Painterly tulips, Balthasar van der Ast and May Day

Tulipa-Princess-IreneMy friends know I enjoy down time in the garden and little garden gifts are much appreciated. I always plant out everything I’m given, but sometimes the colours don’t fit well with a particular planting. This situation at first may appear disappointing, but in general, it is a bonus as I don’t feel guilty when I immediately cut them for the house.

Every spring these striking red and yellow tulips (tulipa Gavota) return and, despite plenty of background green, do not fit with the main pink, white and orange display in the back bed. Therefore, it is the chop!

On cutting and arranging them I was reminded of the Dutch craze for tulips in the seventeenth century and the many beautiful still life oil paintings of floral displays that included tulips. The above painting, ‘Flowers in a vase with shells and insects’, is by Balthasar van der Ast and now hangs in the National Gallery, London. Photographic reproductions do not do these type of paintings justice. With a close examination of the flowers in the painting I can clearly see an iris, some tulips, a rose, some carnations, a pale pink and white antirrhinum, and, more in the shadows a fritillary and a sprig of mauve lilac.

I don’t grow carnations and I have lost all my snake’s head fritillaries as my soil is far too gritty and parched, but I’ve just been out in the garden (May Day) and located examples of flowers in the painting. Although some are by no means in full bloom and others have nearly gone over, the snap dragons (antirrhinum Night and Day) have not even started producing buds! We all know that the professional growers can keep flowering back or force it forwards, just think what they do for Chelsea each year, and I’m guessing some of these skills are centuries old. But we must not forget that however true to life a work of art may appear it is still the product of the artist’s creative interpretation. All those different flowers may or may not have been together in that pewter jug sometime in May 1630.

And, this wouldn’t be a May Day post without a photo of the classic May-tree blossom – the hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) – commonly used for garlands (outside the house only) for a traditional English May Day celebration.


Where’s the dragon?

St George and the dragon
Icon of St. George. Greece early 19th century
Oil on panel
33 X 23.5 cm
St George is celebrated as the patron saint of England, but being of a somewhat contrary nature, I find the Eastern Orthodox icons of St George more interesting than the sentimental, overwrought English versions.

The fight: St George kills the dragon
The fight: St George kills the dragon VI – 1864
Edward Burne-Jones
Oil on canvas 105 x 131 cm
The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia

Also, I always feel sorry for the messy end of the dragon. So, when I was harvesting images from a beautiful calendar featuring excellent prints of Russian icons, I didn’t choose St George. Instead I cut out ‘Saint Boris and Saint Gleb on horseback’ which shows two beautiful, stylized horses, a couple of saints and no dragons in sight.

Saints Boris and Gleb
Russian icon with Saints Boris and Gleb circa 1377
Original –
Egg tempera on lime wood 115 x 92 cm
Novgorod Museum, Russia.
My small copy from a calendar of Russian Icons.

Do we think painterly florals are ‘Wearable Art’?

wearable art
Catalogue cover advertising ‘painterly florals’

Last week a mid-market catalogue arrived in the post with this cover page. Now the expression ‘Wearable Art’ is extremely flexible and let’s be honest a bit naff. Not for one minute am I saying that some art isn’t so beautiful you want more of it, for yourself, to remind you of seeing it. Most major art galleries and museums now have ‘the shop’ where you can buy all kinds of items emblazoned with reproductions of traditional, formal art. I have to admit to being so enamoured of Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ that I made myself a sunflowers silk top, but I never thought I was wearing his art. Art inspired, yes, but not art.

