Howard Hodgkin Absent Friends at the National Portrait Gallery

Figurative Portrait

 

Howard Hodgkin; Absent Friends

National Portrait Gallery

23rd March-18th June

Yesterday I went to the Howard Hodgkin portrait exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It would not be my show of choice but a dear friend absolutely loves his work and wanted to take a couple of us to see his work.

She was right to bring us; it was so lovely to go to an exhibition, which was just about colour and feeling. A disregard for representation and shapes and why not? If the colours and patterns of shapes work together and balance, which with Hodgkin they do, then the abstraction is rather refreshing and liberating.

This portrait of Peter Cochrane is the most figurative. I love the bold colour and patterns!

by (Gordon) Howard Eliot Hodgkin, oil on canvas, 1962
Howard Hodgkin, oil on canvas, 1962

 

Most shows zoom through an artist’s life chronologically or within subject matter. Here the show started with one of his later pieces and most abstract. It really helped put the rhythm of the subsequent paintings within a context: Seeing the end to understand the beginning. In his painting Absent Friends, is the title ironic or is it even prosaic of me to think that?

Absent Friends

During the war as a young boy, Hodgkin was an evacuee to New York City thereby having the opportunity to visit MOMA and be in a city not focused and devastated by war. This must have been a huge influence. What sort of an artist he would have been if he’d been an evacuee to Wales like my father?

On returning to England he studied at Camberwell under the tutelage of Coldstream. I love Coldstream’s paintings, not least because I was lucky enough that my dining hall at school was hung with Coldstream paintings, (apparently he partly paid the school fees with paintings).

So as with NYC and Wales… I wonder how my artwork would have differed if it had been Hodgkin’s paintings informing every mealtime rather than Coldstream.

With all of Coldstream’s measuring and observation, what they would have thought of each other.

Reclining woman

 

After Camberwell, Hodgkin went to study in Bath where the tutors were much more open to his ideas. Ironically the examples the NPG showed of his time in bath were his most figurative, some of the most wonderful and powerful portrait drawings in Pencil from around 1953, with a strong use of line and mass. I’m sure Coldtream with all his meticulousness and measuring gave Hodgkin a thorough grounding, to help the leap into abstraction.

Drawings

His philosophy on the abstraction from the figurative portrait is equally applied to his use and deconstruction of the frames. It is very playful.

To choose a favourite would be difficult, though the one that sticks in my mind is probably one of the most figurative. I just found the character leaning over very enchanting and the colours so refreshing. Perhaps it is its figurative nature that makes it memorable to me.

Figurative Portrait

 

If the paintings are about a response to people and memory, I would ask if he either has a very rich visual memory, or are his paintings an emotional response to the memory? – two very different things, and in my mind, the latter easier to access.

I wonder what was going on in his mind? Was he being playful or utterly sincere? I do hope a little playful, as this would give the work some freshness and would take away the pretense of some of the written word!

If you do go and see the exhibition it is a wonderful tour de force in colour and colour combinations, in patterns and juxtaposition of shapes.

Girl in Bed

Tim’s talk on the American Illustrators

An example of one of his characterful illustrations

Tim Daost has been studying with us for some years. He has received both the De Laszlo Scholarship and was awarded Artist in Residence at Leighton House Museum. We have been fortunate that he has given a series of lectures at the studios on perspective and most recently on the American Illustrators. Here is a brief synopsis of his fascinating talk.

 

One of the main reasons I wanted to study traditional drawing and painting techniques was to improve my ability to tell stories visually.   I have always loved the way a good illustration can transport you to another world, and admire artists who can use realism in imaginative ways.

 

Although slightly less famous in the UK, the American Illustrator Norman Rockwell has long been considered a master of visual storytelling by the US public.

Norman Rockwell

 

The more I practiced traditional figure drawing the more I wondered how Rockwell and his contemporaries became such amazing figurative artists and illustrators.  I decided to explore this topic more in a talk I gave at the studio in November 2016.

A large part of the story of American Illustration comes back to the Art Students League in New York City.   Every time I found an illustration from the early 20th century with amazing figurative work and researched the artist’s background I discovered that they spent some time at the Art Students League or in Paris at Academie Julian.

