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June 29 2012

This week's new exhibitions in pictures

From Turner Monet Twombly in Liverpool to Edvard Munch in London, find out what's happening in art around the country

June 25 2012

Turner Monet Twombly: audio art tour

A new show at Tate Liverpool explores the similarities between the artists Turner, Monet and Twombly in the last years of their lives. Jonathan Jones gives an interactive audio tour

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June 19 2012

The great upstager: how Monet made Turner and Twombly look ordinary

Cy Twombly seems fake by comparison – and JMW Turner like a man who painted with custard. Jonathan Jones on Claude Monet's domination of an exhibition showcasing the three artists

The American painter Cy Twombly died last year at the height of his fame. He was 83, but recognition had come late; it was in his 60s and 70s that he reaped the rewards of a lifetime of making art, and, as the glory grew, created many of his most ambitious works. The comparisons grew more lavish until, by the end of his life, he was exhibiting alongside the classical master Nicolas Poussin. In Tate Liverpool's new exhibition, it is JMW Turner and Claude Monet who are lucky enough to share the honours.

Is it wise to short-circuit art history like this, blithely assuming that a famous name of our own time can hang alongside hallowed giants? It does not help that Tate Liverpool has made a slightly stale selection of Twombly's works. It seems like only yesterday that I was moved by one of his epic paintings about the lovers Hero and Leander, at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. Now I'm having to weep for Leander by the Mersey, too. Twombly's paintings, inspired by the myth about a young man who drowns while swimming to his love across the Hellespont, are here juxtaposed with Turner's 1837 painting of the same story. In Turner's treatment, lofty temples and impassioned figures are eclipsed by a boiling, glistening sea. This has an honesty and rugged complexity that makes Twombly's misty colours seem sentimental.

Twombly's finest painting here is Orpheus, from 1979, which raises the troubling possibility that his famous late years were in fact a period of decline. On a white canvas, a huge handwritten O makes an eerily beautiful black drawing. Each letter of the name Orpheus shrinks in size: as you read the name, it is as if Orpheus fades away into his own song.

Twombly died with the reputation of a living Old Master. This exhibition releases him from that burden by revealing some massive flaws, especially when you set him beside Monet. The curator has hung some splashy, multicoloured splurges next to ravishing Monet garden scenes. Never work with children, animals, or Claude Monet. The quiet Frenchman is a great upstager. If he makes you worry about Twombly's sincerity, he can also make the marvellous Turner look like a man who painted with tobacco juice and custard. The two Ts are theatrical and self-consciously grand, painting for history. Then along comes Monet, with a painting of water lilies in a reflected glowing void – and his simple beauty seems more profound and suggestive than any amount of mythology.

Twombly remains a fascinating artist, but this show makes too many assumptions about his claim to greatness. (It also misses something about him – humour, perhaps, or sex.) Near Twombly's Four Seasons hangs an utterly scintillating flower painting by Monet. It seems to have more colours in one spot of its surface than Twombly can muster across an entire epic. You do not need the Hellespont to drown in: Monet's pond is deep enough. © 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

June 15 2012

Cy Twombly's late works alongside Turner and Monet

A threefold show of sensuality and symphonic emotion at Tate Liverpool, plus openings of work by Yoko Ono, Bruce Nauman and Andy Warhol – all in your quality weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the Week: Turner, Monet, Twombly

The death of Cy Twombly in 2011 deprived the world of a mighty painter. Colour in art is the language of feeling. Twombly spoke that language with a langorous drawl.

Born in Lexington, Virginia, his sensibility seems steeped in the melancholy of the American south. That poetic quality was sharpened in New York and matured in Italy. As a young man, together with his close friend Robert Rauschenberg, he confronted the Abstract Expressionist style that flourished in 1950s New York with intimate, earthy references to real life. The result was a richly allusive way of painting which flourished after he settled in Rome and immersed himself in the history of the Eternal City.

This exhibition takes very late works by Twombly and compares them with the late paintings of JMW Turner and Claude Monet. This is a tough test for Twombly's reputation. Will his art truly stand up to these masters?

Monet's late works are overwhelming. His waterlilies hang suspended in time and space, in paintings that melt into abstraction. Turner too became precociously abstract with age. So this is an exhibition about the nature of abstraction – about where it meets the stuff of life.

I expect Twombly to be right at home in this company. The exhibition anyway ought to be an incendiary nocturne of sensuality and symphonic emotion.
· Tate Liverpool, from 22 June

Also opening

Yoko Ono
One of the most original and daring artists of the 1960s, whose performances break barriers between artist and onlooker.
• Serpentine Gallery, London, from 19 June

Bruce Nauman
A founder of the postmodern in art. Nauman is represented here by his work Days, a meditation on time, comparable with the works of composer Steve Reich.
• ICA, London, from 19 June

Andy Warhol
Is there really more that is new and exciting to reclaim in the art of Andy Warhol, or is he perhaps due some dead time?
• Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, from 20 June

Dead Standing Things
Still life under Dutch influence makes for a fresh glimpse of British art in this special display.
• Tate Britain

Masterpiece of the Week

Charles Collins, Lobster on a Delft Dish, 1738

This gorgeous still life with its shiny red lobster takes us to the precise, keen-eyed, and passionately materialistic world of the 18th century Enlightenment and is a gem of the Tate collection.

Image of the week

Five things we learned this week

Art doesn't have to be visible to be wonderful

There's a greyhound with a painted pink leg on the loose in Kassel, Germany

Renzo Piano's Shard is "not about priapismo"

Tracey Emin would have liked to be taught by Louise Bourgeois

How Rachel Whiteread battled with the elements while making her Whitechapel frieze

And finally

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June 08 2012

Turner, Monet, Twombly – a trio of sublime painters

Tate Liverpool's forthcoming show, at first sight an unlikely grouping, reveals a web of affinities that gives a new aspect to each

JMW Turner may be the most familiar of all British artists, but his allure remains so great that curators are on a permanent mission to find new angles from which to view him. The current trend is compare and contrast. In 2009 Tate Britain staged Turner and the Masters which looked at the way Turner measured himself against earlier painters. Turner in the Light of Claude, which has just closed at the National Gallery examined his engagement with the great 17th-century landscapist Claude Lorrain. The latest manifestation of our obsession with the man is Turner, Monet, Twombly: Later Paintings which opens at Tate Liverpool this month. This exhibition, however, scrolls forward and looks at the artist in company with his successors rather than predecessors.

