Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Bite 116: Salvador Dali - Anthropomorphic Chest of Drawers, 1936

Anthropomorphic Chest of Drawers, 1936, oil on wood, 25 x 43 cm, K20, Düsseldorf
Frail hand extended, rejecting the outside world, a disjointed figure - a chest of drawers for a chest - looks within itself, head down. Drawers pulled out, darkness within, the exterior world represented in the top right corner (it appears to be Cologne with its double-spired cathedral), seems to retreat, casting an ethereal light on the disconcerting figure.

A small oil painting on wood with a large frame, the work typifies Dali's approach as a skilled painter referencing the style of the old-masters, while the subject matter sits is stark contrast to this technique, showing a woman simultaneously opening up and withdrawing.

A manifestation of Freudian internalisation and reclusion, the woman (with draw-handles for nipples) is engrossed by the drawers that have spontaneously opened from within her, threatening to disclose their contents - her interior world -, a white cloth protruding from one. In this sense the anthropomorphic cabinet becomes a symbol of psychoanalysis. This motif appears in other forms in Dali's work such as the sculpture/furniture piece Venus de Milo with Chest of Drawers (1936/64) which stands near Anthropomorphic Chest of Drawers in Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (K20).

Archive Bookstore

Five minutes walk from my apartment, on Bell St, between the Marylebone and Edgware Rd tube stations, there is a small bookshop with a basement: Archive Books and Music.

It is just as second-hand bookshops should be: cramped, messy, disorganised, books pouring out onto the street, and with that 'old book smell'. 

With a fantastic array of art books, philosophy tomes and novels, all very reasonably priced, floor to high-ceiling shelves and teetering piles of boxes hold endless promises of hidden gems. "A browser's delight!" indeed.

Down a flight of winding stairs is the basement where a plethora of used sheet-music - vocal, orchestral and otherwise - towers around a wonderfully old, out-of-tune piano. Music is heard from this dark basement as you browse away the hours upstairs, overhearing the owner and his assistant (dressed in a thick apron as if he were a carpenter) as they natter away with regulars on an assortment of topics. I will surely become one of those regulars, before too long.


Wednesday, 25 May 2011


"Art is the only way to run away without leaving home."
                                                 - Twyla Tharp
I am taking a short break this week. I am going to Germany. Posts will resume after the long weekend.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Bite 115: Jan van Eyck - Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?), 1433

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?), 1433, oil on oak, 26 x 19 cm, National Gallery, London
A head, almost certainly that of the artist, emerges from darkness. His piercing eyes and ambiguous expression confront the viewer from beneath a red headpiece, light accentuating red detailing. 

The frame, also by the artist, is inscribed, trompe l'oeil - to give the illusion of carving - with the words "Als Ich Can," a pun in Greek meaning "As I/Eyck Can," and below with, "Jan van Eyck made me on 21 October 1433." These references, along with the slight turn of the man's head and his penetrating gaze, strongly suggests at the painting being a self-portrait.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Bite 114: Jan van Eyck - The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

Portrait of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini and his Wife (The Arnolfini Portrait), 1434,
oil on oak, 82 x 60 cm, National Gallery, London
Redolent in symbolism, this mysterious painting has been the subject of much conjecture among art historians.

The woman, thought to be Giovanna Cenami, is not believed to be pregnant here, despite appearances. This, along with the dog, fruit and bed, can be seen instead as indicative of fertility, in what many scholars believe to be a marriage or betrothal portrait. Whether this be the case or not, an oath is none-the-less seen to be taking place - Giovanni raising his hand and Giovanna lowering and opening hers. Extravagantly attired in highly expensive winter clothing the couple stands in the front room of their house, on the second story, with cherry blossoms outside suggesting early spring - further adding to the confusion surrounding this Early-Netherlandish work (a very early example of oil on wood instead of tempura).

Thoroughly justifying the extraordinarily fame of this work, however, more even than its remarkable realism and painstaking illusionistic technique, is the convex mirror and inscription in the centre of the painting, on the far wall behind the couple. In the round glass can be seen the backs of the Arnolfinis and a man in front of them holding up his hand, widely accepted to be the artist himself. Above this is transcribed (some even believe legally notorised): "Jan van Eyck has been here." This gesture of authorship attests to the role of the artist as witness, while also being a bold statement on consciousness and the human ego

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Bite 113: Do Ho Suh - Staircase-V, 2008

Staircase-V, 2008, polyester and stainless steel tubes,
staircase: 108 x 261 x 76 cm, Tate Modern
Korean artist Do Ho Suh uses the delicate medium of fabric to recreate, in life-size, interior domestic spaces. With his ongoing work Seoul Home/L.A. Home/New York Home..., where the artist transports a recreation of his childhood home in Korea with him as he relocates, showing it in galleries all over the world. With Staircase-V he brings the staircase from his Chelsea, New York apartment into a London art museum.

