Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

February 27 2012

Abstract pioneer gets overdue retrospective

John Cecil Stephenson's work, overlooked in part because of poor self-promotion, celebrated in Durham exhibition

He is one of the earliest and most accomplished of all British abstract artists, but also one of the least known and most overlooked.

Until last weekend, John Cecil Stephenson had been largely neglected with no public gallery or museum staging any exhibition of his work in almost 40 years – an injustice finally righted by Durham Art Gallery, 47 years after his death.

More than 50 works have now been gathered for a show given the title Pioneer of Modernism, which opened to the public on Saturday. Curator Conor Mullan said Stephenson worked in undeserved obscurity for most of his life. There were two reasons, his background and his personality.

"He just didn't play the game enough," Mullan said. "He didn't compromise and he just was not in to the politics of art, he couldn't deal with it."

The exhibition celebrates probably the most important 20th-century artist to come from County Durham. Born in Bishop Auckland in 1889, Stephenson had a tough working-class background that, Mullan argues, had a profound effect.

"He felt unsure of himself. He wasn't very good in highbrow, intellectual, bohemian circles. They were the people you had to deal with to climb up the ladder in London and he just wasn't very good at it. He did not do the networking.

"Much like today, if you're not in to marketing yourself as much as the art then it's a hard life."

Stephenson, however, did manage to make a living from his work. He was also head of art at the Northern Polytechnic in north London, now London Metropolitan University, but never achieved the fame of his friends and peers such as Ben Nicholson and Piet Mondrian, whose friendship is explored by a show running at the Courtauld Institute, London.

Stephenson was one of Mondrian's closest friends in London. They were a similar age and had a lot in common. Mullan said: "Stephenson was a very reserved man and very precise. Everything had to be perfect and Mondrian was very much the same. They were interested in work and pushing forward in art."

Stephenson was part of what the poet and critic Herbert Read called "a nest of gentle artists".

Encouraged by the painter Walter Sickert, he took on a studio in north London in 1914 and lived there for the rest of his life. His near neighbours over the years included Read, Nicholson and the sculptors Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Naum Gabo.

The Durham exhibition focuses on Stephenson's progression through the 1930s at the forefront of modernist and constructivist art.

By the late 1930s a lot of British artists were looking at abstraction, but Stephenson was already there. Some of his work has an optical element that pre-dates op art and the work of artists such as Bridget Riley by around 30 years.

But for all his talent and his friends, Stephenson was always something of an outsider. A natural reserve probably held him back. "He was an important guy, he just didn't know it," said Mullan. He was acutely conscious of his working-class roots, but distant from them.

During the first world war he was assigned back to County Durham where he worked in the production of munitions.

Stephenson was treated badly by locals who saw him as a dandified student. "All his life he felt a distance from the working class, he felt a distance from the middle class and he felt a distance from the upper class," Mullan said.

"He basically kept himself to himself. He was a silent man, he did not say a lot."

Stephenson was overlooked during his life as well as after it and he did not have a solo show until he was 71. The next year, he had the first of a series of strokes and never worked again.

Loans for the Durham show have included works lent by the British Museum, the V&A, the National Galleries of Scotland and the Government Art Collection.

But there have been works that the exhibition has been unable to show, not least Stephenson's most famous work Painting 1937 which is owned by Tate.

Mullan hopes this show will help bring him to a wider audience and encourage others to think about mounting a proper retrospective – perhaps in 2015, 50 years after his death.

John Cecil Stephenson, Pioneer of Modernism is at Durham Art Gallery until 29 April © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 21 2011

Arts Council's third Flashback tour puts artist Gary Hume in spotlight

Hume follows in footsteps of Bridget Riley and Anish Kapoor

It is a snowman, definitely a snowman, but a melancholic one with a red body and brown head, and he stands with his back to us aware, perhaps, that he won't last long. The work is by the artist Gary Hume and will feature in an exhibition of his work set to tour Britain early next year.

The Arts Council Collection said Hume would be the third artist to appear in the Flashback shows, which have so far featured Bridget Riley and Anish Kapoor, with Rachel Whiteread planned for the fourth.

Caroline Douglas, head of the collection, said the Flashback shows helped highlight one of the council's fundamental purposes, which was "to support artists early in their career".

