It is rare that an exhibition of drawings has such a powerful physical effect on me that I have to take time out to sit down and recover. Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album on at the Courtauld Gallery until the 25th May had just that effect and is a wonderful example of how art can transmit its effects directly into the body of the beholder.


Goya was ill, deaf and in his late seventies when he made a series of albums for his own delight and that of his close friends.  The eight albums were broken up and the drawings spread around the world. The Courtauld has painstakingly brought together all the drawings from the so-called album D, which they have named The Witches and Old Women Album. The twenty-two drawings are displayed in the order in which they believe they were drawn and are full of humor, horror, the sinister and the macabre.


In Mirth two elderly women float above the ground and dancing with abandon. The normal rules of gravity no longer apply; the women have broken away from the earth and are kicking up their heels in a weightless space. Until Death is a drawing of a very old woman with a gnarled face preening herself in front of a mirror. A maid stifles her laughter whilst two young men raise their eyes and giggle in the background at the ludicrous sight of self-deception in the elderly. Dream of a Good Witch shows an elderly woman leaning on a long stick with another stick across her back from which four babies hang tied by their feet and arms. How are we meant to take this, as a dream image or the desire of the old for young flesh? Showing Off? Remember your age is a drawing of a woman falling down stairs. She is tumbling backwards with her legs in the air and her skirt around her waist. Here there is no decorum and no boundaries to what can be imagined.


I went around the exhibition with a friend a similar age to me. The drawings are about old age and loss of faculties and about how embarrassing elderly people can be to the young. But they are also about the loss of inhibition that comes with old age and the delights that that can bring. I found myself snorting with pain and delight and not knowing which was uppermost. The ambiguity of meaning of some of the drawings had the effect of making me disorientated. Where was I standing in relation to these works and what kind of a world is it where the spaces left around figures makes them float off untethered to the ground? They induced in me that terrifying suspended moment on a roller-coaster at the tip of a rise, a second before the car plunges back to the ground. A thesis could be written about Goya’s empty spaces, (maybe there are some) and how he uses white paper to dislodge his figures and make them inhabit an alternative universe. Only when we had gone round the room and sat down to take these extraordinary drawings in did my friend mention he was feeling nauseous and I realized that I too was experiencing the nausea of vertigo.


After a while I realized that this was not just a nausea generated by all the ungrounded figures, but also that these grimacing, smiling, ugly faces were similar to those hypnagogic images that can appear just before one goes to sleep; the images that can be thrown up by the brain as it transfers from an awake to a sleeping state, in a mind untethered by the physical world. Goya was drawing a bodily state where we lose our markers of the physical world. This can certainly happen in a dreaming or hypnagogic state but also, he is suggesting, at the end of life when we are beginning to detach from the world we have known.


My body reacted first, way before I could begin to understand what was going on. When we connect powerfully with art this is exactly what happens, although maybe not always in such an extreme way; we feel in our bodies before we think about what we are looking at. We respond to art not simply as an object outside ourselves but as if it was another person reflecting and understanding who we are and making us react and feel. Go and see these extraordinary drawings, it’s worth the vertigo!


Whilst in the main art gallery in Dresden recently, a large painting with a rather beautiful oriental carpet in it caught my eye. The painting called The Procuress was painted in 1656 and depicted the buying of a young woman for sex. I was amazed to discover that it was painted by Vermeer, that master of the quiet, contained bourgeois interior. The four figures in The Procuress lean into the picture and over the oriental carpet.  The young woman who is being procured is modestly dressed in a white cap and brilliant yellow jacket.  The man paying for her favors leans over her, coin in hand ready to drop it into her outstretched palm whilst his left hand firmly covers her left breast. Despite the coarseness of this transaction there is a gentleness and intimacy to the two figures who have agreed the deal. The couple are bathed in light, a light which separates them slightly from the procuress herself, an androgynous figure in black with a slightly menacing smile who peers round at them from the back of the painting. A man on the left of the picture in a large black hat looks out at us, smiling. He is not part of the threesome but rather an observer of the scene which is unfolding before him and us.


This painting was so unlike the Vermeer that I thought I knew and the one whom was lodged in my imagination, that I found it hard to believe that he had painted it. The Procuress is a big painting, far larger than all those subtle later pictures of interiors. But it was the subject matter that really surprised me.  This is one of the few paintings known to exist of the artist’s attempts at subjects of Bordeeltje or low life.  In the mid 17th century when he painted this there was a flourishing group of Bordeeltje painters who painted brothels and street life, often lascivious in content. Many painters of the period made their living painting such scenes, yet within a year of painting The Procuress Vermeer had produced Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window. The painter had moved quickly from painting biblical scenes to The Procuress and then had another dramatic change in style and content and spent the rest of his life painting what we now all think of as typical Vermeer; studies in calm domesticity with intense psychological interest and insight.  It is as if the painter’s interest in the external world of religion, power, money and sexual favors had swung dramatically to the other end of the spectrum, into a smaller internal world of thoughts and feelings where the room depicted becomes part of the subject’s and the beholders imagination. The observer is now the viewer of the painting rather than a figure in the painting itself.


