Archive for April, 2010

Blackpaint 124

April 30, 2010

National Gallery

As well as visiting the Kobke (see last blog), also had a general look around the gallery.  I was with one of those friends who take a perverse pleasure in acting like Philistines; “What’s good about this one, then?  Why is that a great picture?” and so on.  I went on , not very convincingly, about structure and composition and movement and surface and was very soon boring myself and feeling a bit sick.  As always, when this sort of interrogation happens, I found myself agreeing with him; yes, it’s not a very good Rubens, yes the head is too big and looks stuck on (Titian, the Flight into Egypt) – and so on.  The Vendramin family portrait looks as if apprentices did the children;  King Charles’ horse in the Van Dyck is definitely wrong (neck too thick, head too small).  As for the Van Gogh sunflowers… no, stop – a bridge too far.  Although, actually, I was never a big fan of the sunflowers; one of those blind spots, I suppose.

Tate Modern

Nice, quiet little anteroom to the Pollock/Kline/Jorn gallery with sculptures by Victor Pasmore, Mary Martin and somebody Biedermayer.  They were highly coloured little shelves and geometric protrusions in wood, plastic or metal, mounted on a flat board.  Similar stuff in Tate Britain by Pasmore and Ben Nicolson.  In the same, or next room, work by Helio Oiticica – the work that Serota said he would have to save in the event of a fire, because it’s so rare.  It consists of squares and oblongs drawn or painted on brown cardboard sheets; the blurb compares them to Mondrians – except that each of these are the same colour and they are set at very small angles, as if jostling each other across the board.

There was some other Brazilian and Venezuelan work with it, surprisingly minimal and colourless – I suppose I expected stuff that was more lush, colourful, vivid; Franz Ackermann, say.

The Kiefer palm tree has gone and in its place, huge, hanging, red and orange sisal sculptures, like a great, soft Marsyas.  Done in the 60s by Magdalena Abakanowicz, a Polish sculptor (sorry, one of the world’s leading woman artists), she  calls them  “Abakans”.  I thought that these soft sculptures might disprove my Polish thesis (see Blackpaint 20 and 21 ), that critics tend to analyse all works by Polish artists in terms of references to Auschwitz, WW2 and/or the post-war Communist period – but I was wrong.  From various sites, I found that her work is “emotive”, “disturbing”, about “lasting anxiety”, about “the missing”, the “crowd” and the individual’s struggle – it “reflects the emotional heritage of her political environment”.  Not Auschwitz then, but not far off.

Parrot, by Blackpaint.

Listening to If IGet Lucky by Arthur Big Boy Crudup.

“If I get lucky mama. with my trainfare home (*2)

I’m goin’ back to Mississippi now, mama, where I belong”.

Blackpaint 123

April 29, 2010

Kingdom of Ife

At the British Museum.  Very fine brass and copper and terracotta heads and sculpture, in some cases comparable to the best of Renaissance sculpture and portraiture (similar dates  too), involving great skill, especially with copper.  They are all different in features, and were surely modelled from life.  Some photographs showing collections of  these heads, resting on rough brick platforms, look like severed heads after the guillotine.  Many are heads of chiefs, or gods, or chiefs who were deified; there are also very finely detailed whole body sculptures, for instance, of a hunter with his weapons, and a damaged one of a man seated on the ground.

This one was interesting, in that it was sculpted in a naturalistic way  “throughout”; that is to say, the torso, arms, legs and feet were lifelike, the ends of the toes sweeping back diagonally, rather that squared off as in the hunter for example.  Clearly, the Ife artists were capable  of naturalism.

So the Ife sculptures in some cases pursue both naturalism and stylisation simultaneously; naturalistic head on stylised body, legs and feet (legs are cylindrical columns, feet are thick, flat squared-off slabs – the sort of stylisation copied by Leger, Picasso etc.).  Why?  Why not the whole-body naturalism of the Italian Renaissance?

The book of the exhibition notes the simultaneous naturalism and “abstraction” and offers some ideas based on the notion of an “outer” and “inner head” – the latter (abstraction) being a sort of representation of the soul, for  want of a better word.  but  this does not answer the question of the body and limbs.

Presumably the answer has something to do with the importance of the individual in Renaissance Europe (or in ancient Greece and Rome, since the Renaissance artists were following them), anatomical curiosity, etc.; or perhaps it’s to do with the function of the sculptures; ritual, maybe.  It certainly doesn’t seem to be a matter of technical ability.

