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January 29 2012

The fine art of Barbie-sitting

How does the Barbie doll compare with the models who inspired the old masters? Artist Jocelyne Grivaud set out to discover

October 29 2011

The First Actresses; Vermeer's Women – review

National Portrait Gallery, London; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

As the pin-up girl of the Restoration, Nell Gwyn seems to have constantly fallen prey to wardrobe malfunctions. Simon Verelst's two portraits of her show her first experiencing what paparazzi refer to as "nipple slip", and then to have lost control of her bodice entirely (it is this kind of page 3 version of the actress that Samuel Pepys, and many of his peers, kept as a pocket reminder of the king's favourite). The energy of Verelst's portraits – show-stoppers in the National Portrait Gallery's The First Actresses – lies not so much in the disorganised décolletage of the actress, however, but in the consummate coolness of her gaze. It's both shameless and knowing, this look; the screw-you stare of the authentic star.

"Pretty witty Nell", as Pepys called her, was the first recognisable celeb in British popular culture; post-Puritan politics had created a gap in the market for a certain kind of sexual frankness, and Gwyn effortlessly filled it: the sensational shock of her immodesty retains its centuries-old power.

Gwyn was, it seems, also a very hard actress to follow. The headline acts who assumed her mantle – Hester Booth in a harlequin frock; Lavinia Fenton, who like Gwyn rose from teenage barmaid to leading lady; the great comedienne Kitty Clive – borrow a lot of her look in their portraits but do not quite live up to her outrageousness. (It's a bit like seeing Andy Warhol's silkscreen of Farrah Fawcett after his Marilyn series.)

If Gwyn set a Monroe-ish standard for star quality, she also appears to have established a precedent for promiscuity; Fenton, who excited male audiences in her cross-dressing "breeches" roles, is pictured by Hogarth being leered at by Charles Powlett, the Duke of Bolton, as she takes the role of Polly in The Beggar's Opera. Fenton retired from the stage at 20 – already praised by Alexander Pope as "the great favourite of the town; her pictures engraved and sold in great numbers, her life written, books of letters and verses to her published" – to become the duke's mistress, and mother to his three sons.

Other actresses became the subject of gossip about involvement with their fellow performers; Peg Woffington, also invariably portrayed nearly spilling out of her frock, became the lover of David Garrick after playing Cordelia to his Lear in 1741. (Garrick, whose life runs in parallel with many of the subjects of this exhibition, is pictured in later years with his wife Eva-Maria in a florid portrait by Joshua Reynolds; he appears to be awaiting applause after declaiming a passage from Shakespeare; she appears to have heard it all before.)

Even as actresses became more "respectable", the associations with easy virtue persisted; Covent Garden and Drury Lane were as infamous for their prostitutes as their stage-stars, and the perception that the two trades were intimately linked proved hard to shift. It is not until Sarah Siddons directs her full attention to the viewer in Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait of 1804 that an actress seems at liberty to be anything other than a subject of desire. Siddons, a close friend of Samuel Johnson, and famed for her Lady Macbeth, elevated her profession almost single-handedly by all accounts; you can see a lot of that moral rigour in Lawrence's painting: she is dressed in black velvet, leafing through a vast book, and her look is no longer one of coy suggestibility but serious intent. Nearly a century and a half after women had been allowed back on stage, the leading lady had apparently arrived.

The story of the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition is set in motion by the return of Charles II from exile in the Hague in 1660 and his re-establishment of the theatres. The Netherlands of those years was not, you imagine, a place that could have accommodated Nell Gwyn in its popular culture; no doubt, for the king, that was part of the attraction.

There is something far more austerely Cromwellian about the ideals of female beauty in Vermeer's Women at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. It is, nonetheless, a dazzling spectacle. Whereas the portrait gallery's actresses seem all about availability to the male gaze, the women who inhabit these Dutch interiors – by Vermeer and his contemporaries – retain a profound mystery and reserve. Just occasionally the artist seems to have chanced upon an unwarranted intimacy: in Jan Steen's Woman at Her Toilet the figure is unrolling her red stocking on the edge of her bed, but she seems unaware of the viewer's presence, entirely absorbed in her mundanely sensual task. This feminine self-absorption is the quality that these painters most prized, and no one was more capable of realising it than Vermeer. His small masterpiece, The Lacemaker, is on loan from the Louvre and is worth the journey to Cambridge itself, as an unequalled study in needle-sharp attention, both of artist and sitter.