It is at first sight an unlikely grouping: while the links between the romantic Turner and the impressionist Monet are well documented, Cy Twombly, the 20th/21st-century American painter of pale, abstract calligraphic canvases, seems to have little affinity with either of them. The exhibition though reveals a web of affinities that gives a new aspect to each. This is not a study of master and pupils or indeed of direct painterly influences but of shared themes and sensibilities. It is also about a long and unbroken painterly tradition: between them, Turner (1775-1851), Monet (1840-1926) and Twombly (1928-2011) form a three-generational strand that runs through nearly 250 years of western art.

At one point the third painter of the trio was going to be Mark Rothko, until the full extent of Twombly's links with the older artists became clear. Before Twombly died last year, the exhibition's curator, Jeremy Lewison, had time to meet him just once in the planning stages of the show. Despite neither Turner or Monet featuring in the artist's previous interviews or writings it transpired that he owned an autographed letter from each of them as part of his collection of artefacts from artists he particularly admired. Twombly had already long identified himself with them.

The similarities Twombly saw and that this exhibition makes explicit include what Lewison lists as: "An interest in allusion and metaphor, a preoccupation with mortality, a liking for atmospheric effects and an engagement with the tradition of the sublime." On a less elevated note, all three painters were also the victims of vituperative reviews and critical miscomprehension during their careers.

If these correspondences suggest that the resulting pictures are gloomy the opposite is true. In later life all three painters had the self-confidence of old age and were not only still experimenting but producing some of the most radical work of their careers. They may have revisited the subjects of their earlier paintings – landscape, fire, water, the seasons – but they did so with urgent vigour. As Twombly put it: "I've found when you get old you must return to certain things in the beginning, or things you have a sentiment for or something. Because your life closes up in so many ways or doesn't become as flexible or exciting or whatever you want to call it." As age took its toll on their physical power all three men found their flexibility and excitement in paint instead.

Indeed the proddings of mortality, of time and loss, memory and desire, spurred each of them on: between 1829 and his death in 1851 Turner produced 240 paintings; from 1897 to 1926 Monet made 482; and in the last 12 years of his life Twombly painted more than 70 (compared with 58 in the previous 18 years). The length of the past and the shortness of the future hit all of them in a rush. It was not enough though: Monet wrote at 78 that "I think I shall die without ever having arrived at something to my liking."

For all the airiness of their themes, however, the three men were never painters of nothingness. They each remained faithful to their chosen motifs. Turner may have complained that "Atmosphere is my style, indistinctness my fault" but, for example, the nebulous late canvases that so mystified and sometimes outraged his contemporaries, were not just experimental washes of sky, water and land but paintings that were not yet paintings and which often became the basis for fully formed works.

Because there was a large dose of the showman in his nature, he would arrive at the Varnishing Days before the annual Royal Academy Summer Exhibition with one of these rudimentary pictures and totally transform it. The days had been instituted so that exhibiting artists could make minor tweaks to their pictures to take into account the rooms, light and paintings surrounding them. Turner called them "painting days", however, and used them not to adjust but to transform his pictures and also to prove to himself and younger artists that he could still do it. It was, said one contemporary, like watching "a magician, performing his incantations in public". The results would be recognisably Turnerean, although arrived at in a new way.

Because he was incapable of working from imagination, the huge scale and near-abstract qualities of Monet's waterlilies were a case of the painter settling on a motif through which to work out feelings of grief. He had first painted waterlilies in 1899 after the death of his friend Alfred Sisley and his own step-daughter Suzanne, and he returned to them later in response to emotional hardship. The death of his son Jean; the growth of cataracts in his eyes; the death of his second wife, Alice; the outbreak of the first world war, all were dealt with by painting these watery scenes traditionally associated with mourning and calm. So fixated had he become that when he left for a painting trip to Venice Alice wrote "What a miracle that he has left his garden! How happy I am!"

Twombly too turned to arcadia with a series of huge paintings of peonies sharing the title Blooming. These rich, blowsy flowers from which paint dribbles in rivulets are a metaphor not just for transience but embody too the sensuality of life. In his last decade Twombly said he worked "in waves because I am impatient … I take liberties I wouldn't have taken before" and the paintings are the proof. Exemplified by his extraordinary Camino Real (2010), they show a new interest in colour. They are pictures of supersaturated shades – inky reds, livid oranges, fizzing greens – so unlike the tonal politeness of his earlier pale work.

Elsewhere the links between the three are more exact. Monet first encountered Turner's work when he came to London with Camille Pissarro in 1871 to escape the Paris Commune. The pictures he saw in the South Kensington Museum – now the V&A – made a deep impact and engendered a sense of emulation. Some historians have suggested that the founding work of impressionism, Impression, Sunrise (1872-3), was painted as a direct result. Turner was not an impressionist avant la lettre but Monet's Thames paintings and especially the series depicting the Houses of Parliament, painted between 1900 and 1905, were undoubtedly a response to the Englishman's own love of the river and his experiments with atmospheric effects and shifting light. Paintings of Waterloo Bridge by both artists hang side by side in the exhibition. The idea of studying one motif under changing conditions was something Monet used again in his other series showing Rouen Cathedral and haystacks.

Turner and Monet also shared an immunity to physical danger while painting. Turner claimed to have been lashed to the mast of a ship called the Ariel in order to witness the inside of a storm for a picture. Monet meanwhile nearly lost his life painting the cliffs near Etretat on the Normandy coast. He had climbed down to be able to paint the Manneporte rock arch when he was taken unawares by a wave: "It threw me against the cliff and I was tossed about in its wake along with my materials! My immediate thought was I was done for, as the water dragged me down."

Twombly was less daring: "Mainly I sit and look", he said, "I can't get on a ladder all the time, it hurts." Where he most resembled Turner was in the frequency with which he dealt with myth and history. Turner's art is full of references to antiquity – from Dido to Ulysses – and also to contemporary events, whether it was the burning of the Houses of Parliament or the scandal of a slave ship captain throwing his dying cargo overboard.

