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January 11 2012

VernissageTV Classics (r3): Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting at Kunstmuseum Basel (2007)

The 2007 exhibition “Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955 – 1965″ at Kunstmuseum Basel presented the groundbreaking early work of Jasper Johns, beginning in the mid-1950s with such famous works as “Target with Four Faces”. The show brought together around seventy key works on loan from museums and private collections in the US and Europe. It traced the relationship of four specific motifs: the target, the mechanical “device”, the naming colors, and the imprint of the body. The shots in this video are from the press preview and the vernissage of the exhibition on June 1st, 2007.

This is another segment in our series r3 that highlights the treasures of VernissageTV’s huge archive. R3 is a series of VernissageTV classics, now re-mastered, re-edited and reissued in High Definition. Click here for the complete list of videos. Click here for the original post and more information about the show.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.

June 13 2011

Artist biographies: more than just cheap gossip

Snooping into the personal lives of great artists and authors isn't just a guilty pleasure – it brings their works to life

Do the biographies of artists – where they came from, who they loved, what they looked like – matter? Or is our obsession with putting a face, a name and a personal story to a great work of art just a distraction from truly engaging with it? Can artistic biography ever be more than cheap gossip?

Philip Roth probably speaks for many writers when he scorns the biographers who search for keys to the work in the creator's life – a standpoint scathingly conveyed in his 2007 novel Exit Ghost. The artists Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly presumably agree with him as both have sought to keep their personal lives remote. For any serious creative artist it must be galling to think that works produced in the calm of the study or studio will be picked apart for personal meanings.

And yet there is no stopping the telling of stories about great art. Oxford historians working on 16th-century coroners' records have just recently added to the sparse and treasured stock of anecdotes about the life of William Shakespeare. The death by drowning of a child whose surname is a variant spelling of Shakespeare – names were spelt in all sorts of ways back then – may be the inspiration for Ophelia's death in Hamlet: a family story, perhaps, resurfacing in his work.

Only a few such tantalising personal details of Shakespeare's life exist, yet this does not stop literary critics trying to reconstruct a life from which to make sense of the works. Nor should it. The fact is that art is a communication between human beings, and to imagine the author as someone who once lived a flesh-and-blood existence may be fundamental to any serious reading of it. The alternative view, that art exists in Byzantine perfection beyond anecdote, smacks of sterile pretension. This is why people started telling tales about Shakespeare centuries ago, and still do.

While Shakespeare is a spectre somewhere within his dramas, other great creators make the connection of art and life explicit. The Italian medieval poets Dante and Petrarch led the way in putting their lives into their art. Both write of their deep love for a named woman – Dante's Beatrice and Petrarch's Laura – in a way that was to shape new ideas of the artist as an individual with particular affinities, desires and pain that must be told. Michelangelo transfers this personal voice to visual art, and his voice is more idiosyncratic than those of his medieval literary predecessors. It was not until the Romantic age that Michelangelo's precocious individuality was taken up as a norm and ideal right across the arts.

Was Romanticism a decline in art? Does it infect us to this day with a vulgar need to know the singer as well as the song? To think so is a basic misunderstanding of the place of art in life. Only if we want art to be a kind of courtly decor can we yearn for a return to the pre-Romantic era when artists hid in the background and the consumers of their works took centre stage. The Romantic belief in the expressive nature of all art is the only attitude that truly values creative genius. To search out anecdotes about Shakespeare is not to trivialise him, but to revere him properly. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 23 2010

Last romantic

Jonathan Jones on the artist whose work is in the best intellectual tradition from Cézanne to Twombly

It is difficult to look at Howard Hodgkin's paintings without a picture in your mind of where they might hang when they are not on loan to an exhibition. They are haunted by secret worlds, not only that of the artist, but also those of his collectors. They are paintings for and of the private sphere. Only one work in his captivating exhibition of recent work at Modern Art Oxford has been lent from a museum. The rest have come from houses and apartments, from over the mantelpiece or the bed, from a dark office or a bright dining room . . . you see? You start thinking about these absent places, the homes of the paintings, and the images keep coming.

Most suggestive of all is Hodgkin's little painting Leaf (2007-09). It belongs, surely, in a study. I imagine it hanging near the door. The walls around it are crammed with natural history specimens – impaled butterflies, glassed-in stag beetles. Old volumes of Darwin and Linnaeus are on the bookcases. Opposite this painting, in playful juxtaposition, is a microscopically precise 19th-century study of a leaf. Outside, through a window honeyed by the glow of the desk lamp, is an orchard.

