Archive for May, 2013

UA1-WA:P1-p2 Rome and the Nicholson Museum

Last post (26-May-2013) I wrote about time concerns given progress to date and four projects in this part. The “four projects” bit is somewhat misleading – the course recommendation is to complete just two before attempting the first assignment, completing the others “in your own time”. Given my time situation I have decided to skim through project 2. For the sake of continuity I’ve watched the video and read the textbook chapter, but I won’t be doing additional reading or completing the exercises and research point.

nicholson_01However before moving on from Ancient Greece and Rome I wanted to visit the Nicholson Museum at Sydney University. It holds the largest collection of antiquities in the southern hemisphere, and while there I learnt that the UK has only three collections larger. Somehow I had imagined a dusty forgotten corner, but in fact it is well located on the ground floor of the Main Quadrangle, with good lighting, modern displays and gift shop at the front. It’s also busy – a group of primary school children were enjoying hearing about Egyptian mummies when I arrived and soon after a tour group of adults came through. Later there was a group of university students, plus other individuals like me. It felt fresh, bright and energetic. My only complaint is that I found some of the signage a little too keen to be young and exciting – on the “horrible histories” side, with a somewhat breathless and excited retelling of the “soap opera” (their words) of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. (yes, I know – it’s important to remain relevant and I’m a grumpy old woman).

nicholson_02This is an Auplian volute krater, Amphorae Group, 340 – 320 BC. Although a lot smaller it has many similarities to the piece I annotated in project 1 (20-Apr-2013), and it’s great to be able to show a photo instead of my rough sketch. Both are from Apulia around the same time. The shapes and overall layout are very similar, including the swan heads at the shoulder and the moulded heads on the volutes of the handles. Many elements of the painting are on both vases – the areas of general patterning, the central head surrounded by foliage on the neck (although this one is in profile) and the heroon (central structure) including a slight three-dimensional effect.

nicholson_03This is a detail of a Apulian hydra, Painter of the Bari, 350 – 325 BC. On the left side is one of those “hook shapes”, and the scene shows the ribbons wrapped around the commemorative stele, which I mentioned in my earlier post. (Apologies as always about the photo quality. It was allowed, without flash, but the vases were in a glass front cabinet causing shadows and reflections.)
nicholson_04This Etruscan urn, terracotta, 2nd century BC had me breathless because of the colour still visible.
nicholson_05A closeup helps! There are quite large flecks of red, blue and yellow. I did a weak attempt at colouration on the Bowmore Artemis (5-May-2013), but although I’ve peered hopefully in the crevices of other works this is the first time I’ve seen the real thing. nicholson_06The museum even had a very nice photographic recreation of the colour by R. Conroy (2011).

However my main purpose in the visit was to view Roman art, and in particular I was hoping to see a portrait bust – this being a particular Roman invention. Disappointingly there were none on display.

nicholson_07This is Augustus Prima Porta, labelled as a nineteenth century copy from a first century AD statue. At the museum I thought it didn’t quite meet the definition of a portrait bust, having too much of the torso. A quick internet search now has revealed that is a copy of part of a statue (probably a more knowledgeable person would have realised the significance of the museum’s use of the word “statue” rather than “bust”.) There are photographs including a full length view, plus descriptive material on the Vatican Museum website (http://mv.vatican.va/4_ES/pages/z-Patrons/MV_Patrons_04_03.html). [Later edit – there is also information including a full page photograph in the course textbook – a sad comment on my reading recall 😦 .]