Vermeer’s concentration in his paintings on domestic and internal worlds have been understood by psychoanalysts as a reaction to his turbulent private life. This is entirely speculative however and as a result, I believe, of little interest. All we really have to go on is our own responses to Vermeer’s paintings. I find the different ways in which I respond to The Procuress and Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window tell me something about where the painter’s interests lay. I think The Procuress is a wonderful painting, which engages me in an extroverted world of colour and street life and story. It is a painting about doing and action and is a sensitive depiction of how women’s bodies were used and sold. I can only imagine that he would have been a successful painter of Bordeeltje if he had continued on this path. For whatever reason however Vermeer then began painting pictures about introversion and being in the moment and, surprisingly for the times, these qualities are almost entirely given to women. My responses to these two painting are therefore significantly different. Girl Reading a Letter draws me in and makes me think in a way that The Procuress does not.


When he was painting Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window Vermeer had originally painted a picture of Cupid hanging on the wall behind the young woman, but he painted this out and a tall blank wall remains. The picture of Cupid would have been seen as a direct reflection of the content of the letter; that it was a love letter, but without this we are left to speculate what kind of a letter it is that the young woman is reading. The painting makes you work at your own imaginative understanding. A long green curtain is drawn back to the right of the picture, framing the scene we are being shown, as if we have been allowed to gaze at a private moment. The young girl faces the open window where there is light for her to see her letter. Her face is composed and concentrated as she reads down to the bottom of the bent page. We can see her reflection in the glass of the open pane; this moment of concentration and reflection is captured by Vermeer in a way in which he makes us believe that there is nothing more important in life than being able to appreciate these moments of aliveness and being. We are lucky enough to have been shown something that would normally have been private. If this young woman knew we were looking she would not have been so entirely in her own time and moment. By seeing her we are able to recognize those moments in ourselves, when we lose awareness of our bodies and our surroundings for brief periods of time. In this supreme painting of emotional concentration this young woman is unaware of her physical self, the external world is for a moment, lost to her and so it is on some level to us. We know on one level that it is a delightful room with a scarlet red curtain draped over the window and a beautiful oriental rug covering a table, but these visual elements seem to be part of the state we are experiencing rather than part of a real room.


Vermeer used corners of his house and his props of curtains and rugs much in the same way that Matisse did three centuries later. Yet Matisse did this in a calculated way knowing that this was by then a very accepted mode of conveying feeling and mood. Vermeer elicits an emotional response in us by apparently painting reality, this lovely room with curtains and rug and fruit in a bowl appears to draw us in but once there we find that we are in the body of the young woman and experiencing what she is experiencing. Then we realize that this room is also part of that experience. It is a room that changes to reflect the human presence in it.  We have been seduced into a state of mind; and what a fascinating and engaging seduction it is. For as in all successful seductions we have glimpsed a part of ourselves.


Hans Holbein the Younger is well known as the dramatic court portraitist of Henry VIII’s court. His ability to convey likeness means that the portraits of the king now hanging in The National Portrait Gallery are considered as close as we’ll ever get to Henry’s true likeness and appearance.  It is because of Henry’s determination to document himself and his court that we have as much detail about clothing and hierarchy that we have. Hilary Mantel has said that the writing of her books about the Tudors was helped by a large reproduction of The Ambassadors by Holbein, which graced her study.


Holbein was not just a painter of external appearance though. His ability to get inside the heads of his sitters and to reproduce intensity of character and confidence of position, as well as his capacity for what can only be called realism, is what made him a great painter. Character is not just conveyed by faces. In the portrait of Charles de Solier, which I saw recently in Dresden, it was the right hand of the Ambassador to England, which captivated me. The left hand is gloved in an olive green glove and grasps a gold dagger. The right hand is curved inward and holds the other glove. The hand is the most remarkable hand I have ever seen in a painting. Blue veins show up on the surface running into the base of the fingers and the flesh has a slightly greenish tinge, which might be due to the change in the under-paint colour over time, although here it adds to the translucency of the skin. The knuckles show as bony protrusions under this thin organ. It is the hand of an older man but one that is determined and full of purpose. It is so life like that it appears as if it is standing out from the painting with a three dimensional life of its own. I returned two or three times to look at the painting and each time I had the slightly eerie feeling that this hand was moving towards me, maybe the fingers were opening. It was too life like for its two dimensional home.


Hands are renowned difficulties for painters. Many portraitists concentrate on the face and leave the hands in a mist of indecision.  Hands can become bunches of sausages or slivers of pink flesh for the most adept of artists. A friend whose mother was an artist was telling me how she would suddenly be told by her mother at the breakfast table to ‘keep your hands in that position just as they are’, whilst she tried to commit the specific complicated shapes her daughter’s hands were making to memory.


Charles de Solier’s right hand continues to give me a small shock every time I see the postcard of the portrait on my desk. A not very good reproduction does nothing to diminish the power of that hand. At any moment, maybe when I am not even looking, it will open up, drop the glove and reach towards me.


What makes an artist change their approach to their work?  If you are interested in what and whom influences an artist’s work, then the exhibition on the painter Malevich at Tate Britain explores these events and pressures extensively.


The twelve rooms of paintings in the exhibition chart the development of this Russian artist from his twenties in 1904 until his death in 1935. Malevich lived through a tumultuous time in Russian history, through the First World War, the Russian revolution, the death of Lenin and the beginning of the Stalinist era, which rejected all the avant-garde art that he had been working on for the previous decade.