She added: "We have many outstanding examples of work from early in the career of artists who have gone on to make enormous reputations nationally and internationally."

For the Riley exhibition the collection showed the 1961 painting Movement in Squares, which the artist said was her breakthrough piece, the one that led her to the work she then pursued over the next 50 years.

Douglas hopes the third tour, which will take in Leeds, Wolverhampton, Hastings and Aberdeen, will bring Hume's work to a wider audience.

Douglas said: "Gary is far too little known in this country. He has had remarkably little exposure in the UK outside of London. This is the thread that runs through all the Flashbacks – artists obtain a certain level in their career and they are rarely showing outside capital cities.

"People enjoy having an in-depth examination of one artist's career, and the [Flashback] shows have had a fantastic response. There is a great appetite … to see the work of outstanding contemporary artists."

The Arts Council Collection, which started up in 1946, holds more than 7,500 works, by artists ranging from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst, which it regularly lends.

The tour takes place in what will be a busy year for Hume, one of the YBA generation who was part of important shows including Freeze in 1988, the 1997 Sensation show at the Royal Academy and who represented the UK at 1999's Venice Biennale . On 18 January the White Cube gallery will present work he completed over the last two years, in its galleries in central and east London.

The tour begins at Leeds Art Gallery, from 2 February–15 April, then goes to Wolverhampton Art Gallery (28 April–7 July), the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings (14 July–23 September ), and Aberdeen Art Gallery (13 October–19 January 2013). © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 04 2011

August 23 2011

Moving art: the magic of animation

From Bernini to Bridget Riley, artists have long brought art to life. But the animator's art is unique – innocent, imaginative and fun

Animation, when you think about it, is a very strange art. The invention of cinema in the late 19th century made it possible to show apparently moving, lifelike photographs of real people. But it was also used from the very beginning, as Watch Me Move – a summer exhibition of animated films and art at London's Barbican – reveals, to make drawings and models come to life.

Bringing a statue to life is an ancient dream, embodied in the myth of Pygmalion. It was said that this Greek sculptor literally "animated" one of his statues: it lived. Less luridly, such artists as Bernini and Rubens infuse their (static) statues and paintings with stupendous effects of dynamism. Bridget Riley's paintings do the same thing inside your head, inducing an illusion of movement.

There are fascinating, profound issues in the way animated movies work, and how they relate to high art both past and present – but the Barbican exhibition does not explore them, at least not in a conventional way. It does not weigh down the visitor with an opening gallery on the psychology of vision. Instead, it plunges you into a vast collection of moving images. Very early films by the Lumière brothers show near art films by William Kentridge and the Brothers Quay. There are forgotten Czech masterpieces, clips from South Park, the Disney classics ... It is great fun for adults and children alike, although one or two exhibits need parental caution (such as South Park).

There are some props and stills, too. My favourite thing here is not a film clip. It is a real treasure: the original model for one of the skeleton warriors in Ray Harryhausen's masterpiece of stop-motion animation, Jason and the Argonauts.

Animation can be all things to all people. Adult TV cartoons have revealed the ironic satirical power of the medium. But perhaps the most beautiful aspect of cartoons and stop-go special effects in the 20th century was the reinvention of the fairytale. In an age of science and reason, animators such as Harryhausen brought the world of magic and fable to life in entirely new ways. Powerful moments from Walt Disney's fairytale features are shown in the exhibition, as well as one of Harryhausen's early fairytale films.

Harryhausen has filmed Greek myths and yet he always gives them a quality of nursery fable and folkloric simplicity – as they surely possessed for children in ancient Greece. There are few films as fun to watch as his fabulous tales. And there are few modern achievements as innocent, imaginative and joyous as the animator's art. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 20 2011

Top British artists to design 2012 Olympics posters

Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley, Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili among selected 12 as countdown starts to London festival

Posters for next year's Olympics and Paralympics will be designed by top British artists including Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley, Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili, it was announced.

The 12 commissioned artists were named to coincide with the one-year countdown to next year's London 2012 festival – part of the Cultural Olympiad celebrations – which opens on 21 June .

Among those on the panel that whittled more than 100 names from the art world down to 12 was the Tate's director, Sir Nicholas Serota, who predicted "colour, vitality, energy and diversity" in the 2012 posters that will be seen all over the capital next year.

