National Portrait Gallery

From the ruins of ancient Rome to Coventry’s conceptual artists in one packed day in London

A day trip to London for a gig always means an early start and a late night for me, and the chance to fit in a few exhibitions.

I got around five this time, and they were certainly varied.

First stop, the British Museum for Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome. Towne, who lived 1739-1816, visited Rome in 1780-81 and made a large selection of paintings of its famous landmarks and the surrounding countryside. He continued to work on them for many years afterwards, and some have clearly added extra pieces of paper on the side or bottom, with the scene continuing, or extra trees added later.

In the British Museum’s lovely cool print room with its muted lights the watercolours are lovely, delicate and somehow relaxing. However they were not really appreciated in Towne’s lifetime, though they were first displayed together in 1805; this is the second time. Towne tried several times to be admitted to the Royal Academy, but was always rejected; he was from Exeter and hated being seen as a provincial drawing teacher. Small comfort that we can now go and enjoy them and he is appreciated as a skilled watercolourist. The exhibition is on until August 14.

In the gallery leading off the print room, is Krishna in the Garden of Assam, until August 15. Subtitled the cultural context of an Indian textile, the main piece is the largest surviving example of an Assamese devotional textile, the Vrindavani Vastra.

The nine metre long cloth, made in 12 segments, is covered in detailed scenes from the life of the Hindu god Krishna. It was made in the late seventeenth century, but oddly found its way to the British Museum via The Times journalist Perceval Landon when he was covering the Younghusband exhibition to Tibet in 1903-4; it would be interesting to know both how it got there, and how he acquired it to bring it back.

A trip by Tube down to Tate Britain, and it’s almost from the sublime to the ridiculous. Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979 is less a visual feast and more a lot of reading. However you can become part of the art; in the first room, Roelf Law’s Soul City, a pyramid of oranges, gives you a chance to change the art by taking an orange.

An excellent small leaflet given out at the exhibition explains conceptual art simply and in a way that makes sense. Longer descriptions in the galleries left me more baffled. Some conceptual artists I get. Hamish Fulton and Richard Long’s documenting of their walks with photographs and descriptions seems to make sense. Gilbert and George’s performances as The Singing Sculptures appeal and make me wish I had seen them back in 1970.

There’s quite a lot of space devoted to Art & Language, the Coventry College of Art-based group who were so important to conceptual art, but also controversial, not least in the Lanchester Polytechnic they were based in. As one piece of information tells us: “Theorising here was not subsidiary to art or an art object but the primary concern of this art.” The show includes Hot –Warm-Cool-Cold, which was on exhibition at the Herbert in 1968, and consists of 43 pieces of paper on the wall, apparently on the theme of weather.

It’s a large exhibition with lots of info and a variety of work to serve as a good introduction, or to expand your knowledge. It’s on until August 29.

Also at Tate Britain, I popped into a BP Spotlight exhibition, Art and Alcohol, which is on until the autumn. It juxtaposes vastly different works and their different views on alcohol. There’s Gilbert and George again, with Balls: the evening before the night after – drinking sculpture 1972, 114 posed photos of the Balls bar on a night out.

Richard Billingham’s photo of his parents from 1994 shows his unwell-looking father being berated by his mother, and was groundbreaking at the time. There’s a Hogarth etching from 175 of Gin Lane, showing a drunken woman dropping her baby and other delights including violence, madness and a hanged person, showing the horrors said to come from gin drinking.

Other works are also morality tales. George Cruickshank’s enormous The Worship of Bacchus from 1860-62 depicts people celebrating life events with drink in the foreground, and then fighting and being destroyed by it behind.

It’s an interesting exhibition showing the move from trying to make a moral point to just depicting the facts over the years.

Back at the National Portrait Gallery until June 26 is Russia and the Arts, the age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, which is described as a once in a lifetime opportunity to see masterpieces from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. It focuses on the cultural heroes of the period 1967-1914, and the artists who painted them.

There are figures you may expect to see – Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev and the two named in the title, plus others I hadn’t heard of. The composer Modest Mussorgsky appears dishevelled and in a dressing gown, but this was painted a few days before his death in hospital at a young age from alcoholism.

Towards the end as time move on in Russia, contemporary life intervenes. The poet Nikolai Gumilev is depicted as he was known at the time, as a dandy, but he was executed two years later in 1921 for counter revolutionary activities.

It’s a sobering end to an exhibition which was smaller than I expected, but still had lots to offer, with a lot of information about both sitter and artist and often the relationship between them, in some cases the friendliness or contempt visible in the work.


Ai Weiwei and Giacometti are the stand-out stars of current London exhibitions

There are two exhibitions currently on in London which are must-sees if you’re in the capital any time soon.

