I ’ve always been a cultural pluralist, eclectic in taste, promiscuous or perhaps porous in interests but then I get obsessed and go deep. So it’s fair to say that when Sotheby’s asked me to have a look at their Summer Season of auctions and exhibitions and make a selection of whatever seemed interesting and exciting framed by a mere half millennium of human creativity, I was wide-eyed, slightly delirious and seriously in danger of getting lost in the most glorious artistic labyrinth of astounding objects.
Anyway, I’ve emerged, inspired and energised, and here are a few of my favourite things…
Kandinsky Sets the Scene
To begin, a painting by one of the founders of Modern art and one of the great pioneers of abstraction, Wassily Kandinsky. ‘Museum quality’ is a term often bandied about but there’s no disputing the pedigree and significance of Tensions calmées from 1937 which was bought by Solomon R. Guggenheim in 1943 for his soon-to-be landmark museum and later sold in an historical auction nearly twenty years later to ensure the museum’s ongoing success.
It’s a wonderfully taut but playful composition, a visual symphony of signs and symbols held in a kind of hovering equilibrium (tensions calmed?) by Kandinsky’s profound understanding of colour. It fuses his mature geometric abstraction with the odd looser, more expressive gestures which reverberate long in the memory.
Cy Twombly’s Abstract Mythologies
Kandinsky’s route to abstraction was via music and theosophy in Moscow and Munich. Cy Twombly’s came through cryptography and the classical world in New York and Rome. Like Tensions calmées, Twombly’s Untitled 1964 has a tautness that stems the tension between Apollonian restraint and Dionysian excess.
Twombly is such a visceral painter but an intellectual one too and this early masterpiece distils the palette of the classical Mediterranean world gleaned from archaeological fragments of ancient pottery and statues but used explosively to suggest the emotional immediacy of memories and lived experience.
Brush marks are violent as well as sensual; handprints and finger marks co-mingle with stabs and swathes of paint, sometimes knotted, other times dissipating before our eyes. In the background, pencil marks - free-flowing and calligraphic but also a backdrop of discrete activity behind the main event. The work is both self-contained and an early painterly crescendo amidst a series of works Twombly made in response to mythological subjects which began in 1962 but which lasted for the rest of his life.
Peter Lanyon & Modern St Ives
Whilst Twombly was metaphorically diving deep into the Mediterranean, Peter Lanyon was literally gliding high above his native Cornwall and the impact on his art and on British abstract painting is still, I think, playing out. Lanyon’s art came out of landscape and his vision was singular but his range and approach was complex and multifarious.
He’d studied with Victor Pasmore at the Euston Road School and became close to Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo, who ended up in St Ives for a time after the outbreak of the Second World War. Crucially, he began to visit America in the Fifties and met major players from the New York School including De Kooning, Motherwell and Rothko who he famously brought to Cornwall in 1959.
Influences are wide-ranging but also fully worked through in Lanyon’s painting by the late Fifties and his deeply felt desire to express the experience of being in a place, and the equivalent sensation in art rather than a visual representation on canvas of something seen in the world. He made drawings and collages to explore space and form before making paintings but his interest in perspective was highly original.
Of course, Lanyon - like all major Modernists - worked in an idiom profoundly defined by the multiple perspectival language of post-Cubist art, but whereas that was a formal exercise in representation, his approach was also physical and experiential. He’d served in the RAF during the war and the notion of elevated viewpoints and flight permeated his paintings. Gliding had perhaps an even more profound impact.
It enabled him, as he put it, to "get a more complete knowledge of the landscape" but it also helped convey an immersive sense of natural energy and flow and a capacity to understand the rhythms of thermals and air currents and render an equivalent sensation in paint. Rising Air from 1961 is sublime. The experience of looking at it is turbulent and destabilising. I find the scale is profoundly ambiguous – close up then plummeting far away and the sense of soaring sometimes overwhelming. There’s a tragic dimension too – and I know I’m over-projecting – but Lanyon died less than three years later in a gliding accident. British art lost a painter who increasingly feels pivotal and whose work has only received widespread appreciation in recent years.
Art’s engagement with contemporary politics is a complex and perennial subject and there are three works in particular in the Summer Selection that highlight this in a variety of ways. Pablo Picasso is - I would say indisputably – the most formally inventive artist of the twentieth century but he was often profoundly political too.
His Buste de Femme à la Robe Brune is a magisterial but fluid portrait of Dora Maar painted in 1939. It’s clearly deeply personal as well as playing with the codes of portraiture going back to the Spanish Golden Age. But it has subtle but profound political overtones too. Dora Maar’s relationship with Picasso began towards the end of 1935, just before the brutal conflict of the Spanish Civil War began in earnest. She became both lover and muse, Picasso’s intellectual equal who shared his political concerns and whose face – fragmented in lament – became the basis of the great Weeping Women series which came in response to the bombing of Guernica.
Buste de Femme à la Robe Brune emerges from this context. It was part of a group of oil portraits on board which fluctuated between naturalism and a more stylised fragmentation; between the softer curves of Marie-Thérèse Walter (with whom Picasso was still involved) and the edgier profile of Dora Maar. So although there is wonderfully resolved solemnity and confidence about the painting, characteristic of Picasso’s vision of Maar, it is also is conflicted, not least in the internal rhythms of form and perspective, with quite literally the appearance of a face-within-a-face in profile. Picasso balances poetic allusion with internal turmoil and anxiety as well as tenderness and love.