Commentary in the museum material, together with fragments I overheard from one of the guides, highlighted the ambiguous situation of viewing such copies, and indeed most of the museum collection, here in Sydney. Nicholson was a major contributor and sponsor of the new Sydney University in the 1850s and in a sense went shopping for antiquities (actual and copies) to “buy in” a culture for the developing colony. There are all the issues of items taken from their own place and context (Elgin marbles anyone? – but even less context here on the other side of the world), and also a hint of aspiring nouveau riche (the goldfields a major source of wealth at the time). On the other hand, I am a beneficiary of the system – so time to get back on topic.

nicholson_08A detail shows some of the propaganda value of the statue – such works were distributed around the Empire and promoted the personification in the Emperor of the might of Rome. This section celebrates the renewed might of Rome, showing the moment when Roman standards, lost by Crassus in 53 BC, are returned by a bearded Parthian in 20 BC.

nicholson_09This is Titus, a marble statue head, Roman, first century AD. Unlike Greek idealised sculptures, Roman statues (or at least the heads) were more likenesses of individuals. This appears to me an actual man – wrinkles on the brow, a wide firm mouth, a level gaze but a quirk in the eyebrows. Titus is clean shaven and his short hair seems to be held back by a narrow band.
nicholson_10The side view shows his slightly fleshy neck. The back is much less detailed, and I wonder if the original statue was intended to be seen from all angles.

nicholson_14nicholson_15This first century AD marble statue (minus head) of a Togatus was in another part of the room. The carving overall seems less detailed than other works, while the sides and particularly the back are very sketchy.

nicholson_13By contrast there was amazing detail in this fragment from the front of a sarcophagus, third century AD. It’s almost like a caricature, with the rolling eye of the horse looking like it could roll right out.
nicholson_16The flaring nostrils are deeply cut and the bend of the thumb shows how strongly the hand grips the bridle.

nicholson_11I don’t quite know what to make of the Nicholson Museum. It’s trying to fit so much into a relatively small area – a wide geographical area, broad time period, meeting academic and research requirements as well as making this distant (in time and place) history relevant to all. The Lego Colosseum has apparently been a huge success, and will soon be followed by a Lego Acropolis. I suppose the trick is for each visitor to take what is useful to themselves, and be happy that such a resource is available to us all.

More information
http://sydney.edu.au/museums/collections/nicholson.shtml

UA1-WA:P1-p2 Rome and the Nicholson Museum
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project two: Rome.
Topic: Overview and the Nicholson Museum

UA1-WA:P1-p1: Project 1 Review

This course doesn’t require reviews at the end of each project, but it’s a discipline I got used to during A Creative Approach and it certainly feels like a good time to take stock.

orders_lands_03The project started with an exercise on The Canon, a new concept to me. I took a few bites at it – see posts 17-Mar-2013, 13-Apr-2013, 26-Apr-2013, 28-Apr-2013 and 5-May-2013. I find the implications in terms of power particularly interesting, and also how these accepted values change – whether by evolution or revolution. I keep finding more. In the course text book is the comment “the buildings which were to be Rome’s greatest and most enduring contribution to the visual arts of the west were designed by men who … had the freedom of mind to break away from traditional methods of construction and accepted canons of judgement”. On a more modern and local level, a flier for an upcoming lecture series at the Art Gallery of NSW includes “The notion of the perfect sun bronzed Australian body endures into the 21st century as an iconic and nationalistic image that we are reluctant to relinquish” (2). Are some ideas so fundamental to humans that they recur over and over, or is this an enduring legacy of Classical ideals?

annotation_greekvaseFor the annotation exercise (20-Apr-2013) I chose a vase seen in the recent Alexander exhibition. It was satisfying to spend time studying one particular item, and I felt fortunate to be able to view it in person a couple of times. Reflecting now, there is a sense of disconnect, of an unbridgeable distance of understanding. I can’t even identify objects (a bell? a helmet?), let alone any ceremonial significance of decoration or use. Perhaps that is part of the point of Art History, going beyond surface appreciation. Daunting.

classical_building_16The final exercise was a visit to a Classical building (11-May-2013). I was determined to make my choice local and relevant to me personally. It was good to revisit some half-remembered history from primary school days. The response of tutor and assessors to this slant remains to be seen.

A much more concerning issue is time management. My first blog post for Understanding Art was 11-March-2013 and the first for Project 1 was 17-March-2013. Ten weeks for one Project, four Projects in this Part, five Parts to complete. Clearly things have to change.