And, that is what I think about the rest of my wearable work, often art inspired, but perhaps not actually art. In the past, I have created art by painting silk where content has been an expression of a concept and knowing that the piece will be mounted and viewed flat on a wall has both broadened and constrained my approach. And, now we return, as so often, to the divide between art and craft where the flexible boundaries are bent by original intent.

thistle and dahlia design

As this year’s spring/summer fashion hits the stores, apparently one of the major trends in both fashion and interiors is ‘painterly florals’. I suppose this will be clothes made from floral textiles where the printed fabric designs were originally painted flowers with visible brushstrokes. I’m guessing it doesn’t mean cloth directly painted with flowers! Shame – as that would be such a boon to us silk painters who often actually paint flowers, sometimes called art, sometimes wearable, but always one-off images.

flowers and birds design
Work in progress – painterly flowers, birds and urns.
Will be wearable

Creativity and Embroidery: A therapeutic combination

John Craske Dunkirk
Part of ‘The Evacuation of Dunkirk’
John Craske
Embroidery (painting in wools). Unfinished.
So often in our modern world working with our hands is undervalued. With the recent financial crisis and extensive recession – ‘How much?’ is so often the primary concern. However, the creative process can not be viewed in monetary terms alone. The value of creating/making/producing a piece of work with your own hands can be extremely rewarding in other ways. The process of making can be intellectually stimulating. It can provide a forum for collaborative and communal working. It can bring personal satisfaction and a sense of achievement. And, for many people the activity of creative handwork is therapeutic.

Craske Dunkirk 2
A recent exhibition “Frayed: Textiles on the Edge” at the Time and Tide Museum, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, shows the value of creating hand-stitched work during times of stress and anguish. There is more information about some of the pieces and how the exhibition was curated on their blog.

Craske Dunkirk 3

“The Evacuation of Dunkirk” woolwork by John Craske is a long and narrow piece of calico (I estimated about 4 metres by half a metre) embroidered with images showing the British forces being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. Stitched between 1940 and 1943, John Craske called his work “painting in wools”. It is a piece created, developed and stitched during times of personal illness and mental strife.

Craske Dunkirk 4

Born in Sheringham on the north Norfolk coast in 1881, John had worked on the boats until he was called up for the army in 1917. Not long after this he caught flu which resulted in complications and an abscess on the brain. From this time onwards he suffered from comas and periods of debilitating depression and was often housebound. During these episodes he painted, but as his health deteriorated he spend longer periods confined to bed and at the suggestion of his wife, Laura, he began stitching his pictures instead.

Dunkirk Rescue Craske

These photographs do not do justice to the whole, long work which sadly remains unfinished as John Craske died in hospital in 1943. However, he has left us with a beautiful, delicate, almost shimmering interpretation of a traumatic moment in history.

Nowadays, in Western culture embroidery is viewed as a woman’s hobby with a long tradition of ladies occupying themselves with their needles. However they are part of a continuum stretching far back to when both sexes stitched. Opus Anglicanum (English work) is a type of fine needlework known across medieval Europe. Much of it was silk vestments embroidered with gold, silver-gilt and silver thread, and, it was created by men and women. The names of some of these embroiderers, both male and female, are recorded in contemporary documents.

The Syon Cope on display at the V&A, London.  Made in England 1300 - 1320.  Linen, embroidered with silver-gilt and silver thread.
The Syon Cope on display at the V&A, London.
Made in England 1300 – 1320. Linen, embroidered with silk, silver-gilt and silver thread.

Art for Art’s Sake – Damien Hirst?

Damien Hirst Alexander McQueen
Damien Hirst for Alexander McQueen
Limited edition silk scarf.
Sometimes you can’t help but wonder what a critic from a past age would make of our contemporary world. Although not the first to use the expression ‘Art for Art’s Sake’, I expect the Victorian writer, Walter Pater would be amazed at out current convoluted interpretations of ‘Art’. In his book, ‘The Renaissance’, published in 1873, he wrestles with the contemplation and definitions of beauty in a broader discussion of aesthetics. His book is partly a response to the 19th-century changes in manufacturing which brought about factory-based mass production. In his Chapter “Luca Della Robbia”, Pater discusses Italian Renaissance sculptors and their reinterpretation of the work of the Ancient Greeks. Pater draws our attention to the difference between the Ancient Greeks and the Renaissance Italians and gives us his Victorian’s view on the importance of individualism and personal expression through this extract about Michelangelo:

To him [Michelangelo], lover and student of Greek sculpture as he was, work which did not bring what was inward to the surface, which was not concerned with individual expression, with individual character and feeling, the special history of the special soul, was not worth doing at all.

