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Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Yesterday I spent several hours in Castelvecchio, the Scaliger Family's 14th century fortress that is one of the architectural landmarks of Verona. It is an extraordinary structure: enormous, brick and stone with a vast interior courtyard, towers, massive sundials and its most notable feature: imposing crennellations that are both severe and fanciful with their monolithic looking Y-shaped volutes. This distinctive design is also continued on the city walls that are visible at various points throughout Verona and at Sirmione's fortress (also a Scaliger construction) on the shores of Lake Garda.

The purpose of my visit was to see the Carlo Scarpa renovations that were executed between 1959 and 1973 and, in particular, his amazing concrete staircase composed of triangular risers. Scarpa also designed all the exhibition props: inventive bronze mounts for paintings, floating bases for statuary and light fixtures.  

In addition to what may be the coolest staircase ever designed, there are at least four additional ones, not counting the wonderful slabs of steps outside. Looking at the famous one, I was struck by the dramatic play of light and shadow, which once I noticed seemed everywhere, a potent leitmotif that was reinforced by the play of intersecting planes in Scarpa's additions. 

Though a couple of the staircases are similar, each is unique, ranging from the COR-TEN steel curved bans to the polished lace-like stone steps edged in cork. I love the fact that Scarpa is not locked into one uniform approach, but expands and stretches his range again and again. 
The other thing I loved are Scarpa's surfaces. The occasional gleam of polished walls, the rough concrete indented with the grain of its wooden molds. The measured use of color: a rust panel here, Necco wafer gray concrete above pink brick there, or the unexpected dash of an indigo ceiling.

Scarpa's contemporary-meets-ancient approach is exactly right in this austere complex, bringing an elegant sleekness to what could have been an unmitigatingly grim, or at least boringly martial environment.    

Castelvecchio has a superb collection of medieval and quattrocento art as well as incredible wall decorations that emulate elaborate tilework and fabric that date to the building's origin. But I was so dazzled by the Scarpa, I barely looked at them. Next time!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Urban Renewal

Arnold Circus in London’s East End is a charming residential area consisting of handsome brick apartment buildings surrounding a raised green on which sits a bandstand. Though all is serene here now, the circus and buildings occupy the site of Friars Mount, London’s most infamous 19th century slum. Indeed, the mound that forms the center of the circus is composed of the rubble from the demolished slum and the, now very much in demand, apartment complex was arguably Britain’s first council estate.

Back in its slum heyday, around 5,700 souls lived here in a rat’s nest of dwellings, unpaved streets and alleyways. Sanitary conditions were horrendous with little or no sewage oversight, and running water available for just 10–12 minutes each day. On Sundays, there was no water. To add to the misery, noxious ponds formed in the cavities left behind when earth was removed for brick making. Although there were shoemakers and tailors here, there was also “boiling tripe, melting tallow, or preparing cat’s meat and slaughter houses, dustheaps, and ‘lakes of putrefying night soil.’” In addition to these “reputable” trades the area was crime-riddled, thick with street gangs, thieves and prostitutes.

The transformation of Friars Mount can be attributed to the Reverend Osborne Jay. Jay took over the local Holy Trinity parish in 1886 when one child in four died before his or her first birthday and the entire death rate was four times that of London. Jay worked tirelessly to improve conditions, raising the amazing sum of  £25,000 to build a new church, social club, gym and lodging house, and in 1890 he convinced the London County Council to replace the slum with flats.

The horrified court of Victorian public opinion was won over when writer Arthur Morrison published A Child of the Jago (1896) a fictionalized work that laid bare the shame of Friars Mount. Indeed, when no less than the Prince of Wales opened the new development in 1900, he cited Morrison’s book: “Few indeed will forget this site who had read Mr. Morrison’s A Child of the Jago.”

Sadly, when the estate was completed, it wasn’t the Friars Mount residents who moved in; it was too expensive for them. They were pushed further out into the surrounding area producing overcrowding and more slums.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Contemporary Portraiture

Portraits fascinate me. How people choose to present themselves and how the artists depict them provides endlessly rich fodder. Goya is the famous example, wielding his brush with delicious malice to expose the Spanish royal family's snooty imbecility. They were so dazzled by the richness of their jewels and clothing, they failed to see how very unattractive he had made them.
This particular form of blindness seems common in the portrait world. There are so many dreadful ones out there where the artist is just plain inept.