His work was in a constant process of reinvention, not simply as a response to his times but also through the influences of European art.  In his twenties he was profoundly influenced by French impressionism and then moved on through cubism to abstraction and suprematism (his own word), which morphed into a dissolution of his painting style and then eventually to a reinvention of figuration and portraits.


As I progressed through the galleries I felt unable to settle; the  experience was not a gentle process of assimilating the changes in an artist’s work as he got older and was affected by the times he lived in, but rather a bucking slightly nauseous series of dramatic changes in approach which constantly confronted me with his new ideas about painting whilst he was also struggling with dramatic changes in Russian society.  The one constant was his palette, which relies on primary colours with significant amounts of red, white and black. Looking  through from one room to the next it was easy to see that although the form of the painting changed, the colour and tonal quality remained the same. I found this both reassuring and somewhat dull.


Early in the 20th century Malevich was exposed to exceptional collections of French modern art, which had been collected by the merchants Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov and were housed in Moscow.  Here he saw works by Monet, Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse and later, works by Van Gogh and Gauguin also came to Moscow.  The influence of all these artists can be seen in these early paintings (see Self Portrait 1908-10 above).


As he established himself he developed his own form of Modernism using western ideas of the avant-garde and fusing these with the simplified and blocked out forms of popular Russian prints. The posters of happy peasants laboring in the fields for the common good, were reinterpreted by the artist, as simplified individual portraits of land workers.  By 1912 he had embraced a movement called cubo-futurism which fractured the picture plane and embraced the idea of speed and technological development resulting in canvases where a confusion of planes challenges the beholder to see any signs of human form despite titles such as ‘Head of a Peasant Girl’.  Some of these paintings reminded me of the futurists and vorticists work in lino-cuts which was happening at the same time in Britain.


A few rooms into the exhibition there is an extraordinary piece of film of a futurist opera called ‘Victory Over the Sun’ for which Malevich designed the costumes and backdrop, which is worth sitting down for. It is strange and clunky and mostly incomprehensible but conveys a strong sense of how the three men involved in the project, a musician a poet and the artist were trying to re-invent music, language and the visual sphere.  The film conveys a strong sense of how wide ranging the three young men thought the effect of art could be – that it could indeed change society.


At the age of 36 Malevich painted ‘Black Square’ a complete negation of representation in painting. This painting of a black square surrounded by a border of white is very compelling. In its denial of representational painting and in its simplicity it radiates a power and sense of spirit, which I found very moving. The riots of red, green and blue had gone. It was as if the artist had suddenly discovered what painting could do by remaining still and focused. We are of course used now to looking at a Ben Nicholson square on white paper or a huge purple Rothko canvas but despite this, ‘Black Square’ still held for me a lot of drama and sensitivity. ‘The painting still retains its importance for contemporary artists as a marker in the history of modern art.


Malevich , who seemed to like inventing words for new artistic movements, called the next stage of his work ‘suprematism’. He wrote ‘The artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature’. With suprematism he returned to colour but with entirely geometric forms.  The pictures reminded me of geometry lessons. Squares, triangles, circles and oblongs jostle together on the canvas creating an effect of jiggling movement. I found the paintings quite uncomfortable to look at as there was no calm or peace here, and indeed they were painted at the height of the First World War  when Russia was suffering terribly.


With the abdication of Tsar Nicholas ll and the Revolution, avant-garde artists questioned the purpose of art in a hoped for egalitarian society. Malevich gave up painting all together and took up designing model buildings for a new Russia. The Tate has recreated some of these models – entirely white, they look like a child’s vision of a futuristic city.


The last part of this exhibition is about the artist returning to representation and portraiture once Stalin had gained power.  There was sadness in this final room of work, partly maybe because Malevich was already ill but also because it felt to me like he had nowhere to go but backwards. There are one or two accomplished portraits, which match some of his earliest work but otherwise the work felt flat and dull and lifeless. Stalinism brought about a return to Socialist Realism as if all the previous work of Malevich and other Russian avant-garde painters had been for nought. Malevich died in 1935 at the age of 54.


This exhibition is the story of an energetic, revolutionary life crammed with ideas and experiments, but also sadness. Malevich continues  at Tate Modern until the 26th October.



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Two exhibitions of paintings this week have made me ruminate about colour from different perspectives; Making Colour at The National Gallery and Art and Life at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.


It has recently become possible to take a favorite scarf or piece of wallpaper and get the man at B and Q to mix a paint colour to match. We can have any paint colour we wish for at the touch of a button. Making Colour at The National Gallery reminds us of just how onerous it used to be for painters in the early Renaissance and right through to the beginnings of Impressionism to acquire some of the paint colours they needed. Pigments had to be extracted from earth, rock or insects and then ground down to form intense powders, which could then be mixed with oil or egg to make oil paint or egg tempera. Because of the difficulties painters often had in acquiring and paying for their powders, some of these became very precious and took on a religious and spiritual meaning. Others, made by grinding down insects or the use of poisonous substances took on the aura of danger or excitement.


Each room in the exhibition explores the history and use of a different colour. We are shown how paintings that we think we know well were never meant to look like this, as the pigments have faded or darkened. Reconstructions of the original colours show us the pictures with, what feels like now, a vulgar density and luminosity.  I was made aware of how I am inclined to like what I am used to.


