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August 10 2012

From Shakespeare to Sunflowers: masters take over the week in art

From the birth of modern culture to Van Gogh's classic work. Plus a Picasso fiasco in Edinburgh airport and a child saves a Manet – all in today's weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Shakespeare: Staging the World

Popular theatre was Britain's most spectacular contribution to the cultural movement called the Renaissance. For Shakespeare and his rival Christopher Marlowe, the culture of Italy where the Renaissance was centred was the definition of modernity. Shakepeare for instance made the name of the dangerous Renaissance thinker Machiavelli famous in Britain. This exhibition is not just for theatre fans, but for anyone interested in the birth of modern culture.
British Museum, London WC1 until 25 November

Other exhibitions this week

Metamorphoses: Titian 2012
Modern artists help to celebrate the nation's purchase of two Venetian Renaissance masterpieces.
National Gallery, London WxC2, until 23 September

Picasso and Modern British Art
The British modernists are dwarfed by Picasso in this show which has some terrific works by him.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until 4 November

Tino Sehgal
Interaction is the action in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.
Tate Modern, London SE1, until 28 October

Turner, Monet, Twombly
Luscious survey of pure painting.
Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, until 28 October

Masterpiece of the week

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888
Summer blazes so hot in this painting it hurts. Van Gogh's north European eyes are aflame as he settles into a new home in Provence. When Van Gogh, after a difficult struggle to learn art as an adult, went to live in Arles he started to turn his home there into a community for artists and painted this heady work to decorate it. The yellows are invincible, joyous and unbearably intense.
• National Gallery, London WC2

Image of the week

What we learned this week

Why Robert Hughes was Australia's answer to Dante

The story of Edinburgh airport's Picasso-based prudishness

How artists are taking on the coal industry from a disused mine in Belgium

That an 11-year-old saved a £7.8m Manet this week

All about one artist's mission to Mars

And finally …

Share your art on the theme of sport now

Post your personal images that sum up what London means to you on the Guardian Art and Design Flickr page

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Follow us on Twitter


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July 21 2012

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 – review

Royal Opera House/National Gallery, London

The National Gallery and the Royal Ballet are collaborating in an uncommon and marvellous way with Metamorphosis: Titian 2012. Leading artists (Mark Wallinger, Conrad Shawcross, Chris Ofili) and more than a dozen of our finest poets (including Seamus Heaney, Christopher Reid and Simon Armitage), along with seven choreographers (Kim Brandstrup, Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and others), not to leave out three composers (Mark-Anthony Turnage, Nico Muhly and Jonathan Dove), have been commissioned to produce Titian-inspired work and, specifically, pieces relating to paintings of Diana and Actaeon.

The National Gallery's exhibition is a stimulating homage. The tricky thing is to resist judging the differing responses as rivals – the show is not a compeTitian. And actually there should be no contest, because Titian's three great paintings hold supreme sway and define Diana. In Diana and Callisto (1556-59) she's a figure of voluptuous ruthlessness, her pointed finger like a lightning conductor. In Diana and Actaeon (1556-59) her flesh looks soft but her look is as hard as the pearls she wears. In The Death of Actaeon (1559-75) she is a murderous force of nature. The paintings have spurred on splendid poetry but are less obvious as a basis for ballet – Diana and her comely entourage could not look less like ballerinas.

Yet at the Royal Opera House, as the curtain goes up on Conrad Shawcross's predatory, grey metal sculpture of Diana – like a praying mantis dominating the stage – it seems not only bold but prudent to have travelled such a distance from Titian. I love Shawcross's crazy, imaginative presumption in Machina. He has translated Diana's mettle to metal and her imperious finger into a robotic proboscis – at the tip of which a light burns like a cigarette in the dark. His Diana is pure intent, as she revolves and evolves to become part of the dance.

Kim Brandstrup and Wayne McGregor's choreography is at once miraculously sensual and, intermittently, mechanical. Carlos Acosta is at his sensational best, conveying ecstasy and sorrow, dancing with a galvanising Edward Watson against a background of fog, and alone with the machine as it turns against him. Nico Muhly's music is a beautiful mixture of trance and foreboding.

In Trespass, the second of three dances, Mark Wallinger's mirrored core of a set makes Alastair Marriott and Christopher Wheeldon's choreography seem busier. The inventive dancing complements Mark-Anthony Turnage's agile, driven, percussive score. And there is some virtuoso human sculpture, making it appear easy to be a figurehead standing on another dancer as prow. The fabulous costumes look as if sequined stars have been stitched into flesh. Trespass is intriguing, but I failed to see the piece as voyeuristic, as apparently intended.

Might too many choreographers spoil Diana's aim? Diana and Actaeon, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, Will Tuckett and Jonathan Watkins, is the most narrative-dependent of the dances. After Actaeon sees Diana naked, in a fury she turns him into a stag and his hounds kill him. Chris Ofili sets Ovid's story in a tropical paradise with a decorative 60s feel. A false move, because it shifts visceral tragedy into fey inconsequence. Similarly, although the hounds are wittily choreographed, they have a pantomime feel. And while Jonathan Dove's incantatory music is beautifully sung, it is impossible to hear the libretto. Still, the principals are again impeccable. Federico Bonelli's dashing, purple-suited Actaeon has a matador's grace. Marianela Nuñez's terrific Diana has jittery orange feet, red hair, golden breasts and neurotic energy. She resembles a flame thrower, her body the flame. And after Actaeon's annihilation, she shows what it means to dance on someone's grave.


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June 19 2012

Actaeon stations: Chris Ofili and the Royal Ballet

Chris Ofili has spent two years creating sets and costumes for an epic ballet inspired by Titian. What did he learn?

Chris Ofili comes with a seemingly gold-plated reputation: 1998 Turner prize winner, British representative at the 50th Venice Biennale, paintings held in some of the world's great collections. But two years ago, when he agreed to design a new production for the Royal Ballet, he suffered a flash of paranoia. "I was genuinely scared," he says. "If you fall flat on your face there, you break every bone in your body. You're not going to walk away."

And Ofili could think of a dozen reasons why he might fail. During most of his career, he had worked as a solitary and self-contained artist. He had never created designs for the stage before, let alone for ballet; and he'd certainly never been involved in an enterprise that promised – or threatened – to be as vast, crowded and competitive as Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

Metamorphosis is the brainchild of the National Gallery curator Minna Moore Ede, who felt the Cultural Olympiad should be marked by some kind of grand Diaghilevean multi-genre collaboration. As a starting point, she proposed three Titian masterpieces depicting stories from Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses: Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon, and Diana and Callisto. To accompany the literary strand of the project, in which three poets are writing contemporary responses to the works, the Royal Ballet is creating a three-part Titian ballet, with designs by a trio of major artists.

Moore Ede was determined to bring together radically different artists. She believed the scale and energy of Ofili's paintings made him a natural choice, but to offset his work's bacchanalian life force, she opted for the very precise sensibility of sculptor Conrad Shawcross, and a wild card in the form of the reliably unpredictable conceptual artist Mark Wallinger.

Already, that trio added up to an irrepressible mix. But Monica Mason, the Royal's director, had even bigger ambitions. Due to retire at the end of this July, she wanted Metamorphosis to be a farewell present to the seven choreographers with whom she had worked most closely, dividing them into a trio and two pairs. Three very different musical talents – Jonathan Dove, Nico Muhly and Mark-Anthony Turnage – were then asked to compose a score for each part.

"Until the curtain goes up," says Moore Ede, "no one has any idea how it will work." Ofili, speaking at the Victoria Miro gallery in London, can't wait. "This audience is really going to get their money's worth," he says, grinning. "I like Monica's attitude: 'I'm leaving now, so it's all yours. Make a mess and tidy up after yourselves.'"

Ofili was less jokey when he was first teamed up with his three choreographers: Will Tuckett, Liam Scarlett and Jonathan Watkins. He admits to deliberately stalling his way through most of the first year.

