Caravaggio and his time; friends, rivals and enemies is now showing at The National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park in Tokyo. The exhibition has been put on to celebrate the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Italy and Japan, and features eleven Caravaggios and more than forty other paintings by contemporaries and rivals.
Caravaggio is famed for his use of chiarascuro and for bringing naturalistic interpretations to religious and mythological subjects in a brilliantly innovative and daring manner.
The London National Gallery`s Supper at Emmaus holds me spellbound every time I visit. The incredible detail in which the food is depicted, the hypnotising way the basket of fruit seems to balance right on the edge of the table, the three dimensionality created by the disciples` hands and elbows seeming at once to come right out of the canvas at us and recede into the background. Christ has no beard and looks like he is modelled on the local blacksmith. Powerful stuff. Caravaggio painted a second Supper at Emmaus a few years afterwards and it is this second version (from Milan`s Brera Museum) that is featured in Tokyo.
Walking through the exhibition is like walking into the tenebrous depths of a Caravaggio painting; the space is kept dark, the paintings sit on a background of red velvet and are highlighted in the muted illumination from lights both above and below.
A long-lost Caravaggio is being shown to the public for the first time ever here: Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy , it was found in a private collection in 2014 and identified as an original by Mina Gregori a Caravaggio expert.
The Uffizi Gallery`s Bacchus forms the poster image advertising the exhibition. Here is another of Caravaggio`s sultry, full-lipped young men, staring out at you with a languorous indolence and a face that whilst innocent has just an ironic hint of something more. These are paintings that grab your attention, invite you in and don`t easily let you go. Naturalism but with a dreamlike sense of mystery. Go see them if you can before it closes on June 12th!
What is is about vintage tourism posters? With their beautifully drawn images, simple layout and stylish typography they manage to capture the excitement and promise of overseas travel to exotic locations in a way that photography could never do. The National Museum of Modern Art - situated right opposite The Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo`s Chiyoda-ku - is currently showing examples of the genre in a small but well curated exhibition http://www.momat.go.jp/english/am/exhibition/visit_japan/
Japan was closed off to the outside world for 200 years but in the early years of the 20th century - fuelled by the advent of new transportation links such as the South Manchuria Railway (enabling access overland via the trans-Siberian route) - it began not only to accept but to encourage inward leisure tourism. Hence these promotional posters which convey with typical artistic economy the `idea` of Japan, its gardens, seasons, mountains and castles.
Britain has its own distinctive collection of travel posters many of which were created by the railway companies - GWR, LNER, and latterly British Rail - when great swathes of Britain suddenly opened up to the average working man. Impossible to look at these without experiencing nostalgia for the time when a trip to the seaside was a major event...
Over the last year or so I have been doing a series of `travel posters` featuring images of favourite places in Japan. I have tried to avoid the obvious cliches such as Fuji-san, cherry blossom and Tokyo Tower but its not that easy to find or photograph or create suitable compositions. Some examples are shown below and if you are interested the full set will be on exhibition at the Tokyo American Club from November 18th this year.
Japan by its very nature may never be as gaijin-accessible/friendly as some holiday destinations, but what a wonderful place to live, and heartening to see that inbound tourism numbers are finally on a steep rise. Lets hope the government tourism agencies continue to encourage this trend in the lead-up to the Olympics in 2020. So more travel posters, please. After all, Shirakawa-go is SO bracing!
Takashi Murakami made his reputation primarily outside of Japan with an idiosyncratic style combining elements of traditional and modern Japanese culture in a burst of high energy high gloss `superflat` paintings in which manufactured motifs in the guise of smiling flowers, mushrooms and his own pop icon `Mr Dob` jostle for position on crowded canvases. The work is heavily influenced by manga, anime and its associated `otaku` subculture.
Murakami struggled for recognition in Japan partly through his irreverent criticism of the backward-leaning conservatism of the art establishment there.
Over the last decade - working mostly overseas - his output and fame have grown exponentially, with major installations and events in such august surroundings as the Palais de Versailles, the Rockefeller Center and the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. His work has expanded beyong painting and screen prints into large-scale sculptures reminiscent of Jeff Koons and into the whole panoply of commercial merchandising.
This spectacular exhibition in the Mori Art Museum on the 53rd floor of the Roppongi Hills Tower in Tokyo is his first in Japan for fourteen years and tellingly chooses a theme inspired by one of Japan`s great recent traumas - the earthquake and tsunami of 3.11.