Edward Burra’s Impression of War
Edward Burra’s response to the Spanish Civil War was altogether more detached, although he visited Spain three times during the Thirties and was captivated by everything from the climate and topography of the place to a culture increasingly in turmoil. War in the Sun from 1938 is a potent painting that includes many discernible elements of modern warfare – a tank with meticulously rendered caterpillar tracks; an anti-aircraft gun pointing skywards and the evidence of conflict scattered throughout the scene with shrapnel and bullet-ridden buildings clearly visible.
But the mechanistic undertones are layered as if through the lens of a painter like Paolo Uccello, whose Battle of San Romano was much admired by Burra, as well the work of Breughel and Bosch and an almost inevitable nod to Goya, whose late Black Paintings and Disasters of War etchings were critically important to the British artist.
Likewise, the sheen of the painting’s surface feels underpinned by the structure and ambition of Mexican mural painting too, not least the work of Diego Rivera, which Burra had seen up close on a visit to Mexico in 1937. Cultural layering abounds and the sense of Burra trying to wrestle not just with the horrors of civil war per se, but with the cyclical nature of human conflict and tragedy, is conveyed with such lucidity.
Banksy’s Subversive Satire
There’s more than a passing connection between the Mexican muralists and Banksy’s political paintings, on wall or canvas, and like Burra, Banksy also is the latest in a long line of prominent satirical British painters whose lineage goes back at least as far as Hogarth. But Laugh Now is also trademark stencilled street art onto canvas and part of a body of work which has further blurred boundaries between so-called fine art and popular culture.
Plenty of artists have tried to make a monkey out of the art establishment – and succeeded – and the satirical nod to evolutionary hubris (‘one day we’ll be in charge’ hanging on a sign around the monkey’s neck) has featured since 2001 in one of the Bristolian artist’s earliest public interventions, under a railway bridge in Shoreditch. More interestingly, Banksy has become a major contemporary artist both nationally and internationally, without a major gallery working with him.
He’s controlled much of his own career and Sotheby’s has played its part – from the shredded Girl with Balloon painting (now named Love is in the Bin) in 2018 which still fetched over £1 million (there’s another from the series for sale in the in the Sotheby’s Summer Season, so let’s watch that one closely as the hammer descends) to the more recent Devolved Parliament, where the apes have won and which was sold for £9.9 million in 2018.
He has broadened not just the market but also the audience and the contexts in which art can be staged and if claims are sometimes made that his subversive edge has been blunted, I’d say look again at Laugh Now, remember the monkey and watch this space…
I’m running out of space and you’re probably running out of time and I’ve not begun to wax lyrical about the two breath-taking Degas pastels of bathing women, a great late Léger from his series featuring construction workers or an English counter-part to the art of modern life - the vastly under-rated L.S. Lowry and an early painting of rugby league crowds in Salford Going to the Match from 1928.
Nor is there the chance to explore one of my ongoing fascinations of artists portraying other artists, but take time if you can to have a look at a staggering but under-stated work produced in 2002 when David Hockney and Lucian Freud sat for each other, in this case Freud’s vision of Hockney, the result of over a hundred hours of sittings and a lifetime of respect and artistic understanding.
A visit to the Old Masters
So I’ll finish, if you’ll allow me the indulgence, with a double finale. First is a flower painting. Not just any old flower painting, but actually the earliest dated one (from 1606) by the great painter of still lifes in bloom, Jan Brueghel the Elder, so accomplished that they nicknamed him ‘Flower’ Brueghel. There are, according to art historical and scientific research, forty four different species of flowers including varieties in Still Life of Flowers, everything from irises and cyclamen to anemone and forget-me-nots.
It’s an unforgettable work, teeming with life and a reminder of the power of human observation and manual dexterity. Still life paintings are invariably seen as vanitas, prefiguring death, but this is more a celebration of the natural world and a reflection of the growing interest in scientific study, the gathering of empirical evidence and the need to order and classify the natural world.
In the foreground are diamonds and sapphires, coins and a signet ring and in a letter to his client, Cardinal Borromeo no less, Brueghel suggests that his excellency "must judge for himself if the flowers do not surpass gold and jewels". In the context of Counter-Reformation Europe, flowers were depicted as part of God’s bounteous creation but Brueghel is also surely affirming his own genius, one of subtlety, refinement, delicacy and flower power – to preserve for posterity and certainly well beyond our lifetime the fleeting blooms of spring and summer.
Turner’s Sublime Seascape
Second and finally, a remarkable early seascape by JMW Turner. I say early, but actually although he was only still only in his mid-thirties by the time he painted Purfleet and the Essex Shore as seen from Long Reach, Turner was already well on the way to becoming one of the great European painters of the Nineteenth century and indeed of any era. The painting is one of a group of eight significant Thames Estuary scenes he exhibited in London between 1806 and 1809 in the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar.
The composition and its initial sense of controlled calm looks back to the great Dutch marine painters, not least Willem van de Velde the Younger, but the power of the sea and the looser, more experimental treatment of sea and sky certainly looks forward to his later work and to the radical shifts that took place in Western Art in the latter decades of the Nineteenth Century. Parenthood is a complicated matter but an affirming one for sure – and Turner is, without doubt, one of the grandfathers of Modern Art and visionary painter of Sublime works of art. Which brings us back, in a manner of speaking, to where I began my selection. Have a good summer!