"I felt it just wasn't my world. I didn't have anything significant to contribute that wouldn't make me utterly embarrassed." Not only was he inhibited by his ignorance of ballet design, he was daunted by having to measure up to the Titians, feeling that, as the only contemporary painter involved, his work would be most directly compared to the master's. "Honestly, it felt like lambs to the slaughter."

So he turned to Titian's source material: Ovid's story about the young hunter Actaeon, who spies on the virgin goddess Diana while she is bathing with her nymphs; as a punishment, he is turned into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds. Ofili found it a "genuinely gripping read. All of its themes – desire, temptation, pride, beauty, the joy of the kill – felt relevant. The project got into my veins as a story." His confidence was boosted by his first serious meeting with the choreographers, who were all interested in staying close to Ovid's narrative. "We got on well, and it was easy to decide between us which were the most important elements of the story."

Ofili produces a photograph of the backdrop he designed. On one side is Diana, standing beneath her signature crescent moon and a giant curving phallus ("the male burden of desire"). On the other side, nymphs ripple upwards from a bubbling stream. Figures, landscape and symbolism metamorphose into each other with a fluidity reminiscent of Blake, an artist Ofili regards as one of his "torchbearers". But the design is also influenced by the landscape of Trinidad, where Ofili now lives. "There are waterfalls there that lie deep in the forest," he says. "Often when I go walking there, I hear voices of people I can't see." It made him think of Actaeon walking through a forest that was alive with his own sexual fantasies.

Most artists leave the actual painting of the backdrop to professional set-painters. But Ofili opted to do it himself, by hand. "The scale is amazing," he says. "When you first see the stage, that's what gives you the clutch in the intestines." It took him four weeks and the technical staff at the Royal Opera House thought he was mad. Yet, says Ofili, "hands down, it was one of the best painting experiences of my life".

He had an equally good time with the costumes. His first instinct was to take inspiration from Picasso and the "crazy" sculptural creations he created for Erik Satie's 1917 cubist ballet Parade. But the more time Ofili spent around the Royal's dancers, the more he wanted to ensure they could move freely. "I wanted them to feel comfortable, so they could push themselves."

He opted for all-in-one leotard and tights, customised for each character with head-dresses, cloaks, jackets, body hair, and handheld puppet heads for the hounds. He regards the work of the costume department, who converted his sketches into moving, breathing outfits, as little short of genius. But it's the dancers who impressed him most. "One night," he says, "I was standing in the wings and this girl came off stage. She'd looked amazing while she was dancing: shiny and happy. But as she came off she was crying. She said she was in agony, she had flu, she had a new baby and her nose was running like a little child's. Then she went back on and the light just flushed back into her. I thought, 'This is extraordinary.'"

Their bodies fascinate Ofili, too. Marianela Núñez is dancing Diana and he has become obsessed by her back. "The muscles are so alive, so expressive – it's like a face." As for the dancers' feet, he winces at the thought of all the blisters, blood and bunions he has witnessed. "Don't get me started. I had no idea feet could look like that."

When the project was first proposed, Ofili fretted about spending so much time away from work he was already absorbed in. "I knew it was going to be a huge brain-drain." But the intimacy and the fun of collaboration have been a revelation; he hadn't realised how much he would learn, nor how natural the transition from studio to theatre would eventually feel. "Working for the stage," he says, "you're playing a game of pretend. The curtain opens, the audience is absorbed for a period of time. That's very close to what I do as a painter. I make stuff up and invite people to look at it, and then off they go. I like that. I like how simple it is. I like how very wonderful it can be."

The details

The ballet
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000), in rep 14-20 July

The exhibition
The Titians will be shown at the National Gallery, London WC2, with sets and costumes created for the ballet from 11 July to 23 September

The screening
The 16 July performance will be simultaneously relayed to a large screen at Trafalgar Square, and to 18 other venues across the UK


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April 24 2012

The transformative effect of Ovid's Metamorphoses on European art

As a summer National Gallery exhibition will show, Titian was the greatest visualiser of Ovid – but he had some major competition

The National Gallery once put on an exhibition about the influence of the New Testament on western art. Seeing Salvation argued that if you don't know the biblical story of Christ, you can't comprehend such paintings as Titian's Noli Me Tangere. But this summer the same gallery showcases another, very different book that has also exerted a vast influence on European art – Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Written in Latin in the reign of the ancient Roman emperor Augustus, who exiled Ovid for naughtiness, this epic poem retells the myths of ancient Greece for a sophisticated Roman audience. Ovid's audience worshipped these same gods, giving the Greek pantheon Latin names (Zeus became Jupiter or Jove, Aphrodite became Venus, and so on) but found the antics of their deities by turns salacious, shocking, hilarious and tragic.

Ovid tells stories in verse about the crazed love life of Jupiter, driven by his lusts for various nymphs to take the forms of a bull, or a cloud, or a shower of gold in order to trick or seduce them. He tells of the courage of Perseus, who killed Medusa, and the folly of Phaethon, who tried to drive the sun's chariot. He was the favourite source of classical myth for artists in the 16th and 17th centuries, and reading his book is like flicking through a series of descriptions of famous paintings, so copiously has he been illustrated.

The National Gallery is putting on its show Metamorphosis to celebrate the two great Titians it has purchased in partnership with the National Gallery of Scotland. Diana and Callisto and Diana and Actaeon both depict scenes from Ovid. But if Titian was the greatest visualiser of Ovid he had a lot of competition. Such marvels of art as Correggio's Jupiter and Io, Michelangelo's Fall of Phaethon, and Carravaggio's Medusa all draw heat from Ovid's imaginative fire.

The exhibition Metamorphosis, an Olympic special tied in with new opera productions, involves works by contemporary British artists – including Chris Ofili and Mark Wallinger – that respond to Ovid's myths. The gallery is also publishing newly commissioned poems after Ovid by writers who include Seamus Heaney.

But why wait? I happen to have translated the following bit of Ovid the other day. In this passage, Ovid gives the background to the scene in Titian's Diana and Callisto, on view now at the National Gallery. In the painting, the goddess Diana discovers that one of her supposedly chaste and virginal followers has become pregnant. Here's how it happened, in my English and the original Latin. The god Jupiter, lusting after Callisto, took the form of Diana to fool Callisto and disguise himself from his suspicious wife Juno:

"Here certainly my consort will know nothing of my tricks", he said,
"and if she does, it will be worth the rows, oh yes it will!"
Immediately he put on the face and fashion of Diana
and said: "O dearest of my followers, maid,
where did you hunt today?" From her tuft the maid
raised herself and said "Hail, goddess, judged by me,
though he heard it himself, greater than Jove." He heard and laughed
and rejoiced to be preferred to himself, and kissed her,
neither modestly nor in the manner of a maiden.

"hoc certe furtum coniunx mea nesciet" inquit,
"aut si rescierit, sunt, o sunt iurgia tanti!"
protinus induitur faciem cultumque Dianae
atque ait: "o comitum, virgo, pars una mearum,
in quibus es venata iugis?" de caespite virgo
se levat et "salve numen, me iudice" dixit,
"audiat ipse licet, maius Iove." ridet et audit
et sibi praeferri se gaudet et oscula iungit,
nec moderata satis nec sic a virgine danda.

Ovid rocks, that's for sure.


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April 03 2012

Titian's earliest masterpiece in UK for first time

National Gallery borrows The Flight Into Egypt, not seen outside Russia since it was bought by Catherine the Great in 1768

Catherine the Great bought Titian's The Flight Into Egypt in 1768. Since then the large painting, described by the 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari as Titian's first masterpiece, has not been seen outside Russia – until Tuesday.

Loaned to the National Gallery in London by the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the 505-year-old artwork is looking better than it has for decades, after undergoing intensive cleaning and restoration.

The Hermitage began restoring it in 1999, and the whole process took two people more than 12 years. "It was so dark, under layers of varnish and retouches which completely altered it," said Irina Artemieva, curator of Venetian paintings at the Hermitage. "There was no green or blue, only grey and brown and black."