Silk-Scarf-Art2Silk-Scarf-Art1Victorian Pater was looking for an artist to bring something of their inner self to their work. I think we would agree that Damien Hirst understands the value of confidently expressing himself. Although, it is hard to know whether it’s his inner self. He, as an individual almost becomes the brand, certainly his name is. However, I was still surprised to see these digitally printed silk scarves displayed in an art gallery window. They are branded Damien Hirst for Alexander McQueen. I don’t know about Art for Art’s Sake, perhaps Brand for Brand’s Sake. Fashion Houses have long traded on the designer being the brand, but I thought these limited editions scarves interesting blurred the lines between art and fashion.
Hirst for McQueen

Decorative – A Dirty Word

Breakfast at Sotheby'sLast November Philip Hook, a senior director at the famous auction house Sotheby’s, published his book about the art business. “Breakfast at Sotheby’s: An A-Z of the Art World” is partly about the art market – the money side, and partly about his 35 years of experience in the art world as an auctioneer and art expert. Reading down his irreverent glossary of words frequently used to describe, discuss and explain art entertained me no end. He takes no prisoners swiping at some of the ridiculous language employed to promote a work of art. For example;

challenging: obscure, incomprehensible or unpleasant, as in “X’s challenging Abattoir Series”
difficult: one step beyond “challenging”; applied to a work that is so obscure, incomprehensible or obscene that there’s nothing to do but admit it
accessible: euphemism for obvious or superficial (see decorative)
decorative: devoid of intellectual substance

Of course there is a serious side to all this. Here’s the conundrum; by its very nature art is primarily a visually experience and any attempt to describe it becomes a translation of the original. Still, we do need a stock of words at our disposal to share our experiences, but so often an ‘in-the-know’ jargon develops and this is what Hook is having fun with. I understand that any academic discipline has its own terminology and from my own experience I know that Art History is littered with special words – signifier is one of my favourites. But any general discussion involving a wider audience needs to be jargon free and clear. We see from Hook’s glossary that ‘decorative’ used about art is now a pejorative term.

Why then is ‘decorative’ a dirty word? I suppose with an intellectual approach to art, content is more valuable that any surface attractive quality. It takes a very secure contemporary artist to make a piece that is remotely decorative. But, if you review what sells at auctions, what is being collected and what commands the higher prices its surprising how often that work with a decorative quality is more sought-after. According to Hook he informs us that some subjects are more popular than others. For example, paintings of interiors have been selling well in recent times. Now, that is not all interiors, that is domestic interiors not the interior of churches etc and preferably paintings by certain, well-known artists such as Bonnard.

Le Petit Déjeuner by Pierre Bonnard
Pierre Bonnard, Le Petit Déjeuner.
Oil on canvas
63.5 x 95 cm
Painted in 1936
Christie’s, New York. 5 May 2011

Mentioning interiors reminds me of a comment made by one of my Art History professors, ‘Of course you do realise that often when people buy a work of art they consider how it will fit with their overall interior look.’ Hmmm, I don’t know about you, but that is sounding suspiciously as though some art, with or without intellectual substance, is viewed as ‘decorative’! Final thought – just measured my dining room and it’s not big enough for a dead shark in a tank nor will my bank balance stretch to a diamond encrusted skull. Oh well, I’ll just have to make do with this watercolour of an interior.

Conversation at Breakfast - D Hughes Watercolour (34 x 45 cm)
Conversation at Breakfast – D Hughes
(34 x 45 cm)

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2013 – hmm

Last weekend I was in London and had time to visit this year’s Summer Exhibition at The Royal Academy. I’ve been a few times before, but not recently and it was heartening to see they don’t seem to have crammed in the work quite so ferociously as they did in the deep dark past.RA-SummerExhib13

But still some rooms have such densely packed walls that it is difficult to extract the wheat from the chaff.

A tricky hanging - balancing very differing content.
A tricky hanging – balancing very differing content.

With the usual restrictions on photographing exhibitions I have found that The Economist’s Culture Blog has a small gallery of the show which gives a good overall impression.