Twombly used myth not as illustrative but allusive. By naming a canvas "Bacchus" or "Orpheus" he didn't so much imply a narrative but use the resonance of the name and its residual impact in the viewer's mind to give an extra depth. He invoked a sense of nostalgia for a played-out civilisation. He too could nod to contemporary events though: his sculpture Thermopylae, referring to the battle between the Greeks and the invading Persians in 480BC, was made in 1991, the time of the first gulf war. He gave the title Lepanto, the name of the last great sea battle in 1571 between Christians and Ottomans, to a series of pictures in 2001, the year of 9/11.

Twombly described himself as a "Romantic symbolist" and that could, at a stretch, be applied to Turner and Monet too. All of them used boats, for example, to express man's passage through life, whether it be Turner's wave-tossed sailing ships, Monet's rowing boat at rest on a still lily pond, or the one-way journey of Twombly's Egyptian funerary barques.

"Meaning", however, in all three artists is always elusive and mutable and this exhibition does not focus on what the symbols represent but rather on their painterly affiliation – the shared poetry, the raging against the dying of the light, and the fact that the pictures invite a psychological reading. All three were painters of immersive canvases, works without borders that draw the viewer in to a rich and often melancholic world. Above all perhaps their pictures give the tangible sense that Turner and Monet would have agreed with Twombly's definition of the painter's motivation being all about "the forming of the image; the compulsive action of becoming". These were artists determined to the very end to discover just what painting could do and who went about it, across the centuries, in remarkably similar ways. © 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

March 30 2012

Art weekly

Late-Stuart decadence laid bare, and a new show exploring the workings of the mind – all in your favourite weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the Week: The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned

The decadence of the Restoration is part of our national folklore. After the 17th century English revolution overthrew and beheaded Charles I, the Puritans tried to impose their fundamentalist theocracy. But it never took hold of popular culture, and after the death of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, the son of the executed king was welcomed back as Charles II. In his reign, the people got their maypoles back while at court, the likes of Nell Gwyn participating in a culture of robust hedonism that buried the memory of Roundhead misery.

That's the legend – but how true is it? Absolutely all true, according to this exhibition reconstructing the lives of Charles II's mistresses through art and biographical documents. Glamorous portraits by Peter Lely and his contemporaries make the saucy world of Samuel Pepys's diaries visible. Highlights include galleries of "court beauties" by Lely and Sir Godfrey Kneller, as well as some of the earliest British nudes. This is a nice way to mark the diamond jubilee, revelling in how much fun the monarchy has brought to British history – sometimes quite naughty fun.

Hampton Court Palace from 5 April until 30 September

Also opening


That's right, an exhibition of brains, including that of Albert Einstein.

Wellcome Collection, London NW1, until 17 June

Damien Hirst

The shark, the flies, the cow, the controversy. Will Tate Modern survive the hoo-ha? It's all "con art" for some. Gets you going, though.

Tate Modern, London SE1, from 4 April until 9 September

Remote Control

Television gets its own show – about how artists, from Richard Hamilton to Simon Denny, represent and use it.

ICA, London, from 2 April until 10 June

Animal Inside Out

The anatomy of animals laid bare as natural history takes on Hirst.

Natural History Museum, London SW7, from 6 April until 16 September

Masterpiece of the Week

The Virgin and Child Before a Firescreen, follower of Robert Campin, c1440

In the waning middle ages, an unknown painter who must have been taught by the Netherlandish master Robert Campin imagines the Virgin Mary breastfeeding Christ at home. It is a comfortable home, a vision of the Virgin's palace domesticated to delight rich burgher merchants. On a wooden settle are rich red silk cushions. A round firescreen of latticed cane mutes the heat from a roaring hearth, and also serves as Mary's halo – a brilliant conflation of the spiritual and the material. Through the window, with its meticulously detailed wooden shutter, a townscape with tall houses and a church spire transports us to a cosy medieval community. Mary looks down at her infant, while beside her is a richly illuminated Book of Hours. The home made holy, the divine domesticated.

National Gallery, London

Image of the week

What we learned this week

What famous photographers class as their worst shots ever

Why Anthony Caro is steeling the show

From tonz of swagger to babysitting dogs, what Gillian Wearing thinks the signs of the times are

Even more about the best spring artworks

What a Freudian slip really looks like


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March 29 2012

Natural talent: Claude Monet's Le Printemps

Jonathan Jones is taking us through his favourite seasonal artworks. Today it's the turn of Monet, with an 1886 study of sitters amid greenery that prefigures the poetic reverie of the water lily paintings

October 14 2011

Exhibition for 'Monet of Manchester' who inspired Lowry

Adolphe Valette, little known French impressionist who painted striking landscapes on grimly industrial Manchester

He could easily be nicknamed "the Manchester Impressionist" or, at a squeeze, ''the Monet of Manchester" but the truth is that most people have not heard of him, let alone seen his striking landscapes of a grimly damp but dynamic and beautiful industrial city.

The Lowry arts centre in Salford hopes to help change that by staging the most comprehensive overview of Adolphe Valette's work to date.

Quite why the Saint-Etienne born Frenchman ended up living in and painting early 20th century Manchester is something of a mystery. But as a result, he not only produced truly fine work but helped invigorate and hone the skills of young artists, including LS Lowry.

"He really deserves wider recognition," said the show's curator Cécilia Lyon. "In his paintings of Manchester he really caught the dynamism, the atmosphere, the pollution, the industry – there is everything in these paintings."

The show was formally opened by Bernard Emié, the French ambassador, at a private view on Thursday. His presence was significant, said Lyon. "It is a very important sign of recognition for one of their painters which they have overlooked for a very long time," she said. "Valette is better known in the UK than France."

One reason for his comparative obscurity is that he did not work in London or Paris. Nor was he very good at or interested in self-promotion.

"Even now, an artist is only celebrated when the critics in a capital have given their verdict," said Lyon. "Also Valette was an extremely modest man, he never searched for recognition."

Valette brought the excitement of impressionism to Manchester and taught it to students at the Municipal School of Art, All Saints – now part of Manchester Metropolitan University.

His most significant pupil was Lowry who called him "a real teacher … a dedicated teacher". Lowry added: "I cannot over-estimate the effect on me of the coming into this drab city of Adolphe Valette, full of French impressionists, aware of everything that was going on in Paris."

The show has work by both artists and suggests that it was surely Lowry following Valette in bringing to life so magnificently the industry of Manchester and the north-west.