There are also depictions of some physical diseases and deformities, the most grotesque of which is a case of elephantiasis of the testicles – what was the function of these depictions?  Other questions that occurred to me were whether there were “professional” and “amateur” sculptors in Ife society and whether the artist performed all the stages in production or was there a visit to tradesman who did the technical job of producing the sculpture (by the “lost wax” method).  Maybe these questions were answered in the book.  The exhibition really ought to be seen in combination with the Renaissance drawings – for some reason, you can’t buy a combined ticket to both.

Christen Kobke

Exhibition at National Gallery of this 19th century artist from Copenhagen; his father was Master Baker (say it carefully) at Charlottenburg, castle/fortress in the city.  Beautifully executed, but rather boring pictures of castle and its environs, bridges, cottages etc., mostly bathed in a restful, golden early evening light.  Lots of red brick too.

However, he also did portraits and there are some fine smaller ones, mostly of family members, that are full of character and have a matte finish.  There are two that are particularly good; his sister in law, with her direct gaze and serious expression and another of a doctor.  Not so good are the larger portraits, which are more highly finished; as a result, he loses the matte quality and the immediacy, somehow – the skin is shiny on the big ones.

There is one large canvas done from the roof of the castle with the lowest “base line” I’ve seen in a landscape – consequently, its about seven eighths sky!  Well worth a look.

One of my heads – St. Agatha.



Blackpaint 122

April 27, 2010

Tanning and Carrington

What I should have pointed out yesterday, once I had cleared up my own confusion about these two artists, is that they are both living:  Carrington in Mexico, aged 93 and Tanning in the USA, 100 years in August.

As to their work, Tanning does little girls, giant cockroach/grasshoppers in deserted ballrooms, with giant artificial-looking flowers, flights of birds that attack windows and fall as fishes.  Carrington does elongated, wild-haired women (self portraits, I  think), sometimes naked, often beset by white horses and once, attended by a strange half-hyena, half-zebra creature – or maybe it’s wearing its ribs on the outside…

Paul Feiler

I got a fine little Austin/Desmond catalogue from the shop near the Tate Modern, of works by this artist.  Born 1917,  a St.Ives artist who, for some reason, did not get a Tate paperback written about him.  He uses a palette of milky, curdled whites, ochre, browns, greys, blues and blacks.  His surfaces are often scraped and nubbly, his motifs are scored arcs, ovals, circles and stripes, always scratchy and rough.  Some works are semi-figurative; a window frame, for instance.  They have place names mostly, like Porthgwarra and Gwithian.  William Scott compared him to de Stael and in one painting, “Botallack, grey and black”, you can see what he means.  There are some smartly executed little figure sketches too.  It’s fascinating and instructive to see how much variation and beauty can be wrung from a fairly restricted palette and range of marks.

Jock McFadyen

Another cheap book from the same place.  Born in 1950, a youngster compared to today’s other features, McFadyen lives and works in the East End and does scenes of life in the area in the 80s.  A line of prostitutes lean against  wall, three hard-looking men with a forlorn pit bull, a one-legged woman on a crutch, a couple of girls in a park, waiting for “the Cortina Boys”, graffiti, yobs, market scenes.  And a portrait of Harry Diamond, the photographer, dancing to jazz, no doubt, in “Paul Tonkin’s prefab”.  Harry Diamond was known both for his great photography and for having been a model several times for Lucian Freud.  That’s him in Freud’s portrait of the young man next to an aspidistra.  I can attest that McFadyen’s portrait is excellent, having met Harry several times in the last ten years through my dear friend, Bob Glass.

Listening, appropriately, to the Duke Ellington 40’s band, the so-called Blanton band, doing “Harlem Air-Shaft” and “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”



Blackpaint 121

April 26, 2010

Tate Modern

Dropped my partner’s paintings in to the Bankside Gallery for an exhibition today, so after, visited the  little round Jorn heads swimming like fish and the black Pollock and the Kline “black bridgehead” (Meryon, is it? sounds like St.Ives) and the huge, scraped, shimmering Richters and the pink and pearl grey Mitchell, to make sure they were still there – they were.

Motherwell, Picasso

In the Surrealist bit, was struck again by how boring the surfaces of most surrealist works are.  Makes sense I suppose, because the “message” is in the images, not the texture.  But I’m over familiar with most of them, so again, the painting that captured my attention was the Motherwell “Ulysses” on cardboard and wood, with that fleecy lump of white and the black triangular shape. 

Also, a Klee, black line drawing on white ground, “The Burdened Children” – looked a bit like a Brice Marden. 

These, and of course, the Picasso in that startling light  green, with the chunky woman staring out at you from her prone pose, resting on her elbow.  He, Picasso that is, always captures your eye.