I do have some excuses – watching all 18 episodes of Art of the Western World narrated by Michael Wood, lots of reading, long weekend trips to Canberra and Adelaide, the last couple of weekends spent putting together my assessment package for A Creative Approach, workshop, exhibitions, lectures, a couple of off-blog personal challenges, yada, yada. It’s time for some focus and discipline. Not an attractive thought, but necessary.

(1) Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King. Page 185.
(2) Art Gallery Society of NSW [n.d.] Moderns Remastered: Sydney Encounters with Modernism, Modernity and Style Moderne. (flier for A Learning Curve Lecture Series) Sydney: Art Gallery Society of NSW.

UA1-WA:P1-p1 Project 1 Review
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project one: Ancient Greece.
Topic: Review

Textiles 1: A Creative Approach – final tutor report

A Creative Approach??? You might think that was over and done with in my final Module Reflections posted 22-Feb-2013, very nearly three months ago.

It won’t be entirely done until the formal assessment process in July. More to the point, it wasn’t done because I hadn’t dealt with my tutor’s final report, nor with the damage to my final piece in the post.

p10_complete_01I’ve had Pat’s report for two months, and my parcel back almost as long but… I couldn’t figure out what to do.

I identified the major issues back in the project review post of 21-Feb-2013. Some critical phrases:
“the … wrapping is much too confused and visually distracting” (a quote from an even earlier post, writing about a sample – and repeated in the hope I’d addressed the problem).
“I’m not totally convinced by the black yarn binding, it’s a bit clunky visually, but it’s very important structurally.”
“The biggest test of my choices is yet to come – will the work survive multiple trips through the mail?”

Match this with Pat’s feedback:
“A bit confusing”; “dominant wrapping. Have another look at this”; “I can’t find an entry point for the eye”; “make sure the threads are anchored… one of the pieces had snapped”.

While being very clear that it was my choice what if anything to do, Pat had some specific suggestions – cutting down or rearranging the black; not so evenly spaced; perhaps leave head unwrapped.

To all this add that when the work arrived home the figure was a squashed little ball in the middle of the container. The discreet spots of hot glue anchoring the figure to the container had all failed, and clearly the figure had rattled around freely during all the handling of international postage. As a final injury, a second thread had snapped.

Doing nothing wasn’t an option – I had to take off the wrapping to re-fix the figure. Plus Pat’s points echoed what I already knew. I might second-guess myself, but it would be crazy to second-guess my highly experienced, capable and supportive tutor.

p10_yarnsplitI didn’t want to give up the spikey black yarn. It fits the subject so well, plus I had a length couched spiraling up one leg of the figure and it was printed on the red ribbon between phrases.
I found it could be split into two parts, making the interesting spikes much less heavy. The downside was that the yarn was a structural as well as visual element, maintaining the interesting squashed shape of the container. If the original thread had snapped under the strain there was no possibility the weakened split version would last.

Using a 26 gauge black wire to hold the structure was the solution I found. It’s quite non-intrusive visually and I was able to use it irregularly and on diagonals, avoiding an obvious grid.

Now the black yarn was purely for effect I could strip it down and use only the interesting part.

On the second issue of an entry point for the eye I decided to take Pat’s advice and keep the binding away from the head and much denser across the lower part of the body. This would give a clear space to enter the work, with more contrast and interest across the piece.

Fixing the figure in place proved more difficult. The hot glue didn’t adhere to the container. I’ve replaced it with pins going through the container and into the figure. There are two in the torso, one from each side hopefully creating a stable centre, and more in the head and legs. I wanted to avoid anything too obvious, so I’ve got my fingers crossed that this will last the (literal!) distance.

p10_figure_rework_01All of this sounds like problems solved – but they weren’t. I had anchored the figure and it seemed pretty stable when I shook it – but it was too high in the container. The wire was holding the squashed shape unobtrusively. The binding was improved … but still wrong. I couldn’t find a way to wrap the yarn and ribbon so they wouldn’t slip around and they wouldn’t intrude on the head.