I do not share the Japanese love of what might be termed `cute-fantasy` and have thus far eschewed the vast majority of Murakami`s work. This show has changed my mind. With examples of his earlier work and informative background on the way in which the 500 Arhats was created it bursts into life with the sheer stonking scale of the thing : at 3 by 100 metres and resplendent in its glossy psychedelic colours (acrylic paint, platinum and gold leaf on top of screen prints on canvas mounted on aluminium frames) it assaults the eyes and demands attention.
This work was created just after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. Murakami wanted to do something to thank Qatar who were swift to provide aid. The trauma felt by all had inspired an outpouring of artistic energy and Murakami wanted to do something significant, something on a massive scale. Arhats are people who have achieved nirvana or spiritual enlightenment and are able to banish evil spirits and Murakami drew heavily on ancient buddhist texts and images to create the figures. In order to bring his vision to reality he invited art students from around the country to join his collective and over 200 did so, working collaboratively in his industrial-scale warehouse-atelier-studio outside of Tokyo.
This film has more background on the creation http://www.highsnobiety.com/2015/10/01/pharrell-visits-takashi-murakami-studio/
The colours reminded me of the vibrancy and reflective impact of stained glass in a Gothic cathedral. It is perhaps no surprise given the original subject matter and the scale of the work that comparisons have been made to Picasso`s Guernica.
The exhibition has lots of other work including his `Mr Dob` and several pieces in which skulls predominate. Mortality meets Buddhism meets Anime meets Superflat. If you get the chance, visit now while the show is still on. I went on a Tuesday and the place was unexpectedly quiet. Nice!
Is it just me or is there a universal fascination with artists` studios? There is a certain voyeuristic thrill in being able to peek into the spaces where artists create their artwork. Its like walking into the artist`s head. Having never been to art school my experience of real life artists` working places is minimal and whenever I get the chance to check them out I grab it.
So finding myself in Dublin over the New Year break I was delighted to stumble upon two quintessential examples: the Irish portraitist and still life painter Edward McGuire, and the more famous Francis Bacon.
Nick Miller and the studio of Edward McGuire is currently showing at The Irish Museum of Modern Art (the IMMA) until 3rd April this year. http://www.imma.ie/en/page_236947.htm
The exhibition displays numerous objects from McGuire`s studio - the detailed colour guides he created, trays of mixed paint in multifarious hues, easels, his ubiquitous green visor and various other Heath Robinson-esque inventions to facilitate his painting: a wooden rack from which brushes could be hung, a form of camera obscura, an anglepoise-clamp-canvas holder.
Just across town from the IMMA in Parnell Square North is the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. This houses the remarkable studio of Francis Bacon, (donated from the artist`s heir John Edwards and executor Brian Clarke), painstakingly relocated from Reese Mews London and displayed lock stock and barrel in a marvellous display. The photograph at the beginning of this blog shows the original studio but the attached video links provide an interesting expose if you are unable to visit yourself. http://www.hughlane.ie/a-terrible-beauty-interviews . Bacon was born in Dublin and it is fitting that the studio now resides in the splendid surroundings of the Hugh Lane.
Bacon`s studio was located in the attic of 7 Reese Mews, up a precipitously steep staircase. There was nothing in the mundanely modest and tidy flat beneath to presage the chaotic discombobulation of the painting space - a mind-boggling clutter of paints, brushes, slashed canvas, photographs, source material, and walls upon which he had cleaned his brushes and tested colour combinations.
The studio has been meticulously recreated with over 7,000 items found and catalogued on a specially designed database and is unprecedented in museum practice. As the conservator Mary McGrath says in the introductory video to the 2009 Exhibition A Terrible Beauty "its like a latter day Egyptian tomb".
Bacon`s studio - partly through the publicity from this permanent display - has become something of an icon symbolising the immense complexity of the artistic mind. Its as if we are looking directly into Bacon`s brain at the process of creative cognition itself.
Part 2 of the fascination of artists` studios will look at the beautiful and grandiose Leighton House Museum in London which boasts a magnificent example of the genre.
In the meantime I leave you with a glimpse of my own studio in Tokyo. As this adjoins the kitchen and doubles as a living area, space and `clutterability` are somewhat limited!