Claire Stewart, curator of the Lowry collection, said: "He brought all this direct knowledge of what artists in France had been doing to Manchester and it invigorated his students. They loved him as a teacher."

The show, with around 100 works, covers all periods of Valette's life so there are his best known Manchester-scapes from the Manchester City Art Gallery as well as loans from Chatsworth house and light-filled paintings from his time back in France living in rural Beaujolais.

Most of his works are privately owned and earlier this year the Lowry Centre appealed for people to come forward if they had a Valette on their walls. They got around 50 positive responses and nine newly uncovered works are included in the show.

There are also preparatory sketches for works still lost such as Manchester Street in Fog.

Adolphe Valette: A pioneer of impressionism in Manchester runs at The Lowry, 15 October-29 January © 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

October 12 2011

Museum of masterpieces

From Kristin Scott Thomas's Parisian scene to Philip Pullman's much-loved Monet, celebrities and big names in the art world talk us through their favourite works

August 19 2011

The people's painters: what makes a work of art popular?

Monet, Van Gogh, and Klimt are the favourite artists among virtual art collectors. But before you turn your nose up at these obvious choices, let's consider their mass appeal

What makes a painting popular? As I write, the social media-style art site Artfinder lists the top five works collected by its users as follows:

1. Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise

2. Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night

3. Gustav Klimt, The Kiss

4. Gustave Caillebotte, The Parquet Planers

5. Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave

It's interesting that popularity in this case depends on what people add to their online collection. I have always believed that artistic taste varies wildly between works we might find challenging and stimulating in a gallery, and those we'd love to own. Putting a work of art in your digital collection is not quite the same as buying the actual painting – but it means you want to have it around, at least on screen. Collecting a work of art, even virtually, means you can live with it.

So it is not surprising that the Artfinder top five may strike some as conservative. Or a little bit obvious. After all, the only surprising name here is Gustave Caillebotte, whose enigmatic, arguably homoerotic image of working men is a fascinating treasure of the Musée d'Orsay.

But popularity always is obvious. And it is healthy. On the whole, the world's favourite works of art are the world's best works of art. Monet deserves his number one slot. He is an artist you don't find a lot of cooler-than-thou art theory books being written about – because he is popular. But there are few experiences in art as rapturous as losing yourself in a Monet. What is retardataire about the sensory and psychological journeys into which his paintings lure the beholder?

Van Gogh, the visionary, and Klimt, the hedonist, are two more artists whose popularity is heartening. It is a great posthumous gift to Van Gogh to be loved by so many when he was so lonely in life. And Klimt, however many snobs try to do him down, is a mystic priest of love.

Japanese art was loved by Van Gogh and his contemporaries, so Hokusai confirms that the mood here is early modernist.

Perhaps what it reveals is that the most popular art, that hits most people most deeply, is the art of the early modernist era from the 1860s to the 1900s, when new visions changed painting forever while still drawing on its long global history. It was a golden moment. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 09 2011

Museum peace: Japan's Naoshima island

The "art island" of Naoshima is dotted with calming concrete installations a world away from Tokyo's frenetic pace. Pico Iyer enjoys a moment of serenity

Japanese cool has, for decades now, been associated with everything fast, hi-tech and jangly; it's the TVs on taxi dashboards, the control-panels on toilets, the underground universes around major train stations that keep buzzing even after a natural calamity that stunned the rest of us. And if you're looking for a world-defining Japanese art form, you're more likely to turn these days to anime and manga than to any of the country's classical painters or mock-European forms. So it was shocking for me to go to the sleepy, faraway island of Naoshima – now turned into an "art island" rich with museums and installations – and find the coolest thing I've seen in my 24 years of living in Japan. It was, in some ways, the reverse of technology.

The structures around Naoshima are super-hi-tech, 23rd-century constructions of grey reinforced concrete, with every next-generation innovation; but they take you back to the principles of spareness, simplicity and concentration that graced the haiku, brush-and-ink paintings and Noh dramas of old. Where technology makes you speedy, up-to-the-minute and all-over-the-place, Naoshima so calms, grounds and slows you that you feel as if you've stepped into a meditative shrine.

The journey to the old fishermen's haunt in the Seto Naikai, or Inland Sea, is like a journey through the past. I set out from my home in Nara on a brilliant late-autumn afternoon, the trees blazing red, gold and radiant yellow all around me. To get to the remote island involved a bus, a train, another train to Kyoto, a bullet-train to Okayama and then another local train, a slow ferry and a bus before, five hours later, I arrived at Naoshima's Benesse House, the showpiece hotel where I was staying. With each change of vehicle, modernity seemed to thin out a little and I was closer to the old. By the time I left Okayama, I was in the middle of a much earlier Japan of unmanned ticket offices and deserted piers. The faces were simpler here – two local girls, swathed in grey earmuffs, had the countenances of Noh masks – and there were few signs in English.

The train from Okayama clanked along, the opposite of a bullet train, stopping at an empty platform every two or three minutes, and as we inched past, I could see regiments of uniform houses, with grey tiled roofs, bunched against a hillside, smoke rising from the rice-paddies in front of them. By the time we arrived at the ferry town of Uno, I could hardly recall the Godiva coffee-shops and high-rises of Kyoto.

When I reached Naoshima itself, I began to feel as if I'd stepped out of time altogether, in a world so deep in the past – and so far ahead in the future – that I lost all sense of when I was. Benesse House is a stylish and sleek construction, with Bose CD players on every desk – but no TVs or internet reception – and each room individually designed by the self-taught Osaka architect Tadao Ando. Its corridors are full of original contemporary canvasses and eerie light sculptures projecting classic Japanese landscapes through the near-dark. And the effect of all the modern art is, oddly, to take you back to the transfixing simplicity of an old ryokan, or traditional inn, where simply watching the sun make stripes across the tatami mats, or figures cast silhouettes against the paper windows, becomes so absorbing you never want to leave your room.

After the Benesse Company, a publishing firm centered in Okayama, took over the southern half of the island in 1985, working with the then-mayor Chikatsugu Miyake, it called in the minimalist Ando and invited him to design a huge swatch of natural park to be an international centre of art. Rising to the opportunity – surely any architect's dream – he opened Benesse House in 1992, then created a Benesse House Museum (with hotel rooms on the second and third floors) up the road, and then built what is now known as the Oval, a James Bondian series of six more rooms for guests on the top of a mountain behind the museum, reached by private monorail. In 2004, he completed the Chichu Museum which is a 20-minute walk away.