Leaf is a perfect miniature of Hodgkin's art. In this small picture he distills everything that is original about his vision. Who else would do what Hodgkin does here, and mimic the genre of the botanical study, yet enfurl that tradition of scientific looking in a baroque robe of abstract green? His leaf is a double swirl of louche colour, a wild brushstroke enclosed in a battered wooden frame. It is not a realistic leaf yet it responds to the visible world – it is the colour of a leaf. It is, we accept, faithful to reality – but how? How does the world so pervade Hodgkin's art that each picture, placed in the dry space of an art gallery, seems to carry with it the intimacy of private rooms, the freshness of gardens, the changing light of nature?

Some artists emerge fully-formed, perfect, from art school, like David Hockney in the 1960s, glittering in a gold jacket and pop spectacles, painting with an open sensuality. Hodgkin, born in 1932, also had his first exhibitions in the early 60s but to look at his early works, to read the reviews of a shared show at the ICA in 1962 with the – then – far more happening Allen Jones, is to excavate a stuttering, uncertain start. The scion of a famous family, an Eton drop-out, he did not look in his first decade of painting like a central figure in the art of his time. Yet I would argue that alone of all his British contemporaries he has remained loyal to the most interesting and serious artistic insights of the 60s. He is conventionally praised, and occasionally dismissed, as the last English romantic, a pure painter in the mould of Constable and Turner, an artist who feels. I see him more as an artist who thinks – a philosophical painter.

To return to that leaf in Oxford. Hodgkin could have dipped his brush in any colour he liked. He mixed a lime or olive-tinged green, that breaks into streaks of yellow against the bare wooden board, leaving oil stains around it and a clogged sticky pool against the frame. It is also, magically, leaf shaped. This single wide brushstroke, doubled up on itself in a bulbous curve, produces the tapering form of a laurel leaf. Then again, the wispy delicacy of the brushstroke – so casual, so light, so airy – suggests a leaf's movement in the air, as if it were about to be blown away on an evening breeze. So he gives us the colour of a leaf, the shape of a leaf: and most importantly, the essence of a leaf, which comes of its slightness, its vulnerability to gusts.

This is a systematic, and to me profoundly moving, rethinking of what it is to see an object. Ideas, associations, affinities, memories, longings consitute, for Hodgkin, our real experience of the material world. When we think of a leaf we may have different memories from his, but we never simply see a constellation of cells. The world comes to us already composed of lyrical suggestions. The most ambitious modern artists have wrestled with this complex web of experience ever since Paul Cézanne stared at Mont Sainte-Victoire and, portraying it again and again, infused every rock, every pine branch with his own isolation and turbulent inwardness. In the 1950s and early 60s the inquiry begun by Cézanne was reformulated by three Americans – Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly – and I believe these are the artists of that epochal time with whom we should compare Hodgkin.

When Johns made an American flag of collaged newsprint embalmed in encaustic, he conveyed the plenitude of stories and perspectives an apparently simple icon could hold; when Rauschenberg put his bed, smeared and spattered with paint, on a gallery wall he invited the beholder to read or invent tales of sex and intimacy in its stains. But most of all Hodgkin resembles Twombly, whose graffiti epics speak of dirty sex and high feeling in grand palatial Roman settings. Like Twombly, he has become better as he has become more openly emotional. It was with paintings of the 1980s whose titles, such as In Bed in Venice (1984-8), or Love Letter (1984-88), convey their intimacy, that Hodgkin discovered the eloquent grandeur of his maturity. Neither of these pictures is legible in a realist way: but neither is emptily abstract, either. To engage with them is to be caught in knots and shocks of recognition and imagining: to chase after the artist's encounters and longings. It is in the best intellectual tradition of modern art from Cézanne to Rauschenberg's Bed and Twombly's Ferragosto.

His exhibition of recent work in Oxford reveals that he is still advancing, and still thinking. Lawn (2009), seems to want to show all the potential colours of grass in different lights, at different seasons, or in the varying vitality of different blades in a single bit of turf, within one unified smear of layered colours. Khaki, yellow, pink, grey, pine and moss all twist together in lines of unmixed oil, like a preparation for a giant microscope. At the very beginning of natural history in art stands Albrecht Dürer's 1503 watercolour The Great Piece of Turf. In this mesmerising observation of nature Dürer concentrates his gaze on a tiny section of the world and depicts each blade of grass, each leaf and seed in it with intense accuracy. Hodgkin similarly excavates a cross-section of grass but we have no way of knowing if he has portrayed an entire lawn, or a two-centimetre patch. His painting Big Lawn (2008-10) is broader, as if seen from further away in the soft light of a summer evening, and Sky (2008-09) induces a moment of vertigo just with two alternating blues – dark and light – conveying, in a small golden oval frame, the height and sweep of a Tiepolo heaven. Yet at the same time, and this complicates the show in dark ways, contemporary history intrudes.