There is a long history of friendship and collaboration between the members of The Royal Liverpool Golf Club (aka Hoylake) and The Atlanta Athletic Club (`AAC).
The connection originates from the remarkable feat achieved in 1930 by the famous amateur golfer Robert Tyre Jones when he won the original of golf`s `Grand Slams` by winning the British and US Amateur and Open Championships in the same calendar year. Hoylake marked the second leg of what was described as the `impregnable quadrilateral`.
Jones grew up playing golf at the Atlanta Athletic Club’s East Lake Country Club, which the club built in 1906. He served as president of the Club and was an active member until his death in 1971.
The AAC`s magnificent clubhouse is chock full of golfing memorabilia enshrined in several themed rooms including Troon, Merion, Hoylake and of course the great Bobby Jones himself.
My parents John and Muriel Dalby - lifetime members of Hoylake - reached out to Atlanta Athletic Club when they visited in the late 1970`s and presented a watercolour of the course painted by Josh Armitage, a member of the club and long time cartoonist `Ionicus` for Punch magazine. This found a home in the Club`s Hoylake Room.
40 years later I finally got to visit and was pleased to present to the Club a black and white oil painting which shows Bobby Jones accepting the Open Championship Trophy at Hoylake in 1930 (shown above). This was copied from an archive newspaper photograph which wonderfully conveys the sense of respect, admiration and joy (just look at the expressions on the faces!) with which the members of the Club as well as the general public regarded Bobby Jones. The painting was gratefully received and will hopefully when framed find a place alongside other memorabilia on the wall of the Hoylake Room.
If you missed this you have twenty one days and counting to see it on BBC i-player. Andrew Marr is well known as the BBC`s political editor and for his prodigious writing and broadcasting output. What might not be so well known is his passion for painting. In Churchill: Blood, sweat and oil paint he has found a subject which at one fell swoop combines his characteristic facility for bringing to life the famous political leaders of the past with his love of art, and in so doing lays open his own soul - and the powerful therapeutic value of "that primal business", the creative impulse to reproduce the wonder of the experienced world.
Marr builds his thesis through interviews with Churchill`s family, associated art experts and even the son of the bodyguard and art assistant who accompanied the great man in later life on his painting expeditions. These are then given colour as like some latter day Alan Whicker he expounds on location in the Cote D`Azur, Marrakesh and - nearer home - Chartwell, where the National Trust has preserved Churchill`s studio, painting implements and 130 of his works.
Painting for Churchill was a release from the pressures of his public life and interestingly for this most eloquent of public speakers, a way for him to cocoon himself in silence. His daughters, talking from memory of their childhoods and using words such as "engrossed", "electrified" and "total absorption" recall the intensity of the creative impulse that gripped their father and the way that it brought him comfort and solace from bouts of depression - his so-called "black dog".
Churchill painted in his studio at Chartwell but by all accounts was happiest painting `en plein air` and in sunnier climes - hence the South of France or North Africa - complete with parasol, cigar, panama hat and the assorted paraphernalia of outdoor painting. His preferred style was impressionistic, painterly and he was not afraid of using bold colours and bludgeoning the canvas into submission.
He characteristically dismissed his own paintings as `daubs` and indeed he must have felt rather insignificant in an artistic sense when mingling as he did with the English painters of his day - Walter Sickert, William Nicholson , John Lavery - from whom he picked up advice and tips.
Now of course his paintings fetch handsome sums and no doubt his eyes were twinkling with amusement and no little pride as he looked down from his painterly heaven on the fifteen million pounds that Sotheby`s raised last December from the 256 lots of paintings and objects from Mary Soames` estate.
For me where the BBC`s programme really hits home is how Churchill`s private passion for painting is brought to life through the prism of Marr`s own experience. There are obvious similarities - both of them took up painting in middle life as a stress reliever, both are self-taught, and both having to deal with the physical challenges (yes, painting in oils is highly physical) of recovering from a stroke. So as well as showing archive images of Churchill painting the director sets Marr himself to paint on location simultaneously as he narrates and enthuses - the camera often trained in close-up on his artist`s-persona visage. I know from my own experience how horrible it is to have someone peering over your shoulder as you paint (all artists are paranoid) and here is Marr rather bravely applying his daubs of paint his pencil scratches in the unforgiving light of terrestrial broadcast. Of course the point is not whether the painting is any good or not (and here Marr is consistently self-deprecatory), the point that he makes rather brilliantly in a sun-drenched courtyard somewhere in Marrakesh is that if you are engaged in an activity (preferably something creative, and something difficult) with full intensity then the cares of the world simply disappear. He talks about "the capacity of art and its making to restore one`s mental health" and how Churchill saw art as "a way to fling open the shutters and let the sun shine back in".