The more you look at these three rooms of paintings, nearly all made in the 15 years between 1655 and 1670, the more curious you become about the detailed world that created them. The Dutch of the period promoted domestic goddesses of a certain kind in household manuals called things like: On the Excellence of the Female Sex. On one level the paintings of Vermeer, Samuel van Hoogstraten, Pieter de Hooch and Gerard ter Borch seem to be propagandising just this kind of female virtue that is anything but easy – the responsibility and grind of wife and mother. Heads bent in concentration, the women attend to their sewing or – if of a more elevated social position – their musical study at the virginal. They mind children in cots, they examine fish for supper. The more you look, though, the more you sense that behind this depiction of domestic ritual is always a kind of wonder. Vermeer's paintings in particular, nearly all made in the front room of the house in Delft he shared with his mother-in-law and wife and 10 children, seem the most intense expression of the unknowable quality of other lives; for all their impossible mastery of light and lustre, they stop just deliberately short of any attempt at understanding, giving his women an ineffable existence all of their own.

There are many other little marvels here – van Hoogstraten's highly charged but uninhabited View of an Interior, in which we are granted visual access through three doors, the last of them just unlocked, keys dangling, to reveal only a discarded pair of slippers at the threshold of an immaculately swept floor, an everyday holy of holies; or de Hooch's everything-is-illuminated Courtyard of a House in Delft which makes your eyes quickstep continually from one perfectly realised piece of brickwork to the next. But it is the extreme stillness of Vermeer's women you want to return to; actresses who are always anything but. © 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

December 02 2010

Works by Van Gogh and Hockney mark London gallery's 200th birthday

Twelve paintings that 'would knock your socks off at 50 paces' feature in Dulwich Picture Gallery's anniversary celebrations

As birthday presents go, they are quite something: 12 of the most jaw-dropping paintings in any gallery anywhere, courtesy of institutions across Europe and the US including the Uffizi, Prado and Met.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery, England's oldest public art gallery, today announced it was marking its 200th anniversary in 2011 by displaying specially loaned paintings for a month at a time by artists such as Velázquez, El Greco, Rembrandt, Constable and David Hockney.

"We wanted paintings that would knock your socks off at 50 paces," said Ian Dejardin, the gallery's director, who admitted he has been thinking about the bicentenary since he joined five years ago.

"This is a very important date in the history of all museums in this country and if you're going to celebrate, then you might as well do it all year. If you haven't heard of Dulwich Picture Gallery by the end of the year then you're deaf."

The south London gallery opened 200 years ago to house a remarkable collection that had been built up over five years for the King of Poland, who wanted to build a royal collection from scratch.

His abdication in 1795 left two London-based art dealers with some fine paintings which, in turn, led to the creation of what is one of the world's oldest public galleries. Then it charged sixpence to keep riff-raff out. Today the riff-raff are welcome, but they must pay £5 to see a permanent collection that is one of the most important collections of old masters anywhere.

It is this reputation and history that had galleries saying yes to Dejardin's request for loans. One of the most eye-catching is the self-portrait of Van Gogh – he'll be Mr July – from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. It was specifically requested by Dejardin, not least because a 19-year-old Van Gogh walked from central London to the gallery in 1873 and made a mess of the visitor's book by blotting ink all over it. Unfortunately all that is known of his experience, said Dejardin, is that he "had a nice day".

Dejardin said the loans were like "a year-long advent calendar of your dreams". It kicks off with a Sir Thomas Lawrence portrait of Sir John Soane in January and is followed by a Velázquez portrait from the Prado in Madrid – "one of the most extraordinary portraits by the most extraordinary painter in the world," said Dejardin.