I could give up or severely limit the binding with words – but that loses my whole point in developing the piece. Both the meaning of the text and the sense of constriction would go. Yesterday morning, mulling over options and fast disappearing time, I finally noticed an assumption. I was binding the words – influenced by Judith Scott’s work (see www.judithandjoycescott.com/ and posts 21-Feb-2013 and 28-Dec-2012). I’d chosen to make my figure from felt rather than binding, but the concept was still strong. I’d made a single very long ribbon of text and was trying to wrap the container and finding it really difficult to manage.

p10_figure_rework_02Giving up actual binding but producing the effect with separate pieces of ribbon would make placement easier – but how to hide the discontinuity on a transparent container? Perhaps a base – but without losing the distortions. In this first mockup I slid some black cardboard between the container and the existing wraps. Not bad, but the black merges with the dark of the open mouth and the head is a bit lost.

p10_figure_rework_03Mock-up mark II uses red cardboard and I liked it very much. It creates a place to hide discontinuities, it obscures some of the wrapping and thereby simplifies the image, it grounds the work and stops it floating in space, the red is a contrast to both the dark mouth and the pale skin so provides a background and foil to the head, and in my eyes it provides a coherence to the work, linking the red ribbon and the red in the dress.

p10_figure_rework_04
p10_complete_01The final reworked piece. I’ve repeated the thumbnail of the original version on the right to make comparison easier.

The bad, heavy grid is gone. It’s better having the head clear. It was deliberate in the original to have words right across the mouth – they were meant to be gagging the figure. The extra meaning didn’t come through and the design is better without.
p10_figure_rework_05There’s space around the head and I agree with Pat’s concern about an entry point for the eye.

The whole effect is still quite busy and messy. I haven’t achieved the increasing density of “wrapping” across the work as I intended. It would be interesting to try lighting with a strong spot on the head area and the rest in relative darkness…

p10_figure_rework_07A pause while I tried to simulate that with a torch. Not an easy thing to manage a torch in one hand, a camera in the other, and find a camera setting that can cope with the lighting differences. In short it’s beyond my skills to capture and the colour of the torch light isn’t attractive, but this gives the idea. I think proper, careful directional lighting could really enhance the work.

p10_figure_rework_06The back view is reasonable. In original wrapping I tried to be very conscious of viewing from all directions and I think the complexity got too much for me. This time I focused on the front.

Using the cardboard base not only hides all the ends, but it gave a place to tape everything multiple times. I taped a second piece of cardboard on the first, sandwiching everything in and (I hope) making it more secure. The security of the pins holding the body remains a major concern. Everything is more stable – but will it be stable enough? It only has to survive one mailing intact.

Overall I’m very glad I made the changes and I think they go some way to meeting the concerns Pat raised.

UA1-WA:P1-p1 Visit to a classical building

classical_building_01

Hyde Park Barracks. Front (west)

The final section of Project 1 is a visit to a classical building. The key skills required are: observe, describe, comment. I chose Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney as the subject building for this visit.

Selection of building

The requirements called for a classical building, not a church, with interior fully accessible if possible. Although I have written previously about Sydney architecture displaying classical orders (13-Apr-2013), the building interiors are generally not accessible to the public or heavily modified and extended even to the point of being merely a facade to a modern building.

Elizabeth Bay House (www.hht.net.au/museums/ebh) was one possibility. It was built 1835-39 in the Greek Revival style, conceived as “the finest house in the colony” (1), and is now open to the public as part of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW. However due to the financial situation of the owner, Alexander Macleay, the building was never completed as planned, the intended colonnade was not constructed and all original furnishings and decorations were sold off.

The Hyde Park Barracks, also cared for by the Historic Houses Trust, was built in 1819 to house convict men and boys. It has a significant place in Sydney’s history of architecture and town planning. At one point the Barracks were surrounded and almost overwhelmed by attached buildings, but these have now been removed leaving a largely original structure. The interior is fully accessible, and while this is sparse with no artworks to be seen this is appropriate to the original function of the building. I believe it displays elements of classical buildings.