Two years ago, Artemieva sent an image of the work to the National Gallery director Sir Nicholas Penny, another specialist in the Venetian paintings of the period. "He was so surprised by the results of the restoration, we immediately had the idea to present it here in the National Gallery."

The painting is displayed alongside works that inspired it, by artists including Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione and Albrecht Dürer. Titian trained under the first two, and the third was working in Venice at the time The Flight Into Egypt was painted. The curator Antonio Mazzotta described the other works as the ingredients that went into Titian's painting.

"The National Gallery has an ideal context for this painting," Artemieva said. "You have so many pictures [here] which can explain how this masterpiece was born – and in other British institutions too.

"In the British Museum there are drawings by Dürer and his circle and also in some private collections we have many painting from the same period – the same crucial decade of the 16th century."

The Flight into Egypt was painted in 1507, when Titian was still a teenager, working for Giorgione. Commissioned by Andrea Loredan for his palace on Venice's Grand Canal, it depicts the holy family riding through a vibrant rural landscape alive with animals, plants and children. Vasari marvelled that the animals in the picture were "truly natural and almost alive", an impression not diminished by time.

Penny said: "It's a very ambitious picture, enormously important for our understanding of his work. There are very few large paintings of this kind produced by Italian artists at that date."

He said the depiction of landscapes and animals prefigured those in Titian's later masterpieces such as Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, which the National recently acquired for £95m. "It's fundamental in any posssible meaning of that word."

Later this year the painting will be displayed at the Accademia art gallery in Venice, and after that, said Penny, "it will never travel again in our lifetime", adding: "We're very honoured that having scanned the museums of the world to find the most suitable place for the debut of this picture our colleague Irena should have selected the National Gallery."

The Titian is the latest in a series of loans between British and Russian cultural institutions, marking a thaw in relations after a crisis four years ago when the British Council was ordered to close its offices near Moscow. However, Artemieva stressed that the loan was nothing to do with diplomatic policy but the result of good relations between the Hermitage and the National Gallery.


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March 04 2012

Art galleries: it's time we started paying to see great works of art again | Catherine Bennett

Saving masterpieces for the nation is commendable and entrance fees to galleries is a small price to bear

If Sophie Dahl is still smarting from the derision that followed her appeal on behalf of her grandfather's writing hut – with his manky bottled hipbone just exactly where he left it – the public response to the news that a Titian has been bought for the nation might offer some consolation. Unlike the Titian, Ms Dahl will note, the importance of the ancestral hut, which requires a £500,000 renovation, was hardly disputed.

Admittedly, the comparison is inexact: Titian never had the good fortune to live in Great Missenden. He cannot at this distance be accounted much of a lovable eccentric, nor does the story of Diana and Callisto come near to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for humour, incident and cautionary effect. Moreover, while Sophie was chugging for Dahl-aid, the English and Scottish National Galleries did not make a public case for raising the Duke of Sutherland's £45m, anticipating – correctly – that the times are not propitious.

But to look at the overwhelmingly hostile online response to the National Gallery's use of its funds to secure, in Diana and Callisto, not a crumbling hut, but the acclaimed pair to an existing old master that will — unlike the Dahl museum (adult entry £6) – be available for everyone to see, you would think the directors had snatched the picture money from orphans or from the beseeching hooves of piteous, starving donkeys, prior to blowing it all on a Banksy or, worse, a foreign Banksy.

"It's not as if it's Jock McTitian," the Glasgow MP, Ian Davidson, has pointed out. The Titians are evidently still well dodgy after being in Britain over 200 years and on public view since 1945. In these circumstances, the Ashmolean Museum, which has chosen this inopportune moment to solicit donations for a £8m, privately owned Manet – not as if it's Jock McImpressionist – may soon find itself the museum equivalent of a Romanian Big Issue seller. Eclipsing quibbles about Titian's foreignness and technique and abundant contempt for the painting's seller, the predominant emotion in debates on the BBC, Independent and Guardian websites – places where spending on culture is hardly, de facto, an absurdity – has been fury that the National Gallery should consider fine art a priority at a time of cuts and hardship.

That no monkey with a paintbrush could have painted Diana and Callisto cannot redeem Titian in a climate when any arts spending, new or old, may be interpreted as a preening, callous snub, eg: "How can canvas with some oil on it really be worth 45 MILLION pounds! How many doctors and nurses is that?"

It probably depends on the nurse or doctor, but if the comparison has to be in public money, the sum could readily be converted into unwanted swine flu vaccine (£150m) or BBC 3 (£115m) or bonuses at the state-owned bank, RBS (£785m) or the Olympics (£9bn).

But as the National Gallery has attempted to stress, it avoided, by not appealing to the public, diverting funds from the poor. Money for the latest Titian was raised principally from living benefactors and historic donations that constitute the gallery's reserves, which the director now describes as "depleted". None the less, as opponents of this purchase have pointed out, a contribution of £3m came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, courtesy of the very social classes who are still, notwithstanding free entry, least likely to visit the national art galleries.

"These sumptuous late great works of Titian bring joy and pleasure to all," says Antony Gormley. But in particular, it appears, they bring pleasure to the more affluent social groups whose repeat visits are thought to account for much of the huge increase in visitor numbers since Labour abolished entry fees. Moreover, if the response to the Titians is any guide, a decade of free entry has yet to eradicate a perception that these galleries serve an elite and spend money in ways that must look comically indulgent to anyone struggling to survive. You wonder, in fact, if the new acquisition might have looked more appealing, in this pinched climate, had it been subsidised, in place of lottery players, by those who can afford to pay, occasionally, for their repeat visits in the way they already do to see oversubscribed Hockney and Leonardo blockbusters.

Alternatively, if some of the Titian money came from a tourist precept rather than a gamblers' one, the transaction might look less offensive to its critics. Walking freely into London's tourist-crammed galleries, you can feel as nettled by this difference from every other capital city (even those in Scandinavia that are populated exclusively by our highly taxed social-democratic mentors) as proud of the unique, British offer of free access, which has acquired, for some reason, a sanctity that combines, to the point of abolishing any discussion of fairness, the NHS's "free at the point of use" principle with the growing, internet-bred conviction that only idiots pay.

Perhaps inevitably, the most prominent supporters of free entry and the brilliant way it allows one repeatedly to "pop in" often seem to be the people who, along with the opportunity for all this popping, evidently have the means to pay for it. The latest attack on entry fees (for the blockbuster exhibitions) came, risibly, from Charles Saatchi. Unlike child benefit, trust funds, other universal benefits from the fat years, this particular entitlement, subsidised by lottery and scratchcard players, remains, as Tristram Hunt discovered, when he proposed, in fairness to council-run museums, the resumption of entry fees, too precious a shibboleth to adjust by so much as the cost of a phone app, a swim or a National Gallery latte.

Last year, Brian Sewell – a former enthusiast for free admission – estimated that just a £1 entry fee, while money is short, could pay, in one year for a Titian "and probably a major exhibition in every institution". Assuming, anyway, the payment of a nominal sum, the guarantee of some free days and the exemption, as in Paris, of nationals under 26 and benefit claimants, how is this funding more outrageous than charging families to visit other cultural destinations, no less owned by "us", from the Tower of London, the royal palaces and Stonehenge, to Kew Gardens, English Heritage's mansions and ruins, the National theatre and that temple of open access, the Royal Opera House? Not forgetting, of course, the great collection of Olympic, soon to be completely worthless, stadia in which any patriot lucky enough to win the ticket lottery will pay up to £725 for "premium events" (no concessions).

It is partly, no doubt, because of fears of what Cameron's terrifyingly philistine government might do to museums, once it has trashed the libraries and finished counselling the film industry, that free access to museums has become totemic, even when budgets have been slashed, hours are being cut and the cost of a masterpiece is counted, bitterly, in nurses. But even if Titian's flesh puts you in mind, as it did the great Tom Lubbock, of "luminous pastry", it's not going to be the last art worth buying.