Ultramarine, the richest blue, which was made out of lapis lazuli, had to be mined, which was a dangerous and costly process. The lapis lazuli was ground down into a brilliant blue powder and because it was so precious and difficult to buy it became the ideal colour for painting the Madonna’s cloak in all those Renaissance nativity scenes.  In the 19th century a synthetic form of blue began to be manufactured and the Impressionists were then able to be extravagant with their use of French Ultramarine. In the process blue lost some of its spiritual meaning.


Green was a particularly unstable colour until a stable version was discovered in the 19th century. It was used in the Renaissance as a base for skin tones. That is why faces in Botticelli paintings often have a green tinge. Some of my delight in Renaissance paintings has always been in the blackness of the leaves, the ways in which the trees and bushes in the exquisite landscapes behind portraits are dark, dark green, as a contrast (I always imagined) to the bright Italian sunlight. It was a shock to discover that was not the painter’s intention and that the leaves and vegetation had originally been a bright green.


The room that looks at Yellow and Orange makes much of the poisonous compounds that made up these colours. Arsenic and its associated compound realgar produced deep yellow and orange colours, essential for painting but potentially dangerous for the artists to use. Red associated with danger and blood was made either from minerals and insects, which were crushed and made into a fine powder, or in the case of red madder from the root of the madder plant. The madder plant was made to bleed juice.


The paintings shown appear almost incidental to the major educational thrust of this exhibition. They are used as examples and I found myself reading the dense text far more than I looked at the paintings and then just glancing at the paintings as illustrative examples. Once inducted into the thrust of the theory it became more difficult to look at the paintings from anything but a scientific perspective. Where had the painter used orange? How had the green paint changed? Did the Impressionists use excessive blue paint because it was now easily available and cheap?


However Making Colour does offer a delightful new way to look at some of the treasures of the Gallery’s collection.  Unlike me you could go round this exhibition and simply look at the paintings. It is always stimulating to be shown paintings that you know well through another lens, and any chance to see Van Gogh’s Two Crab,s even if they are there to show what green and orange do to each other when put side by side, is worth taking.


Art and Life looks at the effects Winifred and Ben Nicholson had on each other’s work between 1920 and 1931 and the impact on the other painters who were drawn into their circle at that time. It is especially intriguing in terms of the palettes of both the artists and how Winifred’s lightness of touch and delight in colour contrasts with Ben’s more somber palette.


Winifred Nicholson is an extraordinary artist. Her ability to capture the intensity and aliveness of a fleeting moment in time and to convey the joy of this moment of seeing is unparalleled. Her Anemones painted in 1924 is a most exuberantly joyous and moving picture.  The overall effect of the picture is yellow and yet it is the large expanses of white and magenta pink, which give it its ethereal and magical quality. She had a wonderful capacity to understand what colours did to each other when put side by side. In the note beside this picture she is quoted as saying about another painting: ‘Yesterday I set out to pick a yellow bunch to place as a lamp on my table in dull rainy weather. I picked Iceland poppies, marigolds, yellow iris, my bunch did not tell yellow. I added sunflowers, canary poppies, buttercups, dandelions; no yellower. I added to my butter-like mass, two everlasting peas, magenta pink and all my yellows broke into luminosity. Orange and gold and lemon and primrose, each singing its note.’


Art and Life is like a really good meal. It delights in the respective elements of the couple’s paintings, the spiritually enlivened inner life of Winifred’s flower paintings as well as her loving portraits of her children and other families and, in contrast, the intellectual aestheticism and control of Ben’s still lives and landscapes. Yet sometimes I was taken by surprise. A picture that I thought was by Ben was by Winifred and vice versa. They affected and infused each other in form and content, although mostly not in colour. At this early stage of their painting lives it was Winifred who was the most sophisticated of the two artists and the one who had found her style.


The exhibition also looks at the exchange of influences between the Nicholson’s and Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and the potter William Staite Murray. Everything displayed here is worth really looking at and taking in. But it is Winifred Nicholson’s understanding of the life of colour that will stay with me.


Art and Life is at The Dulwich Picture Gallery until the 21st September.

Making Colour is on at the National Gallery until the 7th September.

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Richard Long at The Lisson Gallery



As a long admirer of Richard Long’s work I was delighted to see that he has two new exhibitions open at the moment. Prints 1970- 2013 is on at the New Art Gallery Walsall until June 22nd and Richard Long is on at the Lisson Gallery London until July 12th.


The Lisson Gallery is an ideal place to show Long’s work. It has large odd shaped spaces and a hard contemporary feel that allows his work the breathing space it deserves. Although small, this exhibition has a large slate floor work, three exciting new text-works, some large clay and mud wall works and many new photographs, so most of the aspects of Long’s recent work is on display. If you don’t know Long’s work this small exhibition is a good place to start.