Description of building – exterior

The Barracks are built of brick on a stone base. It could be (has been) described as a large barn, or as a temple. Brick pilasters divide the front and rear facades vertically into three equal parts, and the sides into ten parts. The pediment contains a clock. The deep soffits and stone base act as protection to the bricks in heavy rain. Although there is virtually no overt ornamentation or enrichment of the exterior the effect is imposing and attractive.

classical_building_02There is a strict geometry to the building, based on the square. My photograph, taken from street level, makes this difficult to see. The guidelines shown are based on a diagram in Herman (1954).

classical_building_03The square is used at all levels of detail, down to the panes of glass in the windows.

classical_building_04

Southern side

The building is a simple rectangle. At first glance the division of the sides with brick pilasters repeats the front, but there is a slight adjustment to proportions and size. The photograph on the right also shows the small bell turret at the front (not in the original plan), a central dome providing ventilation, and four apparent chimneys. The two at the front are connected to fireplaces. I believe the two at the rear may be entirely to provide symmetry.

classical_building_06

Rear and north east corner

The rear of the building repeats the front without any ornamentation in the pediment. In the photograph on the left it can be seen that at the ground level windows and doors fit into semi-circular recesses. At front and back the windows are rectangular – one and a half squares on the first two levels, a square at the top level. At the sides the ground level windows are two squares surmounted by a semi-circular light, the upper levels as on the back and front. Bright red bricks are used at window heads and arches. Courses of stone are the only other ornamentation.

Description of building – interior
classical_building_07Internal division is very simple – four rooms on each level separated by corridors which run the length and width of the building. There is no artwork, no decorative moldings.

Original stairs - north side

Original stairs – north side

The original stairs and balustrade on the north side display the same practical, functional and plain treatment. However here the walls are smoothly plastered and detailing has been added with paintwork. These treatments were added later in the building’s history.

classical_building_08The purpose of the building was to house convicts and all twelve rooms were used for that. This photo shows the south east room on the top floor, complete with a reconstruction of the wooden frame and hammocks similar to those that would have been used. I think this room has 70 hammocks, and in actual use would have had twice that number with a second layer above these.
classical_building_09The roof trusses look wonderful. You may also be able to pick out the corbelled brickwork which carries the chimney stacks. At the end of the corridor in this photograph is the box for the clock pendulum.

The architect and the Governor
Hyde Park Barracks were designed by Francis Greenway, arguably one of the greatest names in Australian architecture. Greenway arrived in Sydney in 1814. An architect in Bristol, he had been convicted of forgery and transported for life. Lachlan Macquarie was Governor of the colony from 1810 and brought great energy and vision to the role. He instituted a major series of public building works that began a transformation of the ramshackle town, bringing order, imposing authority and providing buildings of function and substance. In Greenway Macquarie found an architect able to share, interpret and implement his vision. Over five years from 1816, when Macquarie appointed Greenway as Civil Architect and Assistant Engineer, Greenway designed and oversaw the construction of major buildings in Sydney and surrounding townships.

City design
classical_building_11classical_building_10Macquarie’s and Greenway’s vision went beyond individual buildings to city design. Above and to the left are matching photographs looking across Queen Square, defined by the Barracks to the east and St James church to the west. This was the first civic square in the colony and the direct relationship of the two buildings is immediately apparent, forming an axis at right angles to the grand boulevarde of Macquarie Street.
classical_building_12St James was completed in 1822 and the hand of the same architect is clearly visible in the bricks, window arches, pilasters, courses of stone and other details.

Fit for purpose
However there are also clear differences. Hyde Park Barracks was built to house convicts. Prior to its construction convicts were responsible to find and pay for their own board and lodging in the town. There is little to the architecture that could be regarded as ornamental.
classical_building_13St James was originally designed as law courts, and redesignated a church (a symbol of state authority) early during building. In it Classical design is more clearly evident, including a portico with Doric columns and entablature, although more elaborate details originally planned did not eventuate.

Macquarie granted Greenway a full pardon following the building of the Hyde Park Barracks. However the British Government did not agree that they were fit for purpose. Macquarie was denounced for the extravagance of his building program. A Commissioner was sent out, Macquarie dismissed, and his relationship with Greenway ended in acrimony.