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March 02 2012

From Julian Bell to a great Titian triumph – the week in art

Bell's works light up Brighton and Wright of Derby's figures are steeped in the light of knowledge – all in your weekly roundup

Exhibition of the week: Dreams of Here

Julian Bell's paintings are fireworks wrapped in brown paper. They are unassuming, but contain luminous wonders. Bell paints what look like meticulous images of real life, from a magazine stand to an English village. In fact, his compositions are imaginary, but the sense of reality is not an illusion. He is a very traditional artist in that he observes nature and the world closely, and his fantastic scenes arise from what he discovers: his skies are real skies, behaving as skies behave.

While David Hockney seduces multitudes with his return to rustic reality at the Royal Academy, so in this exhibition three painters – Tom Hammick and Andrzej Jackowski alongside Bell – affirm the delights of landscape and figuration. Hammick's nocturnes and Matisse-like tapestries of colour are vivid and romantic, and Jackowski's scenes of cruel relationships in small rooms are rats that bite at the skull. Dream (or nightmare) and reality merge for these three artists. But it is Bell who really startles and fascinates me, because he is doing something so deeply original and distinct from fashion.

Bell is also a critic and writer on art, and that may help explain why he can start from a different premise to most of today's artists. He has the intellectual equipment to make decisions about what he does based on on his own beliefs, instead of absorbing the received ideas of art colleges. To do the obvious is now a very sophisticated act.

Not that Bell's paintings are obvious. Beginning in the quotidian, they leap to amazing heights. His scenes are carefully, painstakingly drawn, but what flames them into life is a brilliant painterly feel for colour. He has learned to create almost blinding light effects – a white glow against a pale blue sky, a golden, heavenly newsagent's display, and – most dazzlingly – the flaming gas crater, like an impossible volcano, in his Wright of Derby-like painting Darvaza (2011), which is full of alchemical colour combinations.

Bell is a modern painter. In his 2004 picture Exercises at Imber, tanks aim their guns across a dreamy English landscape. The village nuzzling in a valley is actually an abandoned settlement at the heart of the military zone on Salisbury Plain. But in the painting it looks inhabited, warm and lovely – and archetypally English – as the guns brood over it with monstrous intent.
• At Brighton Museum and Art Gallery until 10 June

Also opening

Johan Zoffany
A very welcome exhibition for a very curious and fascinating 18th century painter of British life.
• At Royal Academy, London from 10 March

Diana and Callisto
Titian's great painting of mythology and the nude, secured for the nation, and on display as part of our public collections. What a joy.
• At National Gallery, London until 1 July

Thomas Ruff: Nudes
Massive images of nudes enlarged from internet pornography.
• At Gagosian Gallery, Davies Street, London from 8 March

Imagined Lives
Fascinating portraits of unknown people invite you to make up their lives.
• At National Portrait Gallery, London until 1 July

Masterpiece of the week


Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery, 1766, Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Children and adults gaze in wonder at a model of the solar system in brilliant lamplight. The lamp or candle appears to be actually inside the brass astronomical contraption of the orrery, shining out on rapt faces, so it is as if these people are literally being illuminated by knowledge. This is a painting that captures the atmosphere of the Enlightenment, the 18th-century cult of science and reason partly inspired by Isaac Newton. The British scientist and mathematician Newton found calculable laws in the mechanics of the universe, laying the foundations for the Enlightenment belief that science can save the world. Wright's picture is a manifesto for knowledge, a poster for curiosity. Yet it is paired with a more troubling work, Wright's Experiment with a Bird in the Air Pump, which shows a darker side to scientific progress – the domination of nature. Here, by contrast, wonder is truly innocent, and the universe unfolds in the imaginations of people gathered in a Georgian house one evening to travel in space in their minds.

Image of the week

What we learned this week

How and why Alighiero Boetti opened his own hotel in Afghanistan in the name of art

The life lessons Guardian readers would give David Hockney

What Caravaggio taught today's rock stars

That the National Gallery has stumped up £25m to keep a Titian in Britain

That the Pritzker architecture prize has not – shock, horror – been won by a starchitect this year

What Angelina Jolie's now-infamous Oscar leg took from Renaissance art

Lastly

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March 01 2012

Second part of £95m Titian pair bought for Britain

Diana and Callisto goes on show in National Gallery, to be joined by Diana and Actaeon in July, after £45m raised

Titian's masterpiece Diana and Callisto has been secured for Britain after the National Gallery stumped up £25m from its reserves and the painting's owner dropped the asking price by £5m, it has been announced in London.

It now joins its pair, Diana and Actaeon, in the shared ownership of the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) without any need for a big public fundraising campaign – something the galleries thought would be a challenge too far in the economic circumstances.

The news was announced in London. The National Gallery's director, Nicholas Penny, said the two Titians had long been regarded as pre-eminent among masterpieces in private hands in the UK. "We have been able to secure both of them for the public, in a period of economic hardship, because of the esteem and affection that both institutions have enjoyed for many decades," he said.

"It is a triumph for us, but also for our predecessors, made possible by today's supporters, but also by benefactors who have long departed."

The two paintings were offered to the nation in 2008 by their owner, the Duke of Sutherland. The asking price was £100m – an enormous sum but by most estimates perhaps half of their market value.

The first painting was secured in 2009, with the biggest sum, £17.1m, coming from the Scottish government and NGS purchase funds. The race then began to raise the next £50m with a deadline of December 2012.

On Thursday it was announced that £45m had been raised and the Duke of Sutherland had reduced the asking price by £5m. A total of £25m came from the National Gallery reserves, mainly money left in wills to the gallery. Then £3m came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £2m from the Art Fund and £15m from various donations and grants, some from individual donors and some from trusts including the Monument Trust and the Rothschild Foundation.

The acquisition also secures the continuation in Edinburgh of the Bridgewater loan from the duke, an incredible collection of works by artists including Raphael, Rembrandt and Poussin. John Leighton, director general of the NGS, said that loan allowed the gallery to maintain its "triple A status" in the realm of major public galleries.

"We are delighted that the purchase of Callisto will now keep that loan intact and allow the public to continue to enjoy some of the greatest achievements of western European art."

Diana and Callisto went on display in Room 1 of the National Gallery on Thursday. It will remain in London for 18 months and be joined by Diana and Actaeon in July. It will then go to Scotland for 12 months. After that the pair will be shown in London for three years and Scotland for two before settling into a display cycle of six in London, four in Scotland. The 60:40 share reflects the fact that the National Gallery put in more money.


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February 14 2012

Cupid's wicked weapon: why you should duck the love god's arrows

It's Valentine's Day but get ready to run – Cupid's arrows have caused mischief and mayhem in art, driving Daphne away from Apollo and making Saint Teresa swoon inappropriately

Stupid Cupid often gets it wrong, or worse, is malicious. His arrows are weapons and he uses them cruelly. The very first time Cupid appears in the ancient Roman epic of mythology, Ovid's Metamorphoses, he does mischief. The god Apollo insults him, calling a him a silly boy with no business to be shooting arrows. Cupid gets his revenge by shooting one gold arrow at Apollo to make him fall in love, and another (lead-tipped this time) at the beautiful Daphne to make her fear and hate love. So Apollo chases Daphne until she turns into a laurel tree to get away – all because of those cruel arrows.

In Antonio del Pollaiuolo's painting of Apollo and Daphne, her arms are already leafy branches – all through the cruelty of Cupid! What terrible god is this? In Parmigianino's Cupid Carving His Bow, the love god turns to look at us as he hews his wicked weapon. In Caravaggio's Love Conquers All, he has dark wings, his penis is showing, and he bestrides a world of learning and culture that yields to his attack.