Six male and six female artists have been chosen. The others asked to create a piece were Fiona Banner, Michael Craig-Martin, Martin Creed, Anthea Hamilton, Gary Hume, Sarah Morris, Bob and Roberta Smith and Rachel Whiteread.

The posters are still at the design stage but Emin, who will create one for the Paralympics, said she wanted to do something that celebrated the coolness of London.

She is considering drawing prominent landmarks such as the London Eye and the houses of parliament, adding words that offer encouragement to the participants. She is still working on her final design.

Emin said she was surprised but pleased to be asked.

"The posters are intrinsic to the Olympics, they are the things that are going to stay around," she added.

She had been sent a book of posters from previous games, she said, but was unlikely to take inspiration from the designs.

"A lot of them are about values which aren't so important now," she said. "I'm interested in the party side – the celebration."

The artists have been asked to produce a poster that is identifiable with their own style. "For me, that could be a bit tricky," Emin admitted. "The poster has got to be for everybody and it has got to be a celebration of London. The Olympics is going to show the world that London can really throw a good party. It is going to give everyone a high."

Hodgkin is the only one of the artists of the 12 who has experience in this area, having been commissioned by Andy Warhol to produce a poster for the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.

Hodgkin said he had a pragmatic reason for agreeing to the Olympic commission.

"I said yes because I thought it would be nice for a lot of people to see my work," he said.

His enthusiasm for the Olympics was also rather more muted than some, as he admitted looking forward to it "only in so far as there'll be something else to see on the telly".

One of the younger artists on the list of 12 is Anthea Hamilton, who was clearly more enthused by the games than Hodgkin: "It's really exciting – you can feel the tension building in the city," she said. She called the commission "a big honour and a nice surprise", adding: "I get a lot of the images which I use to make my work from the city, everyday life and mass media, so the idea that I'll get to make a work that goes back into that is a really nice way for me to develop."

The London 2012 festival, which celebrates the Olympics through the arts, will feature artists such as the late Pina Bausch, Plan B, Mike Leigh, Leona Lewis, Miranda Hart and Damon Albarn.

Tickets for the festival go on sale in October but many events are free, including one of the first and most intriguing, which takes place on Lake Windermere in Cumbria. The spectacular show with music, drumming and pyrotechnics features the French company Les Commandos Percu.

London's mayor, Boris Johnson, said: "A year from today, on midsummer's day, the festivities will begin with the launch of the London 2012 festival.

"The capital will be alive with extraordinary music, film, art, poetry, performance – a festival on a scale never before seen to celebrate the greatest sporting show on Earth." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 11 2011

Government Art Collection: At Work – review

Whitechapel Gallery, London

Does art have its uses, other than to civilise, enlighten, stimulate, console? Purists would say certainly not. Art has no function whatsoever. But anyone visiting the Whitechapel Gallery, where the notoriously closeted Government Art Collection is being shown in public for the first time in its 113- year history, will discover that this is not the case. Art can be a cunning form of diplomacy.

Take one of Bob and Roberta Smith's fairground-like signs, brightly painted in chip shop colours and currently hanging in the first tranche of the collection at the Whitechapel (there are several more selections to come). 'Peas are the New Beans,' it says, advancing a silly paradox about legumes, but punning on the bean-counting profession as well, at least if you have a mind to spot this.

And plenty have, it appears. When Paul Boateng became chief secretary to the Treasury he hung the painting outside his office, to laugh the waiting accountants and civil servants out of heaven knows what negativity. Apparently it worked every time; full pictorial efficiency.

Sir John Sawers, currently head of MI6, previously at the UN, used to invite hostile nations into his office to dwell upon the beautiful cobalt ground of Claude Heath's Ben Nevis on Blue – all dots and doodles (Heath draws with his eyes closed) and just shy of figuration. Which was extremely helpful during some particularly heated negotiations on Iran, where the painting was used as a kind of soothing time-out for eyes and mind. "Agreement," according to Sawers, "was reached an hour later."

And so it continues: an Anish Kapoor for the high commission in New Delhi to demonstrate how far Britain and India have come together (world-class artist born in Mumbai, resident in London: perfect symbol); Thomas Phillips's magnificent portrait of Byron posted to the British embassy in Athens, where he remains a hero for taking part in the Greek war of independence; the latest Britart sent to impress smart Parisians, if not to shame their euro-pudding artists. These are works to impress, co-opt and persuade.