 

Arts Students League

Researching a bit about the training at the Art Students League around the 1900s explains how its students became so influential.  At the time the League had three incredibly influential teachers:  George Bridgman, Robert Henri, and Frank Dumond.  All three of these teachers had trained at the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts or Academie Julian, some directly under the tutelage of France’s foremost academic artist, William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

 

Here are a few images of students training at the Art Students League – the setup should seem familiar to anyone who studies here at London Fine Art Studios.

 

 

 

Frank Vincent Dumont in Class

One of the longest standing teachers at the Art Students League, George Bridgman, wrote some of the most influential books on figure drawing that are still in wide use today and can be bought at the studio shop Lavender Hill Colours. Here you can see examples of the work from his class.

From a George Bridgeman class
From a George Bridgeman class

 

Robert Henri, another instructor at the League, wrote the highly influential book The Art Spirit.

Robert Henri Art Spirit

Frank Dumond, who exhibited at the Paris Salon and won a medal, can be seen in the photos above teaching cast drawing.

 

Frank Dumond

 

 

It is no surprise that instructors of this calibre were able to turn Norman Rockwell into one of America’s best illustrators by the time he was 20. Rockwell matured as an illustrator at a very fortuitous time, since the technical circumstances of the time made illustration the dominant form of advertisement.

 

 

During the 19th century lithography, photography, and printing were making it possible to mass produce black and white images cheaply.  Colour printing was a more complicated process, but by 1904 rotary offset lithography made it possible to mass produce colour images.  Although colour printing was possible, colour photography was still a challenging process until 1935 when Kodak introduced Kodachrome film.  This meant that mass produced colour advertisements required an illustrator from the early 1900s until about 1935.

 

This opportunity was taken up by many other Art Students League students:  Walter Biggs and Howard Pile were all former students at the forefront of American Illustration.

 

Illustrators from outside the League were also popular; a little research tends to reveal that they also had an academic background.  J.C Leyendecker was America’s leading illustrator before Rockwell.  He studied under John Vanderpool, the Dutch-American artist and author of the book “The Human Figure” which is still widely used in art schools today. Leyendecker continued his studies at Academie Julian in Paris.

 

Leyendecker’s images for Saturday Evening Post defined the modern look of Santa (often mis-attributed to a subsequent Coca-Cola campaign that clearly references these images), and his work for Arrow Shirts advertising helped define the fashion sense of the 1920s.

Leyendecker

N.C Wyeth is also considered one of America’s greatest illustrators.  He trained under Howard Pyle, who was in turn trained by F.A Van der Wellen from the Antwerp Academy of the Arts.  It is hard to find exact details on how Pyle was trained, but it is clear the Van der Wellen had his students draw from casts.  Pyle also briefly trained at the Art Students League, and it is reasonable to surmise that Pyle trained Wyeth using the classical techniques that he learned from the league and Van der Wellen.

N C Wyeth

Wyeth completed an incredible 3,000 paintings (an average of 6 per month during his working career)  and illustrated 112 books (2 -3 per year)  during his career.  Maintaining such a pace would require spending no more than 25 – 35 hours per painting.

Ann’s Out and About: Australian Impressionism

Art history in London Landscape Painting

Australia’s Impressionists

 

I have just been to see the most exiting exhibition at the perfect time of year!

We are just planning all our landscape painting courses and I have booked some landscape painting trips. I have been getting my pochade boxes ready and Scott has been making lots of perfect panels.

 

This exhibition makes one long for the season where you can stay outside and paint. It is a beautifully sunny day and the second day of the meteorological (as opposed to astronomical) spring and all the anticipation of the spring and summer freshness is around us!

 

The exhibition has a great little film, which is utterly unpretentious but totally clear. It is a small and exquisite show that unlike so many others doesn’t have fillers, so the message of the curators is simple and therefore so much more compelling.

 

In 1874 in Paris a group of artists lead by Degas, Monet and Berthe Morisot (yes a woman!) calling themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers, put on an artist led exhibition. By their third exhibition they were to be the Impressionists. They weren’t part of the grand Salon and were not being guided by the rules of convention.

 

A group of Australian artists across the world followed suit and in 1889 put on their own exhibition in Melbourne. I find it wonderful how soon after the French exhibition this took place. Many artists today, and many curators like to paint an image (excuse the unintentional pun) of artists being independent creators, devising inspiration from their own individual and isolated worlds. And yet the beauty of art is that it has always been an international movement, with ideas and visual trends not isolated but shared both consciously and subconsciously across continents.