Later history of the building
The Barracks were used to house male convicts until 1848. Later occupants include a female immigration depot (including Irish female orphans), Master in Lunacy, Supreme Court judges, Wheat Acquisition board and Industrial Commission of NSW. The original mustering area surrounding the Barracks was filled by a multitude of extensions and additional buildings. Eventually, after archeological excavations and extensive conservation it was opened as a museum in 1984.

Reference

(1) Carlin, S. (2000) Elizabeth Bay House: A history & guide Glebe: Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.

Bibliography
Dunn, M. (2008) St James Anglican church Queens Square [Online]. Dictionary of Sydney website. Available from http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/st_james_anglican_church_queens_square [Accessed 10 May 2013]
Freeland, J.M. (1972) Architecture in Australia Ringwood: Penguin Books Australia.
Herman, M. (1954) The early Australian architects and their work Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
Historic Houses Trust (2003) Hyde Park Barracks Museum Guidebook [online] Available from: http://www.hht.net.au/discover/highlights/guidebooks/hyde_park_barracks_museum_guidebook2 [Accessed 9 May 2013]
Summerson, J. (2002) The Classical Language of Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson.

UA1-WA:P1-p1 Visit to a classical building
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project one: Ancient Greece.
Topic: Visit to a classical building

The New Classical at Art Gallery of South Australia

gallery_sa_01Leaving the Turner exhibition (see post 4-May-2013) we walked out of the Art Gallery of South Australia through the Melrose Wing of European Art. This was on the recommendation of a lady we chatted with while sharing a table at lunch in the busy Art Gallery café. The work she thought was a must-see on our visit was Berlinde De Bruyckere’s We Are All Flesh (2011-12), epoxy, iron, horse skin, steel. I can understand why this work has got all the press (see links at the end), but the entire wing is just so exciting. I’ve since learnt that the wing was opened in January 2013, refurbished and completely re-hung. To quote Director Nick Mitzevich in the press release “Boundaries of geography and time have been collapsed to inspire a new way of looking at the rich diversity of the Gallery’s collections. Objects from different periods and cultures are juxtaposed to reveal how art links the past to the present” (1).

I didn’t know that at the time we were there, just that we started at the back of the gallery very tired after five hours spent with Turner, and as we passed from room to room we got more and more interested and energetic. It was still a fleeting visit, a little time with one or two items in each room.
gallery_sa_02This is the work that stopped me in my tracks. The Bowmore Artemis c. 180 AD, Italy, carved marble. The information sign provided “… the huntress Diana pursuing wild animals, her tunic billowing as she runs… It is modelled on an earlier sculpture from the Hellenistic period… The naturalistic detail of multiple textured folds of drapery, in which the female form is accentuated, reveals an ideal of perfection that has influenced art through the ages.”
gallery_sa_03This of course relates to one of the major concepts in my current Part of the OCA course – Ancient Greece and the canon (although here not necessarily restricted to Western art). This also clearly (although I wasn’t consciously thinking of it at the time) relates to my post on 28-April-2013, about the canon evolving and merging different histories and cultures. You can see glimpses of other works shown in combination, but the one that really caught my attention can be seen in the distance here, facing Artemis with confidence and pride.
gallery_sa_04Buck with cigar by Marc Quinn (2009), bronze. From the sign, this is a “life-cast sculpture of a female who underwent various sex change treatments”. Here is poise, confidence, a challenge to classical ideals of perfection, and in my eyes at least, beauty.
gallery_sa_05The reverse view (the wall at the back is mirrored). There was a lot more to be seen in this room – which had as its theme “The New Classical” – but my attention was totally caught by the conversation between these two figures. I think I looked at each a little differently because of that relationship.
gallery_sa_06That’s all the actual content I have for this post, but I couldn’t resist a closeup of that wonderful swirling textile. I wonder what colours it would have been originally. It looks wonderful in cream, but I decided to play a little…gallery_sa_07

(1) Mitzevich, N. (2013) quoted in Art Gallery of South Australia (2013) Art Gallery unveils sumptuous new Melrose Wing of European Art [online] 10 January 2013. Available from http://www.artgallery.sa.gov.au/agsa/home/Media/docs/Current_media_releases/Melrose_Wing_MR_FINAL.pdf [Accessed 4 May 2013]