To me, it always looks as if he’s just walked up to the canvas, slapped on the background, executed the figure in a few decisive (almost contemptuous) strokes, filled in a few details, looked at his watch and moved on to bash out another painting before the paint dries.  It’s a feeling I get from nearly every Picasso canvas – no errors, no overpainting, slip-slap, masterpiece done, move on.  The colours are piercing, the images arresting, the surfaces OK, but he’s not really interested in texture, is he?  No time.

In the bookshop after, a woman picked up the Taschen Picasso and leafing through, said to her friend, “He wasn’t bad at the beginning, you know – before he started to go all weird.”


A new name to me, and a roomful of works, by Julao Sarmento, Portuguese, born 1948; one with a surface resemblance to Rauschenberg, rather disturbing collection of images in one of which, a man appears to be throttling a woman… Others in which the images are part erased or faded out – to do with memory.

Carrington, Tanning and Carrington

I realise today that I have been confusing two, and sometimes three different women painters.  For the similarly afflicted (I’m sure there are some), Leonora Carrington (British) and Dorothea Tanning (American) are both surrealist painters with a somewhat similar style, both with a connection to Max Ernst (Carrington was his lover until his arrest in WW2 by the Gestapo and his subsequent marriage to Peggy Guggenheim.  Tanning married him after Guggenheim). Dora Carrington, a little earlier than the other two, 1893 – 1932, was not a surrealist but a portraitist.  She was married to Lytton Strachey and committed suicide after his death.

Unforgiveable, this confusion – I’ll look at the work of the two surrealists more closely to establish the differences more firmly and stop this mental blurring (but their names and work are similar – and then there’s the Ernst connection…).

White Worm (fragment)

Listening to Ian Dury, Jack Shit George.

“What did you learn in school today? Jack shit.

Soon as the teacher moves away – that’s it.”



Blackpaint 120

April 25, 2010

Raphael etc. at the British Museum

I see from the Review Show (Fri, BBC2) that one of the star drawings on show at the above is a drawing for the Raphael St.George and the Dragon that was cited in Blackpaint 118.  If I didn’t  despise cliche, I would be tempted to mention fingers on pulses or worse, surfing the zeitgeist – but I do despise cliche, so I will draw a veil over both of these expressions.

I have to say that I’m irritated by the sort of awed, reverential terms critics use in discussing Renaissance works; recent examples being the critics’  response to the Michelangelo presentation drawings at  the Courtauld and Simon Armitage on the Review Show, talking about them as if they were some kind of holy relic from an age long before abstraction and conceptual art, when artists really were artists and cared about getting things right (and were capable of it – not like today’s shower, who can’t draw properly, etc, etc).  Presumably, something of the sort applies to poetry too and music and the novel?  Quite a lot of modern poetry doesn’t rhyme or scan properly, for example.

Cai Guo-Kiang and Zao Wou-Ki

The first of these two artists exhibited I think last year at the Guggenheim in Bilbao and at the Tate Modern more recently(?).  He “paints” with gunpowder, setting off little explosions on paper, as well as doing firework displays and some spectacular installations (an arcing shower of stuffed wolves, for instance and cars spinning back to earth after being thrown up by an explosion of neon tubing).  The wolves bring Beuys to mind and his colours recall Kiefer, a bit – but the interesting thing for me was seeing two oil paintings by Zao done in 1970 that in their coppery, grey, black, gold and white coloration really resemble Cai’s gunpowder efforts – so much so that I had it in mind they were by the same artist.  Until today, when I looked them both up and realised my error.

Sort of California feel -Blackpaint

I’ve been watching that great documentary on the Ferus Gallery, Walter Hopps, Irving Blum and their California stable of artists – or whores, as one of the artists admitted.  More tomorrow.

Listening to “Black and White” by the Highwaymen;

“Welcome home, said the hot moonlight,

We were born and raised in black and white;

One chose the dark, one chased the light,

We were born and raised in black and white..”


Sunday night

Blackpaint 119

April 24, 2010

Raoul de Keyser and Prunella Clough

The second pair of artists in my “spurious connections” series (see Blackpaint 117).  What you have to do is to Google the artists, go to Images and be startled by how right my generalisations are.

De Keyser is Belgian, born in 1930 and living; Clough was British, born 1919 and died in 1999.  So what do they have in common?  First, a sort of “bittiness”.  They both tend to produce works of fragmented, often floating shapes and both use the periphery of the paper or canvas, sometimes with the objects drifting out of the picture.

