Friday, 25 November 2011


© 2011 Brian Whelan

‘Looking at a Whelan painting is like looking at a medieval stained glass window through the eyes of Bart Simpson’, says the writer and critic Steven Martin.

He’s right. Most group paintings hint at narrative, but they either tell a story already known to the viewer (from the classics or history or the bible), or something too obscure to interrogate. But Whelan’s work is like a poetic ballad, ‘bold, concentrated, detailed and focused’. And leaving a great deal to the imagination. That duck squawking its way across the picture maybe in a vicious mood and out to protect the good St Martin - but it may be running for its life. The image doesn’t convey how plump and luscious it is: highly likely to be chased round the yard by the farmer’s wife, knife in hand.

There are lots of riddles. The man on the left (the sinister side in any picture) , wrapped in nothing but his loin cloth and a starry cloak, looks like a holy prophet. And on the right is his counterpart, a resplendent rider. Any morality tale would have this perky knight as the villain, knife in hand, oppressing the poor.  Not so. It’s no less than St Martin himself, a 4th century saint, at times soldier, monk and hermit.
Even the horse is ambiguous. It has an all knowing eye and a muscular presence – but couldn’t you also see it as a lovable nursery toy with shaggy fetlocks and a spotty coat? 

I saw Whelan’s work is in the Crypt Gallery of St Martins in the Fields, Trafalgar Square.  According to legend, St Martin once came upon a poor man on the road shivering in the cold, and cut in half his military cloak to share  with him. That night Christ appeared to St Martin in a dream wearing the piece of cloak he had given away. The story is a straight lift from St Matthew’s Gospel chapter 25, where Jesus says that when anyone feeds  the hungry, clothes the naked and visits the sick and those in prison etc , ‘you do it unto me’.

It’s a story which has been depicted in many centuries by many hands. Sometimes the beggar looks up gratefully as a towering saint bends over him (Lorenzo Lotto); sometimes he’s a huge strapping (and naked) fellow sitting on straw but preparing to make way as a VIP on horseback comes by with a magnificent cavalcade.   

© 2011 Brian Whelan
Here's Champion of the World, the fight between good and evil: Jesus, still wearing his crown of thorns, keeps his eye on the matter in hand. Beelzebub on the right looks a bit flaky, even pitiful, and his devils are clearly deserting him in droves. Above it all God the Father hovers with that air of concentration all good judges should have, plus a pointed beard and a hand mike shaped like a golden ice cream cone.

Below ships and islands are calmly doing what ships and islands usually do. 

 Joe Horgan, winner of the Kavanagh Poetry Award puts it this way: ‘He goes to dark, grim places, places that in the modern world we like to pretend don’t exist and when he gets there he cracks jokes. This work is the work of the medieval jester’.

Monday, 21 November 2011


at the Royal Festival Hall.

Is this photograph a work of art?  If it is, should it be on a magazine cover, multiplied a million times and sent round the world?

I'm putting these questions on hold for the moment to report on my last blog - 128. Girl with a Jaguar by Tom Harvey initially has had almost no interest in terms of page views. But Tom Phillips' oil painting of 128. Baroness Susan Greenfield - had a huge response. Is it because Harvey's wood carving is seen as 'mere craft' and has a playfulness about it? And children like it? I included the Jaguar because I delight in the variety I find: pieces worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, while others cost no more that the price of a few cans of spray paint or a packet of biros; the ephemeral and the transitory; outside and inside; predictable or a huge surprise...

Aisha is a portrait of an 18 year old Afghan woman who was sentenced by the Taliban to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing back to her parents after she'd been treated violently by her in laws. She posed for the picture because she wanted to show the effect the return of the Taliban might have on  some women's lives, which have improved over the last few years. Bieber took the portrait because she wanted the viewer first to see a beautiful woman, strong and powerful. It's moments later that you see what has happened to her face.