March sees the loan of a Vermeer from the Queen; then an El Greco from New York; a Veronese from Florence which comes to the UK for the first time; and a portrait by Rembrandt of his son Titus from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

August brings an Ingres from New York's Frick Collection; then comes a Gainsborough from Washington; Constable's The Leaping Horse from the Royal Academy; Hockney's Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy from Tate; and finally a perfect Christmas card image – Domenichino's The Adoration of the Shepherds from the National Gallery of Scotland.

Dejardin also announced a summer exhibition in which he had "high hopes for fisticuffs" from the visiting public, in that it will examine two artists as stylistically different as it is possible to get – Cy Twombly and Poussin. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 23 2010

Here be monsters

When the world was still being discovered, maps were not only images of power, but retained elements of the fabulous and the mythical. And – long before landscape paintings – they were displayed as works of art

Red arteries spread like roots over the paper – is this an anatomical sketch? A vision of vessels branching from the heart? Yet the page from Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Arundel notebook in the Treasures gallery of the British Library is not – or not directly – a study of human anatomy. It is a map: a geographical plan, a piece of the world reduced to a flat depiction. It shows the riverbed of the Arno near Florence and was made in about 1504 for a practical purpose. Florence, at war with its neighbour Pisa, had hatched a plan to divert the Arno and so deprive the enemy city of its lifeblood. Leonardo was surveying the river to work out how it could be turned from its course.

And yet, if it is practical in purpose, and scrupulous in method – Leonardo has walked the riverbed, surveyed it – this little sketch map is cosmic in scope. It is a vision of the world, touched into life in a few strokes of red chalk. It expresses, magically, an entire philosophy. For it is no coincidence, still less a poetic flourish, that all the bloody strands of the riverbed make you think of anatomy. Leonardo and his contemporaries conceived the earth as a living creature, a macrocosmic mirror of our own inner life. As he put it:

Man has been called by the ancients a little world, and certainly the name is well given, for if a man is made of earth, water, air and fire, so is this body of the earth; if man has in him a lake of blood, where the lungs increase and decrease in breathing, the body of the earth has its ocean which similarly rises and falls . . .

When Leonardo drew his map of the Arno, the shape of the entire earth was changing. Just three or so years later, the Lorraine map-maker Martin Waldseemüller would publish what is arguably the most influential map in history: not only does it accurately depict the shape of Africa, but a thin sliver of land in the western sea is named, for the first time, "America". The maps of the age of discovery boggle the mind with their intellectual conquest of space. In the mid-15th century, a state-of-the-art map created by the Venetian cartographer Fra Mauro had seen the world as a huge disc, with south at the top, Africa just a vague shape, and nothing to the west of the Fortunate Isles (the Canaries). Not just the knowledge of world geography but the very conceptualisation of space in this late medieval map looks to us remote and arcane. It seems an incredible leap that just over a century later maps of the world looked much as they do today – the same continents, their coastlines instantly recognisable, planned out on paper in a mathematically consistent manner.

The period from 1500 to 1700 is the golden age of maps. Scientific achievement is central to that story – or is it? For Leonardo's little sketch of the Arno reveals that maps still had something about them of the fabulous and the mythical. They were works of imagination as well as calculation. This is why the maps of these centuries still give us a warm glow of pleasure, why they are treasured by collectors and daydreamers – because this was still a time when monsters haunted the oceans, even on the most forward-looking charts. The world was being discovered, its shape analysed, but it was imagined – Leonardo shows us – as an organic and mysterious entity. Rivers were arteries, the seas lungs. Nature was a synthesis of the four elements, fire, earth, air and water: maps were records of its marvels.

Nothing could convey the wondrous and strange nature of geographical knowledge more spectacularly than the Klencke Atlas, which stars in an ambitious exhibition, Magnificent Maps, at the British Library, as well as in the accompanying BBC4 series The Beauty of Maps, featuring the exhibition's curator, Peter Barber. This book is taller than a man: bound in leather and closed with huge metal clasps, it opens to reveal a succession of printed maps each of which is more than 2m wide. This is the biggest atlas in the world, according to Guinness World Records – the macrocosm to the microcosm of Leonardo's Arno sketch. In November 1660 the diarist John Evelyn saw it in Charles II's cabinet of curiosities, together with portrait miniatures, precious stones and "a curious Ship model": it was a present fit for a king, presented to the new and restored monarch on his coronation by a group of Amsterdam merchants.