So the subtitle of this particular selection, At Work, may be coarse but perfectly apt. It really is as if the artworks are part of the staff, sent out to work as ambassadors for British culture with extra responsibilities during a crisis. And viewed this way – the works at the Whitechapel are put in political context – it no longer seems quite such an affront to the public to be coughing up for a collection it never actually sees.

A good deal has been written about the invisibility of the GAC. I wrote some of it myself, around the time of Blair's triumphant entry into Downing Street when there was so much press coverage of New Labour receptions, who was in, who was out, and we sought the secrets of the art equivalent: what was displayed (Cool Britannia), and what removed (Old England), from the walls of No 10. For the GAC supplies not just embassies and consulates across five continents but scores of ministerial offices in London as well. Of its 13,500 works, more than two-thirds are displayed at any given time. It is the largest, most widely dispersed collection of British art in the world, and it keeps on moving as governments change and new ministers make their selections.

Hansard is full of questions about how much it drains the public purse, how much of it is mouldering away, how much has been clandestinely sold (none at all). Behind these questions is the lingering grudge that, unless we happen to be ministers, their cronies, or belligerent kids from Jamie's Dream School granted an audience with the PM, then we will never clap eyes on the mandatory Lowry or the dingy oval view of the Thames by the deservedly neglected William Marlow selected by the Camerons.

What's ingenious about At Work is that it replicates these selections so that you see the art but also the implicit self-portrait. So Boateng chooses Osmund Caine's striking group of second world war soldiers from 1940, the whites playing cards in uniform, the blacks separate and naked. Nick Clegg goes for an outsize thermos flask standing alone at a gloomy picnic, surely a post-referendum choice. Ed Vaizey, current culture minister, and Save 6 Music campaigner, continues to show his contemporary credentials by pushing Tory Tracey Emin.

Most piquant of all, Peter Mandelson has chosen a contemporary portrait of Elizabeth I that resembles Margaret Beckett. It's an awful painting, flesh like Bakelite; but along with a photograph of Lucian Freud painting Elizabeth II, a statue of the artist-diplomat Peter Paul Rubens and one of Cecil Stephenson's designs for the Festival of Britain, we have two queens, a super-urbane diplomat and a memento of Herbert Morrison, Mandelson's grandfather (and chief sponsor of the festival), which allows for some self-serving allusions to his own grand projet, the Dome, in the exhibition leaflet.

The choices of Sawers and Dame Anna Pringle, our woman in Moscow, are much stronger as art: Walter Sickert, Heath, some bittersweet space-race Pop by Derek Boshier and Bridget Riley's beautiful Reflection, bought for the British embassy in Cairo partly because her sheaf of stripes was inspired by the colours of tomb walls in Upper Egypt, but also because the abstraction dovetailed felicitously with Muslim culture.

All these works were purchased on a shoestring budget, just to add to the complex GAC criteria: works must be cheaply acquired, they must act as an extension of the diplomatic service and fit with all sorts of unusual environments. The result is a most quirky collection that has no major Bacon, Hockney, Sutherland or Freud, no Turner, no Constable landscapes, few museum stereotypes. But which is rich instead in great works by Sickert, Joan Eardley and Paul Nash.

That eccentricity went out with New Labour and the hyping of Britart, which is extensively represented in the GAC. This is not reflected in At Work, though one sees how successfully the Emins and Michael Landys have crossed the floor, because so much of the recent art is commissioned to be site-specific.

What you do see at the Whitechapel is just how fine a face the collection gives to Britain at home and abroad, from Edward Burra's satirical drawings to Bridget Riley. Of course, there is no need to put good art on the walls of our government buildings. But what this first show reveals is just how civilised it looks as our national image instead of a flag or a framed photo of the latest dictator.