Cupid's arrows go so wrong in art that he sometimes seems to have changed his job – he might be working for the Christian God. Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa features an angel with a spear, piercing the heart of a Catholic mystic. But wait. A beautiful adolescent boy with wings? Piercing someone with a pointed shaft? This is surely Cupid in disguise. And he has truly created some confusion here: Saint Teresa, right there in a church in Rome, swoons with what looks like carnal passion.

This same confusion afflicts paintings of Saint Sebastian. Technically, this Roman soldier was shot by a firing squad with arrows for being a Christian. But in many paintings, including a powerful one by Guido Reni, it seems more like he has been pierced by Cupid's darts. Oscar Wilde loved Guido Reni's Saint Sebastian as a homoerotic image. Under the guise of religious art, Cupid has shot his arrows where they were forbidden to go.

In Titian's painting The Death of Actaeon it is the goddess Diana who aims her bow at the hunter Actaeon. Her magic has already turned Actaeon into a stag, and he is about to be torn apart by his own hounds. This all happened because Cupid caused confusion, yet again, when Actaeon, out with his dogs, gazed on the goddess naked. Big mistake.

Happy hunting.


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January 16 2012

Out of the blue

No one captured the movement and subtlety of the shifting skies like Titian, whose work held a natural appeal for British collectors

I would like to say a word in praise of Titian's clouds. The Victorian critic John Ruskin claimed his contemporary hero, JMW Turner, painted the atmosphere and weather much better than those old European masters, although he did concede some points to Venetian artists for natural observation. In fact, the skies of Venetian Renaissance art are ever-changing, strongly nuanced, swagged with tempestuous power.

You can breathe some of these paintings. The works of Giovanni Bellini are very vivid: his portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan seems infused with the calm, warm air of Venice; it has tangible atmosphere, it is oxygenated. Nature gets more dynamic with Giorgione's Tempest. In Titian's paintings, the clouds play fantastic roles in elusive dramas of the spirit and senses.

In Titian's Sacred and Profane Love, in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, two women – one richly dressed, the other nude – meet by a classical monument in the countryside. Their relationship is deeply mysterious and suggestive. Is the woman in a dress the "earthly Venus"? Is her naked companion a more spiritual, heavenly figure? Either way, the work is intensely poetic, and the landscape and sky raise it to sublime heights.

In The Bacchanal of the Andrians, the poised ambiguity depicted by Titian in Sacred and Profane Love gives way to revel and joy. A shepherd and hunters populate the green valley behind the marble basin. Beyond them, a village twinkles by a blue lake; above it all, silken clouds erupt over a band of yellow sky. Silver light catches these massing clouds, illuminating them like a flash of emotion or truth. Again and again, that kind of heart-stopping incandescence catches Titian's clouds. Boozers cavort. Nudes disport. Yet above their pastoral party, great piled columns of white vapour are caught by the sun and set alight as if by inner fire.

Titian must have watched the skies continually. He grew up in the countryside, near mountains where storms and heavy atmospherics would have coloured the Adriatic azure. In his early painting Concert Champetre (which used to be attributed to his mentor and rival Giorgione), the sky is brooding and smoky with cloud, while two men in courtly dress and two naked women relax in a meadow. Love and freedom perfume Titian's paintings, but the changing skies warn that nothing is forever.

Perhaps it was the mutability of Titian's skies that deepened his appeal for British art collectors. Is any other Renaissance painter quite so abundantly represented in our galleries? His works were coveted by, and bought for, English and Scottish country houses for centuries. His landscapes might be classically Italian, but they have so many ripenesses of sky and cloud, such a sense of weather, that it fits a northern European setting. British collectors would have looked from their rainswept estates to their Titians, and seen similarities. Only when it rains for Titian – as in his painting, Danae – it rains gold.


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December 23 2011

My personal wonders of 2011: an un-newsworthy anti-roundup

From Martini and Memmi's Annunciation to Titian's Venus of Urbino, it's been a year of meandering artistic discoveries

A lot of news the media publish is pure fiction. I do not mean lies. It's just that, in defining certain categories of events as news, you impose a false grid on reality. It has its uses, but it often results in reams of words that don't really have much to do with anything.

Take the idea of rounding up the year. It seems like common sense, but has nothing to do with how anyone really thinks. Have you ever sat down in the Christmas holidays to list the most important events and experiences of your year? No, nor have I.

Time is not linear. It is enigmatic; we experience it in complex ways. So here is my anti-roundup of the art that meant most to me in 2011. The point is, this mixture does not fit into any conventional definition of the newsworthy, the contemporary or the relevant. We encounter art in our own meandering way. My personal wonders of 2011, in order of wondrousness:

The Annunciation, by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

This magical work of art, created in 1333, has not been in any exhibition this year. But I was lucky enough to visit the Uffizi Gallery and I got stuck in the first room, trapped by this painting. I first saw it while on holiday with my parents as a child. And this year, the beauty of it hit me all over again and meant more than any other work of art.

The Watts Towers, Los Angeles

I've wanted to see these amazing spindles of wire and glass for much of my life. This year I made the pilgrimage. It was truly worthwhile; Simon Rodia's dreaming spires are among America's great wonders.

The Lady with an Ermine, in Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, at the National Gallery, London

This actually is in the year's finest exhibition, so here my timeline intersects with the news diary. I had never seen it before in the flesh, so to speak, and although – as with the Mona Lisa – the sheer fame of the portrait initially made it hard to respond. I was soon in love, however. Unlike the Mona Lisa, no one is ever likely to suggest she is really a man.

Annie, Poured from Maple Syrup by Ed Ruscha

It's hard to explain why this painting transfixed me at the Norton Simon museum in Pasadena. But it did.

The Venus of Urbino by Titian in the Uffizi, Florence

I did eventually get past Simone Martini in the Uffizi to gawp at how miraculously Titian paints nipples.

Enjoy Christmas.


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November 18 2011

Splitting image: Benetton's banned advert

So the pope-kissing-imam ad was shouted down? The Vatican has been carefully controlling the pope's image for 500 years

You can understand why the Vatican got so angry with Benetton for creating an image of Pope Benedict XVI kissing the grand sheikh of Cairo's al-Azhar mosque. After all, the modern church has such a pristine image to protect – it's not as if it's beset by widespread accusations of clerical abuse or anything like that. A plainly fictional image of the pope kissing a Muslim man was, clearly, the worst thing to tarnish the Vatican's image in recent years. Much more serious than anything revealed about such Catholic institutions as St Benedict's school in London.

Benetton's adverts are actually a homage to a renowned Berlin wall graffiti painting of Communist leaders Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev kissing. Everyone finds it funny to see former leaders of the defunct Soviet bloc snogging, it seems, but when contemporary figures from the western world are similarly mocked the cannoli hit the fan.

Why is the Vatican so displeased, and why did Benetton so readily surrender? The image of the pope is one of the greatest triumphs of marketing in history. A church that is led by a venerable celibate might seem to have an in-built selling-point problem. How can popes, who necessarily take the throne of St Peter as old and often ailing men, be made to seem charismatic and glamorous in a world that values youth and physical vigour?

The papacy tackled this problem five centuries ago by calling in some of the greatest image-makers in world history. Today's advertising gurus have nothing on Raphael and Titian. One of the most influential images of power in the history of the world hangs quietly today in London's National Gallery: Raphael's portrait of Pope Julius II created a new paradigm for papal portraiture by showing age as dignity, inner wisdom and sad knowledge. The power of this portrait was emulated and refined by Titian, then by Velázquez. Popes were reimagined in the Renaissance and baroque eras as men whose age and restraint conferred great natural authority.

Even in Italy, this cultivated image has been mocked in modern times. Federico Fellini staged a clerical fashion show that travestied the Church in his film Roma. But the impression that was crafted by some of the world's greatest artists is still tremendously potent, in Italy and abroad.

Benetton's mistake was to underestimate how profoundly the church has succeeded in sacralising the image of the pope, in spite of every modern menace to its authority. No parliament on earth exerts the fascination of the Vatican as a power complex. The pope's image truly is infallible, and Benetton realised it had crossed an invisible line that has endured every onslaught of the secular world.


