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

 

Alice Neel exhibition…. Portrait painter

Let me start with a confession; the paintings of Alice Neel had largely passed me by until a few months ago. My attention was then drawn to them by an image that was sent to me by my colleague artist and art teacher, Pasi, in Finland.  We’ve been busy setting up a photography project between my pupils in the Netherlands and his in Finland. (For more information about this use the link below).

Netherlands-Finland photography project

One aspect of the project has involved drawing some comparisons of photographic portraits and painted ones.  Within this context Pasi sent me a collection images, including a self-portrait painted by Neel when she was in her eighties. It’s an unusual and somewhat eye catching representation of the elderly artist, sitting naked in a chair whilst painting her self-portrait.  It was this very portrait that you encounter as you walk into the extensive Alice Neel exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague at the moment.

img_3164The exhibition walks you through a large body of this relatively forgotten artist, an early life surrounded by revolutionaries and political activists before nestling herself amongst the cultural life of New York. Unusually for a portrait artist Neel didn’t document herself in her work until right at the end of her life, instead the focus lies on partners, lovers, children, friends and others she came across in the circles she moved in. The result is a fascinating journey through the muted early work into the increasingly colourful and expressive work that came later.

Constant throughout the exhibition is a feeling of focused intensity, both from the artist and the subject. The sitter often stares out of the image with large penetrating eyes.

I enjoyed the show hugely and found myself unusually reading everything on the gallery walls building up a picture of a very colourful and varied life. It’s clear to see how the artist drew on the work of Munch and Van Gogh for her inspiration. It is also evident why Dutch artist Marlene Dumas finds her interesting. Personally I see a strong connection to the work of David Hockney.

The texts that accompany the exhibition make much of a feminist agenda that perhaps caused Neel to be neglected. That may well be the case, but it also has to be said that when the artist was producing some of her best work, in the fifties and sixties she was close to where she needed to be, painting portraits of gallery owners and others within the cultural world.  Her fringe position within the cultural scene must surely also been down to the fact that the American art world of this period was pre-occupied by very different things. Yes, it was a very male dominated and macho place to be, but also one focusing on abstraction, minimalism, Pop art and conceptual art, there was little space for an essentially traditional portraitist, no matter how good and how intense her work was.