Saturday, 4 December 2010


This is Arcadia 1 2007, one of two exquisite wall paintings in the current exhibition Bridget Riley: Paintings and Related Work at the National Gallery. It floats on the wall, boundless. Not bundled  up into a neat rectangle. It’s vital, free, and exuberant. The imagination rides the waves, soars over the landscape colours. Indeed the wall itself looks less than solid.

Yet the paint is flat, matt, uniform, and utterly still. If you go to see accompanying films in the Sunley Room cinema, you get a close up of her assistants painstakingly applying paint centimetre by centimetre and you hold your breath in case a hand should waver ever so slightly.
Riley wanted to demonstrate the relationship between her work and the National Gallery Collection so she asked for a selection of paintings from the Gallery’s collection to be included. They are  Mantegna’s Introduction to the Cult of Cybele to Rome (1505–6), Raphael’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1507), and three studies by Seurat. It was the Mantegna which gave me the same sense of optical illusion – I had to stand by the gallery wall to look back along the painting to make sure that I was looking at something two-dimensional painting, not a relief with carved or modelled forms. 

Mantegna reminded me of Movement in Squares 1961, the first painting I saw of Bridget Riley’s - black, white, straight lines, repetition, what was there to like? But I knew I would never forget it. Each step you took gave you a new view so there wasn’t ‘a picture’ to see, but myriads of them. In 1996 I used the design (with permission) as a catalogue cover at Church House, Westminster.  
One critic looked back at ‘the queasy fizz of 60s’ painting', but Bridget Riley describes what was really going on:
(In the 60s) We looked back to an imaginary past long before the war, & it was attractive, so we endured the war by colouring in a picture book of dreams & longings about the future .The  60s provided a present where temporal tensions were released. The result was an explosion of confidence & optimism, elation & drive which at the time seemed completely normal  
READY, STEADY, GO, Painting in the 1960s, Arts Council Collection 1991

Three years ago the Hayward show ‘How To Improve the World: 60 years of British Art’, looked back on what was ‘arguably the most fertile era in British art’, when artists made a global impact by registering changing attitudes to politics, economics and culture. Movement in Squares was there. Fifty years later Arcadia demonstrates Riley's gift for  creating a distinctive vocabulary of shapes and colours that is continually evolving. › ... › Hayward Gallery Exhibitions › Past

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