'At Work' is at the Whitechapel until 4 September, with further GAC selections then running until September 2012, then at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery followed by Ulster Museum in late 2012-13 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

The 10 best summer paintings

The Observer's art critic Laura Cumming selects the paintings that best evoke the exhilaration and the languor of summer

1 Claude Monet Poppy Field (1873)

This is the summer you look at in winter, reproduced on millions of sitting room walls, the painting that transports you to the drifting, buzzing heat of those waist-high French fields through which pretty women stroll with parasols. The nearest poppies are disproportionately large to get across the impact of such intense red and parts of the painting hover on the verge of abstraction. The mother and child are probably Monet's wife and daughter. He showed the work at the first impressionist exhibition in 1874 and it's now one of the best-loved paintings in the world. See the painting here

2 Pieter Bruegel The Harvesters (1565)

Towering wheat, plump peasants, comic stooks: you wend your way through this fabulous late summer landscape like a roving peasant yourself, spotting ripe pears, scattering birds, noticing the distant monks bathing naked. The scythed path leads the eye into the faraway distance. The first modern landscape in western art is the claim for Bruegel's Harvesters – all reality, no allegory – from the Seasons cycle. It really puts you on the spot, makes you feel the soporific weight of all that warmth. It is, like the rest of the cycle, democratic, affectionate, atmospheric and almost proverbial. See the painting here

3 Edward Hopper Second Storey Sunlight (1960)

This is the dark side of summer – strange goings-on in broad sunlight, longing and isolation even in the heat. The house is typical Hopper, white clapboard, pitched roof, presenting itself silently against the cobalt sky. Sun strikes the old lady in black and the young girl waiting for someone or something. But between them is a lonely void. What is their relationship? Why is the house turned to the sun as if watching for something too? The trees gather menacingly behind the building and inside looks starkly empty as the sun hits the back wall of the room. See the painting here

4 Christian Kobke Roof Ridge of Frederiksborg Castle (1834)

The marvellous Danish artist Christian Købke has climbed to the rooftops to take the summer view by surprise. Here is the dark ridge, the cool blue water beyond, the landscape repeating these horizontals in ever-hazier stripes beneath a motionless sky that fills three-quarters of the picture. It is a hymn to summer light and immense panoramas, the kind of thing no photograph can quite contain. And it's all witnessed by strange surrogates: a solid brick chimney and an elaborate spire turned gold and silver in the sunlight face the view amazed, like something out of Edward Hopper. See the painting here

5 Isaac Levitan Summer Evening (1899)

It would be hard to think of a more beautiful image of summer evening light turning field to fire than this delicately luminous painting. The parched road begins among the cooling foreground shadows, implicitly where we stand, and stretches across the still-warm field to the trees in the distance. It feels like the cusp of autumn, certainly the end of summer's lease. Levitan was master of the "mood landscape", which catch the understated beauty of provincial Russia with a tinge of melancholy. Close friend and favourite artist of Chekhov, he was dead months later at the age of 39. See the painting here

6 David Cox Rhyl Sands (1854)

A summer's day on the French coast, as painted by Boudin or Monet – that's what this picture looks like. And it never ceases to amaze that the subject is actually a day at the artist's favourite resort on the Welsh coast, that David Cox is English and that the picture was painted around 1855, before impressionism was a glimmer in the eye. The sweep of beach, so fresh and breezy it looks as though the sand might have caught in the paint, stretches away in that blurry miasma of light, air and liquid motion that so perfectly captures a day at the seaside. See the painting here

7 David Hockney A Bigger Splash (1967)

Which other living painter has created such a potent image of high summer, of a day so hot the only escape is to plunge into a cool pool? Hockney's swimmer has vanished into the depths, leaving only scattered water in his wake. It is a stunning diagram of 60s California, of blazing noon and pristine pool, of liquid blossoming into frozen chaos. "It took me two weeks," Hockney wrote, "to paint this event that lasts two seconds." Few works of British art have so completely entered the public imagination. See the painting here

8 Bridget Riley To a Summer's Day (1980)

Sky blue, rose, violet and sunshine yellow: stripes of summer colours twist this way and that, ribbon-like, across the horizontal canvas. The motion is somewhere between wave and shivering cornfield. And each fluctuation produces a slightly different optical hit and temperature. The whole painting vibrates in the mind and eye, which is very much the spirit of Riley's art, echoing the truth that nothing in the seen world ever stays still. Her title alludes to Shakespeare's sonnet, suggesting only a comparison with summer. Her picture presents an analogy with the exhilaration of summer. See the painting here