-I found similar resonances having taken up painting later in life, being self-taught, and experiencing the marvellous distraction of the painting process. I also use a `magic lantern`/projector to start off some paintings (as Walter Sickert taught Churchill) and David Hockney discusses in his book Secret Knowledge.
So do try to watch this whilst you still can.
And I take my hat off to my old university chum Andrew Marr for his candour and his enthusiasm in showing us all how - in the crucible of creation - the soul itself is salved.
Japan is fascinating, different. It challenges your preconceptions. It is a country of horrible juxtapositions. Travel to Kyoto by bullet train for the first time and you will be staggered at the concrete ugliness. Any concept of heritage preservation has been long shattered by City officials who have pulled down thousands of important cultural assets in a crass attempt at modernisation. And yet the place is studded with staggeringly beautiful gardens, temples, Edo-era streets. That these live side by side with neon pachinko parlours, high-rise bland hotels, overhead electric cables and ugly modern housing is apparently of little concern - its just the way things are in a country that rose astonishingly high on the back of the manufacturing and economic boom after WW2.
Drive into the countryside anywhere in this archipelago and you will be confronted by massively expensive engineering projects, roads that lead nowhere, dams, concreted rivers, and blighted vistas. http://www.amazon.com/Dogs-Demons-Tales-Dark-Japan/dp/0809039435 Alex Kerr has the full story.
Happily however there are some wonderful exceptions, and Benesse Art Site Naoshima , the collective name for a cornucopia of art museums, houses and installations scattered across three islands in the Seto inland Sea, is right up there amongst the very best that Japan`s art scene has to offer. http://architectuul.com/architecture/benesse-house-museum Forget any concept of art as something to be viewed on the hallowed walls of long-established ancient museums. This is art as Experience. Prepare to go on a Zen-like journey where nature meets concrete, old exists within new, and the ubiquitous contrasts that characterise this infuriatingly crazy country come into magnificent expression.
For this we have to thank Soichiro Fukutake, the billionaire founder of the Benesse publishing and education empire who like some latter-day Lord Lever had a vision, the means and the `right` kind of sympathetic local officialdom to make it happen. For Port Sunlight (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_Sunlight), read the Art House Project (http://www.benesse-artsite.jp/en/arthouse/). For the Lady Lever Art Gallery (https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Lady_Lever_Art_Gallery), read the Chichu Art Museum (http://www.benesse-artsite.jp/en/chichu/).
Its a bit of a hike from Tokyo involving planes and ferries and the odd bus thrown in, but well worth the visit. There are some low-budget accommodation options but this is island life at its simplest and slowest, so don`t expect too much. The best option if your budget will stretch to it (and its not ridiculously priced) is the Benesse House itself which is a combination of museum and hotel. A number of wonderfully designed rooms at different locations on the site are offered. We stayed in the museum itself. Toddle down to breakfast and you pass a couple of Hockneys and some Richard Long land art.
A short bicycle ride or bus up the road and there are two more museums, each intimately co-existing with the natural surroundings. For now lets look at the Chichu museum. Chichu means `into the ground` and the architect Tarao Ando https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tadao_Ando has created a ethereal series of geometric spaces sunken into the hillside. You approach walking up a hillside through a garden created to mimic Monet`s water lily garden at Giverny. By the time you reach the entrance you already feel at one with the natural world. The museum is designed in Ando`s characteristic style with a series of narrow passageways, long approaches and large geometric spaces open to the sky. You are going on a journey, a journey bounded with smooth concrete and natural light. The tie rod holes on the concrete slabs are no less iconic than the chisel marks made by stonemasons on the walls of a gothic cathedral. The journey is punctuated by areas of light and shade, temperature changes and a sense of contemplative tranquillity. This is Japanese minimalism at its finest.
