Tuesday, 22 February 2011


© The National Gallery London

The National Gallery is full of surprises. In the last few weeks I've  blogged about Bridget Riley's Arcadia and Ben Johnson's View of Richmond House. Both artists were showing work recently completed or still in progress; both are internationally recognised British artists. 

The work seen here, also recently painted, is by an anonymous criminal aged between 15 and 21.

I like this painting's chunkiness; its bold use of a sparing selection of complementary colours; the ceiling which presses down on us; and the disorientation of those crooked and unsteady surfaces. The artist was one of 30 young men who took part in Inside Art, an outreach programme developed in partnership with Feltham Young Offenders Institution. It consists of four projects a year taking place in Feltham’s Art Academy, a centre providing a wide range of creative and performing arts courses.The prisoners are taught by freelance artists who work for the National Gallery, using large-scale prints of famous works to inspire their students. The four projects, which each last a week, focus on practical techniques including sculpture, drawing and painting, and explore themes from the National Gallery collection such as the body, landscape, light and perspective. 

Here is an image of Uccello's Battle of San Romano, painted from a single perspective. The way he foreshortens figures and arranges broken lances forces us to stand still. In contrast the young offender from Feltham has chosen to use multiple viewpoints and our eye is restless, inquisitive and searching as it roams the canvas.

There are 48 works currently on display in the Learning Gallery at the back of the National Gallery. The National Gallery Outreach Officer, Emma Rehm, is quoted as saying, ‘Such experiences and insights are enriching for the young men involved and can help to reduce the risk of reoffending. One participant says,‘I learnt to look at paintings in a different way and see that there is a lot going on and that a painting gives you a message’.

Funding for the project comes from the LankellyChase Foundation.


Thursday, 17 February 2011


286 x 400 cm, oil on scotch brite
 I was drawn to this oil painting first by its beauty, and then by the way the composition and the size invites you to step into the landscape.  It reminded me Tom Hunter’s London Fields, an earlier blog, a photograph of another inviting public space, an interior.

This is a municipal park, I imagine, offering an airy, sunny walk laid out for us by earlier generations who, as the slightly tongue-in-cheek title suggests,  had our interests at heart. But this is no ordinary landscape painting.  Is the small tree on the left juggling with its leaves? If I understand the convoluted language of the catalogue notes,  Ziegler starts with computer-constructed images which are then transformed by ‘the spontaneity of painterly expression’ onto canvas (or in this case onto Scotch-Brite, a reflective industrial fabric). In other words, an inflexible, precise mosaic design turns into something alive and well through the idiosyncrasies of the hand made. It’s full of contradictions: rigid v supple; repetitive v unique,  mechanical v organic.

 The tough question is: how do you paint perfection when it’s been done so often? Constable’s paintings are living and breathing, and I can feel the wind  and the squishy grass under my feet. I like Ziegler’s work for the opposite reason – here every summer leaf and petal is calm, poised and breathless as a ballet dancer. There’s a stillness you usually only get in nature by staring at the outline of trees in winter.  If you must have excitement, look at it from different angles when the painting’s surface shifts, because Scotch-Brite is  a reflective industrial fabric.

This is Ziegler’s The Grand Cause, also at the Saatchi. Oil, pencil and gold leaf on canvas this time. It’s another way of handling paradox -  the rich and luxurious gold leaf is sandbagged  (the catalogues says ‘degraded’) by paint, and left gasping.

Sunday, 13 February 2011


Why was I attracted to this painting rather than the dozens of other works of art in the Saatchi Galler’s show Newspeak: British Art Now? The fact is that I didn’t look at the title and at first glance saw only a beautifully painted Alpine landscape.

Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephens, commented ‘Before the nineteenth century, a civilised being might regard the Alps…with unmitigated horror’.  

The Alps are a hundred million years old but as recently as about 250,000 years ago they were shaken & stirred into what we see today. Throughout this time, they were alternatively licked, hammered, soothed & baked by various weathers. Human beings  saw them as disordered, chaotic, uncouth & misshapen. The fact that they were ex-volcanoes conjured up visions of fire, brimstone, dragons & hobgoblins. Glaciers were mysterious, unstoppable. Avalanches brought random terror.   

And then it all changed. The Alps got a make over - or rather several makeovers. The Romantics developed an appetite for the terror and beauty of the Sublime. And my Swiss grandfather Emil Strub invented a cog railway track which meant that trains no longer were subject to the wrong kind of snaow. The winter season was born. The Alps became a studio for painters & photographers, a laboratory for scientific research; a sports arena, a convalescent home for the sick and a giant playground.

It seems  as if the  artist is tapping into our ambivalence. Cadwalladar does not allow us to stand at the breath-taking beauty  of the sky, the mountains and the glacier. Instead he  brings us into the picture, planting our feet firmly on the untidy  green and brown cliff in the foreground.  The view’s still lovely but that path is scary – what lies ahead? And then there’s a horse. A dead horse. What  on earth is it doing there? We could make up any number of imaginative answers but to no purpose. The label only tells us  that  ‘Cadwallader made the painting in response to some (undisclosed)  personal experiences’

Literature is full of stories of paradise and perfection being spoiled by ‘a fly in the ointment’. We lost the Garden of Eden because of an apple;  Achilles was vanquished by his heel; and the Sleeping Beauty would have been spared a century of oblivion if there had been no spinning wheel. We are left with an insoluble riddle.