 

The small paintings most attracted me. There is a series painted on cigar boxes roughly 9’x5”. Compositionally they are fantastic. I thought the framing was incredible  in these large unapologetically impressive frames (though maria didn’t like them).

 

The first few by Tom Roberts have an incredibly muted palette, as the catalogue rightly points out, still impressionistic but not French impressionism, rather reminiscent of Whistler. It is one of the reasons I love painting in England. There is ironically so much more beauty in the colour when there is colour harmony and subtlety. It is not garish obvious colour but understated and evocative. His paintings are utterly un-linear, painted in clear value masses of varying greys.

Art history in London Landscape Painting

These three paintings are all of London; Trafalgar Square, Fog Thames Embankment, By the Treasury

 

Arthur Streeton’s small sketches have a little more colour and the brushwork is laid on thick. He plays a lot with colour shifts within the same value planes. The painting sketch of Sandridge is compositionally daring with the dark values on the right and lights on the left, but this imbalance emphasise the subtle colour shifts. I think all these 9×5 are wonderfully painted in mass with subtle value or colour shifts to describe distance, focus or atmosphere.

Art history in London Landscape Painting

There is a comment next to Tom Roberts painting of Saplings that the brushwork is rapid. The paintings may be small but it is wrong to think they are therefore rapid or hasty. If you look closely they are incredibly deliberate and cleanly painted. Rapid is definitely the wrong word. In the film the truer word vigour is used to describe the difference between the studio paintings and plein air paintings. I love painting plein air, I think the choices you make as an artist are more instinctual and less contrived, more immediate and reactionary, but that does not mean hasty.

Art history in London Landscape Painting

 

In my opinion the urban paintings don’t translate so well on the larger scale. They are still impressive but the colours become a little cruder and less harmonious, the image a little more drawn and less massed in. Compare Arthurs Streetons Between the lights to his Hoddle Street. Perhaps it is when they are dealing with the urban landscape, they have found it a little harder to reduce the information and give us the balanced colour, so that the colour become muddy and can clash. Compositionally they remain strong.

Art history in London

 Art history in London Landscape Painting

In the second room there are two paintings by Tom Roberts that have such an English palette, all warm greens and browns. The painting of the Gardiners Creek is so compositionally original and clever, a perfect balance of drawing and atmosphere. The bridge and reflections are boldly placed in strong value contrast to the atmospheric background and distant trees.

 

Art history in London Landscape Painting

The most impressive paintings are Arthur Streetons two large-scale landscapes titled after the Romantic poets Shelly and Wordsworth, the style may be impressionistic but the delivery is utterly bucolic within a romantic vision. The purples moon’s transparent night is so amazing. The simplicity of touch and bold paint application does not mean a lack of drawing skill. The colours are so harmonious, the chroma but not the colour melting away to give the sense of distance and atmosphere. In his painting of Golden Summer the colures are richer, the values stronger and he continues the play of atmospheric perspective, so ingeniously. Look at the sheep on the right, how they are so beautifully drawn in the foreground and melt away into the abstract mass of the grasses as they recede. I find these paintings so inspiring.

Art history in London Landscape Painting

Art history in London Landscape Painting

In the last room there are two painting of the same view of Coogee Bay by Conder and Roberts. The comment states that the paintings are ‘strikingly different”. The only difference is a slight colour palette; the approach to painting technique and the reliance of values to create form remains the same. They are in fact strikingly similar and show a great camaraderie. I love the idea that these painters were together, painting together, discussing ideas together and putting on exhibitions. I love painting with artist friends. We are so lucky to have friendships that go beyond just the chat, standing in fields together trying to capture colours, mood, atmosphere and so much more.

Art history in London   Art history in London Landscape Painting

John Russell is a very different artist. He painted in the South of France and is much more impressionistic and even expressionistic. Some of the colours are startling and wonderful but it is less to my taste and for me seems over stylised and lazy, but perhaps at the time it was considered fresh and groundbreaking.

There is so much more I would like to share about this exhibition but perhaps the best thing (if you haven’t already) would be for you to visit. I think we are going to go next friday evening 10th March. Join us!

I find there is a beauty in the honesty and clarity of the other artists’ work, Roberts, Streeton and Conder. They have experienced and seen the work of the early impressionists and have taken the naturalism from the work and translated and interpreted this to their own native country and palette, thereby creating there own unpretentious and unique style.