As you walk you come across work by the so-called `land artists` Walter de Maria and James Turrell, installations that use light to magical effect. In one Turrell work you walk up steps into a room that slopes away from you and is bathed in a light of the palest cadmium violet. You cannot perceive the walls and the ceiling. Distinctions become blurred, the space becomes other-wordly. Its like walking into a dream.
And then of course there is Monet. And water lilies. Take your shoes off and walk through into an astonishingly pure space with cornerless walls, indirect illumination from natural light, and five of Monet`s canvases from the Musee de L`Orangerie`s Nympheas series. To be honest nothing compares to the Paris Museum`s collection but here the effect is amplified by the brilliance of the way they are displayed, seeming to float in a sea of white - created by 700,000 2 centimeter square Carerra marble cubes on the floor and a wall of the same sand plaster used in Takamatsu castle that took 30 artisans a whole day to complete.
I could go on but by now you get the picture. The impression with which you leave is that the art itself is subsumed into the overall experience. I`m no zen afficionado, but in this spiritual place you can`t help transcendental thoughts from crowding in on your consciousness. Compare this with the traditional method of viewing art as in this old image of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition!
One final museum to describe, the spectacular building created on the island of Teshima by Nishizawa Ryue, which is as if an alien spaceship had somehow deposited itself on a rice-paddy stepped hillside at the back end of nowhere.
It is in the form of a huge white teardrop-shaped blob. After removing your shoes you tiptoe through an igloo-style opening into a cavernous space with no columns or pillars and open to the elements in the form of two large circular openings through one of which you can view the sky and through the other, the trees. The atmosphere is hushed and cathedral-like. As you adapt to the mystical surroundings you become aware of little movements and glints of light on the floor beneath your feet. You realise that this is water issuing in droplets from tiny apertures in the floor. But it does not look like water. The droplets form into globular shapes that slide and shimmy across the floor like some weird living organisms or mercury escaped from an alchemist`s crucible. You find yourself drawn to sit or lie down and stare at these little water-creatures. Its mesmorising. Extraordinary in the true sense of the word. The creation of Naito Rei. You can check it out in this you-tube video ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FeZFP7VAF9I&index=1&list=PLLkoLk52gUtVSalue1rXMaPFWHkTV5QeD long but look between 3.38 to 11.03 ).
I have described some of the artworks and sites at Benesse Art Site Naoshima but there is so much more. Do try to visit if you get a chance. As for the bewildering contrasts mentioned at the beginning of this blog? Well, on the short ferry ride from Naoshima to Teshima you pass a huge copper smelting works discreetly tucked away on the north side of the island, owned and run by Mitsubishi Materials. This long predates all of the art stuff. Which just goes to show that whilst on your art pilgrimage you may be riding on a carriage of exquisite craftsmanship, below the running board turn the ineluctable wheels of Japanese industry.
These days artists supplies can be found easily and cheaply on the web. http://www.jacksonsart.com is one I have used frequently when back in the UK. But nothing beats the ability to see and touch the products right in front of you, and Japan once again comes up retailing trumps with Sekaido and its flagship store in Shinjuku, Tokyo.
Sekaido has been purveying artists materials for over 75 years since its opening in 1940 (obviously survived despite the US bomb-flattening the city, happy proof that art can flourish in the most unlikely of circumstances?).
Now it boasts 12 stores throughout the country. The pride and joy however remains the main branch, situated east of the giant transport hub that is Shinjuku station.
If you are in any way artistically inclined then you must make time to check it out. Ignore - or admire - the cheeky irreverence of the shop logo (Mona Lisa `surprised`) as you enter. Spread out before you in sumptuous abandon is a world class assortment of everything and anything to do with art.
Arranged over SIX substantial floors this place has it all - paints, brushes, canvas, easels, media, framing, stationery, paper, sculpture, manga, sumie, pencils, felt tips, arts and crafts...and then some.
The selection is mind-boggling. You want oil paints? Well you will find just about every brand you have ever heard of - Winsor and Newton, Holbein, Old Holland, Gamblin, Da Vinci, Kusakabe...and many others you won`t have. Mediums? Not a problem. Canvas frames, canvas rolls, ready made stretched canvas in 237 different sizes - or you can order a custom size for that rather special artwork you have in mind. Easels, palettes, kits for plein air. Gallons of gesso.
