artist's ego from the painting process”. The image is taken from photographic sources, possibly collaged from magazine photos as this is how he built up the source image for Lights II and Lights VI (2).

(1) Michael Andrews Tate Publishing 2001 Essay by William Feaver p54 Quotations from conversations between the painter and the author.

(2) Tate Archive

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 11 October 2009


Jeune Fille a la Chemise Blanche 1955
Oil on Canvas 116 x 90cn
Foundation Maeght, Nice
August 2000

I have probably seen a dozen paintings by Balthus and find his work at best troublesome. This painting is not typical and I have chosen it because it clearly shows the knowing sadness that hides within most of his work.

As the title clearly states it is of a young girl, and whilst she is stereotypical we have none of the usual tableaux used to justify his obsession. Instead she is formally seated for a three-quarters portrait and has her dress loosened from her shoulders revealing her breasts. The pose and clothing suggest that she is being displayed to satisfy our curiosity in the manner of a slave girl being sold at a souk. She remains remote, withdrawn and self-absorbed with a grave and moody look that suggests she is daydreaming.

Despite having parents who were both painters, Balthus didn’t attend art school, but learnt to paint by copying old masters in museums. He was influenced in particular by Piero della Francesca, whose cycle of murals Legend of the True Cross he saw on a visit to Italy in 1926.

This influence can be seen in the abstract formality of his compositions and in his technique which despite being on canvas evokes the feel of a fresco. This work is almost completely painted with glazes of Burnt Umber allowing an intensity of modelling of the light on the figure that underlines the statuesque pose. One can imagine that the young model has been chosen either for or by the artist and is unhappy with the liberties he is taking. Yet to complain is socially unacceptable and unsure of her ground she sits stoically thinking of something else whilst the artist sketches her.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Elizabeth Peyton

Jarvis, 1996
Oil on Panel 27.9 x 35.6 cm
Not Seen
27th July 2008

This painting is typical of her work during her ‘rise to fame’. She dropped the small intimate works on paper of historical figures in 1995 and focused on painting. These portraits predate the images of her friends and take the form of tributes by an adoring fan. Despite the distancing effect of working from photographs, the intimate scale, delicate brushwork and directness of touch communicate a romantic love for her subjects and the accompanying anxiety.

This portrait of the singer Jarvis Cocker is a rare composition in her work in that the subject is engaging in eye contact. Typically the skin is bleached to near white and the features are idealised with ‘Rossetti’ lips.

Her colours are clear and transparent and applied in thin loose strokes on primed board. The red-violet of the jacket is set off wonderfully by the touch of lemon yellow in the background. The New York Times critic Roberta Smith accurately describes her style as a strange blend of ‘part Abstract Expressionism, part Renaissance miniature, with a touch of Pre-Raphaelite romanticism thrown in for good measure’.

The panels for her paintings are masonite, which is only available in America (invented in 1929). It is made from wood chips steam blasted and pressed into boards without the use of glues and binders. The nearest we have is medium density fibre (mdf) board which uses formaldehyde resin as a binder. The panels are about 2cm deep and are covered with very thick layers of acrylic primer. This has been applied with a scraper of some kind (I used to use a credit card) and the thick paint runs over the edges and the ridges in the surface become an integral element of the artwork.

In conversation with Steve Lafreniere, EP has an interesting response to his comment that there is a great deal of melancholy in her work…

“It’s not so much sentimental. It’s just that time passes. I am constantly thinking about it, and kind of obsessing about it. How things change, how I change, how there’s no stopping it. But when I’m painting, I’m very unaware. I’m not thinking about any of these things. It’s this other place. I know that sounds like mumbo-jumbo” (2)

Yes it does, but I think that despite her denial it sounds like a sentimentality for the past and that her paintings both acknowledge, but also try and arrest the march of time. The fact that she separates herself from these feelings when she paints implies that her painterly expression is stylistic or synthetic rather than emotional. In other words she uses the tropes of expressionism to evoke a reaction from the viewer rather than it being felt, say in the working of Van Gogh or Munch.

(1)Smith, Roberta Blood and Punk Royalty to Grunge Royalty NY Times 24 March 1995

(2)Lafreniere, Steve A Conversation with the Artist, Elizabeth Peyton Rizzoli International Publications 2005 p252

©blackdog 2009