 

Caravaggio and Chiaroscuro

Today I set off with my mother and daughter Florence to see the Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery. Unfortunately this time it was the exhibitions last week so my New Year’s Resolution’s is to see the exhibitions before their last weekend, perhaps in their first week! That would be a good thing so that you might be able to take a little from what I have written with you around the exhibition. I am not an academic or a historian. My intention in these posts is just to give a little insight into the visual language of the artists. A little insight so that when you are on Museum trips or when you are drawing or painting at the studio or in your home, you can see the paintings from an artist’s perspective.

Many of the paintings on show are from the National Gallery’s own collection, so there are still many opportunities to see them. The rooms were heaving, which although for selfish reasons is less appealing, is a wonderful testament to Caravaggio and to figurative oil painting as a whole. I’ve never been squashed for space at Tate Modern or visiting the Turner prize, and this isn’t just because of the scale of the buildings!

For sheer number of paintings the exhibition was a little overwhelming but I always chose just to look at a few paintings in each room that grab my attention. As a painter your main job is not to imitate nature but be selective, so to at exhibitions, more often than not the curator is just bulking out the show with numbers, so you too can be selective about which paintings you look at! Though perhaps it’s in seeing the second rate along side the masterpieces that we can better appreciate the masterpieces. It’s also nice to see that even Caravaggio had his off days!

One of Caravaggio’s key skills, is that his paintings often leave a great proportion of the canvas to the imagination, lost in the scuro of the chiaroscuro. The premise of the exhibition was that Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro (light dark) and his realism were novel and ground breaking, and that artists from across the continent, even some who didn’t know him would borrow from his style and methodology, traveling to Rome to see his work. Personally I find this overly simplified. Artistic movements and tastes are not created by a single individual, but might be dictated by the patron, a dissemination of many artist, and other art forms. It is no coincidence that the birth of opera happened around the same period- a dramatization of music and drama, both on the stage and on the canvas.

Though I liked the fact that the narrative that went alongside the exhibition was not wordy or overly intellectualised. In the rooms there was a clear painting to grab ones attention, amongst lesser works. In the first room the painting by Caravaggio of a Boy with a Lizard is so fresh and alive. Here he really is showing off his skills, the beautiful still life, the portrait, the wonderful chiaroscuro and the paint quality which is exquisite and controlled and yet the image is so dynamic and lively.

Caravaggio Boy with a Lizard

In the second room, despite knowing the painting so well, I was again thrilled by the supper at Emmaus. I asked my daughter if she noticed anything odd about it; I wanted to see if she could spot the misjudged proportion of the hand in the distant, she did notice that his arm looked too short, which is another way of saying the hand was too big. She also thought Jesus looked rather feminine but what really struck her was the feet on the roast chicken! Even Abel and Cole while including the giblets and necks, always remove the feet!

Caravaggio Suuper at Emmaus

In the 5th room Caravaggio’s paintings are hung next to Giuseppe Ribera’s work. Ribera is one of Scott’s favourite painters, and it is obvious to see why. Where Caravaggio’s style is slick and punchy, Ribera is powerful and emotional. Caravaggio is an amazing artist and image creator, but there is no doubt that Ribera has a greater mastery of paint. The paint quality of a Ribera is astounding, the chiaroscuro just as powerful but the naturalism so much greater than a Caravaggio. The emotional impact and the fleshiness he achieves is awesome.

Ribera The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew

In the final room the Gerrit van Honthorst has a different sense of chiaroscuro, although it is all about the light, the palette is so much softer, and this lends to the tenderness of the subject. And there are so many other artists to mention, like Georges de la Tour but the blog would get too long!

 

Instead as it is a Caravaggio exhibition I will leave on his painting of Saint John the Baptist. The cleanness of his shadow shapes and the clarity of his images are unrivalled in painting. He is a wonderful painter to look at as an aspiring artist and as a resource for a teacher. As we tend to want to overcomplicate and over-explain our images, his simplification of value patterns and clarity of colour notes and shapes are such a good lesson for us all.

 

Caravaggio Saint John the Baptist

 

Ann’s Out & About – The Ashmolean

Our Museum Trip Lunch Reward served on dark Colombian pottery copy

This morning I got up early to set off on my first artistic and cultural adventure of 2017, accompanied by my daughters. We left Broccoli behind as, although she loves our arty escapades, Museums are less welcoming to furry friends.