Tuesday, 8 February 2011



Muriel was a distant relative-by-marriage who was living in Lowestoft when she was sent to work in a munitions factory. One day while the works radio was playing her favourite song You Are My Sunshine, My Only Sunshine/You Make Me Happy/When Skies are Grey the air raid siren sounded. The girls all scrambled out to safety. But Muriel ran back to collect her cardigan. Was she cold? Was it a present from someone special? Had she spent months knitting it? She was blown to smithereens. Ever after her family kept a round-the-clock guard on the wireless . When ‘her’ song was announced, someone was always nearby to turn the 'off' switch.  

Muriel was just one of the seven million women for whom this beautiful and moving monument was erected in 2005, 60 years after the end of WW2. It’s a 22ft high bronze sculpture standing proud in a central reservation in Whitehall, but it's different to many monuments nearby. 'It is not by nature purely a military memorial. It depicts the uniforms of women in the forces alongside the working clothes of those who worked in the factories, the hospitals, the emergency services and the farms’. So said the former Speaker of the House of Commons Baroness Betty Boothroyd at the unveiling, when military helicopters with all-female crews flew past to mark the occasion. Several women who had won the George Medal, the second highest gallantry award that a civilian can be awarded, were there too.

There is sadness and poignancy about this sculpture too. The clothes do not hang flat and lifeless against the wall but are gently sculpted so as to suggest the bodies of the women who wore them. If you brave the traffic and stand on the reservation you can see that there is air in the empty spaces where human beings should be. And, on the day I was there, just a few poppies on top of a hand written note which I felt was not meant for my eyes. 
I looked John Mills up on Google and discovered that in England alone his work can be found in  Harlow, Ashington, Sawbridgeworth, Isle of Dogs, Croyden, Newton Aycliffe, Cambridge, Hemel Hempstead, & Tooting. And at Bedford - a lively and dashing sculpture (of a family) which I've always liked but never bothered to find out who the artist was.

Monday, 7 February 2011


Sometimes when you call on an old friend, you instinctively know that this is not the right moment. Galleries are a bit like that in January: rooms blocked off, scaffolding showing, Harrier and Jaguar being dismantled in the Duveen Gallery (see first blog). So I called in at Tate Britain with no great expectations. But as soon as I heard the sound of Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus , I knew I’d come to the right place. Written to be sung in the Sistine Chapel, it’s a vibrant mixture of longing, hope and faith, a setting of Psalm 51.

It’s the sound track to Mark Wallinger’s inspirational video. What a find! I had no idea it had come back on display: you love works of art and one day they’re gone and you wait helplessly for someone to bring them back. (In fact there’s a double dose of joy - Susan Hiller’s exhibition has opened at Tate Britain (see my blog  Dedicated To The Unknown Artists. Alas I can’t write about it because it’s not free).

Threshold to the Kingdom features a pair of doors at London City Airport and a handful of passengers who walk through them towards the camera and towards you, the viewer. The story is that Wallinger and crew set up the camera, hit ‘Record’, casually looked the other way, and by the time they were thrown out, the footage was in the can. The airport doors open and close silently and automatically, and light moves on the glassy panes like glittering sunlight on water. The installation is in slow motion. so the ‘kingdom’ is measured in long seconds, each one to be savoured. A yawn takes forever, a shy girl pats her hair and strokes her neck for comfort.  A man slowly lifts his hand to touch a mobile clipped to the breast pocket of his neon jacket, and turns into an iconic Sacred Heart of Jesus holy picture – or, more prosaically, a man at a doctor’s surgery describing a mysterious pain. 

You notice that each walk is unique. A tall slim woman with a handbag and briefcase flows like a dancer, each limb poised and purposeful. Suddenly a nymph-like figure in black and white breaks into view from the side, runs into centre stage and out again like a small gazelle. Three elderly ladies in long black coats stretch out their arms to greet each other, forming a circle as they embrace. They linger there, like Canova’s Three Graces. Meanwhile the music seeps in, exuberant, piercing...’A broken and a contrite heart. O God. thou wilt not despise’. If you want to get all the words, I suggest you read it in the King James Version of the Bible (Psalm 51) whose 400th anniversary we’re celebrating this year. 

The video lasts just over 11 minutes. I found it hard to leave. The room it’s in is perfect – a circle of peace.On the way out I filled in a form to suggest that the floor was hard and a bench or two would come in handy. This is not for a five second glance, it’s for mindfulness, calm, stillness. 

Walking away I pass through the Duveen Gallery. This afternoon I'm reminded of something very different: Wallinger's later work State Britain 2006 which was once on this very spot. It's a reconstruction of Brian Haw's protest which became a landmark in Parliament Square. And Wallinger's the man who gave us Ecce Homo on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square....