Is there a better combination of exercise, landscape and art?

I first visited the Kröller-Müller museum in the Hoge Veluwe National park when I was an art student in London.  There had been an official college trip organised to Barcelona and Madrid, however I and a few friends simply didn’t have the money to join such an outing.  As an alternative we organised our own cultural excursion.  It was a cut price affair, staying in the cheapest of cheap hostels in Amsterdam and spending, I think, five days visiting the cultural high points of the Netherlands.

Undoubtedly the most surprising to me then, was the visit to the Kröller-Müller museum. An hour east of Amsterdam on the train, followed by twenty minutes on the bus, before entering the park and picking up one of the free white bikes to get around the expansive landscape of the Hoge Veluwe Park.  If I think back to that first visit I remember walking through pine forests and across dazzling sand dunes on a bright, crisp morning in early spring.  It wasn’t what I had expected of the Dutch landscape.  How different it was as a way to approach a museum art collection.  My more familiar routine was to battle through the busy streets of London making use of packed buses and underground trains.

Crossing this windswept Dutch landscape brought us to the destination that our tutors back in London had raved about, the elegant Kröller-Müller museum.  A stylish, modernist building housing the collection put together by Helene Kröller-Müller in the early years of the twentieth century and featuring the work of van Gogh, Mondriaan and many other modern masters.  Behind the museum you have an extensive and ever growing sculpture park and forest.

Little did I know when I made that first visit all those years ago, that within three years I would find myself living in the Netherlands and within biking distance of the park and the museum.  Regularly, as we did yesterday, we take our bikes and head off in a north-east direction.  It is a 20km ride through forests and over heathland.  As I said at the start, I’m yet to discover a better combination of physical exercise, landscape and art. The temporary exhibition for this particular visit being a rarely seen display of early van Gogh drawings.

Click here for more about the Kröller-Müller museum.

Ellsworth Kelly, at last, and a new Dutch modern art museum

Ellsworth Kelly has always been an important artist to me, ever since I first encountered his work as a student in London back in the late 1980s. His use of line and form, coupled with intense colour, drew me towards an interest in abstraction. His reduced artworks had a beauty that engaged my attention and helped me resolve how I could deal with abstract elements in my own work. Kelly’s work continues to be a touchstone in my own studio practice.


Despite this interest in his work I have never seen a solo show of his paintings or sculptures. I have regularly come across pieces in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Otterlo near where I live, but normally only one or two at a time. So it was with considerable anticipation that I arrived at the new Voorlinden Museum, on the outskirts of The Hague to see that elusive solo exhibition, ironically enough, just a few months after the artist’s death.
Kelly himself acknowledged the connection of his work with nature and the world around us. The Voorlinden museum in this regard presents a fantastic context. The architecture itself is reduced and and lean, no decoration here, less still in Kelly’s work. Always close by is the natural world, seen through the expansive glass walls of the museum.
The paintings are given the chance to breath their intense colour, the geometry of the forms cutting across the immaculate walls.
There is an attention to detail in Kelly’s work that is at once simple and fascinatingly complex. An edge that to all intents and purposes looks straight, but just by the smallest of margins isn’t, or one of his curves resting, and seemingly waiting to pivot, on the most fragile of points resting on the ground. But above all in the difusely top-lit gallery spaces of the museum it is the colour that captures the attention. Immaculately laid down surfaces with a rich intensity.

There are many other interesting pieces on show elsewhere in the museum, but in the context of he Kelly show, Open Ended by Richard Serra and Skyspace by James Turrell are particularly enjoyable combinations. Serra’s huge curving arcs envelop you as you walk through them, the rusting steel surface of his sculptures share nothing of the immaculate surface quality of Kelly’s work. However, for both artists the geometry of the edge is crucial. In that regard the edges of Turrell’s Skyspace installation work could hardly appear sharper. From the reclining benches around the sides of the room you look up through the sharp square opening in the roof to the limitless space of the sky above. The awareness you have of the surface of the canvas in Kelly’s work is replaced by an abiguous sense of surface that you know, in reality, is completely absent.. The slowly passing clouds so carefully framed up by the work taking on a feeling of the most full-colour projection possible.

The Voorlinden museum

Matisse in the Stedelijk

The Dutch museum goer has had to be patient over the last decade. So many of the big museums have been closed or offering greatly reduced collections during rebuilds and renovation. But that period seems to be passed now and the Stedelijk and Rijksmuseums in Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis in The Hague are open and better than ever. The last months have also seen some major exhibitions of painting at these museums. We have the Frick Collection in the Mauritshuis, Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum and Matisse at the Stedelijk, all currently open, not to mention the major Rothko exhibition that has just finished at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. 

 The Matisse show at the Stedelijk is an interesting exhibition, very different to the large retrospective that was seen in Paris a couple of years ago. The Paris show was an extensive retrospective charting many areas of Matisse’s work. In a way the Amsterdam exhibition does the same, but in a rather different way. We are taken through all the stages and periods of the Frenchman’s work, maybe with a few less examples. But these are accompanied by the work of others who were experimenting with similar ideas at the same time. So we see a Matisse street scene hanging next to a Vlaminck street scene, a Matisse nude next to a Picasso nude or a striding figure painted by Malevich next to one by Matisse. 