Bieber received 10,000 Euros for producing the World Press Photo of the Year 2010 out of 108,059 images sent in by 5,601 photographers. The chair of the judges, David Burnett, said 'this could become one of those pictures - and we maybe have just 10 in our lifetime - where if somebody says 'you know, that picture of a girl' know exactly which one they are talking about'.

But it has attracted international controversy. It was used on the cover of Time magazine. Jim Johnson has called this propaganda and the Photo of the Year Award a category error.  In these mock covers he shows how meaning is changed by associated text. The caption and comment could be used to justify American intervention in Afghanistan or, alternatively,  to show how little has changed despite the activities of the Allied forces. It might even be used to justify a retaliatory picture of the death penalty as practiced by some American states.

The Royal Festival Hall has arranged a free event on the ethics of photojournalism this Wednesday, November 29th: A Photo Says 1,000 Words.For an up-to-date article in The Guardian track Sarah Phillips' interview 'Photographer Jodi Bieber's Best Shot.'.


Thursday, 17 November 2011



 Girl with a Jaguar is to be found in the north west corner of Regents Park, amid a collection of sculptures which include Girl and Fox, Boy and Butterflies and six timber seats. Collectively they inspire imaginative play but also come in handy as solitary pieces if you feel like climbing or sitting or balancing or jumping very high.

Tom Harvey worked with a group of school children from St James’s and St Michael’s Primary Schools in Westminster to tease out ideas. They visited the site and created drawings and clay models on the theme of ‘play in nature.’ Funding was provided by the National Playbuilder Programme. Harvey specialises in working on large scale sculpture in wood (in this case mainly from Richmond Park), often using a chain saw to produce ambitious works relatively quickly. He says the speed of the work allows ideas to flow freely and helps to create a sense of dynamism. He carves directly without a scale model. It’s a bold approach - hard to turn back on decisions made – but this piece illustrates how good it can be. 

The figures ask to be touched and stroked. The tension in their bodies is almost palpable. You can ‘see’ the jaguar skeleton, and ‘feel’ the muscles and sinews and skin which clothe it. It looks like an animal which is not going to be distracted at any cost. According to those who have revisited the sculpture over months it has weathered and cracked and changed colour - and is all the better for it.  The small, jagged but almost parallel cracks  which run down the animal's flank could almost be lines drawn by a cartoonist to indicate speed.
The artist is deeply interested in the 'otherness' of the creatures that we share the world with and Girl with Fox demonstrates how the nature of animals and humans can mirror one another.

Monday, 14 November 2011



I had intended to write about two comedians as well as two scientists, prompted by the current excellent exhibition at the National Portrait GalleryThe Comedians: from the 40s to Now. It includes a witty and endearing portrait of a nude Jimmy Vegas, commissioned by The Guardian, Kaul’s tribute to the famous photograph by Annie Liebovitz of a pregnant Demi Moore, which appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair.

I would also have included Annie Liebovitz’s startling portrait of John Cleese hanging upside down from a branch like a fruit bat. It took a 60ft crane to haul him into position. It’s an elaborate, theatrical, eccentric response to what must be a tough question: how do you convey the essence of a comedian? Props would be a cliché. Comedians use fleeting shards of words, movements – and silence - in a way which outwits our expectations and takes us by surprise. Not easy to picture.

The disappointing news was that I couldn’t use these photographs for copyright reasons. (But you can see Jimmy on  The good news is that the collection is on show until January 8th and the brochure says it’s in collaboration with partner museums in Sunderland, Sheffield and Plymouth, so I hope it’s going there sometime too..

Sunday, 13 November 2011


© National Portrait Gallery, London

This is a portrait which doesn't keep still. The viewer sees a constantly changing picture made up of 169 drawings, some on paper and some on computer screens, spliced with short sections of video. It seems exactly the right medium for a neuroscientist who is Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at the University of Oxford. You could say it's a metaphor of the brain itself with its myriad of fluctuating messages. And a reminder that art itself is always changing, evolving, experimenting.