More information
Adams, J. (2013) Art Gallery of South Australia hung like a horse. Arts Hub [online] 4 April 2013 Available from http://au.artshub.com/au/news-article/news/visual-arts/art-gallery-of-south-australia-hung-like-a-horse-194889 [Accessed 4 May 2013]
McDonald, J. (2013) Succès de Scandale in Adelaidehttp://johnmcdonald.net.au/2013/succes-de-scandale-in-adelaide/ [Accessed 4 May 2013]

Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master

My mother gave me a most wonderful gift recently, taking me to visit this exhibition in Adelaide (approx 1,200 km flight each way).

I feel extremely nervous writing about the exhibition, being in the early sections of an Art History course from an English college. I haven’t read the later parts of the OCA course which would include Turner, but am very aware of a comment in the course notes mentioning Turner’s work as “indisputably part of the British canon, at the very least” (1). Generally when writing in this blog about exhibitions I happily spout personal opinions both positive and negative, regardless of ignorance about history or context of the work. My opinions modify (or not) over time as I learn and experience more, and taking up a position which I can test, change and maybe knock down seems a reasonable part of a learning process. It feels a more exposed position to ignorantly spout about a part of the canon, the heritage, of the very well-informed person assessing me.

On the other hand, I want to capture my initial impressions so when I do get to that section of the course I remember the impact and my initial reactions and questions, and thereby maybe get a little further and a little deeper in my learning and understanding. So apologies, but here goes – not a complete, informed or integrated story, just random jottings of initial impressions.

turner_01_avalancheA surprising plus is that the gallery allowed photographs (no flash or video) – unfortunately quite unexpected, so I only had my phone camera which struggled with the low light, glass reflections etc. This photo shows The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons (1810), which was the subject of my first annotation (15-Mar-2013). For some bizarre reason I didn’t take a clear photo – perhaps because I was trying to concentrate on seeing. Plus I bought the catalogue which has better images than anything I could take – but that doesn’t help in illustrating the blog. Perhaps most of all it was because it was like visiting with an old friend – I’d just come through a doorway, saw the painting across the room, so familiar and yet so much more, and I almost ran across to greet it.

One big difference for me in seeing the original versus the reproductions was the variation in amount of paint. The upper left corner showing a distant clear sky and closer sheets of rain (?) is much thinner and smoother than the violently swirling lumps of paint in the foreground. Also some things I couldn’t quite see or make out in the reproductions (note the “(?)” above) I still couldn’t quite see or make out in the original. Colour in general was richer and more varied, helped by the play of light of the uneven paint surface. There’s a little line of quite bright orange coming from the bottom margin left of centre which leads up to the right, pointing towards the hut. I wasn’t even particularly aware of it in the print I had. More than anything the sheer physical presence, the scale and the way it could take up your entire field of vision, had a great impact.

turner_02turner_03The exhibition covers Turner’s entire career, with works dating from 1787 to 1844, and includes sketchbooks as well as finished works. The top photo here is of a sketchbook, Studies for Pictures: Isleworth c. 1805, showing Study for Dido and Aeneas, pencil, watercolour, pen and ink on paper. The photo below shows the oil on canvas painting Dido and Aeneas (?c. 1805-06).

It’s interesting to see all the shifts between the two works. Together with more subtle compositional changes, the centre of the image has been opened out, broadened, providing a sweeping vista of the city in the distance and also space for the glowing light of the sky. There is also a greater range in values, producing an almost theatrical spotlighting effect on the figures in the foreground.

By coincidence there was an extra connection for me – the book I’d taken to read while travelling was The Aeneid by Virgil, and the previous night I had reached book four: The tragedy of Dido, although I hadn’t reached the hunting expedition depicted here.

turner_04turner_05Another interesting pair started with Scarborough c.1809 watercolour on paper. Washes of colour block the composition and the beginnings of that glowing sky can be seen.