9 Paul Gauguin Tahitian Landscape (circa 1893)

Everyone knows the legend of the stockbroker turned artist who abandoned his family and took the banana boat to Tahiti for free food and sex, painting super-fertile scenes of sultry girls, primitive statues and strange fruit. But Gauguin also celebrated the landscape around him with an unrivalled intensity of colour that would inspire the fauves. Here, the path turns red-gold in the heat as it runs between viridian trees towards a mountain of sun-baked rock. Up close, the paint is inert, dry and pressed flat into the canvas. But stand a few inches away and the image bursts with brilliance and graphic power. See the painting above

10 Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin Basket With Wild Strawberries (1761)

Not just a heap of summer fruit, but a whole glowing mountain of pleasure. Chardin's great masterpiece of wild strawberries is full of latent heat, his paint mimicking the warm, soft flesh of the berries as miraculously as it conjures the silvery condensation on the glass of cold water. His brush smooths round and round the peach, round the cellophane-bright cherries, shaping the fruit with circular relish. Chardin loves what he paints and makes you love it too. Diderot called him "the Great Magician". Proust revered him for bringing inanimate objects to life "as in The Sleeping Beauty". See the painting here © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 16 2010

Bohemian rhapsody: Ida Kar

In pictures: Next year the National Portrait Gallery will host an exhibition of work by the photographer famous for her portraits of artists and writers

December 15 2010

Bridget Riley's circles run rings around us

Adrian Searle sees Bridget Riley reach a new artistic peak with her wall mural at the National Gallery, Composition with Circles 7

November 22 2010

Making waves

Bridget Riley's paintings writhe with life – and paired with works by Raphael, Seurat and Mantegna, they create a kind of encounter with time

The circles fill the wall. I cannot count them. There is not one that does not overlap another. There seems to be a system to the clusterings and overlappings, but I can't grasp that either. It is like a word on the tip of your tongue. I keep getting lost; my eye won't be still. Each circle seems to have a relation to the body that made it – the radius of each circle might be the distance from the elbow to the fingertip – but I am not sure. The white wall is flat and smooth, as if painting began with the wall itself, and the circles on it are almost perfect outlines, perhaps as broad as a woman's finger. I look for where the line – so even, so dispassionate – falters, some human touch. There. But that's not why it doesn't feel mechanical, or a trick. It's more than spinning plates, or a conjuror with his interlocking metal hoops.

Getting up close, each open "O" feels like an invitation. Something more than pattern is inscribed here. Very often, Bridget Riley's art blows me away. Sometimes she stirs me and makes me want to sit and look for hours, just to be here, in this light with this work. The huge drawing that fills the white wall of the Sunley Room at the National Gallery is the high point of Riley's exhibition. Never mind that we have walked past Mantegna, Raphael and Seurat, these touchstones of Riley's thinking, to get here. Suddenly they are forgotten. Riley's exhibition, which juxtaposes her pictures with work she has picked from the National Gallery collection, is more than a confrontation with her forebears, or even with herself. She brings together works from all periods of her own career. There is 1960s optical art and 1970s stripes, the complex recursive scimitar, flame and sail shapes, and compound curves of the works from the last two decades, with their close-toned saturated colour and compacted compositions. Yet this is less a lesson in history than one of presence, and presentness, of being in the now. The confrontation is really between ourselves and Riley's work.

You don't so much look at Bridget Riley's paintings as watch them, as their configurations and forms jostle and shift and change before you. They refuse to settle down and resist easy assimilation. At their best, her works seem alive. Can the same be said of Raphael's St Catherine (1507), with her dirty fingernails, and the wheel on which she was martyred, that imploring big-eyed heavenward look that reminds me of Goya's dog, drowning in quicksand? Can it be said of the mythologies and ancient histories in Mantegna, or of Seurat's working-class loafers beside the Seine on an imaginary Sunday in the late 19th century? Don't they all speak of an elsewhere?

Riley is 80 now. When she was making her application to Goldsmiths college in 1949 she made a copy of Jan van Eyck's Portrait of a Man, which is presumed to be a self-portrait. Weirdly, it looks not unlike Riley herself in old age, and stares across at the Raphael and the three Seurat studies for his Bathers at Asnières (1883). Somehow all these works – which are as distant from one another as they are from Riley's own art – seem to form a diagram of some sort, a cat's cradle in which you are trapped between different ideas of presence, and between things that have mattered in different ways to Riley throughout her long working life. It feels such a generous, intimate moment. I hesitate there.