As a kid I used to look forward to my trips to the sweetshop. These days its not aniseed balls, toffee bon bons or wine gums but Quinacridone Rose, Naples Yellow and Prussian Blue. Names that carry the same exotic sense of anticipated pleasure.
When supplies run low I make the pilgrimage to 3-1-1 Shinjuku with no less frisson of excitement than I did 50 years ago when in search of a quarter pound of pontefract cakes. Kid in a sweet shop? Thats me, thanks to the mecca that is Sekaido. http://www.timeout.jp/en/tokyo/venue/21905/Sekaido-Shinjuku
I was fortunate to be able to catch - just a few days before it ends on May 25th - the National Portrait Gallery`s brilliant exhibition "Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends".
As a would-be portraitist I am fascinated by the giants of portraiture and John Singer Sargent is right up there for me. Not a difficult decision therefore for me to arrange a one-day stopover in London en route back to Tokyo.
Arranged in nine small rooms it is packed with quality work, many of which rarely see the light of day.
But there was one work in particular whose magnetic intensity had me returning to eyeball it time and again during the course of my visit: "Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron". This work was not known to me - perhaps not surprising as it is being exhibited apparently for the first time in 100 years.
It is a large work measuring 1.5 by 1.7 metres, and exerts on the observer a spellbinding fascination - or at least it did on me, and plenty others around me that day.
Here displayed are all of the characteristics that make Sargent such a stand-out in the pantheon of portraitists: the virtuosity of his brushwork, juxtaposing areas of uncanny realistic detail (the face and braceleted hand of the girl) with a more painterly impressionistic treatment (the persian carpet). The unusual composition. The bravura contrast of colour between the darks (the black of the boy`s outfit, the deep shadowed magenta of the background drape, the subtle olive greens and grey blues of the carpet upon which the two figures are stiffly seated) and the lights (the hands and faces, the brilliance of the white silk taffeta dress). The overall impression of freshness and spontaneity that belies the painstaking reality of the painting process.
Much discussion has ensued from commentators about the `creepiness` of the image and the haunting quality that imbues an adult sensibility upon these two children.
Apparently the young lady featured, Marie-Louise (who grew up to become a well-known historian and authoress) later commented that the multitude of sittings forced upon them by Sargent (presumably also at the insistence of the commissioner, their playwright father Edouard Pailleron) -some 83! - along with arguments about what to wear had driven the two to distraction. You can just imagine what caused the supercilious petulance in Edouard`s expression - the cramp setting in in his right arm and shoulder as he twists his elbow to catch the light on the underside of his hand. The rigidity of the little girl`s pose, the fingers of her left hand outstretched as if for balance as her toes just manage to touch the floor - and that knowingness in her face, just the merest hint of an ironic smile. The painter himself who was apparently so frustrated by the children`s intransigence and moodiness he hurled a piece of furniture out of the window upon finally finishing the painting.
Many of us have experienced similar things from our own childhoods. I remember sulkily refusing to smile for the family photographer who was doing his utmost to make me grin at about the age of six, and on another occasion the hard stone steps upon which I (and both of my brothers) were forced to sit for what seemed hours during pastel portraits Mum and Dad had commissioned from a street artist in Venice.
Whatever the reasons behind it, both of the children fix their eyes upon the beholder with an uncanny - almost unsettling - intensity.
This has echoes in another of Sargent`s paintings of children (one which I have seen on a couple of occasions before but not featured in this exhibition) "The daughters of Edward Darley Boit" which resides at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Another exquisite and innovative rendering of the particular world of childhood.
Another incredibly atmospheric piece that draws you in and keeps you staring. The short film below by the Senior Curator of the Museum tells you more...
Both of these masterpieces brilliantly capture the singularity of childhood - how each child occupies their own space, their own particular reality, so that they appear somewhat alone even in the context of a group.
I hesitate in this august company to add one of my own compositions, in this case painted from a photograph supplied by an ex-colleague and friend. In this painting the children are interacting in a cute way - it has none of the intensity of the Sargent (and certainly none of the bravura brushwork - oh that I could capture 5 % of Sargent`s genius!) but it nevertheless found an appreciative home.
The BBC have long been accustomed to producing high quality historical drama and Wolf Hall, the sumptuous serialisation of Hilary Mantel`s Booker-winning novel is no exception.
Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell with measured understatement and I was pleased to hear him open up on the latest edition of BBC Radio 4`s Desert Island Discs (another personal favourite). Well worth a listen.