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October 24 2011

Why Britain must hold on to Titian's Diana and Callisto

Titian is no ordinary painter and this work is one of his greatest. Let it go and we become a nation of philistines

It will be a national tragedy if Titian's painting Diana and Callisto is sold to a foreign museum or collector and is lost to Britain. It is a mark of philistinism and small-mindedness for Scotland's government to declare at this early stage that it will not be giving any public funds to keep this painting in our public collections.

The National Galleries in Edinburgh and London have until the end of next year to raise £50m to buy this masterpiece of European art, which has been on loan to Scotland's national collection from the Duke of Sutherland for years. A passionate campaign in 2008 led to its companion, Titian's Diana and Actaeon, being bought, in spite of the economic crash. This time around it looks bleaker, now that Scotland's government has declared bluntly that it has "made its contribution" and that no more cash will be forthcoming.

This is seriously mean and stupid. The campaign has barely begun. The government didn't have to say anything at this moment. In doing so, it seems to be murdering the cause before it is born, short-circuiting the kind of excitement that eventually secured a deal for Diana and Actaeon. Will English funding be forthcoming? Or is this really the end for high art in Britain?

Make no mistake: if we do not buy this picture for our public collections we may as well give up any pretence that we care on these islands about serious culture or the lofty heights of genius. This is no ordinary painting. Both the Titians from the Bridgewater Collection are stupefying works in the absolute elite of oil paintings. There are very few paintings on earth that hold a candle to them. Titian is one of the two or three greatest painters in history, and these two paintings are marvels from the most brilliant period of his life.

It was a mark of civilisation that Britain bought the first Titian. It will be a lapse into barbarism to let the second go. It really is as simple as that.


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July 25 2011

The Habsburgs shaped the story of Europe – and of its art

European art from Titian to Klimt mirrors the history of the royal dynasty that commissioned or inspired it

The recent burial of Otto von Habsburg – his body in Vienna, his heart in Hungary – drew attention to one of the most powerful families in European history. For centuries the Habsburg dynasty ruled not only Austria and a vast tract of central Europe but, at their height, Spain, the Low Countries and much of south America.

Otto von Habsburg, though he never inherited the empire that collapsed in 1919 when he was still a child, is remembered as a "good European" who served the continent well. But the Habsburg who defined Europe in the Renaissance was Charles V, who in the 16th century became ruler of Spain and its American possessions and was elected Holy Roman Emperor. Titian's famous equestrian portrait of Charles is truly imperial, modelled on Roman statues of horseborne Caesars, and illuminated by a sky glowing with stormy intimations of power and wrath. The landscape surely symbolises Europe, submitting to its ruler.

Titian worked not only for Charles V but for his son Philip II, the Habsburg who launched the Spanish Armada. It was for Philip that he painted his grand atmospheric mythological canvases including The Rape of Europa. In fact, the entire story of European art from the 1500s to the birth of modernism could be told as a family history of the Habsburgs. Sensual mythological canvases and court portraits both found their greatest patrons in this royal family.

Rudolf II – whose rich collections will be shown at the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge this summer – sponsored the fantastical paintings of Arcimboldo, while the Spanish branch of the dynasty employed Velázquez. To this day, the family network means that the Kunsthistorisches museum in Vienna has great Velázquez portraits, while Titian's Charles V is in the Prado in Madrid. The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch is in the Prado because of Habsburg rule in Flanders, and a sensual tendency in Habsburg taste means that Correggio's Jupiter and Io, a painting of a woman being embraced by a cloud, is in Vienna.

At their height the Habsburgs transmitted the Renaissance. In decline, they provoked modernist revolt. In the last stagnant days of Habsburg Austria, a combination of imperial largesse for decorative schemes in extravagant public buildings with a cynical rejection of authority by artists who saw no future for the society they decorated, unleashed the dream art of Klimt. Out of the doomed empire came some of the most provocative and brilliant art of the modern age, with Klimt and contemporaries such as Schiele investigating sexuality and the psyche years before the surrealists. The Habsburgs deserve to be remembered. They played a colossal role in the story of Europe, and its art.


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July 22 2011

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Jonathan Jones's top shows this week

Robert Rauschenberg: Botanical Vaudeville
The recent death of the painter Cy Twombly adds to the timeliness of this look back at Robert Rauschenberg, who passed away in 2008. Sixty years ago these two artists, along with their friend Jasper Johns, reinvented art. They lived at a moment when abstract art seemed the ultimate modern creation. Instead they turned back to real life, and above all it was Rauschenberg whose messy, rich combinations of painting with found objects created a pungent aesthetic of the street, the bedroom, wherever life is.
• At Inverleith House, Edinburgh, 27 July until 2 October

Tony Cragg: Sculptures and Drawings
The sculpture of Tony Cragg is – well, it's sculpture. In an age of objects, Cragg creates form. His orotund and irregular creations tower and totter. They grow and live. Like giant molten chess pieces, his shapes are at once authoritative and decadent. Here is abstract art for our time, tactile and elusive.
• At Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 30 July until 6 November

Nan Goldin: Fireleap
If there is one artist in the world today whose works stop you dead in your tracks it is this photographer of raw life. You may be entranced or enraged by Goldin's colour-saturated, lyrical and sleazy slideshows, but they are undeniably compelling. This show brings together her photographs of children, so if you are easily offended it might make your day.
• At Sprovieri Gallery, London W1, until 6 August

Mario Merz: What is to be Done?
Clear blue neon light cuts through natural and man-made forms in this survey of the Italian sculptor who died in 2003. Merz had strong themes: the survival of nature in an industrial world, the endurance of meaning and community in fast times. His famous use of the basic architectural form of the igloo synthesizes his concern with natural and human vulnerability. There are igloos here as well as an old car pierced by a shaft of neon, like a mechanical Saint Theresa redeemed by light.
• At Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 28 July until 30 October

Ryan Mosley
This young British artist paints up a storm with fictional figures, eerie characters, gothic and rococo fantasies in a subtle, texturally convincing style. It is worth following his progress in his latest exhibition which includes surreal pastiches of portraiture and allusive scenes out of some Bloomsbury era memoir.
• At Alison Jacques Gallery, London W1, until 13 August

Up close: artworks in detail

Tomb of the Black Prince, c1376
The massive metal body of this 14th-century prince and warrior lies on his tomb in a fierce challenge to the world to forget him. It never has. The Black Prince is remembered for his military glory, but his tomb effigy is a great work of art in its own right, with its startlingly fierce and powerful face emerging from scaly chain mail. This is is a totem of potent knighthood that no visitor to Canterbury Cathedral – which also boasts dazzling stained glass and eerie Romanesque monsters – will ever forget.
• At Canterbury Cathedral, Kent

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples, 1877-8
If the economist John Maynard Keynes is currently in the news, it is because his remedies against depression are being ignored – even despised – by western governments determined to repeat the mistakes he condemned. Looking at this time-stopping, entrancing painting by Cézanne, you get the feeling that Keynes represents a lost age of civilised reason. For Keynes owned this painting. Today, its solidity and grace suggest a sanity that eludes this century.
• At Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Titian, The Three Ages of Man, c1512-1514
The face of a girl looking intently at her lover glows out of this profoundly poetic painting. Titian has painted a rustic landscape, hilly and rugged, that surely evokes his own childhood in the mountains of northern Italy. In it we see allegorical figures of the ages of life, but the most compelling, and the painting's true heart, is the young woman in love. This is simply one of the greatest works of art in Britain. If you are headed to Edinburgh over the summer make a date with it.
• At National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Thomas Gainsborough, The Byam Family, between 1762 and 1766
The Holburne Museum in Bath recently reopened after an ambitious architectural refurbishing, and it is well worth visiting this gallery close to 18th-century terraces that evoke the Bath of Jane Austen. No artist captured the elegance of 18th-century visitors to the waters and assembly rooms better than Gainsborough, who had a business here, and whose grand portrait of the Byam family is one of the Holburne's delights.
• At Holburne Museum, Bath

Artemisia Gentileschi (attributed), Susannah and the Elders, 1600s
With Tracey Emin at the Hayward and crowds flocking to the Hepworth, it is easy to forget that for most of European history it was all but impossible for women to become professional artists. Artemisia Gentileschi was an exception, fighting her way to fame in the 17th century. Is this striking painting in Nottingham one of her works? It portrays a young woman naked being spied on by two old men. What makes the picture strange is that the voyeurs don't hide behind a hedge, as was conventional in paintings of this Biblical story, but instead press claustrophobically close to their object of desire. The effect is surreal and unsettling.
• At Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery

What we learned this week

That the Lucian Freud once turned up at someone's house with a live eel in his bag

Why Pringles are such a favourite with the bookies

Why the Tate Modern had an exorcism

How one man snuck sleek modernist designs into every part of British life

How art finally went down the tube

Why society may be too crazy for museums to stay free

Image of the week

Your Art Weekly

Have you been to any of these shows? What have you enjoyed this week? Give your review in the comments below or tweet us your verdict using #artweekly and we'll publish the best ones next week.