The first room is entirely taken up with a floor work. Four Ways 2014, Delabole slate from Cornwall, consists of dark jagged cut slate pieces standing on end and forming a cross. Looking along the lines of slate they made me think of the New York skyline with knife-edge buildings cutting into the sky. There is something both mechanical and of the natural world, in the smooth machine cut edges and the rough-hewn dark Cornish slate.   I caught a whiff of cathedrals in this space, of damp and mustiness and age as if something very ancient had been cut out of the Cornish landscape to be carefully looked at inside. I also felt there was a sadness to the piece which surprised me as I had never felt this before about Long’s work.  When I mentioned this to the artist he said: ‘that is typical of a psychoanalyst’, and he is probably right – a projection of feelings onto solid matter.


It is however, what this artist makes me feel, that fascinates me. How does the placing of stones or pieces of wood or swirled mud on a wall elicit such strong reactions? It is as if Long has taken the matter of the earth and shown us that it is part of us and enabled us to see and feel our relationship to this visceral moving planet that we live on.


Long’s mud and clay works are some of Long’s work I admire the most. There are a couple of large works in this exhibition which each take up a wall.  Here the dripped clay and mud has been turned on its side so that gravity appears to obey a new law of the horizontal rather than the vertical. This is the first time I have seen him use linen on plywood as a base rather than the wall itself. This inevitably has the advantage that they can have a life that is longer than the exhibition. Some of his most beautiful wall works in galleries, such as the amazing ones he did for his large exhibition at The Tate in 2009, were painted out after the exhibition was over.  There are also some delightful small dripped River Avon mud works on paper, which have a mesmerizing effect as they appear to defy gravity all together and flow upwards towards the top of the frame.



The most dramatic new departure seems to be in the photographs, some of which show no work in the landscape but are glimpses of the artist’s lonely camps in the Antarctic, a solitary tent or a few footprints in the snow. Antarctica Footprints shows a desolate white flat landscape with a few black rocks on the horizon. Swirling out as if they were rays from a sun are words drawn onto the surface of the print as if the words are trying to inform us as to what this experience might be like; snowblocks, prehistory, provisions, mythmaking, simplicity, scattering, perfection, visibility.  We do not see the footprints or tracks trodden on the snow but we are invited to enter the artist’s imagination as to what being in the Antarctic might be like. I was intrigued by this melding of text -work and photo, as it requires the beholder to enter the snowy space through both image and word and to supply the footprints ourselves.


Another of the large photos named, Engadine Line 2013, shows a circle of stones at the base of a chain of snowy mountains, with white clouds drifting above the mountain-tops. It is a stunningly beautiful photograph with an enigmatic yet moving sculpture of chunks of the natural rock placed by the artist. The text in pencil under the photo states: ‘A 16 day walk in the lower Engadine from Tschlin to Zuoz.

There is a lyrical quality to Long’s work which often defies description. When these photographs of sculptural works, which are made on walks, really move me, it is often because there is a meeting in them of the artist’s body in both space and time. We are aware of the effort this has taken, the careful positioning of the rocks or stones in relation to the environment and then the ‘decisive moment’, as Cartier Bresson called it, when everything comes together and all the elements of the photo speak and interact with each other.  Long is a past master of this technique. Although there are very rarely people in his photos, he treats the natural world as a moving world where maybe for a second a cloud or a shadow is in the right place for him.


You cannot go away from this exhibition without being affected by something, maybe a drip of mud, or a single rock or the way in which fifteen words are placed on top of each other to form a pyramid of concrete poetry. Richard Long’s work returns again and again to his fascinations with nature, with the earth and with our impact on it and love for it. He is unaffected by the machinations of the art world or the vagaries of contemporary art. He is entirely his own man and retains his independence from our digital, corporate and alienated world. Go See!



(If you are interested in Richard Long or would like to know more about him you might be interested in a book I have written about the artist. On the Track of Richard Long by Juliet Miller, was published on the 3rd July by Smokehouse Press. You will be able to order a copy through the Smokehouse Press Website or through this website. )


A small exhibition of the British painter John Craxton is on in Cambridge until the 21st April. Craxton is an interesting painter who has not been very widely known. He was born in 1922 and died four years ago. In 1947, after the war, he went to Crete for the first time and spent most of the rest of his life in Greece. He is probably best known for his hot, sunny illustrations for the covers of books by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Craxton is worth looking at because he is both a highly individual painter and a mysterious one. This exhibition explores the artists who influenced him. These included Miro, Picasso, Blake and Samuel Palmer and all these influences can easily be seen in his work especially in his earlier pictures. He was also a competent draughtsman and there is a good drawing of a young Lucien Freud in this exhibition, interestingly now owned by Brian Sewell.

However it is the large oils painted which absorbed me. Four figures in a Mountain Landscape is a masterful picture. Two men are herding and milking goats against a rocky Cretan landscape. A dark cave in the background slowly reveals itself as full of goats, visible by the whites of their eyes. Another man seems to be halting them with an upheld arm.  The dark rock is outlined in red as it catches the setting sun and this outline looks like the upturned face of a woman as she turns towards the sunset. The painting is predominantly green and black with patches of pale blue. It evokes Greek mythology but is painted with a very English hand. The angular shapes are reminiscent of British lino- cuts of the 1930’s and 1940’s, although this picture is about a very private idyll, rather than the bustle of a large city, which those artists frequently depicted. Four Figures evokes some of the same kind of bliss in the everyday that Stanley Spencer’s paintings do. This is Craxton’s arcadia, a flourishing land of men and animals absorbed in their tasks.  I wanted to be in this rough, rocky landscape myself or even live the life depicted.  There is something mystical and joyous about this picture despite its dark tones.