Here in London, I have been deluged by portraits of Tudors, Papuan New Guineans, American Indians and distinguished Britons whose deeds have secured them wall space at the National Portrait Gallery. It's a great place to check in with see the latest crop.

Contemporary portraiture presents particular challenges. How to present the subject in a way that represents them and yet looks fresh? There are plenty of examples at the NPG, of which the infamous painting of Kate is not one. This particular travesty is proudly displayed and is even more hideous in person--a treacley, airbrushed rendering that succeeds in making a very pretty, and from all accounts, gracious young woman, plain and even rather sour.

But on entering the Gallery initially one is greeted not by it, but by Alex Katz's orange billboard: "Anna Wintour." Whoever decided Katz should do her portrait is quite simply, brilliant. Such a flat rendition that offers nothing up to the viewer of this famous, bitchy sphinx is an example of perfect symmetry.

Opposite Kate is opera singer, Sir Willard Wentworth-White by Ishbel Myerscrough. The painting has a luscious quality with Wentworth-White positioned slightly off center against a hot pink background regarding the viewer with a commanding gaze.

Next to this is the hyperrealist portrait of Olympian, Dame Kelly Holmes by Craig Wylie, which at first I thought was a large format photograph. My assumption was not only based on its realism, but also on the un-posed, snapshot-like quality—a moment frozen in time. I would much prefer to see a portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge by Wylie: It would be fresh and immediate, in keeping with who she is.

Jason Brooks's portrait of Sir Paul Nurse along with the Wylie is another  successful, utterly contemporary portraits. Both these works are in-your-face large and unaffected, with poses that are either immediate or relaxed, the dress is casual, the face natural. These two works also have that added frisson of looking like something (photograph, drawing) they're not.

But style aside, part of the fun of the NPG is you get to see people you’re familiar with. John Fowles, for instance, who is every bit as soulful and melancholy as you would expect. Thomas Watson paints him looking off in the distance, adding a white orchid and glass vessel to balance his psychological and visual weight.

Justin Mortimer's 1992 painting of Harold Pinter is another intense painting. Mortimer places Pinter low on the horizon before a sea of books with a scarlet background that takes up most of the picture. Pinter has an almost bewildered, even stricken expression, pondering himself or the human condition is anyone’s guess.

Paula Rego's Alice Neel-like portrait of Germaine Greer depicts her with complete absence of vanity, inelegantly sitting, legs splayed on a sofa wearing a dress and sneakers, one of which has a split sole. Her head is cocked and she is looking off to the right as if listening intently to what someone is saying. A symbolic attitude for such a vocal personage.

A similar lack of vanity is present in the portrait of Maggie Smith by James Lloyd. Smith regards the viewer with an exacting gaze, her head resting on her right forefinger. Her face is absent of make up and no attempt has been made to soften the effects of age. It says a lot about an actress who is willing to allow such an unvarnished version of herself to be presented to the world. 

Composer, Thomas Adès's body forms a languid "S" shape in Phil Hale's full length portrait. He's wearing a white suit and his lanky frame is draped on a brown leather chair against a mahogany background. His posture, the affected and awkward position of his right hand and his sad-eyed face say a lot about who he is. Though unquestionably a contemporary piece, there's a 1930s quality that reminded me of Paul Cadmus.

Camilla Batmanghidjh the Iranian born British philanthropist is depicted in Orientalist splendor by Dean Marsh who wanted to emulate Ingres. There is a definite affinity with those well-fed members of the haute bourgeoisie like Madame Moitessier just next door at the National Gallery. To enhance its exotic effect, Marsh opted for a tondo shape.