In all my 50 years I've never seen a place as pure and elevating as the Chichu, and it speaks for the pristine futurism that makes Naoshima such a unique place. There are five major pieces – a set of Monet water lilies, a large chamber with a reflecting 6ft granite sphere at its centre by the American land artist Walter de Maria and three light installations by the American James Turrell. Rather than observing these pieces, though, you more or less inhabit them. In one Turrell piece – Open Field – you walk into a room flooded with an unearthly orange light. Then, one at a time, you step up some stairs and into another large room suffused in soothingly deep blue light. Turn around, and the people in the room behind look like art works. Turn back, and you're in a kind of dream state.

Ten minutes walk from the Chichu, I came upon a new museum, opened only last year, to show off the works of the Korean-born Lee Ufan, again in a tall, grey, windowless Ando construction in a field. One of the pieces there, a single rock placed in front of a great earth-coloured slab, with a light shining on it, looked like a moving representation of a figure praying. Walking back from there towards Benesse House, I passed 88 buddhas along the side of the road made from industrial waste. A huge cube sat on a beach, and a "Cultural Melting Bath" hot tub on the cliffs above. At one point, on the silent road framed by glowing trees and the Inland Sea, I realised I could hear water lapping against the shore from two different beaches, each in a different key.

The protected spaces and air of discerning clarity mark every detail in Naoshima. There are no pachinko parlours on the small island of 3,600 people, no video arcades, no clamorous department stores. Cars are rare and you can walk from one site to the very farthest in about an hour. If you look out to sea, you can watch the fishing boats slowly drifting to one of the quiet neighbouring islands; when you head into one of the museums, sometimes slipping off your shoes before entering a room, you're in a prayerful hush again.

While Benesse House is clearly the classic place to stay, budget-minded travellers can sleep in one of 10 Mongolian yurts on the beach 10 minutes' walk away, for less than £30 a night, or in various family-run minshuku, or guest houses, among the island's villages.

In one 18th-century village, Honmura, 30 minutes' walk from Benesse House, six old wooden houses showcase the most contemporary of modern art works. Everywhere you look in Naoshima, the locals, and visiting artists, are coming up with new projects. There's the "I ❤ YU" bathhouse in the port town of Miyanoura – where you bathe surrounded by a zany, eclectic "scrapbook" of work, including an aeroplane cockpit and a collage of erotica – and the Miaow Shima café in Honmura where you can sip coffee among a dozen sleeping cats.

Naoshima is not like anything in the west, but more an ultra-cool reference and homage to what Japan has been doing all along, in cutting away distraction and using frames and light and silence to still the mind and train one in attention.

And at a time when the modern nation has absorbed such a series of shocks, and is thinking about what grounds and steadies it, it makes more sense than ever to seek out this forward-looking shrine to the past.


Doubles at Benesse House (00 81 87 892 2030; benesse-artsite.jpen/benessehouse) cost from £246 per night. Yurts on the beach (Tsutsuji-so Lodge, 00 81 87 892 2838; cost £28 per person per night. To get to Naoshima, take the bullet-train to Okayama and a local train to Uno, followed by a 20-minute ferry ride

Pico Iyer is the author of The Lady and The Monk, a novel about the first 24 years he has spent living in Japan © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 11 2011

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

May 04 2011

Claude Monet's garden at Giverny hires English gardener

Giverny garden in Normandy, inspirational home of fabled Impressionist hires Englishman James Priest as head gardener

An English gardener has landed one of the most prestigious jobs in French horticulture. James Priest, 53, has been appointed head gardener at Giverny in Normandy, the former home of the Impressionist artist Claude Monet, who painted his waterlilies series there.

The appointment means that Priest, from Maghull, Merseyside, becomes a direct successor to Monet, who looked after every aspect of the garden until his death in 1926.

Priest, who qualified at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, said: "Monet is the factor that brings everyone here. It's an Alice in Wonderland Monet world and you have to capture the imagination of all these nationalities who visit. Monet would paint in layers and I think he made his garden in the same way."

Mr Priest takes over from Gilbert Vahe, the head gardener who was largely responsible for restoring the garden in the late 1970s from an overgrown wilderness to its former glory.

Priest was hired initially for three years but has ended up staying for 17. He will take over on 1 June. He first saw the work of the Impressionists when he visited Paris as an 18-year-old student "I like art with emotion. I work a lot on emotions; my gardens must speak to people of all nationalities."

Monet started to create his flower-filled garden when he moved to Giverny in 1883, refining it over 43 years. He originally planted flowers so that he could pick bunches to have something to paint indoors on rainy days.

Some of his most famous paintings were his huge canvases of the waterlilies on the small lake he had made, with its green, Japanese-style footbridge draped with wisteria in the spring. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 06 2011

Erasing Monet's muse

A rare surviving painting by Renoir of the French impressionist's first wife is going on sale

A rare example of the early work of Pierre Auguste Renoir goes on sale for £9.2m this month, poignantly recalling the life of one of French impressionism's most important models and a bitter story of jealousy.

Camille Doncieux is captured in the painting Femme cueillant des Fleurs (Woman Picking Flowers) standing in a meadow at St Cloud, near Paris, clutching flowers with a parasol lying at her feet. She was model, lover and eventually wife of Claude Monet, whose early paintings of her gave him his first taste of commercial and critical success.

But when Camille died young after a long illness following the birth of their second child, the woman who replaced her in Monet's life was determined to obliterate her memory.

Alice, Monet's second wife, was consumed by jealousy of her departed rival and destroyed all photographic records of Camille. Only one photo is known to have survived. Taken in Holland in 1871, it was kept in a private collection about which Alice knew nothing.

Will Bennett, spokesman for the European Fine Art Fair, through which the Renoir is being sold in Maastricht, said: "This is a fantastic example of an early impressionist painting which has been off the market for many years. What makes it all the more compelling is the story that lies behind this portrait of Camille and the tale of jealousy towards her by Monet's second wife."