At that moment Amsterdam was the world centre of map-making. Maps were engraved and printed there not just for monarchs but for merchants and their families. The virtue of the atlas conceived by Johannes Klencke was, through sheer extravagance, to ennoble something that was actually increasingly universal. The maps in the great book are the same printed maps you see in Vermeer's paintings of Dutch merchant houses: in his Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, painted almost contemporaneously with the Klencke Atlas in the early 1660s, a young woman stands in the pale light from a window, her eyes fixed on the message she's reading. The light shines on her blue silken tunic and blue-upholstered chairs, which might suggest a lover far away across the blue sea. Behind her, dominating the whitewashed wall, is a printed map, mounted on wooden poles and hung like a painting to decorate the chamber. It is on the same big scale as the prints in the Klencke volume. It shows fractured peninsulas and islands separated by water, a Dutch geography of vulnerability that matches the woman's mood.

Big printed wall maps appear in many of Vermeer's paintings, as well as in such contemporary scenes as Pieter de Hooch's A Woman Drinking with Two Men (1658) in the National Gallery. These views of everyday life bear witness to an almost totemic cult of maps. What, exactly, was the appeal of a huge woodcut map hanging on your wall? As much as we want to read simple emotional messages into Vermeer's paintings, the wrinkled, breeze-touched, black and white paper maps he depicts also attest to a fascination with maps as such, with what they are – and this, for him, is enigmatic.

Magnificent Maps leads us deep into the mentality of awe and wonder his pictures of maps communicate. It tells the story of mural maps – geographical statements that were hung on walls or even painted into the very plaster of palaces as frescoes. It argues that maps in early-modern Europe were as likely to decorate a room as paintings or tapestries were – and so puts a new twist on the truth that maps can be works of art in their own right.

No one who has walked along the seemingly endless Galleria delle Carte Geografiche in the Vatican Museums would doubt this. This hypnotic corridor is today walked by streams of tourists heading for the Sistine Chapel, punctuated along its straight-as-a-ruler marble funnel by souvenir stalls. But it is a bizarrely memorable walk that grips your imagination and stays with you as one of the sights of Rome – for the entire corridor is frescoed with mammoth maps of Italy's regions and cities. Painted by Ignazio Danti in the mid-16th century, these epic cartographies create a terrestrial theatre that in its way rivals the heavenly theatre of the Sistine Chapel itself. The maps are realistic, detailed and on a colossal scale – but were they ever any use to anyone? It is hard to picture a Renaissance pope standing on a stepladder to study a detail of Volterra or Venice to decide some political move. There were manuscript maps in the Vatican Library that could be spread out on a table for real strategic meetings. These painted maps are images of power, designed to amaze and to stupefy. As you progress further along the corridor, the cavalcade of city plans becomes repetitive, narcotic and sublime. It is a spectacle as deliberately excessive as the Klencke Atlas, a majestic display of ownership and control of space. The architecture of the long gallery is itself a daunting demonstration of spatial majesty – an unfurling of absurdly generous proportions – and the maps mirror its grandeur.

The British Library exhibition can't, obviously, bring the Vatican frescoes to London – although it includes large-scale photographs of this and other cartographic interiors – but does have the Klencke Atlas and a range of maps made in the same spirit of daunting excess. Jacopo de' Barbari's bird's-eye view of Venice, created in 1500, is on a scale that would fit quite easily among the city plans in the Vatican: nearly 3m wide. But de' Barbari's map is a woodcut, black ink on paper, that sent the image of Venice around the world to hang in foreign palaces as evidence of the Most Serene Republic's power.