Johnson Beharry is immortalized here in a portrait by Emma Wesley. Originally from Grenada, Beharry is the first living person to receive the Victoria Cross (the highest military medal for valor in the British army) in over 30 years, having saved the lives of 30 men while under fire in Iraq on two separate occasions. During the second incident he sustained serious head injuries. Though he is depicted in uniform, the portrait is small, modest. This may reflect his character and/or the current attitude toward war, and the conflict in Iraq in particular. No triumphant display here, just a quiet study of a man. Rebarry's unwavering, intense gaze denotes inner mettle.

Though it was in an adjoining gallery and wasn't part of the contemporary portrait show, I loved the self-portrait of poet and painter, Isaac Rosenberg and was so moved by his story. A pacifist, he enlisted in WWI out of poverty. He wrote what is considered his best poetry in the trenches and died there at the age of 27 in 1918.

There is a series of three intense, tight little drawings by Michael Landy, including a self-portrait. The heads are disembodied and seem to float amid white expanses of paper. Landy is an artist new to me, his "Saints Alive" at the National Portrait Gallery (where he is currently Artist in Residence) was inventive and imaginative.

In Andrew Tiff's wonderful charcoal of Eric Sykes, he renders the face and neck with fleshy perfection. These highly representational areas emerged from a shirt collar kept refreshingly sketchy.

Maggi Hambling captures comedian, Stephen Fry, adroitly in her charcoal, which could almost be called a caricature, displaying Fry's particular physical qualities as well as his character without getting bogged down with details.

Stuart Pearson-White's careful pencil portrait of pear-faced, Timothy Spall presents a nattily dressed man holding a beer can while regarding the viewer with a gimlet eye. The clothing and prop possibly reference Spall’s current success as an actor and his modest roots.

Frank Auerbach's pencil self-portrait is an intense, gestural piece of slashing marks and erasures. It's the most abstract of the works here and yet  conveys with great effect the sitter's personality.

On the mezzanine the portraits continue with a dynamic series of Cubist riffs on T.S. Eliot by Patrick Heron. Most of these were studies for the eventual portrait, but all had presence.

Here too is Lucien Freud’s self-portrait composed of “chunks” of paint that reminded me of Picasso’s bronze head of Fernande and a wonderfully sympathetic portrait of financier, Jacob Rothschild. I love how his eyes are downcast, the way the figure occupies the picture plane and the subtlety of the palette. And the flesh! From the shiny forehead to the wrinkles, pock marks and bulges, it is a tour de force.

Ruskin Spear’s painting of Francis Bacon featured a “Baconized” head Not sure whether this was Spear’s idea or Bacon’s.

The Situation Group by Sylvia Sleigh a portrait of a group of British artist influenced by American Abstract Expressionism who took their name from a 1960 exhibition of their work entitled Situation. It’s both an interesting period piece and composition. It has a collage quality as if she painted the different figures and then applied them to the canvas.

An austere, unsmiling Queen Elizabeth II is seen against a bleak gray background in her portrait by Pietro Annigoni who said of his rendering, “I didn’t want to paint her as a film star, I wanted to paint her as a monarch, alone in the problems of responsibility.”

I wandered into the BP portrait competition show and discovered John Devane’s The Uncertain Time, a portrait of his three children Lucy, Laura and Louis. I love how the children are asserting their independence and personality as evidenced in their clothing and posture.

Pieter by Susanne du Toit is a portrait of her eldest son, Pieter. Stripped down to essentials she creates a painting that is visually satisfying and psychologically potent using expression of face, hands and body to convey the sitter’s personality. Her line and palette are pretty nifty too.

Zuzana in London by Hynek Martinec is another hyperrealist painting. I’m trying to decide if I really should like this work or whether it’s kind of a trick. Maybe it is a trend that down the road will look hackneyed and facile. But right now, I think his and Wylie’s work is pretty cool.

But who knows how many of these (subjects and artists) will survive the test of time? The great portraits of the past by Bronzino, Rembrandt, Holbein, Velasquez, where the sitter’s character has been captured and one can see an actual person under the elaborate dress, provide a powerful human connection that transcends the intervening centuries. These artists are the best of the best and we do, first and foremost, admire their skill. But there is always curiosity about the sitters. What was life like for them? At least they have an audience. In my travels through thrift shops and antique malls, I often see discarded portraits and always feel a pang for these people whose likeness, in the end, no one wanted.