Riley would probably see it differently, and ask us to look for concordances of rhythm and colour and enduring formal preoccupations. Putting it bluntly, I cannot think like her. When Riley tried to understand Bonnard's colour, and attempted to analyse Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie, she encountered her own difficulties, and couldn't follow their logic. Riley's thinking has a kind of clarity I lack, which is why I admire what she does – in her art and her writing – as much as I do. Encounters with difference are important and instructive. But when you look, you have to read the work your own way.

Mantegna's frieze-like 1505-6 Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome hangs in a heavy gilded frame on an oxblood wall opposite a wave-like Riley from 1965, which is unframed and hung on a white wall. It's a face-off, not just between very different kinds of art, but between display manners – clarity versus gloom, heaviness versus light, mustiness versus Modern. The attendant guarding this moment told me he'd counted 14 figures in the foreground of the Mantegna, and 14 ribbon-like stripes in the Riley. But we're not looking here for one-to-one relationships, between stripes and figures, or even between the Mantegna, with its linear depictions of drapery and processional composition, and Riley's optical flows and counterflows. You look at the figures in the Mantegna as though you were walking along a carved stone relief. The Riley opposite has its own kind of relief-like illusion of sculpted visual space, but it sings and flows in a way that the Mantegna doesn't, and never could.

As much as anything else, it's an encounter with time. Looking at Riley is also an encounter with the activity of your own perceptions: the way a curve will torque and twist, the bright penumbras flickering at the edge between two simultaneously contrasting colours, the way sensory overload forces attention away from one moment in a painting to another, the way colours wince and blink as your eye slides across a surface. It is an existential as much as a phenomenological encounter.

Riley knows her art history, and treats the past as though it were present in her art. In her work, she tries to make it new every time. She doesn't always succeed, but that's also why, and how, she's good. Her paintings, uninflected and dispassionate, without trace of a brushstroke, a human twitch or slither, are completed by assistants. Those foolish persons who demand the human touch of the artist are looking in the wrong place. It isn't the object that matters so much as the artist's thought, their sensibility and culture. It isn't the artist's hand that writhes with life. It's the art itself.

The stone-sucking system

How far her art might appear from painting's history. It seems so distinctively modern and of our time. All those Riley paintings appropriated for optical-art dresses and T-shirts, with their stark black-and-whites, and as the covers of LPs (The Faust Tapes from 1973 springs to mind) located her works as an adjunct to fashion. But Riley didn't have to escape fashion. Her work was strong enough to do that by itself. And being used as album artwork never did an artist any harm (think of Gerhard Richter and Sonic Youth), so long as the music was of the right order – not that I really imagine Richter much liking Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation (1988), or Riley getting off on Faust. But you never know with Riley. She has written as brilliantly and perceptively on Bruce Nauman's videos as she has on Cézanne.

Artists make their own connections across history, cultures and civilisations, and create their own lineages and narratives, however apparently far-fetched. Riley has said she admires the stone-sucking scene in Samuel Beckett's Molloy, in which Molloy has to invent a system whereby he can suck the stones in his pockets equally. Riley invents her own arcane systems but she surely also admires Beckett's humanity. It is locked in the language and revealed in the imagery, in the jokes as well as the form of Beckett's writing. And so it is with Mantegna or Raphael, as much as in Riley's own art.

So many contemporary art shows at the National Gallery have been depressing, let's-get-down-and-dirty with history affairs, self-conscious and embarrassing suck-ups to the old masters. Riley's show is something else.

Join the dots: See images from the show, with commentary by the National Gallery's Colin Wiggins, at © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 21 2010

Bridget Riley versus the Old Masters

A survey of her art draws parallels between her graphic style and classic works from the National Gallery's collection. Colin Wiggins joins the dots ...

Bridget Riley: Paintings and Related Work | Art review

National Gallery, London

The dazzle of sunlight on waves is nearly impossible to paint. Everything is in flux. Art has its fixed conventions, of course, from asterisks and zigzags to blank white patches that are supposed to get across the blinding effect of so much brilliance. But it always feels as if the vision is frozen. The play of light on water as a living phenomenon, scintillating, volatile, ever-changing – this is evoked as nowhere else in a painting by Bridget Riley.