What a map. It seems for all the world to have been surveyed from the air. The incline of the earth as de' Barbari looks down on Venice, seeing the exact shape of its islands in the ethereal setting of the lagoon, uncannily resembles an aerial photograph. But obviously he did not have a flying machine. He projected this image in his imagination, tilted up towards us at just such an angle as to reveal the overall shape of Venice while also allowing the eye to zoom in and see, as in a topographic painting, the scene on St Mark's Square. Ships teem around the Arsenale while a colossal triton rides a sea monster at the mouth of the Grand Canal – the real marries the fabulous as Venice is wedded to the sea.

The artistic glory of Renaissance maps lies in the ambiguity of their nature, for it is impossible to decide if this a map in the modern sense or a landscape picture. It hovers magically between the two. A straightforward plan of Venice would reveal the contours of the city and the layout of the canals, but would not capture the living reality of city life; while a painting at street level, such as Carpaccio's Miracle at the Rialto, though it conveys the forest of chimneys and the intimacy of bridges, can give no sense of the city's overall design. There is a genius and a freedom to de' Barbari's bird's-eye view that gives him both perspectives simultaneously – near and far. In the 21st century, a user of Google Maps can explore similar variations in perspective – moving from a city plan to a more detailed map of a neighbourhood to photographs taken on the street. This masterpiece gives all of that in one rich image.

In fact, a map such as this is so close to landscape art that it urges us to ask – do early-modern maps ape landscape pictures, or is it the other way around? Mapping and landscape art evolved together in the Renaissance, and this exhibition reveals something quite shocking to conventional art history: that maps were displayed as works of art before landscape paintings were similarly valued.

One of the earliest exhibits in the show is a facsimile of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, created like other medieval maps to stand alone and be studied like a painting or a stained glass window. The curators also attempt to reconstruct the world map that is known to have hung in Henry III's bedchamber in Westminster Palace in the 1230s. That is centuries before landscape art was valued in its own right. The first dated landscape drawing in European history – meaning a landscape that is not a background, but a theme in itself – is currently on view in the British Museum's exhibition of Italian Renaissance drawings: it was done on 5 August 1473 by Leonardo da Vinci. While its mountainous foreground is a fantasia of landscape, the plain in the distance rolling away towards the sea resembles a map in its outlines of fields.

Just like Jacopo de' Barbari – but in a uniquely sustained and complex way – Leonardo saw landscape art and map-making as intimately related. His drawings and paintings navigate an intricate course between the viewpoint of a landscape artist and a geographer. Unlike de' Barbari he actually did try to build a flying machine and hoped to use it for skyborne observation – he writes in a notebook of "surveying" the land from his "great bird". But he probably never did get his machine off the ground. Instead his bird's-eye views are feats of imagination, like de' Barbari's woodcut of Venice. Leonardo experimented with every point of view for map-making: his maps range from views of mountains in deep relief, the earth tilted up for our pleasure, to straightforward plans, to unique hybrids of the two. The vertiginous landscape of his painting The Virgin and Child with St Anne in the Louvre is itself as satisfying as a geographic atlas: the detailed rocks in the foreground stretch away to a blue vista of alpine mountains that has the sweep and scope of a map.

Leonardo was a pioneer of landscape but his landscapes are legitimated, as artistic subjects, by religious narratives – there is no pure landscape painting by him. One of the first such paintings is by Albrecht Altdorfer and portrays a bridge and a castle in a forest (it's in the National Gallery): this is almost an anti-map, as it tells us nothing of where the place is, or its wider geographical context. But when painters started successfully to sell landscapes in the 17th century they took their cue from Leonardo's cartographic approach, and their paintings aspired to the status of maps.

In 17th-century Europe maps were honoured and admired. The fresco maps of the Vatican and of other Italian palaces – Danti, who painted the Vatican maps, cut his teeth creating a fabulous room of maps in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence – were emulated across the continent. Printed maps, often hand-coloured, were designed to be displayed, as Dutch paintings show them to have been. If maps were hung like paintings, cartography also produced a new genre of sculpture – the globe. The exhibition has a pair of globes – terrestrial and celestial – created by Emery Molyneux in London at the end of the 16th century, that were the most renowned such objects in Elizabethan England.