Red and Yellow Landscape, an earlier work painted in 1945 is a picture  entirely lit by the sun.  An abstract landscape of yellow, red and black shouts its message of heat and relaxation, and relaxation was something that Craxton was a master at. During his years in Crete he spent a lot of time eating and drinking and playing music with friends and he knew well how to enjoy himself. He stated that life was more important than art and his paintings express this delight in being alive.

When Craxton was in his twenties, and before he settled in Crete, he painted a small picture called Shepherd and Rocks.  A dark haired young man holding a shepherd’s stick stares out from a cave. The top of the cave circles his head as if he is in a sleeping bag. This is a secret and private domain and seems to be about the artist’s vision of himself as needing to inhabit a separate, introverted and precious internal world. Craxton appears to be a painter who could use his self reflection to animate and engage with the Greek idyll that he discovered in Crete.

If you are interested in British painters of the pre and post war period this view into the internal world of a private yet exuberant painter is certainly worth the trip.

A World of Private Mystery. John Craxton RA. The Fitzwilliam Museum. Cambridge.


Imagine walking into a completely empty gallery full of the most stunning collection of paintings that you have never seen before by all of your favourite artists. That’s what I did this week. I’m in Zurich and yesterday took a half hour train trip to Wintertur where a colleague had insisted that I went. There are so many galleries in this small town that there is a special bus from the station that can drop you off at any of the five major art collections – I managed three.

Oskar Reinhart, a business man who made his money from importing Indian cotton, starting collecting pictures in his early twenties. He began with paintings and drawings from Germany, Austria and Switzerland from the late 18th century and then became fascinated with French Impressionists and Post Impressionists. The collection that he made never leaves the Swiss city, so apart from one or two in reproduction they can only be viewed by going to Wintertur.

As I walked into the gallery at Romerholz, where the most interesting part of the collection is housed, I remembered what it is really like to look at a painting. My partner and I had the gallery to ourselves and we could see through a vista of rooms to all the delights to come. We had been greeted in the first corridor with a small blue Cezanne self portrait, hung much lower than normal, as I stood it was directly in my eye line, an experience I have never had in a gallery before. Cezanne, eyes slightly turned to the right, was looking straight at me. I could go very close and take in the thin straight brush strokes and then stand back and struggle to understand how those brushstrokes could make that intelligent gaze and receding hairline look as three dimensional as a sculpture. No one stopped me from peering at the painting from a few inches away, no one got in my way when I stood back. I could really look until I began to get to know the painting a bit. This experience was repeated throughout the gallery. A nativity by Bruegel The adoration of the Kings in the Snow was entirely mine for the ten minutes that I stood in front of it. I had never seen it before and tried to work out how the falling snow seemed so wet and partly translucent – often snow is painted as solid forms, which it is not.  Grayson Perry when asked after his first Reith Lecture which painting he would most like to possess mentioned a Bruegel painting of snow. I don’t know whether he was referring to this one but I could imagine the brown figures in the snow happily wrapped around one of his large pots.

It is often said that some collectors have a good eye. Oskar Reinhart had an exemplary one. He wasn’t interested in having a Van Gogh or a Renoir or a Cezanne because they were great painters, he was only interested in the painting that was really good and he knew one when he saw it, and would sometimes wait years to acquire it.

It is vey rare to see a collection of paintings where each one represents the best work of the artist. Van Gogh’s portrait of Augustine Roulin is an extraordinarily daring painting. It is a painting in three colours, yellow green and red brown. Madame Roulin is wearing a green dress; she sits in a wooden chair against an ochre and acid yellow background. Through the window behind her are enormous bulbs bursting out of earthenware pots. Madame Roulin herself seems to be bursting out of her clothes. There is something odd  and compelling about it. There seemed to be no glass in the painting. I could have touched the paint if I had wanted.

There were ten paintings by Corot, the most I have ever seen together except in a special exhibition. The smallest of them Bridge Near Mantes captivated me. Two feathery, pollarded willows stand in front of a creamy green bridge. Above the bridge there is a small house with large chimneys and on the bridge is a small figure dressed in red on a pony or donkey, the essential tiny spot of red typical of Corot. I wanted to live with this picture, to take it home and own it and to see it every day. I stood very close to it to take in the wispy willows and the perfectly positioned person on the bridge. The whole was simply perfection, everything was in exactly the right place to satisfy my brain patterns. I wanted to slip it into my pocket. Every ten minutes or so a woman in a smart suit would look into the room where I was to check that I wasn’t doing exactly that, otherwise there was a stillness and peace that went perfectly with the concentrated act of looking.

I thought of all those hundreds of exhibitions I had been to where the process of looking is restricted to waiting in line to see a painting or of collapsing on a bench exhausted with the process only to contemplate the back views of those lucky enough to be in the right place. This is no way to educate one’s ability to look. A personal rhythm so essential for looking at paintings is completely lost in the throng of the modern art gallery going. In a desperate bid to outdo the crowds I often start at the end of an exhibition and go backwards, I run against the flow and towards the bottleneck of the start. I doubt that this achieves very much but it makes me feel that I have some independence in this collective mania. Of course this has nothing to do with appreciation and everything to do with an event ticked off the list. Anyone who understands about looking at pictures knows this of course but the valuelessness of overpopulated London exhibitions was brought home to me in Wintertur. A change like this needs savouring I shall go back again before I return to London.