Baroness Greenfield was the first woman to be appointed Director of the Royal Institution, an independent charity dedicated to connecting the general public with the world of science through events examining the latest research, breakthroughs and set backs. The most famous of their public service events are the Christmas Lectures, which were started by Michael Faraday in 1825. This year they'll be delivered by experimental psychologist Professor Bruce Hood on BBC Four.

One of Baroness Greenfield's  special interests is the way that the time we spend on line and in the digital world may be changing our brains - and not for the better. The trouble is that our understanding of technological influences on the brain is in its infancy. She  is anxious that we take the prospect of harm seriously, maintaining that we do not have time to wait a couple of decades to see what happens as our children grow up. Witness, for example, how long it took to persuade the world of the evil effects of tobacco...

Those who disagree ask for hard evidence and are sceptical of her observations. They do not hesitate to say so. Baroness Greenfield is not afraid of conflict and was removed from the Directorship amid controversy about a number of matters.
Tom Phillips is a distinguished artist, who has been astonishingly innovative throughout his career. He is also an author and musician.   In 1966 he set himself a task: to find a second-hand book for threepence and alter every page by painting, collage and cut-up techniques, thereby creating an entirely new version. He called his altered book A Humument i.e.A Hum(an Doc)ument. The first version of all 367 treated pages was published in 1973. The most recent development is The Humument App, which combines the most recent 367 full-colour pages with a novel interactive feature.

Friday, 11 November 2011


© National Portrait Gallery, London

In the past there have been conventions about how to signify greatness. You scatter the picture with give-away clues: a smock, palette or brushes in the background, a globe at the explorer’s feet, a tasteful fragment of sculpture by the classicist’s scrolls, a writer’s pen in a shady inkwell.
So what do you do for the geneticist who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2007? It would need a great many words for most of us to begin to understand the importance of his achievement. And crude symbolism is not going to work. 

David Cobley’s answer is mesmerising. You first notice the hands. Delicate and powerful, they are centre stage and because of the way they are lit, they create the illusion of solid form in space. You feel you could reach out and touch them. Then there is the miracle of how an artist can paint glass so fragile you fear for its life if is dropped. Back another layer and you have the face of a man who appears to be totally absorbed in what he is doing. He’s not thinking of us, the viewers. He’s not even thinking ‘I’m having my portrait painted’.  But what is it that is so seductive at that moment? The clue is in the background writing, which was the last thing I noticed. There it is,  a page of one of his 1980 notebooks where he was writing about the culture of embryonic stem cells. The artist has chosen to reference a moment  when Sir Martin made his groundbreaking biomedical breakthrough which is now adopted in laboratories the world over for vital research into hundreds of diseases and disorders. 

David Cobley has been drawing and painting people since childhood. He spent months visiting Sir Martin at CardiffUniversity  to work up the sketch in pencil and oil. He also took dozens of  photographs and encouraged Sir Martin to discuss his career in stem cell research in detail. He says this portrait has been designed to capture Sir Martin’s  ‘gentleness and curiosity’ in a ‘dynamic composition’. Peter Davies writing in 2002 says Cobley ‘transforms a straight portrait into a complex still life and interior composite’. John Russell-Taylor, writing in a Messums’ catalogue in  2005 admits, ’Almost without thinking about it, I referred to Cobley’s still-lives as capturing the 'soul' of an object'.

Monday, 7 November 2011



Justine Smith works mainly with paper -  not any old paper - but paper in which we invest immense power: banknotes. They are highly desirable and collectible. Governments like them too. But money is also scary. It’s like an elemental force which impacts on us at a political, social and moral level. It’s slippery too. We know that money exchange is simply based on trust. On every English £20 note the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England puts his signature to the statement ‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of twenty pounds’. We believe him.

