Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Another chance to examine the modern

Landscape of the Moon's Last Phase, Paul Nash
In between work commitments in Liverpool at the weekend, there was enough time to pop into two of the city’s galleries for an injection of art.

First up was the Walker Gallery, which is currently hosting a small exhibition of early work by David Hockney alongside its permanent collections.

Those collections include some real gems – my own highlights were a vast portrait of Henry VIII from the studio of Hans Holbein, The Viaduct at Arcueil (1898-1900), which is a very early Matisse, and Interior at Paddington (1950-51) by Lucian Freud.

Then there was Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase (1944) by Paul Nash, which has a really haunting quality, Rembrandt’s Self-portrait as a young man (1629-31) and St John the Evangelist (about 1610-1614) by El Greco.

St John the Evangelist, El Greco
The latter is, I think, the first El Greco I’ve really looked at, and what strikes you so strongly is the modernity of it.

Cézanne’s The Murder (1867-68) was fascinating – like the Matisse, it was an early work and offers you a fresh perspective on the later, more famous paintings.

We’ll skate over the Pre-Raphelites as rapidly as I scooted past them: technically brilliant, but mawkish and overly fond of pictures of dying or dead women.

On the other hand, the gallery has a particularly large collection of modern art – partly because of links with the John Moores art prize.

On the train up north, I’d finished reading Will Gompertz’s What Are You Looking At?, a history of modern art from the 19th century right up to Banksy.

It’s an excellent read – chatty and witty, and making some complex ideas seem really simple.

Interior at Paddington, Lucian Freud
And the Walker offered the opportunity to look at some modern works against the background of what I’d learned from that book.

A fair amount of modern art is, in essence, patterns, geometric or otherwise. Generally, I find these quite easy to view – what was interesting was later noting the piece on the wall in my hotel room: simple stripes, but pleasing and soothing sea greens, with just two pencil thin stripes of a gentle pink.

In using stripes, it reminded me of a Bridget Riley I’d seen in the Walker, which used apparently simple stripes to convey something quite different – in that case, a sense of optical illusion.

Gompertz says, 'no, modern art is not art that your five-year-old could do. And that is a pretty good illustration of just why.

Some of the exhibits still left me rather cold and/or bemused – a collection of step ladders from Yoko Ono is just one example.

But there are other works that I liked very much.

Mirage, Michael Raedecker
Mirage by Michael Raedecker, for instance, won the John Moores in 1999. Raedecker incorporates different materials in his works, such as thread where you might otherwise expect paint.

This is a piece that draws you into to a fascinating landscape that seems to hark back slightly to Dalí, but without the figures.

Emin's Bed, The Little Artists
I really liked Automobilia (1972-73) by Peter Phillips, which is a collage of super-real details of various classic cars – and I have long been a sucker for the gloss and superb technique of super realism.

And then there was the Lego version of Emin’s Bed by The Little Artists, John Cake and Darren Neave, which isn’t simply amusing, but begs questions about just what constitutes art.

The Hockney exhibition was interesting – a series of etchings provide a fascinating insight not only into the artist’s early work, but also into a world before the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Automobilia, Peter Phillips
And it’s also interesting to see early examples of Hockney’s famous swimming pool paintings, including Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool from 1966, which won the John Moores competition the following year.

The following day, after work, I had a small window of opportunity in which to nip into the Tate Liverpool to see the Art Looking Left exhibition.

Given time and a certain tiredness, it was very much a dive around, but if nothing else, I was determined to see David’s The Death of Marat (although it’s one of the copies he had his studio staff make).

Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool, David Hockney
It’s not an exhibition to run around, but demands the time to read some extensive exhibit notes and even do a spot of participation. It does, however, seem to be dominated by block-printed posters and there are only so many I can take.

On the other hand, there’s some Rodchenko’s Constructivist works and some Bauhaus exhibits, which were all worth seeing.

After that, I toddled off back to the hotel to slump.

But these had been two interesting gallery visits – albeit brief.

I would note that, if you're in Liverpool, the Walker Gallery is well wroth a visit – there's something for everyone.

And in combination with Gompertz’s excellent book – and I really recommend it, especially with Christmas on the horizon (but even without) – these two visits had offered a chance to improve my understanding of modern and contemporary art.

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