Camille was 18 when Monet, seven years her senior, first met her. Introduced by Frédéric Bazille, with whom he shared a studio, Monet was captivated above all by her eyes and asked her to pose in The Picnic, an ambitious large-format figurative painting. Renoir and Monet were lifelong friends, often setting up their easels side by side. It was not surprising that Renoir also painted Monet's beautiful consort.

Despairing of finishing The Picnic in time for display at the Salon, Monet instead submitted a full-length portrait of Camille, which drew admiring comparisons with the work of Edouard Manet. The painting sold for 800 francs, an astonishing sum for a young, unknown artist in 1865. A year later Camille gave birth to their son Jean. It wasn't until June 1870 that they married in a civil ceremony in Paris.

Monet's scandalised family, who had withdrawn their support for the struggling artist, boycotted the wedding. Fellow impressionist Gustave Courbet was one of the witnesses. For the rest of their marriage Monet's financial circumstances were precarious, but in 1876 he met the mercurial collector Ernest Hoschedé and his wife Alice, with whom he is presumed to have commenced an affair. Monet painted at their lavish Château de Rottembourg in Montgeron, south-east of Paris. But Ernest lost everything and fled to Belgium to escape his debts. In 1878, Monet invited the impoverished Hoschedés to move in with his family in Vétheuil.

Ernest Hoschedé started working for the newspaper Le Voltaire, spending most of his time in Paris, leaving Alice and the family in Vétheuil. Camille's health deteriorated – the cause has never been fully explained although theories include the after-effects of abortions. In August 1879, Camille was close to death and a priest was called to administer the last rites and sanction her marriage to Monet. She died five days later, aged 32.

Monet painted her on her deathbed, overcome by grief. The painting remained in his possession for most of his life. "I caught myself watching her tragic forehead," he wrote to a friend after Camille's death, "almost mechanically observing the sequence of changing colours that death was imposing on her rigid face. Blue, yellow, grey and so on … my reflexes compelled me to take unconscious action in spite of myself."

After Camille's death, rumours began to spread about Monet's relationship with Alice. Ernest Hoschedé did not even return to his family that Christmas and in January 1880, Le Gaulois newspaper announced a mock funeral, reporting the "grievous loss" of Claude Monet who was living in Vétheuil with his "charming wife" – Alice Hoschedé. The article said that Monet supported his former patron, Ernest Hoschedé, who was financially bankrupt and living in the artist's studio in Paris.

Renoir's painting of Camille is being sold by the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, which is based in Williamstown, Massachusetts. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 19 2011

Paul Cézanne at 172: still life and landscapes run deep

Google's Paul Cézanne tribute is deserved. He painted with his mind in works of beauty and stillness that simmer with emotion

Google is standing up for high art. Today's Google doodle transforms the familiar logo into a painting by Paul Cézanne, the most serious and profound of French 19th-century painters, who happens to be 172 years old today. Good for him, and good for Google for paying homage to one of art's true heroes.

The search engine is not the first to pay fulsome tribute to Cézanne. The greatest artist of the 20th century, Picasso, acknowledged how much he owed to this painter of flinty landscapes, dazzling still life arrangements, and taciturn portraits. How can a painter of such still and rustic beauties be central to the story of modern art, as Picasso insisted he was? Because Cézanne stared so intensely at nature he began to take it apart in his mind, to anatomise it, theorise it, on long hot afternoons in his studio in Aix-en-Provence and then reassemble the elements of reality in paintings that are pixellated constellations of insights, recognitions, memories and flashes of desire or rage. Cézanne said of his contemporary Monet that he was only an eye (but what an eye, he conceded). The implied contrast is that where Monet was a mere eye reflecting nature, Cézanne paints with his mind and his psyche. Instead of seeing through his art we see his art itself. In its feints, leaps of intuition, and surrenders – an element of the unfinished is crucial to his later work, and it was through Cézanne that people learned to cherish earlier unfinished masterpieces like Michelangelo's Prisoners – we encounter the difficult, complex, and irrational processes of his mind making sense of the world it finds itself in.

Not that Cézanne is some cold, philosophical artist. His problem was not a lack of feeling but an excess of it. The son of a wealthy Provençal banker, and a school friend of the future novelist Zola, he set out to become an artist in Paris but found it very hard going: his early works, ignored or mocked by contemporaries, dwell on dark themes of violence and angry male sexuality. Zola portrays his friend, barely disguised, in his novel The Masterpiece as a figure of avant garde madness and abject failure. It was a kind of miracle – helped by inherited wealth – that the troubled Cézanne was able to conquer his demons by standing out in the southern sun, painting a mountain, or dwelling in suspended desire on the roundness of fruits in a bowl.

Beauty, stillness – but no calm. The fascination of Cézanne lies in the overwhelming emotion that threatens to explode at any second from the white rocks of a hillside, the steely imperturbability of a peasant's face. He is the first modernist and, as Picasso knew, the most liberating. An eye, and so much more. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 22 2010

Why Gerhard Richter towers above today's artists

The German artist paints what he sees in photographs – and what he sees is extraordinary. But don't tell him I said that

Gerhard Richter is a great artist. I don't mean that lightly. The German painter is sublime, profound, and authoritative in a way that invites high-flown comparisons and invocations of art history. And yet, his own utterances on art would suggest he finds such hyperbole repulsive, and is suspicious of anything that romanticises the creative act.

I like sometimes just to wander through Tate Modern. The unpredictable nature of its displays means you never quite know what will hold and fascinate you. Anyway, I roamed into the room that contains nothing but Richter's series of abstract paintings entitled Cage (1-6) and it was like going from a claustrophobic interior into an expansive parkland where distant city lights flicker on half-frozen ponds. These paintings are liberating and time-freezing, sombre and ecstatic.

Richter painted these six three-metre-square paintings in 2006, in homage to the composer and prophet of chance, John Cage. As that implies, they reject pompous ideas of the painter as designer, or the abstractionist as seer. The language I have used to describe them already implies a grandeur they eschew – for they are works of random experiment and play, not intense meditation.

A courageous tendency in modern art finds beauty not in the depths, but the surfaces of things. Its most succinct proponent was Andy Warhol. Richter, too, believes that what you see is what you get, but what he sees is extraordinary. Photography allows him to see events he did not witness – such as the deaths in prison of members of the Baader-Meinhof gang. His series of black and white history paintings derived from photographs of their prison cells, faces and bodies look, with the silent intensity of the painter, through the images towards the events they record. He wonders, we wonder.

