Alma-Tadema – an artistic love/hate relationship

The work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema didn’t feature heavily during my years at art school. No, maybe I should be more specific, as far as I can remember, it didn’t feature at all. Perhaps not surprisingly, for despite being one of the most financially successful artists of the nineteenth century and ending up being knighted and buried in St Paul’s cathedral in London, Alma-Tadema’s work and the works of the closely related Pre-Raphaelites were something of a forgotten sub-tributary in the flow towards a more modern world. Many would argue that it wasn’t even a tributary, and more of an isolated pool that was completely detached.

This may well be the case, and also the reason why his work fell so far out of favour in the twentieth century. But in recent decades there has been a renewed interest in Alma-Tadema’s luscious fantasy world.  My own first, and rather accidental encounter with his work was in 1996 when I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.  There was a temporary show of his paintings and now, twenty years later there is a second show in the Friesmuseum in Leeuwarden the capital of the Dutch province in which this Dutch-Anglo artist was born. The exhibition has attracted unprecedented numbers for this relatively small town in the north of The Netherlands, well over 100000 visitors in the first three of its four month run. The exhibition then tours to Vienna and onto London.

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The memories of my visit to the Van Gogh museum exhibition back in the nineties prompted me to make the trip up to Leeuwarden to renew my something of a love-hate relationship I have with the artist’s work. What I remember from my first encounter with the paintings was the colour, the light and the overwhelming lushness of it all.  At their best these are paintings that ooze an almost oppressive detail and rich colour.  Although, it must also be said that other works feel at times like the artist has beaten any life out of them through his astonishing eye for detail, whether it is pressed up against the picture-plane in the fore-ground or seemingly miles away in the background.

These reservations aside, there are some gems in the exhibition, paintings that are extremely difficult not to be drawn to; the likes of The Roses of Heliogabalus, Unconscious Rivals and A Coign of Vantage. Over the top the paintings definitely are, and also out of touch with the world and time in which they were made, but simultaneously they display a phenomenal work ethic, patience of execution and eye for detail.

The exhibition goes to some trouble to draw comparisons between Alma-Tadema’s work and the influence it has had on the visual styling of various Hollywood epics over the years. Fragments of films such as Gladiator and Cleopatra are also on display.  The artifice and escapism of the movies would seem appropriate. This whole exhibition and body of work is a quite huge display of the fantasy world that must have occupied the artist’s mind. He consistently painted image after image of a distant and mythical world, a world that spilled over into the high life of soirées and parties that were also known regularly to require costumes that fitted the artist’s visionary world.

Guardian article reviewing the exhibition

 

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