The ceiling above becomes fabric. The intricate staircase, with detailing - balustrade and light-fixtures - falls, life-size, into the empty space beneath. Translucent and oddly comforting, parred-down yet homely. Zen and minimal while remaining refreshingly personal.

No Balance Palace

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Bite 112: J.M.W. Turner - Sun Setting over a Lake, c. 1840

Sun Setting over a Lake, c. 1840, oil on canvas, 107 x 138 cm, Tate Britain
"Turner lived in a cellar. Once a week he had the shutters suddenly flung open, and then what incandescence! What dazzlement! What jewels!"                  
                                                         - Henri Matisse, 1943

Monday, 16 May 2011

Bite 111: J.M.W. Turner - Self-Portrait, 1799

Self-Portrait, 1799, oil on canvas, 74 x 58 cm, Tate Britain
At 24 Turner has just been made an Associate at the Royal Academy. He paints himself, almost life-size, confident and dapper, standing tall - yet with perhaps a hint of self-doubt. He gazes, front on, directly at the viewer, head protruding from a tight jacket, willing himself to be undaunted. 

He is tremendously present in a bold statement of who he believes he could be.

Contained and silent. Yet brimming just beneath the surface: a violent energy - like that in his later marine paintings; his billowing white scarf even prophetic of this. With thick, confident brushwork, he bristles with potential and possibility - and the lingering fear that he may in the end amount to nothing.

It is this paradox of ambition, in an expertly understated and transcendent work, which reaches across centuries to confront the viewer as if to say: "You may be young and a little scared, but dare to believe you have something unique to offer the world."

Turner certainly did. He went on to become the dominant figure in English Romanticism, and the key forerunner to Impressionism.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Bite 110: Francisco de Goya - Pilgrimage to the Hermitage of St. Isidore, 1819-23

 Pilgrimage to the Hermitage of St. Isidore, 1819-23, oil mural transferred to canvas, 139 x 436 cm, Prado
Over 30 years after Festival at the Meadow of San Isadore, when Goya is deaf and isolated, at the end of his career and near the end of his life, he paints, on the wall of his house, a scene from the same theme. Yet, could two works from the same artist be more contrasting?

Here the pilgrimage becomes a terrifying nightmare. A pilgrim in the front of the procession plucks on strings, mouth gaping more in a silent scream than a song, his head twisted, maniacal eyes rolled back. Behind him faces contort in pain and bow in melancholy, others smile sinisterly. The great mass of people under the dark sky speaks powerfully of the futility of the human condition.

This is a procession of death, a vision of hell on earth, Apocalypse.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Bite 109: Francisco de Goya - Festival at the Meadow of San Isadore, 1788

Festival at the Meadow of San Isadore, 1788, oil on canvas, 44 x 94 cm, Prado
Painted as a sketch for a tapestry which was never completed, Festival at the Meadow of San Isadore shows festival goers and pilgrims celebrating the the feast day of St. Isidore the Labourer, patron saint of Madrid. The festival is the most popular in the Spanish calender, still celebrated today on May 15th each year.

The background, one of the best examples of Goya's landscape painting, shows the panorama of the city of Madrid with several recognisable buildings. The foreground exemplifies his skill in character studies, presenting Spanish people from all walks of life, brought together in joyous celebration on a warm spring day. The crowds of people draw us into the composition as they celebrate their city and their country.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Bite 108: Francisco de Goya - Two Old Men Eating Soup, 1819-23

Two Old Men Eating Soup, 1819-23, oil mural transferred to canvas, 49 x 83 cm, Prado
Thick, loose brushwork, paint expertly applied by a highly experienced hand conveys a nightmarish scene with minimal form. Yet it is all the more sinister for it. 

The gender of the subjects appearing out of the darkness is only supposed. They could very well be witches (a common type throughout Goya's oeuvre). The right figure however, barely there at all with its dark skull-like head, is most likely the apparition of death itself; pointing, along with the other sinister grinning figure, at a spoon, inviting someone - you - to dinner.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Bite 107: Francisco de Goya - Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-23

Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-23,
oil mural transferred from canvas,  143 x 81 cm, Prado
Imagine looking at this painting everyday, on the wall of your house. Piercing wide eyes maniacally peering back at you through the darkness from behind a half eaten corpse.