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May 10 2011

The ecstasy of art

Scientists claim that beautiful paintings can induce pure pleasure in the beholder. So get thee to a gallery!

So that's why I always feel so good after visiting London's National Gallery. A scientific study claims to have shown that beautiful paintings produce the same brain activity we feel when we see someone we love: biologically, great art is pure joy. It's nice to have scientific confirmation of something I already knew.

Recently I took a Slovenian journalist, who specialises in reporting from trouble spots such as Gaza and Sudan, to see some of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery. He commented on how moving it was to see all this beauty, all these noble peaks of human achievement, compared with the horrors and violence he spends a lot of time thinking about. He was in London on a flying visit – during which he also tried various drugs – but (and I want you to picture me as a clergyman here) you know, I think Titian's Noli Me Tangere touched him more deeply than those horse tranquillizers.

I find great art so uplifting that if I have not seen any first-rate works of art for a few days I notice the difference in my mood. So I know I am lucky to live in London with its great free museums. The National Gallery is most effective because it is full of the kinds of art the researchers say are most innately pleasurable – they recorded especially high pleasure hits from paintings by Constable, Ingres, and Guido Reni.

They would be wrong to assume that modern art cannot produce sheer bliss: James Turrell's art can transport you to a psychedelic heaven. Still, the old masters are so luscious. I would personally say Titian has to be one of the most pleasure-inducing of all artists, but that is probably because I am currently looking at his work a lot and tuned into him. But this brings us to a potential problem with the study. It ignores the cultural equipment and contexts in which someone responds to a work of art. The researchers say they deliberately tested people with little knowledge of art so as to get reactions unmediated by fashion or ideology. But in practice, the pleasure of art is shaped by your reasons for looking at it, the ideas and experience you bring to it – even the receptive or unreceptive mood you are in.

In spite of that objection I cannot dismiss findings that so closely match my own autobiographical knowledge. I think the pleasure of paintings is vastly enhanced or damaged by what you know or think you know, and how you look at them. But I also know that a couple of hours in a museum of great art can be intoxicating and ecstatic beyond belief. If it got out how much bliss I get from going to galleries no one would pay me to write about art. They would make me pay them. So essentially I think this research rings true.

Was David Cameron serious about making happiness a political issue? If so, someone in government should think about the sheer joy that art brings. The free museums and galleries of Britain are temples of happiness, founts of joy. Do yourself a favour and spend time in them. The feeling will hit you after a while and it is unbeatable.


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May 09 2011

Tintoretto: leading light

Three of Tintoretto's masterpieces have been chosen for this year's Biennale. Can the 16th-century artist teach young contemporary painters about breaking the rules?

Jacopo Robusti, or Tintoretto, is to receive a signal honour for a 16th-century artist. Tintoretto, who died in 1594, has been selected for this year's Venice Biennale. A handful of his dazzling masterpieces, perhaps the most sublime of all being The Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark that normally hangs in the Accademia Gallery in Venice, will be shown among the crowd of contemporary artists in the famous festival of new art. Why Tintoretto? He is modern, say the organisers. He breaks the rules. He is a reminder to young artists that they, too, should break the rules.

But is Tintoretto all that modern?

The Biennale is right to look from its comfort zone in the Biennale gardens back towards the city of Venice with all its historic treasures. Venice created some of the greatest paintings in history and a good number of them are still in the city, in its churches, palaces and museums. Tintoretto's works here include in situ decorations that are part of the very fabric of Venice. His most ambitious project was to decorate the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, the hall of a religious confraternity that he morphed into his answer to the Sistine Chapel, a consummate expression of one man's vision in fervent and daring depictions of Biblical scenes that blaze all around you. Meanwhile, in the Doges Palace, his ethereal and overwhelming painting Paradise melts a wall into light.

Tintoretto's "modern" and subversive quality starts with his shockingly dramatic spatial effects. The Italian Renaissance developed perspective as a means to create a realistic illusion of three-dimensional space: Tintoretto stretches this idea to bursting point by using absurdly long and vast perspectives. This is taken to the most surreal effect in his painting of Venetian heroes stealing the corpse of St Mark from an eastern city, imagined as a receding palatial vista under a sky of storm and fire.

The orange light of that monstrous sky is at the heart of Tintoretto's radicalism. Light is the elixir of Venetian painting: artists in this city were born poets of light whose pictures create delicate atmospheres of warm sun, suggest stormy foreboding or the light of heaven itself. Yet compare Tintoretto's Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark with a painting in the Frari church, Venice, of the Assumption, by his elder, Titian. Even in a visionary religious work, Titian uses light to make his painting real. By contrast, Tintoretto creates atmospheres that are enclosed and unreal. His light leads inward, to a realm of spiritual meditation.

Tintoretto was a genuinely pious man, in the age of the Counter-Reformation when Italy abounded in new religious energy. His art is a rejection of the sensual fullness of Titian. Paradoxically, this reactionary art now looks "modern" because it does indeed break the rules of the Renaissance. Similarly, Tintoretto's contemporary El Greco, whose art is also a heady mix of piety and stylistic defiance, was an inspiration to Picasso.

But Picasso was painting his revolutionary works a century ago. He really was attacking the rules, and turned to El Greco as a strange predecessor. Do artists today need telling to break rules? Surely Tintoretto is more likely to look, in the context of the Biennale, like a fiery prophet of artistic crisis.

To see this, we need to take a second look at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco whose paintings are his true artistic testament. It is true that stylistic radicalism proliferates here. But it serves a deeper purpose. The Scuole of Venice were societies of lay people who came together to do charitable works. They were at the heart of the city's social fabric. The confraternity whose building Tintoretto worked so hard to ennoble was dedicated to San Rocco, a saint believed to protect the city from plague: Tintoretto's paintings here are about uniting the community against the disease that constantly threatened European cities from the 14th to 17th centuries with complete social breakdown.

It's natural for us to remove the art of the past from its original meanings and enjoy it as a formal exercise. Picasso did that with El Greco. In vaunting Tintoretto as a subversive figure, the Biennale is doing something similar. But if you do find him intriguing, follow the Tintoretto trail to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. There you will find a conception of art as a social good, a healing and teaching vision for the people.

How does that idea of art as communal redemption square with the atmosphere of the Venice Biennale? At the Biennale, probably more than any other art event, you can see the glamour of the global art world, with collectors' James Bond villain-style yachts anchored near the Biennale Gardens, and all the fun of the vernissage. In truth it feels artificially separated from the city in which it is held, and including Tintoretto is a brilliant way of making a link between Venice ancient and modern. But art today – at the Biennale and elsewhere – rarely plays the organic part in the life of a city, a community, or a state (Renaissance Venice was all three) that Tintoretto's paintings did in their time. The Biennale is right to celebrate Tintoretto's modernity. Yet if his paintings mirror the art of today, they do this in passing. Seen whole, he tells us how limited and cynical our idea of art has become.


