Bohemia Lies By The Sea, 1996, Anselm Kiefer

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This is what I wrote while standing in front of this:

Something so beautiful and yet melancholic. Is it the association with post war guilt or is it in the piece itself. Similar reaction in London. Could consider ugly up close – beige, cream and flesh-coloured pinks. The grey-white stripe across the top – sky? sea? And then, standing 100ft back the beauty is extraordinary. It suddenly becomes a real place, and flowers glow in strange light.

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I must have spent 30 minutes with this painting, walking back and forth, turning my back on it and then spinning around to face it from different parts of the room. A kind of grandmother’s footsteps. Up close it’s quite brutal, the colours are pasty, fleshy, not beautiful. That’s not to say it doesn’t get an emotional reaction close – it does – this soil feels churned up by suffering, charred, this is a place in limbo, but not a place you’d choose to be. And yet as you move away it starts to sing, becomes magical. He’s created a light I’ve never known – not dusk or dawn, sunlight or moonlight. The flowers that up close are disturbing patches of fleshy pink unfurl and are poppies, they dance and glow. From feeling like a kind of hell, it feels like a dream to wander that path and reach what is surely the prize. It is extraordinary.

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Detail from Bohemia Lies By The Sea, 1996, Anselm Kiefer

 

Böhmen liegt am Meer (Bohemia Lies by the Sea) is inscribed on the painting – it’s a poem by an Austrian poet about the longing for a homeland that can never be, for Bohemia is landlocked, it cannot lie by the sea. Maybe this is a longing to change the past, a longing for a different history. Perhaps this painting can’t be given precise meaning. It is something of many layers. Of horror, of war and destruction, of longing, of a land that can be viewed two ways, of looking back and looking forward.

It is vast at 191.1 × 561.3 cm. The sheer scale of it seems to give it more of everything; more passion, depth, horror, joy. Impossible to get ones arms around it, it seeps out of the corner of your eye and into your peripheral vision.

Discovering Anselm Kiefer came at a particular moment for me. My mother, in the last months of her life had suddenly broken free of the guilt of being German. Born in 1938 with the burning streets of Hamburg as the horrific backdrop to her childhood, she left when she was 18, never to return, rarely speaking of her German roots. The British Museum’s exhibition Germany: Memories of a Nation changed all that and I am eternally grateful, for the last months of her life were spent discovering what it was to be German, something she hadn’t dared do all her life.

Michael Prodger in The Guardian, says of Kiefer: He is a child of the rubble and of the national silence about Hitler’s atrocities that settled on Germany after 1945. It was here that he formulated his idea that “creation and destruction are one and the same”.  Kiefer is an artist who hasn’t been afraid confront Germany’s past while also daring to reference the trauma that Germany suffered. And with my mother a child of the rubble too, I find it impossible to untangle the emotion I feel standing in front of this work.

 

 

Mountain 1, 1966, Agnes Martin

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Mountain 1, 1966, Agnes Martin

Unfortunately this doesn’t look like anything online. It’s the second time I’ve seen her work for real and again it has huge impact that simply can’t be felt unless standing right in front of it. This is way way more than a beige square.

It’s large – 183 x 183 – painted with one colour and covered in white horizontal lines outlined in pencil.

This is what I wrote when standing in front of it:

Draws/beckons gently from across the room – does it reach out to certain people? Does it fill a need? Is it medicine for some? It lives. Gently breathes. Feels like a living thing. Just completely at ease, solid, self composed, in a slight crazy room. It just is.

I am delighted and fascinated that I got a similar reaction on seeing this as I did when I saw my first Agnes Martin. A sense that the canvas was a living being. I do wonder if it touches people in a similar way. Does it calm those that need calming, or does it resonate with those that are hitting the same note, already on the same zen bandwidth?

 

 

Goldfish and Palette, 1914, Matisse

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Goldfish and Palette, 1914, Matisse

I saw this for the first time recently. I was in MOMA and had just left the Edward Degas: A Strange New Beauty exhibition which I hadn’t enjoyed; it was overcrowded, I was disappointed with what I saw, my feet were sore, I hadn’t stayed long.

And here was something to lift my spirits. It was only when coming to write this down that I remembered the postcard of Matisse’s Goldfish of 1912 blue-tacked to my bedroom wall for years. So now I’m wondering how much a sort of subliminal nostalgia is at play here.

This is what I wrote while standing in front of the painting – I’m pleased I kept a record of this immediate reaction – it’s a reminder of my sense of excitement on this rather flat grey Sunday as I write.

It’s so intriguing! Feel I am in that space, standing at that window. Void that falls below (blue). The glass is cold and smooth. I could touch it….Careless with shapes in between leaves. Not sure what is on table – glass? Then to the right abstract shapes – so integral to the whole, yet a new dimension. Curiosity – another window, a refraction/reflection – is it the painter? Movement. There is a Still Life. And then there is something occurring right in our field of vision. Is that what makes us feel we are in the room? Is it us looking? I really like it!

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Self Portrait with Palette, 1885, Cézanne

In a 2010 article for Vanity Fair John Richardson describes a letter from Matisse to a friend. It contains a sketch of a goldfish bowl against the railings of his studio balcony but the sketch includes a self-portrait in which he holds a rectangular palette – apparently a reference to Cézanne’s self-portrait of 1885. In the final painting his self-portrait has become so abstracted that all that is left is the white rectangle of palette with thumb. This does make sense of the painting – the very real sensation that there is someone there, moving, looking.