The second in the pair is Scarborough town and castle: morning: boys catching crabs c. 1810 watercolour on paper (a painting that actually belongs in the Art Gallery of South Australia collection). There’s lots of detail and interest – I have the impression it was particularly popular amongst viewers, especially the young.

I don’t know if the earlier painting was part of planning and working through ideas, or a start that got stuck, or some other possibility. It would be interesting to learn more about Turner’s working methods.

turner_06When starting Textiles 1: A Creative Approach I had a lot of trouble with the concept of “mark-making”. Almost two years later, I really enjoyed Turner’s marks – so energetic and expressive. This photo is awful, but the best of a bad bunch. It shows The Ground of East Cowes Castle, with Figures among the Trees; a study for ‘Boccaccio relating the Tale of the Birdcage’ 1827, chalk and pen and ink on blue paper.

turner_07 turner_08Another example of exciting mark-making is seen in A Disaster at Sea, also known as The Wrecked Female Convict Ship, the Amphitrite: Women and Children Abandoned in a Gale ?c 1835, oil on canvas. On the right is a detail and below a photo of the full painting. You can see the waves crashing over the sinking vessel, the sprays of foam and swirling water, the tumult of the sea adding to the horror of the women convicts.

This painting was always going to receive special attention in the exhibition, given it is now believed to show a convict ship bound for Australia. Interestingly, in the light of my current OCA course, this possibility was first suggested in 1993 by Cecilia Powell (2). Clearly the products of art history are very relevant to the modern gallery visitor, evidenced by the large group around the painting as each guided tour passed through.

The painting was never exhibited, and according to the signage in the exhibition is “probably unfinished”. At first that seems strange, but really “finished” is quite an artificial construct. Apparently Turner was well known for making final touches to a painting as it hung in an exhibition. Without being able give an example, I’ve heard of painters reworking pieces after they’ve been exhibited, or even incorporating parts in later works. A recent newspaper article mentioned that van Gogh never regarded a work as final (3). However thinking about it in the exhibition made me feel uncertain.

turner_09turner_10This is Sun Setting over a Lake c. 1840-5 oil on canvas. It is very beautiful. I’ve put a detail below, trying to capture the flecks of colour, the textural globs of paint. The exhibition signage suggested sun, a lake, the Alps. That seems very reasonable, very probable. Perhaps it was unfinished. There was a suggestion somewhere (I’ve misplaced my notes – not good) that Turner had an array of unfinished canvases – I almost used the word “generic” – which he could quickly complete to meet a specific requirement or commission.

turner_11

At the bottom is a photo of War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet 1842 oil on canvas. Could that have been a semi-prepared canvas that was put to use for the occasion? Would it make any difference to the final result if it was? It was hung together with and in contrast to Peace – Burial at Sea 1842. Given the unusual (based on other works in the exhibition) proportions, the complementary colours and related themes, it seems the two must have been painted from scratch to meet the particular purpose.

The idea of setting up a “production run” is unpleasant to me. There are connotations of being “just” decorative, or perhaps too comfortable, churning things out. Which is an outrageous thing to suggest in the context of this exhibition, which demonstrates just how far Turner went, how he pushed and developed his art – the light, space, atmosphere, use of colour… Is it enough to say that viewing Sun Setting over a Lake was an absorbing and pleasurable experience, finding shadows and images, my own meaning and reflection, in what may be an unfinished work? Which seems to lead to questions around the interaction of the artist’s intention and the viewer’s experience and engagement. No answers, except to note yet again that I have a lot to think about and learn.

(1) Open College of the Arts (2010) Understanding Art 1: Western Art. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts (Document control number ua 1 wa121110), page 17 .

(2) Warrell, I. (ed) (2013) Turner from the Tate: The making of a master. London: Tate Publishing, page 197.

(3) New York Times (2013) Van Gogh’s ‘blue’ bedroom more a violet hue. The Sydney Morning Herald [online] 30 April 2013. Available from http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/van-goghs-blue-bedroom-more-a-violet-hue-20130430-2iqm0.html [Accessed 2 May 2013]


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