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April 22 2011

Easter special: art's top five bunnies

From religious paintings to cartoons, rabbits have been portrayed as both enigmatic and aggressive. But which portrayal is your favourite?

Bunny rabbits have inspired some great art and, as Easter is upon us, here is an artistic survey of the season's creature: my top five rabbits in art.

The most beautiful rabbit in art is surely the white bunny in Titian's Madonna of the Rabbit in the Louvre. It is also one of the most touching in its association with childhood and pets – which is not to say it has no theological significance as a symbol of the mystery of the Incarnation. In Renaissance art the young Christ is seen with all kinds of animals, from birds to cats, but Titian's rabbit is somehow one of the funniest, most natural childhood scenes in a religious painting.

Albrecht Durer's 1502 portrait of a rabbit – or is it a hare? – is a very different work. Where Titian paints a white rabbit as part of a scene of childhood in the countryside, as a prop in an essentially human setup, Durer concentrates with rapt attention on the rabbit or hare as a thing in itself, without people or landscape. This is at once enigmatic and troubling: what is in its brain? What does it see? It is a very serious bunny.

It's almost a relief to go from Durer's alien beast to John Tenniel's Victorian illustration of the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Or is it? Tenniel's study of what a rabbit might look like in human clothes, standing upright and looking at a pocket watch, is so meticulous that it takes on a hallucinatory truth that has haunted the modern imagination along with the rest of his Alice illustrations. It seems that as soon as you move away from Titian's family picnic with an Easter bunny, the rabbit in art becomes uncanny. The mildness of this creature offers a blank slate on which artists have imagined strange personae and possibilities.

The blankest of all bunnies is Jeff Koons's Rabbit, cast from an inflatable toy, its silvery skin a perfect mirror. This is the most uncanny rabbit of all. It is a metaphor for art itself, which it suggests is reflective and ethereal. Not something to touch but something that vanishes, like a dream. A form, but also just light. Koons is a tricky genius and his Rabbit a slippy customer.

Koons's Rabbit is almost as slippy as my favourite artistic rabbit: Bugs Bunny. Created at the end of the 1930s by a team of artists who included Tex Avery, the carrot-chomping, wisecracking Bugs is one of the great popular artworks of the 20th century. His design, like a thin-limbed 15th-century statue, makes him always aggressive, pert, and restless. Rabbits reached their apotheosis with Bugs. If mice are cute and cats are cruel in cartoons, Bugs Bunny is a free spirit, the rabbit as hero. Happy Easter.


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January 17 2011

All masterpieces great and small

Rich layers of famous and obscure paintings in this mysterious museum take us deep into the mentality of its Victorian founders

A park shimmers in olive light, as if the sun has been filtered through hanging vines and ivy. Through a gap in the foliage we glimpse walks and spaces beyond, as if in a dream. It is manifestly a concoction, a place of fantasy and a work of delectable artifice. And yet it is a place you want to be: how magical, to haunt these dreamy paths like the lovers and idlers who linger in the painting's shady nooks.

I am lingering over Jean-Honoré Fragonard's painting Le Petit Parc, one of my favourite works in the Wallace Collection in London. It sometimes needs to be said how good things are. The Wallace Collection is a treasure. Because it was created by Victorian collectors with highly personal tastes and has been preserved as they left it, the collection's character is extraordinary, even a bit cussed. It gives space to 19th-century battle scenes alongside a work as strange and – when it grows on you – bizarrely unforgettable as Ary Scheffer's phantasmagoric Francesca da Rimini.

Ary Scheffer was admired by Vincent van Gogh, but is rarely remembered nowadays. The Wallace Collection happens to own his masterpiece. His visualisation of the punishment of the lustful in Dante's Inferno is like a glassy white marble sculpture flattened into a pool of black ink, a hard, bright vision of the body floating uncannily in dark space. This fetid explosion of sexual anxiety is a disturbing, desperate creation.

Scheffer's painting takes us deep into the 19th-century mentality of the Wallace Collection's founders. Yet this is in no sense a museum limited to the Victorian age. It abounds in masterpieces from hundreds of years of European and Middle Eastern history. Here you can see works as celebrated as The Laughing Cavalier and Titian's Perseus and Andromeda.

I have, however, deliberately dwelt on a couple of less-renowned works that I looked at in these opulent salons lately, because I want to stress that the real joy of the Wallace Collection is its curiosity and rich layers of famous and obscure masterpieces. This is a place to wander and explore, to browse and research – a destination as mysterious and as absorbing as Fragonard's little park.


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December 03 2010

Foals gold: Stubbs set for £15m sale

Painting of mares and foals in 'remarkable condition', and Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt works also for sale at Sotheby's

A painting of mares and foals, which has been in the same family collection since George Stubbs painted it in 1768, is expected to set a new record for the artist's work of up to £15m when auctioned at Sotheby's next week.

"It is a quintessential Stubbs, in remarkable condition," said Emmeline Hallmark, a British paintings expert at Sotheby's. "The current record is just under £4m, so we're very confident for it."

The painting shows the group of horses against an ambiguous landscape, on one side idyllic open countryside, on the other a menacing dark crag. "It's painted very caringly, with everything they might need to thrive: shelter, water from the river, hay for them probably growing in the far field," Hallmark said. "It is a very moving work."

The painting is on display at Sotheby's until the sale next Wednesday, only the second time it has been publicly exhibited in almost 250 years. It is one of a series of spectacular sales from the family collections of the Earls of Macclesfield.

The current, ninth Earl was forced to move out of the family home, Shirburn in Oxfordshire, five years ago as a result of a complex divided family inheritance, and a famous library and other works of art once held there have been appearing in the auction rooms. The Macclesfield Psalter, a stunning 14th-century illuminated manuscript, sold at Sotheby's for £1.7m, was saved from export after a public appeal and is now owned by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Sotheby's is also exhibiting a spectacular Titian, The Madonna and Child with Saints Luke and Catherine of Alexandria, regarded as one of the best remaining in private hands, and the most important sold at auction in 20 years. It will be auctioned in New York next month – only the fifth time it has changed hands – with an estimate of up to $20m.

Many early visitors to the exhibition were stopped in their tracks by ostensibly more modest works of art on two small sheets of paper: a newly discovered drawing by Rubens and a postcard-sized drawing by Rembrandt only known from a 90-year-old photograph, which will also be sold in New York with estimates of up to $800,000 (£511,000) each.

The Rembrandt has been in a private collection and not seen by scholars for more than 50 years, while the Rubens, a lush Venus stooping to nurse her cupids, had vanished for centuries, only known from a later engraving. It resurfaced when the French owners took a blurry photograph to Sotheby's in Paris.

In London the drawings expert Greg Rubenstein got a phone call from a startled colleague, saying he was not allowed even to send a copy of the photograph, and that Rubenstein should hop on the Eurostar and come for a look – but warning that it might be a complete waste of time. The beautiful 1616 drawing in ink and chalk turned out to be well worth the journey, with a completely unguessed-at obsequious inscription in the artist's own handwriting to a wealthy patron in Antwerp, "noblest of men, greatest of senators, whose friendship increases daily".

The Rembrandt is a rare working drawing showing the young artist struggling with the composition for a major painting. He began work on Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver in 1628, aged 22, sketching directly on to the panel, but could not get the figures right and tried to sort out the lighting and the placing of the figures in the drawing. In the finished painting – a version of which is on loan to the National Gallery in London – the stooping figure of the priest has vanished again, visible only in x-ray under the surface layers of paint.

The drawing was known only from an ancient photograph, and has another stab at the subject by the artist on the back that has never been published. Rubenstein described it as "a wonderful thing, in which you can really feel the hand of the artist as he wrestles with this problem". It has been in a private British collection since the 1950s, and in a bank vault for the last 30 years when the family moved abroad to a hot climate which they knew would not suit the drawing.


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