Yellow Sky (2010) reveals just a sliver of yellow horizon under an oily mass of brown and black clouds, with towering and falling pillars of paint on the left of the scene that resemble the funnel of a tornado sweeping across America (I imagine), while Dirty Weather (2001) concentrates a terrible storm, or a volcano, or a battlefeild into a miasma of ochre and green and black smoke: it suggests looking through veiled eyes at a dustcloud after an explosion in a nature reserve. But Shadow (2002-03) leaves less room for doubt. Across a bright corn-yellow world towers a black column. It is clearly the shadow of the attacks in New York on 11 September 2001. That shadow streaks across this entire exhibition.

Whatever personal pain is communicated by the exhibition's extraordinary climactic painting, Blood, the violence of this new work (too new to be in the catalogue) is also unmistakably historical. Over a green world, a great sweep of blood gushes up and then arcs and falls – a wave of red, congealing into brown scabs, turning the earth into wet flesh. It is gut-churning. Never has the wetness of his paint seemed so apposite. Part of the seduction of his art is that the colours never seem to dry: the oil keeps its freshness. The wide motions of the brush create a sense of openness and fluency that doesn't stabilise into neat lines, doesn't settle down. But here, in his widescreen epic of war, he turns that vivacity to horror. We seem to be seeing people bleed. The red explodes from severed arteries. It dries on the road. It waters the fields. It is sucked into transparent tubes and mingles with water in a jar.

The sense of green places and blue waters in these paintings of the past 10 years is surely apposite to an age of planetary dread. Like a television documentary about the state of the Earth, but with the authority of paint, his transfigured landscapes and still lifes tell of a nature that is not safe, a life no longer guaranteed, for him or anyone else. Hodgkin is never quite what you think. The giddy colourist is really a daring philosopher, the intimist a public man after all. In the 60s he might have seemed a bit conventional compared with the pop artists but in reality he was thinking his way into a deeply ambitious form of abstract storytelling. The sense of history that shakes his recent paintings has deep roots in his art. In the 80s he collaborated with Susan Sontag on their illustrated story of Aids and its impact, The Way We Live Now. That political, engaged stance was entirely of a piece with his paintings of the time, whose tales of private life – as in for example Lovers (1984-92) – testify to the significance, even the historical weight, of what happens in bed. He still thinks about that. One of the most intense paintings here is a burst of black and red and fire-orange called Privacy and Self-Expression in the Bedroom (2004-06).

What has mattered in Hodgkin's art, and still does, is not simply a brilliant way with colour, although it would be hard to find many painters of the past 100 years who could out-scintillate a work such as that bedroom picture, with its chromatic suggestion of coals glowing in a blackened grate. It is the depth and truthfulness of his meditation on the way we translate experience, even as it happens, into embers of memory. If this strikes you as a whimsical project then you must also dismiss Cézanne and Proust.

Howard Hodgkin: Time and Place 2001-2010 is at Modern Art Oxford, until 5 September. For information call 01865 722733. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 27 2010

Why Britain's best artists leave

How can London be the capital of global art when our celebrity culture makes it such a miserable place for artists to live and work?

Chris Ofili, whose retrospective has just opened at Tate Britain, is just one of the British artists who have chosen to live abroad to get away from the madness of art's celebrity culture – including such serious figures as Tacita Dean and Steve McQueen.

So here's a paradox. Constantly, the media tell us that London is this century's Manhattan or Paris, that Britain is the world's leading art capital. Yet I believe that in Manhattan in the 1960s you would actually have found artists living and working – and if Picasso had fled back to Barcelona, the Musée Picasso wouldn't have been in Paris. Art capitals are traditionally places where artists thrive. But what kind of artist really thrives on our brand of instant celebrity?

As a critic, you forget what celebrity means. It's seeing people coo over someone who seems very ordinary to me, such as Grayson Perry – someone I've sometimes been rude about, sometimes praised, but certainly never mistaken for the kind of artist I, personally, would go weak at the knees to meet.

Celebrity is such a small thing compared with real fame. For me, a famous artist is one whose works have secured them a true place in art history, whose talent is mysterious and personality elusive. Jasper Johns is famous; Perry is a celebrity.

A celebrity is someone who is "like us" – just watch all those talent shows on TV – which by definition limits their genius. A celebrity, to have democratic appeal, really has to be a bit second rung, a bit ordinary. It's quite a contradiction. You have to catch the eye and yet you can't intimidate people with supreme abilities.

The purest expression of modern Britain's celebrity art culture, and its logical conclusion, was Antony Gormley's participatory artwork on the Fourth Plinth. Here was the mediocrity of the celebrity culture made monumental – everyone an artist, everyone a star, not a trace of imagination in sight.

No wonder the real artists run for their lives. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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