We drove to Oxford, with Rene Aubrey playing in the background. Driving through the city, waves of nostalgia washed over us – the architecture and familiar street names have inspired some of our greatest literature, most gripping murder mysteries and characters.

We arrived at the Ashmolean in good time. The building was recently renovated and boasts light and airy modern spaces. There is much to see, too much and for this reason we decided to focus on just one floor. We will have to return for the other floors and to revisit our favourite paintings.

A whole room is dedicated to Dutch flower painting. We felt spoilt by the number of paintings and whilst it was a treat to have so many masterful examples of the genre in one room, by the end we were able to be quite picky about what we enjoyed and what we felt was overdone and overwhelming.

Mignon. Flower Painting. Oil on Panel

We concluded that the paintings just marginally under life size did not work, they looked mean and disproportionate rather than merely under life size. There really is no need to paint something as small as a flower under life size, and it doesn’t make visual sense. Obviously this is not a rule that holds true to all subject matter, for a building to be painted life size would be ridiculous!

The lighter backgrounds were fresh and stood out amongst all the dark backgrounds. Why were Dutch flower paintings predominantly painted on dark backgrounds? Fast forward to the delicious Colombian feast we went onto after the Ashmolean. It was served on typical dark Colombian pottery, which Maria considered an effective way of emphasising the colour of the food. It made me think of the Dutch flower painting – perhaps the dark backgrounds were a device to accentuate the colours? Then again, in the days of no artificial lighting, I would have thought it would have been brighter to have lighter images?

My daughters were fascinated and did a great job finding at least one bug in every painting, like an arty Where’s Wally. I wonder, were the bugs there to entertain the artist, the children, or help explain the freshness and aliveness of the flowers!?

From flowers to landscapes, we moved through two rooms dedicated to the landscape sketch, mainly from the Gere Collection. These paintings are always a delight to see, their freshness and purity – no bugs needed, just pure observation. Leighton’s sketches are uncluttered and utterly underworked (very different to his large paintings); Valenciennes’ colours and shapes are crisp and simple, almost modern. Here too we were spoilt by the number of paintings and yet, by the end, similarly judgmental and quick to comment on the lack of accurate perspective. There is a clear difference between exaggerated perspective, which helps give the effect of distance, to forced and misjudged perspective.

Leighton. Villa Malta, Rome. Landscape Sketch. Oil on canvas     Valenciennes. Oil landscape Sketch. Oil on paper

The Constables were at the end of the room and had great impact. I am a huge fan but on closer inspection and after the light sketches of the Roman Campagna, they were disappointing.

The last room we entered was much more eclectic both in terms of timeline and genre. The jamboree of images did have some advantages as it made it very easy to pick out the gems in the crowd! The portrait by Lawrence, on a bone ground was striking and particularly remarkable for its colours and simplicity.

In the same room was the most amazing Hogarth sketch, a small oil painting on canvas. It is phenomenally modern, if it weren’t for the style of dress one would think it was a Walter Sickert. The painting is a sketch for the final episode of Marriage à la Mode; the looseness of the paint and the melting edges are incredible. However, what really brings the painting into the 20th century are the pure colour notes thickly applied, and the use of impasto to guide the storyline.

Hogarth. Oil Sketch for Marriage a la Mode. Oil on Canvas. Alla Prima

The painting feels very free, today we would be astounded by the sureness of touch and paint quality – alla prima at its best. Yet for Hogarth it was just a preliminary sketch!

There is so much more to be said – and this is just the second floor! However, my account would not be complete without indulging in what was the greatest pleasure of our visit: the Van Dyck studies. Two preparatory sketches of bearded men both in ruffs on a grey ground that brings a delicious warm tone to the work.

Van Dyck. Portrait Study of a man with a Beard and Ruff. Oil on canvas

Van Dyck uses a very limited palette, his colours are clean and direct and every brushstroke has a purpose. This is not painting sketchily, nor slowly finding your way round till the end fits in with your visual start. It is instead considered and carefully applied so that, every brushstroke makes sense, in terms of its shape, value, temperature, colour. In these paintings there is nothing to trick us or lure us; no flashy colours, unnecessarily thick paint, or layers of glazes; no dripping paint or splashy backgrounds; just the purest form of honest painting. Every brushstroke is purposeful and none is excessive.

As an aspiring painter, what more could you hope for than the purest distillation of paint, and a lesson to apply to more aspects of our lives than just art!