Giacometti’s Pure Presence exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery has had five star reviews already, and on the second day it was open crowds were literally queuing out of the door to buy timed tickets. Despite this the gallery still didn’t feel over-full.

Giacometti is up there in my top two of sculptors, but this is apparently the first exhibition to focus on his portraiture, with more than 60 paintings, sculptures and drawings from international collections. He was fascinated throughout his career about how to evoke a human presence in his work, and how people fitted into space, and this exhibition seeks to explore that.

There are some amazing works from his youth, including his first sculpture, a bronze work of his brother Bruno made when the artist was just 13. Their father was a post-impressionist painter, and early paintings of his family are in a similar style. In later works he experimented with surrealism and developed his own style. The Artist’s Mother of 1927 showed her with a flat face, the features engraved on it.

A whole room focuses on works in which Giacometti’s mother, who lived into her 90s, was the model, being depicted depending on how he was working at that time; in one painting she was the only focus, then in 1950 she was seen smaller and at the end of he room, fitting into the context of household items, related to his interest in existentialism at that time.

His brother Diego worked with him much of his life, and there are several portraits of Diego seated more casually than the female models, and also Diego in a Sweater, a bronze from 1953 showing the jumper as huge, and his brother’s head tiny but sculpted in detail.

As Giacometti became more successful, there were other models from outside the family, including Jean Genet, painted off centre in an oil work from 1954-5.

A room shows photos of Giacometti with his family, his ramshackle studio and with companions including Samuel Beckett. However his interests in people were not limited to the well-known; his wife Annette posed for him many times, and towards the end of his life a model he called Caroline who moved in borderline criminal circles became important, and a series of paintings show him focussing in on her face and then more so her eyes.

It’s a fascinating exhibition which although successful in itself left me pining for more of his sculptures again.

Over at the Royal Academy, Ai Weiwei’s exhibition gained lots of publicity on opening because of the British government’s initial refusal to grant him a visa to enter the country, an act later reversed.

However the exhibition deserves fame on its own account, demonstrating art as an undoubtedly political act and process. There are quite a few items made from wood from dismantled temples from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), including an unusable table with two legs up the wall, and a table with pillar coming out of it. Kippe is a large structure made from bits of wood fitted together. Outside, you approach the gallery through wooden trees, made up of parts of different trees fitted together, representing the whole of China.

In one room, names and details line both walls, identifying the thousands of school pupils who died in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, in which lots of inadequately-built schools collapsed. Metal rods meant to reinforce them are lined up on the floor in a large installation, and there is a film of the aftermath of the collapse, and photos. Pieces like this have not surprisingly made Ai Weiwei unpopular with the Chinese authorities.

Shanghai Studio is the title of another room, where we are told about how Ai Weiwei was invited to build a new studio in a Shanghai district, and this was done, then it was declared illegal and torn down; bits of brick, cement and ornate wood make up a huge block in the gallery from the destruction, ironically entitled Souvenir from Shanghai.

In another room, the destruction of Chinese historical building and artefacts and the race to destroy more through efforts to boost the economy is explored partly through Dust to Dust, ground dust from china dating back to 5000-3000BC stored in jars.

Fragments is a huge wooden structure you can walk underneath, made from some of the larger, attractive parts of dismantled ancient temples, and in another room the popular Chinese building material marble is turned into models of security cameras used to keep an eye on the artist.

In 2011, Ai Weiwei was held for 81 days as he tried to leave the country, and kept constantly in a room with two guards. He has created six small models of this room, which can be viewed through a window, or by looking down into it from positioned steps. In these he has modelled himself going through the motions of living, as the two guards watch; sleeping, reading, eating, showering and even using the toilet. You get some small idea of how intolerable this must have been.

The final room contains a chandelier made partly of bicycles; a bright, glittering end to an amazing exhibition of works by an artist of great significance today.

* Giacometti, Pure Presence, is on until January 10, and Ai Weiwei until December 13.


Winter wonder exhibitions on show at London galleries

If you’re heading down to London any time soon there are a few exhibitions that are worth seeing and are varied enough for there to be something to suit anyone’s tastes.
I wasn’t excited at the thought of Bronze at the Royal Academy but it turned out to be a real winner. Featuring items made out of bronze dating back BC until the present day it delights with its scope, its variety of subject matter, its world-wide range of exhibits and the many uses they were put to.
From the decorative to the useful, the ceremonial, the religious and sculptural representations, they’re all here. My favourites include Buddhas, such as a late sixth century Buddha Shakyamuni ubn Abhaya-Mudra from India, to much more recent works by Brancusi and Giacometti.