In fact, Richter combines a Warholian openness with the powerful questioning gaze of a disciple of Cézanne. In his portraits and landscapes Cézanne questions, ceaselessly, the nature of his own looking. Who is that man there, in the mirror? His self-portrait in the National Gallery is fraught with this direst of questions. Richter inhabits, more fully than most, or more honestly than most, the photographic age, the digital age. He assimilates vast quantities of data. He paints what he sees, but what he sees comes second hand. A photograph is a piece of information to be digested, thought about, and remembered by his paintings.

In his abstract paintings at Tate Modern, he does not resemble Cézanne so much as Monet. In the glides and slips, the luminous colour collisions and accidental symmetries of these tremendous works you seem to see – anyway, I seemed to see the other day – similar reflections of the ambiguity of experience to those that float in Monet's lily pond.

Reality is profoundly ambiguous, modern physics tells us. An electron can be in two places at once. These paintings describe a world of uncertainty, without surrendering to despair. Richter is alive to the play of chance, the randomness of nature, the complexity of experience – yet proves that art can still bring something serious and beautiful out of the chaos. He towers above the artists of today. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 12 2010

River of money flows to Thames as it wins global conservation prize

London's mighty river was declared a dead zone 50 years ago – but now it is full of life and has been rewarded for its resurgence

In the 1950s it was declared biologically dead – a heavily polluted river that was a far cry from the days when it was admired by William Wordsworth, Claude Monet and the Three Men in a Boat of Jerome K Jerome's book. Now the Thames and its tributaries teem with 125 fish species including salmon, trout, sole and bass.

The resurgence was rewarded yesterday when the river was given a top global conservation prize for its dramatic recovery.

The International Thiess river prize is awarded annually in Australia and comes with prize money of A$350,000 (£218,000).

That the Thames triumphed over competition from the mighty Amazon and idyllic rural waterways such as the Piddle in Dorset, can be explained by the prize's focus on restored and well-managed rivers. "The Thames has 13 million people living along it and it's still got quite a bit of industry," said a spokesman for the Environment Agency, which manages the river. "The Piddle and the Amazon don't have those environmental pressures – the sewage, the industry."

The agency plans to spend the prize on further restoration work and a project to twin the Thames with a river in the developing world which needs restoration.

Having initially been selected from more than 100 entries, the Thames beat three other finalists including the Yellow river in China, which has huge pollution and overuse problems – so much so it sometimes does not reach the ocean.

The agency pointed out that 80% of the Thames is now judged to have "very good" or "good" water quality.

In the last five years there have been nearly 400 habitat enhancement projects and more than 40 miles of river has been restored or enhanced, often transforming concrete urban channels back into quasi-natural meanders.

"In the last 150 years the Thames has been to hell and back," said Alistair Driver, the EA's national conservation manager.

Even the agency admits, though, that there is much more work to do before everyone agrees with the judges at the International River Foundation, especially on the Thames's many urban and suburban tributaries – some of which still flow spasmodically through concrete pipes or over shopping trolleys and other modern jetsam.

David Suchet, the actor and boater, sent a message of support, saying: "I am fortunate in my life to have travelled extensively and enjoyed many other rivers worldwide. But the river Thames is priceless and one of the most glittering jewels in the crown of our English heritage."

The other two finalists were a scheme to restore the drought-ravaged Hattah lakes in Australia and protection and restoration work by the Smirnykh rivers partnership in Russia. Previous winners include the Danube, currently swamped by a toxic chemical spill, and the Mersey in Liverpool – the prize's first winner in 1999. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 23 2010

The deathbed portrait's unique tribute

Daphne Todd's portrait of her dead mother has just won a major award. Jonathan Jones on the allure of the deathbed

Mouth hanging open, eyes peeping from frigid lids, arms thin and dry: Annie Mary Todd resembles (and I hope Daphne Todd, her daughter and portraitist, will forgive me for saying so) a medieval cadaver, torn from a tomb. The artist has said she found beauty in her mother's corpse, but it is still shocking stuff: emaciated, stiff and monstrously dead.

Todd's macabre painting has won the BP Portrait award; while this questionable prize (dodgy sponsor, dodgy artistic standards) may not be much in itself, here is a portrait that has got people talking, because it confronts us with death. Yet it does so in a way that is specific to painting and drawing – to what we would call the traditional portrait, which is a world away from photography and film. To photograph a dead body, you push a button – click. But what is it to portray the dead, with pencil on paper, and to lovingly colour the face of your mother in its new hues of mortality? What is it like to spend that time with a corpse?

Artists have felt compelled, again and again, to perform this eerie task. Leonardo da Vinci did it and recorded his motivations. In about 1508, the artist and scientist visited a hospital in Florence. There, he wrote, "an old man a few hours before his death told me that he had passed a hundred years, and that he did not feel any bodily deficiency, other than weakness. And thus he passed away from this life. And I made an anatomy of him in order to see the cause of so sweet a death."

Daphne Todd's mother was also 100 when she died. She has become, in this work, a symbol of the same instinct that made Da Vinci open up a corpse: the need to perceive the difference between life and death. Is such knowledge not terrifying? Perhaps, but it may also be therapeutic. Artists down the centuries have sometimes acted as grief therapists, helping the bereaved to bear their loss. This is surely the function of Anthony van Dyck's 1633 painting of Venetia Stanley on her deathbed, which hangs today in the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. Her widower Sir Kenelm Digby wrote how "we found her cold and stiff" and yet, with a little rubbing, they managed to bring colour to her cheeks. So he called on Van Dyck to portray her like that – as if asleep, and for ever about to waken.

Claude Monet allowed himself no such consolation. When his wife Camille lay dead, he portrayed her, tears blurring his vision, in a painting that seeks no reassurance. It is a terrifying masterpiece: her yellowed features, closed eyes and parted lips are seen through a mist of white brushstrokes, as if she is fading away. You are stunned by the artist's determination to record what must have been the worst moments of his life. When Lucian Freud's mother died, he performed exactly the same clear-eyed homage.