Saturn Devouring His Son was among the so called Black Paintings found on the walls of Goya's house, Quinta del Sordo (Villa of the Deaf Man) - named for a previous resident, although Goya was also deaf when he lived there.

The subject here, taken from Greek mythology, is Titan Cronus (romanitised as Saturn), who, fearing that his children would overthrow him, ate each one at birth. He desperately grasps his child, possessed and demented, its gory stump of an arm protruding from the creatures wide, black mouth.

As with all of the Black Paintings - particularly The Dog - their intended meaning can only be guessed at. None-the-less, largely due to this enigmatic quality, they continue to haunt and inspire.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Bite 106: Francisco de Goya - The Dog, 1819-23

The Dog, 1819-23, oil mural transferred to canvas, 132 x 79 cm, Prado
Appearing to sink into the sand behind a dune, a dog, only its head showing above the surface, pleads desperately with its eyes, gazing up ominously. Filled with human emotion the animal is the epitome of helplessness, lost and alone, silent in its agony. 

The empty space above, minimal, a precursor to abstraction (Rothko before Rothko), further emphasises the fate of the animal, and, it its sublimity, the work is a powerful comment on the human condition. Have we not all been where this simply but effectively painted dog is, at some point in our lives?

Friday, 6 May 2011

Bite 105: John Singer Sargent - Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife, 1889

Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife, 1889, oil on canvas, 66 × 81 cm, Brooklyn Museum, NY
Paul Helleu sketches en plein air, his wife at his side. An artistic collaboration as well as marriage, their bright hats mirror as they sit close on the grass. Yet Paul, head down, regards his canvas, deftly applying paint from his palette, while Alice, almost deathly pale, looks meditatively into the distance. They appear content to sit in silence, within their own worlds.

Painted by their good friend John Singer Sargent, the complex composition and framing reflects the influence of the invention of photography on 19th century painting. The cropping of Alice on the right and the canoe at left transforms the intimate scene into a vignette of a larger scene, adding dynamism and realism to the representation.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Bite 104: Paul César Helleu - Madame Paul Helleu, 1894

 Madame Paul Helleu, 1894, pastel on blue paper, 48 x 31 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
A women of the utmost elegance and grace, Madame Alice Helleu (the artist's wife) reclines on a chair. Perhaps after a long evening among the Parisian aristocracy, she stills wears her fashionable evening dress and gloves. 

This intimate portrait is exquisitely drawn with a pale averted face, dark contours and expert, loose colouring. The result is a small but captivating image of a tender moment at the end of a day.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Bite 103: Arman - L'Heure Pour Tous, 1985

L'Heure Pour Tous, 1985, bronze, 700 cm tall, Gare St. Lazare, Paris
"Clocks slay time... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life."
                                                  - William Faulkner
Outside a train station in Paris (the Gare St. Lazare to be exact) there is an accumulation of bronze clocks. 

L'Heure Pour Tous (Time for All), with its many faces, looks down on hundreds of Parisians and tourists everyday, rushing by. All with somewhere to go, a train to catch, a deadline to meet - a clock to beat.

To stop and look up at these clocks you see that they do not move. They are all stopped on different times. It becomes a silent memorial to lost time.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Bite 102: Pierre Bonnard - Back of a Nude at Her Bath, 1934

Back of a Nude at Her Bath, 1934, oil on canvas, 107 x 74 cm, Pompidou
Marthe disappears against the wall of her bathroom, bright yellow. She is in her element, within herself, turned from the viewer. 

Bonnard paints his obsession, his muse. His art is a manifestation of their intimacy, painting as tender caress. 

Monday, 2 May 2011

Bite 101: Pierre Bonnard - Woman Lying on a Bed, 1899

Woman Lying on a Bed, 1899, oil on canvas, 96 x 106 cm, Musée d'Orsay
The bed - a landscape, tilted toward the viewer, with post-coital sheets bathed in soft late afternoon light.

The woman - Marthe, the artist's bath obsessed, highly-strung muse (and later wife), dozes, tautly, her left leg at a right angle to her right, exposing her sex.

Smoke from a pipe rises before her, evidence of the the artist (and voyeur), Bonnard.

This is the distillation of a moment, filled with intensity in its atmospheric portrayal.  A domestic world, layered with private meaning.