Now, it is very easy to be swept along by other people’s views especially where ‘art’ is concerned, but in the end you are the only viewer in your head and so your personal opinion is your personal opinion. WorkNotesI make a point of not reading reviews before I go to an exhibition, a performance or even a film – I try to go in a state of openness to a new experience, but I am also aware that I bring my own prejudices. Sometimes it is virtually impossible to avoid the great and the good giving us the benefit of their wisdom when an event is endlessly trailed and heavily promoted. However, this time I’d missed all the usual fuss associated with Summer Exhibition and arrived early with catalogue and pen ready.

TateMoss-with- space

First impressions, well lit, light in feel and light in content. This painting bucked the trend. Neither of these photographs do the central picture justice. It is a striking oil by Jock McFadyen RA called Tate Moss. It is quite large, it even felt large in a spacious gallery room, and shows a derelict, industrial warehouse with graffiti. Despite its sombre theme the blues and green lighten the impression and I could see it gracing the boardroom of a FTSE 100 Company to remind the directors of their own business mortality.

Jock McFadyen
No.76 Tate Moss Jock McFadyen. £55,000. Oil. 200 x 300cm. © Jock McFadyen; Photograph courtesy the artist from the RA Image of the Day on Pinterest.

I don’t normally speak to strangers (I am very English), but I had just written a brief note about a grouped set of canvasses when I heard the stern comment ‘Derivative’ as the man in front of me turned to his companion. He glanced at me seeing my smile and I explained I’ve literally just noted ‘quite derivative’. “Absolutely” he barked and left for the next room, thinking about it I hope he wasn’t the artist, a well-known RA, – he did look the right age.

Note on abstract works that need contextual information and detailed explanations to appreciate.
Note on abstract works that need contextual information and detailed explanations to appreciate visually.

Don’t you think that a work of art selected for such a prestigious show as the Summer Exhibition should step out from the banal and the mundane and agitate some kind of response in the viewer? Maybe more of these pieces achieve this when viewed alone or in a less art-filled environment. I thought this ‘Little Blue Pinocchio’ stepped out (actually almost out of the frame) despite being hung high on the top row – also visible in the second photo above.

£7,825. Digital print and lithograph with hand-painting. 87 x 100cm. Photo: John Bodkin/ DawkinsColour. © Royal Academy of Arts from the RA Image of the Day Pinterest.
No.211 Little Blue Pinocchio Jim Dine. £7,825. Digital print and lithograph with hand-painting. 87 x 100cm. Photo: John Bodkin/ DawkinsColour. © Royal Academy of Arts from the RA Image of the Day Pinterest.

Walking through the galleries I was struck by the overall paleness/monochrome nature of the show as if the low key presentation was attuned to the general art mood (there have been many cuts to art organisations’ budgets). The most striking of the monochrome works was a series of large ink drawings consisting of three studies of Icelandic geological features, by Emma Stibbon RA. Again, the photograph does not do justice to the work as in real life the scale and detail combine to generate an intense yet restrained visual impact.

£4,700. Ink and volcanic dust on paper. 130 x 183cm. Photo: John Bodkin/ DawkinsColour. © Royal Academy of Arts from the RA Image of the Day on Pinterest.
No.57 Hverir, Iceland. Emma Stibbon RA. £4,700. Ink and volcanic dust on paper. 130 x 183cm. Photo: John Bodkin/ DawkinsColour. © Royal Academy of Arts from the RA Image of the Day on Pinterest.

But as usual, and it is always the way, the most stunning and interesting work – the one for me anyway – (other than the splendid Grayson Perry tapestries) had no reproductions available. It was No.580 an acrylic with gloss by Gulcehre Ciplak called ‘The Long List, You Are On It Too!’. It depicts a dining table with unused, empty plates and three turkeys wearing collars and ties staring indignantly directly out at you. The direct gaze is challenging and seems to say ‘What are YOU going to do about this?’

OCTOBER 2013 – update if you want to see Gulcehre Ciplak’s fascinating painting she has now uploaded a photo to her website

If you are in London and have a spare couple of hours then I recommend a visit not least to see the grand finale of the Grayson Perry tapestries. The exhibition is on until 18 August 2013.