The deathbed portrait, in other words, can be either an attempt at consolation or a fierce acceptance of reality. Perhaps it is always both. Yet it is a singular form of art, a final intimacy. Portraiture is always a relationship: the artist who captures a person is getting to know them deeply, experiencing the contours of their being. To do this for the dead is a last rite only artists can perform: a unique act of love and memory. No wonder so many painters, from Freud to Daphne Todd, have felt compelled to use their gifts in this way. It makes you wish that, at such moments, you, too, could paint. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 18 2010

Letters: Art from the sublime to the ridiculed

A lot is being made of the 400-years-since-he-died stuff on Caravaggio's bones (Report, 17 June). Artist on the run from a murder etc. As though Rome wasn't a violent city in 1600. I suppose you could walk anywhere late at night etc.

The critics say he invented chiaroscuro, or dramatic shading never seen before. A lot is known about Caravaggio's studios, more than most of his contemporaries. They describe the dark walls and a hole in the ceiling (known because he was sued). A few people have made serious suggestions that optical projections were used, and as there are no known drawings, and no record he ever made one, the evidence is very strong indeed.

No conventional historian has bothered to ask how these paintings were made. They think it is of little interest. It is of major interest to us now. The similarity to today's Photoshop techniques is fascinating. This seems to me to make him a more interesting artist, not less. It accounts for the new kind of space he opened (like TV close-ups), it accounts for the dark walls and the hole in the ceiling. His bones are neither here nor there because of this – a minor event compared with the implications for our time of his new techniques.

Sometimes I'm not sure what "art history" really is. It ignores picture-making techniques, has never known how to deal with photography, and cannot connect the past with today very well. Look at it a little differently and there is a much bigger and more important story for us today than a bag of old bones.

David Hockney


• I agree with Mark Brown (Report, 9 June) that the figure wearing a lion's head in the restored Tintoretto must represent Hercules. But Hercules frequently symbolises Fortitude (see, for example, the campanile of the Duomo in Florence) and fortitude is closely associated with magnanimity, so closely according to Aquinas that magnanimity is simply one of its subordinate parts. Seneca describes magnanimity as the most resplendent of the virtues, to which Latini adds that one leading characteristic of the magnanimous is that they are careless about small expenses. Lorenzetti, in his fresco cycle in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, offers a celebrated illustration of these ideas, showing the figure of Magnanimity crowned, with shining garments, ready to dispense gold coins. I wonder if this may tell us something about Tintoretto's crowned and shining figure to the right of Hercules, who is allowing gold coins to spill from the goblet at his feet?

Quentin Skinner

Department of history, Queen Mary, University of London

• Lucy Worsley is spot-on (Comment, 18 June). Just what we need – less intellectualism in history and more sexing up of flaky evidence (cue arched eyebrow and hanging question mark). I was particularly impressed by her hard-science pig-squashing experiment to prove that Henry VIII was a complete proverbial because of a bad joust day. I intend to drop my heaviest tome on my cat this afternoon in an attempt to confirm her findings. While wearing roller-skates.

Jim McDermott

Woodford Halse, Northamptonshire

• I have enjoyed the political caricatures created by Steve Bell and Martin Rowson for more years than I care to recall. Their cameo appearance on BBC4's excellent Rude Britannia (Last night's TV, G2, 17 June), where they discussed the history of 18th- and 19th-century English cartoon/satire, was fascinating. Why is there so little biting satire directed at the royal family today, unlike those times?

Dr Paul Clements

Goldsmiths College

• The statue of Eadgyth (Remains confirmed as those of a Saxon princess, 17 June) is surely one of the earliest examples of Rude Britannia. She is shown lightly caressing her bosom with her right hand while her left is daintily pulling up her skirt to reveal her right leg.

N Bailey

Saffron Walden, Essex

• Did anyone else notice the similarity between the photograph of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (G2, 15 June) and some of Monet's "water lily" paintings? Oil or watercolour? Or both?

Greg Hetherton

Hove, East Sussex © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 14 2010

Christie's sale dazzles public with 33 centuries of masterpieces for four days

Art auction covering work from 13BC bronze items to Picasso, Klimt and Warhol expected to break world sale records

It is surely the shortest ever art exhibition to cover the longest period of history. For only four days, Christie's is showing some breathtakingly impressive examples of artistic achievement stretching over 33 centuries.

The show at the auction house's London headquarters is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see some amazing works, everything from 13BC bronze cooking vessels to some of the finest 13th century illuminated manuscripts to an important blue period Picasso. The exhibition ends at 4.30pm on Thursday because all the works are being sold – most of them this month and next.

Christie's European president, Jussi Pylkkanen, said the auction house had decided to put on a curated show of this year's highlights because the auction season was shaping up to be the strongest for a generation. "I can honestly say we've never had an exhibition of this quality in my 25 years here," he said.

Certainly, both Christie's and Sotheby's have persuaded sellers that 2010 is the year to sell. Pylkkanen said: "The art market is particularly firm at the moment, there is a flight to quality and we have what I would term 'medici collectors', who are keen to buy the very, very best irrespective of the categories in which they are being offered."

And the super-rich buyers are coming from far more parts of the world than ever before. Western European and American buyers are now joined by Russian oligarchs and secretive Asian and Middle Eastern millionaires – or billionaires – keen to create art collections.

There are high expectations that the auction record for a work of art will be set in next week's London auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's, after it was twice broken this year – first by a Giacometti Walking Man statue, and then by a Picasso in New York that sold for $106m (£70m).

The best bet to break the record is, arguably, a Picasso being sold for charity in aid of the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation. Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto, or The Absinthe Drinker, is conservatively estimated at £30-£40m.

The Christie's show groups works thematically – "power", "patronage", "women in art". It is a free opportunity for the public – the majority of who probably can't quite stretch to the asking prices, at least not this year – to see jaw-dropping art.

In one room you can see a Chris Ofili next to a Gustav Klimt deathbed portrait of Ria Munk, who killed herself in dramatic fashion – she aimed a shotgun in to her chest – after she fell out with her lover. In another room is a Warhol Silver Liz – Elizabeth Taylor, that is – opposite a colourful Matisse nude unseen in public since the year after it was painted. And in another room is a heartstopping Monet waterlily painting, not far from a Van Gogh work executed while he was in voluntary confinement at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole.

• Juxtaposed: Masterpieces Through the Ages is at Christie's in St James's until 8.30pm tomorrow, and then 9am-4.30pm on Wednesday and Thursday. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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