The surrealist poet André Breton said of the painting, “I believe Matisse’s genius is here…nowhere has Matisse put so much of himself as in this picture.” (from the MOMA website)

 

I’ve added this close up simply to remind me of how Matisse dealt with the spaces in between the leaves. It quite blew my mind.

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Untitled No. 5, 2005, Mark Edwards

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I came across this photograph in the Timothy Gurney Gallery at Norwich Castle. It’s big, at 122cm x 152cm and close up the detail is impressive – every twig and every fallen leaf. We never see this land in detail, it’s always at a distance. Unless we break down of course, when there is the shock of the close-up, the shock of reversed fortunes as we wait.

Because Mark Edwards has put everything in focus, he’s created a mystery, a story. We become suddenly aware of life here: plant, animal, human – hiding, or hiding something? This land is forgotten, no one visits,  its life has become a secret.

And the land looks as if it’s loved. Just because it has been given such attention, does this make it loved? I think so.

Untitled No. 5 is peaceful, gentle. Even its title has peace – look at this and the freneticism of the world becomes a gentle periphery buzz. Perhaps by design the gallery has placed the only seat in the room right here.

I was reading Edgelands (Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts) at the time I visited this gallery and so I broke in to a huge grin the moment I saw this across the room. In Edgelands, the authors propose something called Edgenav, a “means of guiding travellers away from the speed and  vector of conventional satnav travel…Edgenav could link travellers with the stories of these unseen places blurring in their peripheral vision, narrating the hidden paths and dens, the allotments and sewage farms…”

I would be first in line for Edgenav. Speeding along motorways I long to know about the land alongside, to be able to stop and zoom in.

 

 

 

Andy Warhol, Works from the Hall Collection, Ashmolean Museum

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Andy Warhol’s work doesn’t move me, but I am always up for having my mind changed so I went along, really hoping to see something I wasn’t expecting. The main room was full of what Warhol is most known for – his multi-colour screen print portraits. They covered the wall, high and wide, and the result was striking but it felt like decoration, not art. But I’m wondering if that is because these images have become decoration – printed on mugs, cushions, clocks – and isn’t that what Warhol intended anyway – to play with the notion of fame. To make the normal the star? But ultimately the star has become the wallpaper?

There was a series of drawings along one wall. Drawings that were pencil tracings of photographs – some taken by Warhol, some cut from magazines. They reminded me of the tracings children do, when they first discover the magic of tracing paper. I wasn’t intrigued, or interested, these were just blanks.

I find myself frustrated with these. I don’t get anything from them, about the sitter, about Warhol, I don’t know what he is trying to say. Maybe that is the point or maybe I just don’t get it. Anything I take from the drawings I am quite sure is because of my familiarity with the models themselves: Ingrid Bergman and Jane Fonda. Perhaps that is what Warhol is after – giving us a blank on which we project?

La Toilette, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1891 The Ashmolean Museum

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La Toilette, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1891

I stood awkwardly in front of this painting, the room was busy and I wasn’t prepared – a mess of coat, bag, camera, pencil, specs – I’m a novice.  I had thought about drawing the hands (in view of my current OCA project) but was taken by the three very distinct shapes of neck and negative space on either side. Standing in front of the full size painting (58 x 46cm) this is where the eye is drawn, you can almost feel Toulouse-Lautrec’s eyes boring into his model’s exposed skin. The dress and elbows disappear, the dressing table is hinted at. All concentration is on these shapes. Neither hand nor hair is clearly defined.

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As is always the case, having left the museum and looked at the photograph, and thought about it some more, I wish I could go back and look again, sketch again.  But living 900 miles away  that’s not going to happen. My scribbled notes will have to remind me: “Shapes: blocks of shapes pieced together…angles and negative spaces are clearly defined, as if he’s built his drawing around them”

Master Drawings

A flying visit to Oxford and I stole an hour in the Print Room at the Ashmolean. Looking at these master drawings is such a privilege. It’s hard not to think about how much these papers have been handled over the years, handled and passed about, until a point in time when their value went up and the handling went down. Until the day they are kept behind glass, in draws, and brought out on special request.

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Dragon, c 1525, Michelanglo

Drawing in Pen and Brown Ink over Black Chalk (Michelangelo)

over Red and Black Chalk (Students) c. 1525

The first I looked at was Dragon by Michelangelo, packed with coiled tension, a terrifying energy about to be unleashed. It has been drawn over sketches of heads by his pupil Antonio Mini – it looks as though the dragon has devoured one head and is about to snap up a second. I was fascinated by his shading – so methodical and yet the whole is a living creature about to jump off the page. A mix of short and long marks, mostly straight though some with slight curve, of differing thickness. the areas of deep shadow simply filled. No cross-hatching, just parallel lines. The highlight is bare, just paper, the blur between shadow and highlight simply sparse marks.

 

Copying from Studies for Two Kneeling Women, Raphael (black chalk)

Of course it was wonderful to copy these feet – following the confident curves and straight lines that magically make up the whole – but it was the profile of the women in the top corner that got me intrigued. What struck me was how the profile of nose, mouth and chin is just a simple line of curves and bumps. It’s hard to completely understand, but I think the woman’s mouth is open. The curve was too compelling not to copy, once down I couldn’t resist following the line of neck, shoulder, head scarf adding in the simple triangle of an eyelid.

These drawings are so confident and so fluent. Effortless. As if the reality stems from the drawing, these masters really are drawing life.