Friday, 17 May 2013

three exhibitions

I went to London today.  I almost didn't go, because there is so much to do in the garden, but in the end I decided that weeding, like the poor, you will have always with you, and there were things I wanted to see, that finish soon.  In the grand sweep of things it seemed a pity to miss them, and I'll remember them long after the incremental amount of gardening I would have done has ceased to be of any consequence.

I started with Murillo at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  That ends this weekend, on 19th May, so there is little point in recommending it, if you haven't already been.  I still have a slight psychological block about going to Dulwich, feeling that it is a long way away, being south of the river and on the overground instead of the underground, but in reality the train journey takes twelve minutes from London Bridge, and the trains go every quarter of an hour.  It's about another twelve minute walk at the other end, but in aggregate no worse than getting to the V&A.  Mind you, I always feel that is rather a long trek.

The Murillo is nice.  There are some religious paintings, some genre paintings of children, and some supporting evidence including X ray photographs that reveal which of the paintings Murillo got straight off, and which ones he fiddled around with, altering postures and moving props about as he went along.  I feel the same about Murillo's religious paintings as I did about Barocci's: I'm not a Catholic, or even a practising Christian, and I can't look at them in the same way as their original seventeenth century audience did.  But they are beautiful as paintings, the faces full of expression, the backgrounds glowing with a subtle light, the draperies billowing convincingly.  He was very good at painting children.

There was a group of small children seated in front of one picture, of a sleeping patrician and his wife being told in a dream by the Virgin Mary to build a church on the site of some miraculous snow that fell in August.  The children were being told a story, by a fat, bouncy woman with a very loud voice, that had absolutely nothing to do with the painting.  In her story, the sleeping people were dreaming of going to London town, and it was so long ago that there were no buses or taxis (which was true).  It does annoy me when people tell small children stuff which is essentially lies.  I can see that there are some subjects you would prefer not to broach at all with a six year old.  The Rwandan genocide, say.  And other things they are simply not going to get at that age.  Constitutional reform in the nineteenth century, for example.  But this was a Spanish painting, and dreaming that you have to build a church is a perfectly good story in itself.  Why drag London town into it?  The Mercury is doing something similar, with an upcoming show about a worker bee who is called Bertie, and is a boy.  Worker bees are female.  Even if you are going to invent stories about bees, why confuse the issue in the minds of small children by telling them that worker bees are boys?

After Murillo I went to Tate Modern, to see the Lichtenstein retrospective.  The walk from London Bridge took me through the corner of Borough Market, and I considered going to look for the Brindisa deli, to buy Spanish ingredients like salt cod, but decided against it.  The market was very crowded, I hadn't looked up their precise address, and I didn't really want to carry a piece of salt cod around the Tate.  The stalls selling street food looked appetising, but the queues were very long, so I gave them a miss as well.

It seemed a waste to be going to the Lichtenstein by myself, when I have just upgraded my membership to Member plus Guest, and know that at least two of my friends wanted to see it, but that was how things turned out.  It closes on 27th May, and I simply hadn't found the time to go before.  A tentative plan to go last week collapsed when the chosen day clashed with the funeral.  I have mixed feelings about Lichtenstein.  I thought I ought to go simply because he was an innovator, and is famous, and the retrospective would form part of my art education.  I liked his ideas much more than I was expecting to.  Seeing Picasso, or a trio of Monet Notre Dames, reworked in pop art dots, is extremely entertaining, and makes you think about the nature of art, which is what Lichtenstein intended.  However, I don't like Lichtenstein aesthetically.  I'm not good with dots: Seurat always annoys the hell out of me.  And I dislike bright, acid primary colours.  So if Rothko is my idea of twentieth century paint heaven, subtle brushwork and layers of masked colour in rich earth tones, Lichtenstein is the opposite.  I can see it is clever and sincere, but it makes me jittery.

From the Tate I walked along the south bank and over to Charing Cross and Piccadilly.  The Thames, which was still ebbing when I crossed London Bridge, and at slack water as I walked up to the Tate, had started to flood.  It is a slightly frightening river, its muddy waters swirling around the bridges and mooring buoys, and I know from taking boats on it as far up as St Katherine's Dock how strong the cross currents are.  Somebody I once worked with was on the Marchioness the night it was run down, which probably colours my view.  I don't like those party boats.  I would never even want to be on the Thames when I'd had anything to drink.  It is a river to be on your guard with, at all times.

The Royal Academy is showing the American painter George Bellows, and that's on until 9th June, so you still have time to go.  I really, really liked George Bellows.  He made his name painting boxing matches, at a time when boxing was still an illegal sport in New York, but he also painted the city, and seascapes, and landscapes, and people.  They are vigorous, fairly impressionistic paintings, and Manet's influence shows in some of the portraits, though elements of his most famous painting Stag at Sharkey seem to me to almost prefigure Francis Bacon.  There are lithographs and drawings as well, vivid and lively, sometimes touching on caricature, sometimes savage social comment.  He died in 1925, when he was only forty two, and western art was the poorer for it.

Three exhibitions in one day is really rather a lot, though these three were all very different to each other.  I liked George Bellows so much, I should have liked to look at his rain soaked park and snow covered hills for longer, only after an hour of looking at his pictures my brain was full.  Catch it if you can.

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