  

 In this way you find yourself journeying through twentieth century art history and simultaneously following the development of the bearded Frenchman. The later stages of the show bringing you into the large, upstairs gallery spaces of the Stedelijk and rooms full of exclusively Matisse work and in particular his paper cuts, both the large scale pieces and the pages of his Jazz publication.

Colour is pretty much everywhere to be found in the work of Matisse whether it’s in an early figure painting or portrait, or later in the interior paintings with their decorative details. In the later collages the colour sweeps across you, it’s what you expect from a Matisse exhibition. 

  

 But sitting watching the film of Matisse working with his young assistant to arrange collage elements and freely cutting his paper shapes with his large pair of scissors the role of line in his work is emphasized. I guess that in my own work line and drawing is generally more important than colour. Maybe this makes me a little more receptive to the quality of line in Matisse’s work. But retracing my steps back to the earlier work it becomes still more evident. 

The looseness and economy of the line in the portrait chalk drawings or pencil figures, they all seem so carefree and confident. Picasso is often talked about in terms of his interest and relationship to the creative confidence that young children have. But Matisse has that too, there seems to be a certainty that he will be able to make every line and form work for him. The teenagers I work with seem often to be the absolute opposite of this, the wave of uncertainty that engulfs them when confronted by a sheet of white paper.

It would be interesting to bring them here. I know that they would be troubled by the simplicity of the collages, it all looks too easy. But there lies the crux, they are ready to appreciate the creative ease that Lionel Messi shows us when passing a defender to score for Barcelona and they recognize that they don’t have such an ability. However, show them an artist with a pair of scissors and they are a lot more suspicious. How can such simplicity be good, when in so many other areas we acknowledge complexity?

Some of my older pupils at school are currently working on an assignment that I have, perhaps slightly mischievously, given them. It asks them to consider the qualities of all the various artistic and cultural disciplines. I’ve asked them to choose to present a discipline (say film or architecture for example) that is in a state of progression with the most modern and up to date being the high point of achievement. A second one has to be picked where they feel the quality is in regression, where the work being produced now is inferior to that of the past. In both cases they have to choose examples to argue their case.

In truth this assignment is a bit of an experiment, I’ll be curious to see what they make of it. I suspect some may well feel that the history of painting is in regression. Teenagers are indefinitely impressed by the technical skill of the past and struggle with more abstract or work that is visually reduced to simpler forms. In this context Matisse’s work may well make an appearance, which would probably be reason enough to give them some coloured paper, a pair of scissors and an invitation to have a go themselves.

The Dutch museum goer has had to be patient over the last decade. So many of the big museums have been closed or offering greatly reduced collections during rebuilds and renovation. But that period seems to be passed now and the Stedelijk and Rijksmuseums in Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis in The Hague are open and better than ever. The last months have also seen some major exhibitions of painting at these museums. We have the Frick Collection in the Mauritshuis, Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum and Matisse at the Stedelijk, all currently open, not to mention the major Rothko exhibition that has just finished at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.

Bonnard, Vuillard and an iPad

Whilst walking round an exhibition in the Amsterdam Hermitage I notice that the French artist Pierre Bonnard was born exactly 100 years before me. Bonnard, along with Vuillard and Gauguin are the star names in the exhibition. Their paintings are very familiar, making use of relatively simple approaches, flat areas of colour in Gauguin’s case and the direct and inconspicuously unhidden brushstrokes in the work of Bonnard and Vuillard.

All three were making paintings in a period when artists were coming to terms with what it was to paint in a period where photography was becoming increasingly visible in daily life. It makes me wonder about my own paintings and the place that new digital possibilities have found in my own production.

Image

Whilst walking round the Hermitage I find myself stopping to make a quick digital sketch of a sculpture on my ipad. It is an occasional pleasure, drawing whilst visiting a show, as much to make me look a little harder as anything else. Drawing on the glass screen really doesn’t feel to me at least as anything particularly different to paper in a book. Yet it does leave me feeling a little conspicuous amongst the tourists visiting what feels a pretty traditional sort of art exhibition.

I’ve been experimenting quite a lot in the last couple of weeks with drawing software for on the tablet. I want to experiment with my pupils at school after the summer with various digital drawing ideas. I am hugely curious to see whether the speed and directness of the drawing on the tablet can help bridge the nervousness that all art teachers will recognize when their pupils approach the virginal whiteness of a new sheet of paper. the urge to match this perfection can be quite inhibiting.

My own paintings have undoubtedly been effected by the possibilities offered by the digital age. I use a computer to create geometric forms and also painterly effects that are later transferred to canvases. For my pupils that is not likely to be the result or what is desired. Instead, what I am hoping for, is a less inhibited approach to their drawings, a directness of just making the work, yes kind of like the qualities found in the work of Bonnard and Vuillard and their paintings of 100 years ago.