When I then stumbled across Waldemar Januszczak`s wonderfully enthusiastic exposition of Hans Holbein the Younger in a BBC Culture Show specially produced to coincide with Wolf Hall, it really made my day.
I`ve long been an admirer of this artist, perhaps the first true `realist` portrait painter, and a man it turns out who had a fabulously exciting artistic odyssey chronicling the lives of the great and the good of Tudor England - whilst managing to avoid having his head chopped off.
German by birth, this "genius who looked like a farmer" had two lengthy spells in England. The first time he was taken under the wing of Sir Thomas More, for whom he painted this marvellous portrait which hangs in the fabulous Frick Museum in New York. His rendering of those vermilion velvet sleeves is masterful. The face has a sad intensity about it. As if the sitter knew what was in store for him.
Holbein was apparently a house guest of the great man during this first visit, and he also painted him with his family. Alas Sir Thomas More would not survive his disapprobation of Henry`s impending divorce to Catherine of Aragon. Holbein with no little sleight managed to inveigle himself with the up and coming Boleyn family and the increasingly influential Thomas Cromwell. His portrait of Cromwell could not be less flattering. It hangs on the other side of the fireplace at the Frick and Januszczak points out the mean inscrutability of the likeness. Quite a brave man to deliver such a portrait at a time when your head could be lopped off for much less!
For King Henry VIII himself however political expediency seems to have won the day with Holbein, who had once again miraculously managed to sidestep the fall from grace of both the Boleyns and Cromwell to become appointed one of the King`s court painters. Here is his famous life size portrait.
It is famous as much for the physical stature with which he imbued the king as for the bravura of the paintwork. Henry`s subsequent reputation as a sizeable man must have owed a lot to this portrait. Just look at the abnormal breadth of his shoulders - as wide as a barn door. Good with a bow the King was, we`re told. Strong. Well, looking at this he could easily be playing prop for England in the 2015 World Cup!
Holbein also carried out several commissions to paint existing (and potential future) wives for Henry. In this pre-selfie age the importance of this cannot be underestimated. The King could not simply drop affairs of state to treck around Europe checking out the talent. He very often had to rely on paintings given to him. This seems to have worked well until the unfortunate 24 year old Anne of Cleves. The portrait done by Holbein must have flattered the subject. The marriage having already been arranged, upon first seeing her in the flesh apparently Henry`s jaw dropped and he felt physically repulsed. (The marriage was never consummated, the match annulled, but at least she lived to tell the tale). Again, a dangerous situation if you are the painter responsible? But Holbein survived that one, too.
My own favourite of Holbein`s paintings is The Ambassadors, that gobsmacking creation that hangs in The National Gallery. Januszczak comments about Holbein that he "gave Tudor England an extraordinarily active presence; he made it feel real". To me this painting exquisitely conveys this. A huge canvas depicting two French ambassadors together with various accoutrements - a globe, measuring instruments, a lyre, books. Whenever I see it in person I am mesmerised by the incredible verisimilitude of the carpet which is draped over the sideboard.
What brings the crowds to see this masterpiece is of course the distorted skull which hogs practically fifty per cent of the foreground of the composition. From face on it appears no more than an elliptical ivory grey streak. Move to the extreme right of the canvas and look back from above (as the crowds of course do) and the streak miraculously forms itself into a perfectly rendered human skull. Quite what the ambassadors themselves made of this, we will never know. Holbein`s paintings were often full of symbolism and art commentators (including Januszczak in the BBC programme) have long debated the significance of this unique device. For sure the skull signifies mortality, reminding us that worldly trappings must all come to an end. But why the distorted shape? Is it some secret symbol? An ironic statement? Surely not - the image is so dominant it can hardly be described as `secret`. I prefer to think that Holbein, wishing - like many artists of that time - to include a skull to demonstrate the ineluctability of mortality, was simply bored with a regular rendition. How much more interesting to paint it as an anamorphic shape! And what an original way to demonstrate your artistic virtuosity. This is the painting of a man with a huge ego as well as an incredible facility of draughtsmanship.
What a time to live. What a time to be a court painter. I wonder if Holbein will make a cameo appearance in the next episode of Wolf Hall? Perhaps not. This time around it is the BBC cameraman - and the costume department - that hold all the aces.