They both use a variety of materials and methods; Clough’s images are usually more hard-edged, precise; De Keyser’s are often fuzzier, rougher, more brushy – his are perhaps more playful.

They both combine the abstract and the figurative and both use mundane, everyday things and scenes – de Keyser, football pitches (he was a sports writer), dogs; Clough, plastic carrier bags, barbed wire fences, corroded water tanks, canal banks).

Finally, many of their works are comparable in size and their pictures contain a lot of space.  That’s about it – read the rest of this, have a look on Google and most importantly, comment to point out what rubbish I’m writing.  I know it is already, because my partner, a big fan of both artists, has already done so.


Just to return to this play for a moment (see Blackpaint 118), I have to point out some amusing ironies.  First, we were sitting in the upper circle surrounded by teenage boys and girls from, I would guess, two different schools, very “well-spoken” and, as it turned out,  perfectly well-behaved. 

The play then proceeded to present a sympathetic, even heroic portrait of a middle-aged caravan dweller who supplied drugs and drink to teenagers – lines of cocaine were snorted, cannabis was smoked, acid was taken on stage – and allowed them to sleep at his site.  He boasted graphically of having had sex with most of their mothers in earlier days.  The word “cunt” must have been used at least ten times (invariably getting a laugh from the cultured audience).  The view was expressed that teenagers would drink, take drugs and have sex from adolescence onwards anyway – at least they would in Wiltshire.

I’m wondering what attitude the members of the audience would adopt, should such a person really park his caravan near to their homes.  I for one would sign the petition; or more likely, I’d refuse, safeguarding my libertarian values, hoping all the time that the neighbours’ signatures would be enough to do the trick. 

Listened to the New St. George by the Albion Country Band

“Freedom was your mother, fight for one another,

Leave the factory, leave the forge,

And dance to the new St.George”.

Rooster would agree.



Blackpaint 118

April 23, 2010


Blackpaint celebrated St. George’s Day (and Shakespeare’s spurious birth and death day) early, by going to see the Jez Butterworth play at the Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue last night.  It was nearly as good as the reviews;  my only disappointment was that the language didn’t quite match the Shakespearean overtones.  Rooster Byron clearly invites some comparison with Falstaff, as an unofficial Master of Revels and a “misleader” of youth; I kept waiting for the “chimes at midnight” line, but it never came.

There were a couple of excellent monologues, put in the mouth of the confused professor; one was a long rhyme that sounded traditional, the other a short account of the St.George legend – again, I think  it was a quotation.

At the end of the play, Byron calls up a long line of English, Anglo-Saxon and other(? Yggdrasil?  isn’t that the Norse tree that joins earth to heaven?) folk heroes and mythic figures and I was reminded of the Donmar Theatre years ago, watching the end of Albert Mtwla’s “Woza Albert”, where  the heroes of the Liberation struggle are invoked one after another.

That was the second occasion that I was transported back in time;  the first was 10 or 15 minutes earlier, when Sandy Denny’s “Who knows where the time goes?” was used for a dance sequence.

It was December 1966 and I was in Charing Cross  Road, opposite St Martins -in- the-Field, by Trafalgar Square.  I was humping a big, brown leather briefcase  back to my firm’s West  End office.  Beatle hair over my ears and collar, suit and tie.  Suddenly, right in front of me, emerging from a taxi, carrying a guitar case and  wearing a black cape, Sandy Denny.  I’d seen her play and sing at the Nag’s Head in Winstanley Road, Battersea on the previous Sunday night and I like to think  she recognised me (it was a small, smoky upstairs room).  Anyway, I was smitten, although she was a couple of years older than me.

She saw me staring at her, paused and gave me a little quizzical smile; obviously at this point I  should have approached, told her I was a big fan, got an autograph – didn’t do  any of those; too shy- went red, turned away, walked on, kicked myself every night for a month…

Anyway, art.

Five great St. Georges; google them.

  • Tintoretto, National Gallery
  • Uccello, National gallery
  • Raphael, National gallery of Washington
  • Rubens, Prado
  • Odilon Redon – at least three versions, very strange.

My St.George (again)



Blackpaint 117

April 22, 2010

Albert Oehlen and Fiona Rae

I’m going to start a new occasional series (that is, I’ll do one now and another when I remember – maybe never), in which I link two artists and then decide that, whereas I thought they were similar, they’re really nothing like each other.  It  requires you the reader to Google them on Images and reach your own decision.

Albert Oehlen is German, born in 1954, and he does large canvases, layering in a range of techniques, sometimes using airbrush, for instance, then doing a layer of thrown-on paint, then brushwork, and so on.  The style, I suppose, strongly resembles Abstract Expressionism, which is why I am drawn to him – but he also includes figurative elements in his work.  Sometimes, bits of  it reminds me of early 60s Pop Art. 