This wreath, Enduring Loss, is partly made of Afghani banknotes. The number of poppies  corresponds to the number of UK troop deaths recorded from the start of the invasion of Afghan until October 7th 2011, the 10th anniversary of the war. All profits from the sale of the wreath will go to the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal. You do not expect to find such a stark reminder of the ultimate consequences of war in an art gallery. You wonder what would be the size of a wreath commemorating all the deaths – civilian and military - of all the people killed.

Smith cuts up fragile banknotes to use them in prints, sculptures and startlingly beautiful kaleidoscopic collages.  They come from failed states, conflict zones, repressive regimes and dictatorships. They reappear as guns, bullets, bombs and military aircraft worked into ornate patterns.  This is Instrument of State – Myanmar and consists of a Perspex case and Myanmar Kyats. Burma, also known as Myanmar, is ruled by a military junta which suppresses almost all dissent and wields absolute power in the face of international condemnation and sanctions. The Western press keeps an eye on pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi,  who has had various restrictions placed on her activities since the late 1980s. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory in 1990 in Burma's first multi-party elections for 30 years, but has never been allowed to govern. Burma is said to be one of Asia's poorest countries

This is The Way of the Gun III. It's partly gilded with 23.5 carat gold leaf. Gold is the ultimate form of currency  and a metal which has probably been at the root of more greed, corruption and violence than most other elements.

 At first glance - through the gallery window for example -  a passer by could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a display of religious mandalas and designs for stained glass windows. For some this would be an irresistible attraction – for others it would lead to a determination not to darken the gallery’s doorstep. You have to draw close enough to see what is really there. The shock and excitement of this beautiful and original work is palpable.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011


176.5 x 119.5 cm


This beautiful drawing was short listed for the prestigious Jerwood Drawing Prize 2011. It’s a work which demonstrates the richness of drawing as a stand-alone medium, not as a preparation for what is to come. The artist uses charcoal on paper because it permits subtle gradations in tonal value. Also perhaps because of the visceral shock the viewer experiences when faced with the tangible, sculptural blackness of the shadows and the pure white of the paper. Those blank window spaces have been emptied of content. We can neither see through them nor do they reflect back to us. There is a meditative stillness about them which is magical.

The art critic Andrew Brighton remarked at a Tate seminar in 2000 that you could describe art galleries' policy as ‘the history of the rejection of the domestic’, in the mistaken belief that while a work of art is unfathomable and you can interact with it forever,  objects offer nothing but closure. Moreover for understandable reasons women artists tended to focus on what they had access to: settees , balconies, beds etc, while men painted in public spaces. Greenberg – the most influential art critic in the world in the 50s and 60s – inveighed against sissy European painting and its tiny canvasses, and called Chiraco an ‘elementary interior designer’. 

Things have moved on. Anthropological studies in the 1990s see houses and objects as changing us, as well as us changing them. Buildings and their furnishings have ‘agency’.  Drawing Room invites us as voyeurs into the intimate spaces of a private world of opulent splendour. It's been suggested that its ethereal, atmospheric quality references early film noir. But, while this picture is 'unfathomable’, at the same time it's a portrait of a room, and rooms, their fabrics and furnishings, are things with which we are deeply familiar. Richardson is said to work 'in the Dutch tradition of painting imaginary architectural portraits’.

Earlier this year this work was included in Richardson's solo show Interior Castle at Long and Ryle. Interior Castle is the title of a book by the Spanish mystic and reformer St Teresa of Avila. She saw the soul as ‘a castle made of a single diamond ... in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.’ She invites her followers to explore various rooms as stages in a spiritual journey of prayer and contemplation before reaching the innermost chamber, the place of  transfiguration.

Back to those blank windows. In my study is a small print of Magritte’s L’Empire Des Lumieres (The Empire of Lights) A puffy blue and white sky, but on the ground darkness has fallen on a solitary house in a wood. Two blank lighted windows are reflected in the water. Another enigma. More psychological space.   (Cardiff)