Maps of this age provided extraordinary density of information. Jacques Callot's map of the siege of Breda (1628-29) is not just a geographical but a historical image. It shows the battle for the Dutch town of Breda in complex detail, bearing witness to atrocities as well as recording the victory of Spain, and combining the human detail of a history painting with the spatial information of a map. It is a work of art in its own right and its topographic details also feature in the eerie vista of Velázquez's masterpiece of history painting, The Surrender of Breda.

Landscape painters looked hard at such maps and their popularity. The landscapes of Ruysdael and Cuyp in the Netherlands, of Poussin and Claude in Italy and France, aspire to be maps. If you look at these paintings they all, in different ways, relate intensely to mapmaking. Dutch landscape artists go flat on the land, exploring its details: their paintings are like maps turned on their sides. In accuracy and detail they strongly resemble the printed maps streaming out of Amsterdam.

The French landscape artists who worked in 17th-century Rome may seem less obviously geographical, but to look at their paintings is to look at pictures that sum up the world as encyclopedically as Leonardo does: again and again these paintings aspire to include every kind of scenery in one view – woodlands, rocks, sea, mountains – so that a painting has the satisfying completeness of a map of the world. Not until the 19th century would painters rebel against this tendency for each landscape to be a kind of world map – a summary of the nature of landscape as such. A beguiling example of such paintings is Francisque Millet's Mountain Landscape with Lightning (1675). Here it is not just a variety of scenery that is encompassed: every one of the four elements is on view. The Leonardesque view of the Alps encloses a rich anthology of natural and human terrains, a world map in one glorious vista.

Even so, it is no more compelling, as a work of art, than the maps of the age. Only when geography became truly rationalist, when maps were purified into utilitarian tools, did landscape art rule the gallery alone – and that transformation around 1700 was a loss to the imagination. Art and science both lost blood when monsters vanished from the maps.

Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art opens at the British Library, London (01937 546060) on 30 April. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 12 2010

Can Google gauge the greatest art?

The search engine may list only obvious artworks – and a limited number at that – but it's hard to argue with its taste

It's amazing how many works of art can be found online. In researching visual links I am increasingly impressed by how easy it is to find good images of important works of art. But not every painting and sculpture can be found in the ever-expanding digital archive, and not every work is equally visible there. If a universal web museum is taking shape, it is one with its own guided tours already built in – because search engines point you, without your asking, towards their own choices, their own greatest hits.

Art blogger Tyler Green has tried an interesting exercise: keying the names of great artists into Google to see which of their works came up first. The results are:

Matisse: Le Bonheur de Vivre (1905–06). Barnes Foundation
Picasso: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). Moma
Vermeer: Girl With a Pearl Earring (c1665). Mauritshuis Smithson: Spiral Jetty (1970). Dia Bonnard: Model in Backlight (1907). Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels Arbus: Tattooed Man at Carnival (1970). Georgia O'Keeffe: Ram's Head, White Hollyhock and Little Hills (1935). Brooklyn Museum Magritte: Golconda (1953). Menil Collection Titian: Venus of Urbino (1538). Uffizi Monet: Impression, Sunrise (1872).

Green's point is that Google has its own insidious "number one" works by these artists, which are automatically determined by the number of hits. But even if they are, does it matter?

It's hard to argue, critically, with some of Google's choices. Any picture researcher at an encyclopedia would be likely to go with Impression, Sunrise to illustrate Monet, or the aerial photo of Spiral Jetty to embellish Robert Smithson. In fact, I vividly remember the latter from my home encyclopedia when I was growing up; much the same for Monet's painting.

Google, then, is populist about art, and tends to point users towards iconic masterpieces. Is there any downside to that? Actually, no. People (critics, curators, "experts") make too much of obscure knowledge and over-refined erudition. Art's greatest hits are often the greatest works, full stop; if you want the basics about Picasso, a glance at Les Demoiselles d'Avignon will tell you a lot of what you need to know.

What's more worrying is the lack of correlation between the immense online archive of art and the even more immense reality. Because so many works can be found online, there's a danger of forgetting how many cannot (not to mention the inadequacy of a picture on your screen compared with the real thing). A student can't really research a dissertation on art from digital sources alone, however tempting the illusion. And there lies the real vice of Google. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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