On a second trip to Wintertur with a friend visiting from London, I wondered whether the effect would be so dramatic as the first time. There were some other people this time so the sense of owning the gallery space was different, but there was still plenty of room to look as one wished. The Bruegel was even more magical the second time around. This time the snow appeared to be on a different plane than the brown hues of the painting, standing out from the background as if in 3D.  A small still life by Goya Still Life with Fruit, Bottles and Bread won my heart. After a while of looking at the painting I realised that it was making me vey hungry; the figs were ready to be peeled, the skin turning back to show the pink flesh beneath and the bread was solid and dense, good country bread. There was an ordinariness about this food and the pleasurable nature of hunger to be satisfied. Still Life with Salmon also by Goya, was hard to look at for long. Three cutlets of raw salmon ooze blood and are reminiscent of butchered human flesh. This is certainly ‘nature morte’ but symbolically about the brutality of the French-Spanish war. It would be hard to live with this extraordinary painting.

If you are in Switzerland for any reason make sure you make a trip to Wintertur.

To find out more visit the Museum web page.

dust circle julie website

On my first trip to Australia in the late 1980’s I felt that I had been dropped into a strange new world; a land of eerie outback spaces and modern glass cities which hung onto the rim of a vast continent. A trip to Uluru or Ayer’s Rock, as it was called then, epitomised for me the dichotomy of how humans might relate to this seemingly inhospitable land.  The ochre of the desert floor rose up into a vast red form like the relaxed back of a somnolent animal. A mile or so away from the rock it seemed that the only colours were red earth and blue sky, yet closer up I could see that fissures in the rock were alive with greenness where they dropped down and met the desert.  Trees and plants had found places to root around the base.  In these harsh conditions these living things had clustered together to form a small eco-climate and were kept alive by the rainwater that poured off Uluru. The rock was alive and feeding a small forest of greenness at its base before it plunged further down into the desert. I had never before been so aware of a living landscape as I was on that trip to Uluru.

In the 1980’s you were still allowed to climb the rock. The aborigines have since managed to reclaim it as a sacred place to be respected. Thirty years ago a rope threaded through metal posts pieced the back of this gigantic animal and tourists flowed up and down in ego fuelled streams, ticking off another event on their tour. For them it seemed that Uluru was something to be conquered; a vast beast that could be pinned down and climbed over.  I stroked the rock with my hand but could not bring myself to climb it as that seemed sacrilegious. Visiting the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy this week brought back to me some of this divergence in approach to landscape that I had felt at Uluru; how we see and experience landscape can be startlingly out of kilter with each other.

The exhibition opens with a room of large contemporary indigenous pictures. These wonderful paintings confidently proclaim that landscape means something very different to the indigenous painters than it does to a Western audience. A painting by Doreen Reid Nakamarra is laid flat, a foot or so from the floor. She would have painted it on the ground like this, approaching it from all sides, and this is how we are meant to view it. Tiny zigzag yellow lines on a brown background give the effect of a woven material, but a woven material that has been crushed along its length. It appears not as a flat surface but as a series of hills and valleys seen from high-up in space. It is as startlingly beautiful as pictures of the earth from a satellite can be without the detachment that that can bring. This is an intimate picture, a picture of Nakamarra’s feelings about her native land.

Nakamarra doesn’t title her picture but another stunning floor painting shown at the end of the exhibition from another woman artist, Dorothy Napangardi is called Sandhills of Mina Mina. This painting creates a similar effect to Nakamarra’s only this time her  swirling rows of tiny dots explore the sensations this landscape generates. The painting shows how the Mina Mina sand-hills have impressed themselves on Napangardi’s inner world. As you walk around it, it appears as if there are three- dimensional shapes rising out of the canvas. It is not a representative painting, rather it is as if the sand-hills have themselves taken a stick with paint on it and painted their own story. It is a painting of homeland. The picture gave me the same sense of wonder as Uluru and its green gardens did twenty years ago.

Australia is an exhibition about two ways of seeing and relating to a continent. It is a strange and demanding exhibition in that it throws you back and forth from one style of painting to another with seemingly no connection between the two. The first time I went I was there with my husband who knows Australia well and worked there in the 1970’s. As a historian he was immediately drawn to the rooms of 19th century watercolours and oils painted by immigrants to this strange land. He also remembered seeing the paintings by John Glover in Adelaide art gallery when, as a young man he was struggling with the oddities of Australia and he responded to this artist’s attempts to turn the Australian landscape into a contained and less frightening place. A View of the Artist’s House and  Garden, in Mills Plains, Van Diemen’s Land 1835 is a painting of Glover’s small Georgian looking house and barn backing onto a wooded hillside and looking out onto a garden of English roses and flowering broom. This picture is full of longing, and hope, hope that a piece of England can be transported into the Australian outback. I find it a melancholy picture, a picture about lost dreams not found ones. Glover however is a meticulous painter and he turns Cawood on the Ouse River, 1838 into a delicate landscape of rolling hills and British looking trees. Apart from three small kangaroos in the foreground this could be a landscape of Victorian England, the lost homeland.