The Saatchi Gallery website ( contains the following memorable (and baffling) quote:  “Albert Oehlen’s paintings are neither beautiful nor seductive.  Their self-consciously brutal surfaces seem to be corrupted from within, a perversion of the paintings they might have been.”

This makes them sound like Bacon or Dumas (not a bad thing, of course); “brutal”,” corrupted”,” a perversion”…  To my eyes, they are both beautiful and seductive.

Ochre Eater, by Blackpaint

Fiona Rae is younger, British born 1963 in Hong Kong, and was a YBA.  Her Wikipedia entry identifies her work as abstract expressionist or similar; her canvases are large, colourful, employing, like Oehlen, a range of techniques.  Yes, I think they are alike – Rae’s motifs appear more flowery and/or organic perhaps, colours maybe more vibrant..?  Not sure, have a look – it will be well worth it.


Ochre Eater 2, by Blackpaint



Blackpaint 116

April 21, 2010

Best figure drawers

I’m excluding Mich and Leon, Raphael and the rest of their Renaissance mates because they’re just too good  really; I’ll run a specially pointless and spurious competition with myself to establish which of them is the best at some later date.  So, this  is just between the more recent chaps.  They are mostly chaps, not because men draw better, but for all the reasons that there are (historically) more male than female artists.  The women who come to my mind are Gwen John, Paula Rego and Elaine de Kooning.  As for the men-

  • Degas
  • Lautrec
  • Ingres
  • Stubbs (horses, I know, but horses  have figures too)
  • Seurat
  • Bonnard
  • Uglow
  • Diebenkorn
  • Kitaj

What do you think?  I’m talking rubbish, aren’t I?  What about Picasso, Matisse, Delacroix, Velasquez etc., etc. – Please comment, as I enjoy a pointless argument based purely on prejudice and  selective ignorance as much as the next person.

I have to stop now, and I want to publish so more fully rounded blog tomorrow.

Listening to the Blackleg Miner by Steeleye Span.

“So join the union while ye may,

And don’t wait til your dyin’ day-

For that might not be far away,

You dirty blackleg miner.”



Blackpaint 115

April 20, 2010

Gerhard Richter

Should have added his name to the list yesterday, but then it would have gone up to eleven, like Nigel Tufnell’s amp.  I’ve just been looking at a guidebook to the Pompidou Centre from 2003 and there is a painting called “Jun n 527” dated 1983, in yellow and red, with light green downward slashes, that is worth a look (note my new refusal to use superlatives).  If you google Gerhard Richter and go to images, you’ll find about 5 pages worth of similar paintings.  I recommend that you do so.

Hantai and Degottex

Simon and Jean respectively, two names I omitted from my review of the Pompidou (Blackpaint 108/109).  They seem to use scraping and scribbling, Twombly-like, on black or dark backgrounds and go with Soulages and de Stael in the collection.  Looking at the latter’s picture “Rooftops” with a sort of horizon a third of the way up against a grey “sky” – it (the horizon) seems to fizz like Rothko’s sometimes do.


Watching the second part of this last night, I was struck again by how often the artists seem to struggle with  the meaning of their art.  Blue Curry for instance, with his swordfish blade through the basketball.  What did it mean? He didn’t seem to know, but thought it was worthwhile anyway, and of course, he was right; what’s the point of making an art work if you can put the idea into words easily?

This is a problem with conceptual art, where the artist is trying to communicate an idea or ideas; the art work is a metaphor.  If it’s a good one, the idea is communicated and the purpose is served.  More often, the idea is complex; the artist is attempting to say several things, some of them perhaps contradictory; the art work is therefore a “meditation” on something, or the artist “is preoccupied” with something.  But do these meditations and preoccupations come first?  I think in many (most) cases, the artist thinks A or B would be an exciting or amusing thing to do and worries about meaning later, if at all.  I hope so anyway.

I think Roisin Byrne, the self-styled Irish thief, is onto something with her rip-offs of other artists; she’s meditating on ideas of originality, authenticity and value in the art world.  It’s only an extension of the “ready made” idea that’s been around since Duchamp, after all.  I would have thought that there would be legal limitations to her operations though, and was surprised that Goldsmiths awarded her the end-of-year prize; doesn’t that make the institution an accomplice?

Listening to “Time has told me”, by Nick Drake.

“Time has told me, not to ask for more,

For someday this ocean will reach its shore…”