What you see is a diamond-shaped array of discs on a square white canvas. These discs shift from pale grey to black, in the centre, and then gradually onwards to grey again. As the eye moves across the range, attracted by this supple furling and unfurling, each disc sends up its own bright after-image. Sequins of light rise, scatter and then fade. The permutations are beautiful, and they are endless.

Close up, what's more, each disc radiates a coldly glowing halo like a star. Stand further away and the painting seems to swell and shimmer. There are vast and elemental associations here; and there are tiny incidents on the scale of fireworks and spangled waves, and all sustained with little more than tonal variation and geometry. This painting does not depict light – it generates light in itself, and celebrates our perception of it. For all these visions are brought to mind by the movement of our own eyes.

Black to White Discs (1962) deserves its place in the National Gallery, and not just because Bridget Riley is rightly regarded as a great classicist. So many contemporary painters invited to exhibit here have displayed weak pastiches or homages to the old masters. Her work stands proud and original.

For Riley, the gallery has been "the book in which we learn to read", to adapt Cézanne's description of the Louvre. The first work here is her 1949 copy of Jan van Eyck's self-portrait; among the latest is Arcadia I, which appears suffused with the free blue air of Cézanne's Les Grandes Baigneuses, though here the reading has surely ended.

Indeed the curious effect of this tremendous show, in which Riley's paintings are displayed alongside permanent works from the collection, is that it makes you see past art anew. Look at her suave ripples and you suddenly realise how Mantegna makes his frieze of figures appear to move continuously in both directions. Look at Riley and you may better appreciate the abstract qualities of Raphael.

These old-new pairings soon give way to what is effectively a miniature retrospective – early op-art, 80s stripes, the recent parallel curves and steeply flaring diagonals, cross-cut by verticals. The main gallery is all Riley, and dominated by an immense mural composed of interlinking circles, approximately one metre across, in blazing black on white. Tightly plotted, yet open-ended, it sends the eye round and around in every direction, following the tracery, drawn by particular rhythms, distracted by sparking intersections; a movement as unpredictable as mercury.

The means are simple and perspicuous, but the effect is indefinable. No other painting in the National Gallery makes you more aware of the spherical form of the eye, of its gliding sweeps and rotations. The mural doesn't just describe them – though there is always the sense that Riley is painting perception itself – it actually orchestrates these limitless motions.

Nothing seen ever stands still, and not in her art either. Black and white vibrate and effervesce. Curves reach a pinnacle and then twist back on themselves. Sheaves of coloured stripes undulate and sway, each acting on the next in a chain reaction only just contained by the rectangle of the canvas. A blue in the middle makes the eye swing sideways, a hue at the edge glows just enough to stop the eye from exiting the painting.

For obviously there are limits. The canvas is a restricted plane, after all, and Riley's methods are highly refined, each developing from the one before. She quotes Stravinsky in the catalogue "My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action."

Her workings are all on show. Anyone so inclined can measure the stripes, deduce the colour principles that dictate atmosphere, motion and speed, perhaps even produce a diagram of the system of curves and verticals in her recent works. Which pink is it that creates that haze? Is it the mauve or the brown that subdues the mood? You could learn as much – more – about the character and behaviour of paint from looking at Riley as Raphael.

But all this precision is countered by the direct experience of the paintings (the potential of which, alas, is not available in reproduction). You can count the stripes, you may even be able to guess what constitutes a warp and a weft in her most dizzyingly complicated compositions, but once the eye is in there it loses hold of what is going on.

Take Arcadia 1, not just the masterpiece of this show but one of Riley's greatest works. Green and white and corn and a beautiful variation of cobalt, it is painted directly on the wall. The blue appears to act as a steadying backdrop, but then it leaps forward, taking part in the intersection of curves, verticals and diagonals that create a whole pageant of shapes: leaves, kites, twisting ribbons, the dipping hooves of merry-go-round horses. There is no stopping place, every element is designed, and combined, to send the eye flowing onwards.

What you find in this painting may involve music, ballet or ships in full sail. It might have something to do with the seasons, landscape, sunlight or water, as pastoral as the title suggests – common subjects of the National Gallery.

But this picture is not figurative. It depicts none of these things. So how does it conjure them all? What Riley offers is an infinite variety of optical experiences, of vitality, freedom, elation. Ultimately the painting appears to float free of the wall itself, nothing pinned down: as open to the eye as the imagination. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!