Before Australia became a Federation of States in 1901, immigrant painters had given up some of this backward looking and had begun to explore where they actually were. Their paintings depict struggles with the scale of the Australian landscape by showing man as tiny in relation to the vast forests or mountain ranges. In the Sassafras Valley, Victoria, 1875 by Isaac Whitehead, vast trees tower over tiny figures. Each leaf and fern is picked out in detail and in the centre on a fallen tree a minuscule man raises a stick as if in defiance against this huge and troubling landscape. The relationship is now a more realistic but not a comfortable one. Immigrant painters of this period are expressing a defiant rage against this seemingly untameable beast, which is not the longed for and beloved European landscape.

In the late 1800’s this longing is then translated into an echoing of European styles. Impressionism creeps in and landscapes, homesteads and the newly populated beaches are painted in dashes of colour and blurred edges. Evening Train to Hawthorne 1889 by Tom Roberts with its dark buildings and flurry of white smoke could be an early Monet. How We Lost Poor Flossie 1889 by Charles Conder, is a slip of an impressionistic painting of a wet town scene with a coach and horses and women with umbrellas. Two small dogs greet each other in the middle ground. It is hard to believe that this painting was not painted in Paris and the realisation that it was not brings with it a strong sense of the painter’s feelings of loss. There is more in this tiny picture than the memory of a disappeared dog, there is also a reaching for identity and a desire to be elsewhere.


Despite two visits to the R.A. I took in little of the other late 19th century paintings. Amongst some of the early 20th century painting however there was a surprise. Dry Weather 1912 by Blamire Young is a pale yellow and green watercolour of a hillside. It could be Britain but it could also be Australia. The clusters of dark brown paint in the valley and the joins in the hills communicate sensitivity for and love of this land that I felt was missing from other post-Federation work.

In a small side gallery there is a remarkable collection of bark paintings by indigenous people. The earliest made around 1884 is a simple red ochre painting of Nadubi Spirit-Woman, with Possum, Magpie Goose and Fish. This totemic painting is a record of the spirit-woman’s tools, a small hymn to the importance of possum, magpie, goose and fish. Other bark paintings date from the 1960’s, and depict animals that are central to aboriginal dreaming, such as the kangaroo, or whole stories from the dreaming and the song lines. These bark painting are both very personal and very direct and like the contemporary indigenous paintings exude a confidence that is often lacking in the colonial era.

One room, later on in the exhibition is almost entirely given over to Sidney Nolan and his paintings about Ned Kelly. I have always found Nolan’s painting rather unforgiving. The paint is dragged and stretched across the board or hardboard that he uses for his work and his palette is dark and unsubtle. However I do admire the oddness of the Ned Kelly pictures. The metallic armoured body of Kelly with the cut out head piece setting out across the unending outback has understandably become a highly significant picture of post Second World War Australia; an image of the hero/anti hero setting out alone on an adventure. Quilting The Armour 1947, with the enormous female figure (mother or wife) in the foreground, sewing brilliant turquoise material into Kelly’s helmet, is set against a poor isolated homestead with one horse and a man chopping wood. The individual, be he criminal or hero, needs a protective armour, as he sets himself up against the continent. The need for the individual to conquer is carried through from the original colonial encounter.

The last three rooms, which are grouped together as post-colonial art from 1950-2013,  were the least interesting to me. This was maybe because these artists seemed to be striving to leave behind their colonial past and to present themselves as contemporary artists who happened to work and live in Australia. I felt that the real power of this exhibition was the juxtaposition between the indigenous view of the land and that of the settlers; a cultural clash that continues to exist in modern day Australia.

books julie website

A friend rang me last week to tell me about the annual book sale at the Courtauld. Every year academics, students and private libraries donate art books for the sale to which everyone is welcome. In the entrance hall of the Institute I found tables covered with cardboard boxes full of books. Scribbled on the sides were rough categories, Renaissance, Impressionists, Sculpture or simply Contemporary. I joined a group of people trawling through these boxes of delights. Were these browsers academics, finally getting a chance to rifle through their professor’s libraries, or students desperate for cheap art books? I noticed a couple of middle-aged women, who I imagined where writing a definitive tome on an unknown artist, as they examined each box with increasing despondency looking for that rare out of print monograph.

Art books have a physical presence all their own; they come in every possible shape and size. They don’t stand neatly beside each other nor do they pile up satisfactorily in boxes like novels or biographies might. Sometimes it’s impossible to read the spines because the book is so thin. Large format paperbacks bend and twist and resist examination. Large format hardbacks can be so heavy it’s like lifting weights. After about ten minutes of struggling to read spines and handle the books I realised that this was going to be a very physical process, which required determination and a trust that it would be worth it. Curiosity has an energy all its own and having shed my coat and backpack I methodically went through the boxes that interested me. I eventually came away with a small book on Andy Goldsworthy who is frequently, and I think inappropriately compared to Richard Long, whom I have been writing about and a recent catalogue of the Grosvenor School of Linocuts, because my great uncle Claude Flight was the founder of the movement, and also a book about the Omega workshops full of startling designs for furniture, rugs and pottery. A good haul it turned out to be for £8 all in.

The Courtauld’s Book Sale happens every October and the proceeds go towards funding student trips abroad.