France-Lise McGurn: Percussia
Simon Lee Gallery, London
24 January 2020 - 22 February 2020
The history of figurative painting demonstrates waves of periodic rejection. The magnification of antiquity’s strict principles performed by the Neo-classical movement arose in opposition to the pastel tinted vanity of the Rococo. Impressionism’s gestural interpretations of light dismissed the academic naturalism of Realism. Fast forward to the new millennium, it seemed that Contemporary Art (excluding a small handful of artists) had wholly abandoned figurative painting in favour of found objects and shock culture. However, history’s sweet wheel of rejection brings hope for the canvas, paint and figure. The best part? Women artists - such as France-Lise McGurn, Lisa Brice, Sanam Khatibi, Jesse Mockrin and Flora Yukhnovich - are leading the way and they’re referencing, retelling and subverting history of art’s predominantly male canon.
Best known for her site-specific wall murals and large energetic compositions, France-Lise McGurn has exhibited extensively across the UK, including a solo show at Tate Britain in 2019. Her debut exhibition with Simon Lee Gallery immerses the viewer in a figurative landscape. The contemporary space is transformed from white clinical walls to a symphony of warmth and colour. Swathes of idealised bodies in states of undress explore the sensual intimacy between strangers. Although inspired by the classical nudes of antiquity, her figures are compellingly metropolitan. Staring outward through apathetic eyes her figures dismiss the languid poses of the past. The men and women are caught between movement - gesturing with their hands, dancing, smoking and crouching on heeled shoes.
“Individually the figures are quiet and subtle, symbols of the interiority of the body and self, while collectively we see a congregation of figures evoking a sense of belonging and power.”
Simon Lee Gallery
Influenced by Glasgow’s late-night dance culture McGurn describes the title of her show Percussia, a derivative of the word percussion, as a ‘sensual term’. Rather than depicting a direct narrative, the lyricism and femininity of her figures attempt to embody an emotion. Perhaps its the feeling you have when dancing amongst strangers, gazing across a crowded room, or walking down a busy street. Although the majority of McGurn’s characters appear as archetypes or ‘stand ins’ for a larger concept, touchingly, references of her young daughter appear on the walls in the form of a round bellied, cherub-esque child.
Demonstrating a skilled ability in draftsmanship, McGurn’s linear works are painted with the speed and virility of a preparatory sketch. Each wash of colour lightly obscures the remnants of discontinued ideas and mistakes. Successfully she rejects the contrived hierarchies of art by energetically raising the act of drawing to canvas. Using materials pertaining to urban culture, such as aerosol spray and marker pen, she creates a balanced conversation between her underdrawings and final compositions. Executed in a seemingly effortless manner McGurn playfully utilises the stubborn qualities of each medium to her advantage. Each layer becoming an echo of the artist’s hand and process.
France-Lise McGurn’s intoxicating paintings transcend time, finding a welcome balance between the classical and the contemporary. Whole afternoons could be committed to visually unravelling the layers of figurative gestures and clouds of colour. Finishing on Saturday 22nd February 2020, this exhibition should not be missed!
France-Lise McGurn: https://www.simonleegallery.com/artists/237-france-lise-mcgurn/
Lisa Brice: https://www.stephenfriedman.com/artists/lisa-brice/
Sanam Khatibi: https://sanamkhatibi.com
Jesse Mockrin: https://www.mockrin.com
Flora Yukhnovich: https://www.florayukhnovich.com
National Portrait Gallery
17 October 2019 - 26 January 2020
Rejecting an era of industrial revolution and the strict Neo-Classical ethos of the Royal Academy, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded by Gabriel Dante Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais in 1848, sought to develop a modern genre of painting that placed beauty, spiritualism and literature at its heart. This exhibition is a brave, or foolish (I am currently undecided) contemporary tackling of the pre-Raphaelite movement’s unacknowledged Sisterhood. The National Portrait Gallery readdresses the role of twelve central women, some you may have heard of - Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Morris and Evelyn de Morgan - and others who’s voices have been further neglected from the history books. Some established themselves as models, artists, craftswomen and published poets with ambitions equal to the men, whilst others sustained their engagement with the art world as partners in production. Each room dedicates it’s institutional walls to rewrite and confirm the remarkable contributions of these Pre-Raphaelite women. However, does it succeed?
On one hand yes. The lives of these women are beautifully detailed in the wall texts, photographs, letters, and personal artworks. I was particularly moved by a lock of Elizabeth Siddal’s dark red hair, which in the Victorian tradition would have been taken at the time of her tragic death in 1862. Perhaps more potent than a drawing or painting, the artefact placed ‘Lizzie’ - the model, artist and woman - directly in the room. On the other hand (here comes the rub) the vast majority of works on display were by the Brotherhood. This is not to say that these works aren’t worth seeing. On the contrary, I was blown away by their astonishing beauty. Rossetti’s ‘The Blue Bower’ 1865 depicts Fanny Cornforth as a lustrous Medieval beauty. Her sensual green eyes, voluptuous lips and cascading red hair burns in a symphony of emerald and cobalt blue. However, the image is more of a psalm to beauty than a portrait of Fanny. The male gaze is inescapable! As ‘The Times’ art critic Waldemar Januszczak perfectly put it, ‘Instead of challenging the patriarchal beardiness of the pre-Raphaelites, the show manages somehow to prove that we have underestimated it.’ Of course, it would be wrong to completely ignore the Brotherhood’s crucial role to the Sisterhood, and some of the artworks did feel contextually relevant. For example, Rossetti’s intimate and touching final portrait of artist Joanna Wells on her deathbed in the summer of 1861. She is not immortalised as a fictional maiden, but as the artist, young mother, and human that she was. Too often however, the curator’s efforts to humanise these women were distractedly punctured by images of dreamy eyes and bow shaped lips.
Ignoring the men for now.
There were many barriers for women to overcome in the pursuit of a fine art career. The privileged few who did receive a formal training, such as Marie Spartali Stillman, Evelyn de Morgan and Maria Zambaco, were often confined to drawing sculpture casts or copying masters. (It would be another thirty or so years in 1893 when women were allowed to draw from the male model - and then only if his genitals were obscured by voluminous lengths of fabric) Additionally, the social and domestic expectations of Victorian women meant that fewer artworks were made or survive today. Despite this gendered disadvantage, I would argue that although outnumbered by the male painters, the sensitivity and ambition displayed in their drawings, paintings and crafts matched those of their pre-Raphaelite brothers. In particular, I was drawn to Joanna Wells’ talents of observation in the exquisite profile portrait of Jamaican-born model Fanny Eaton. The small painting details the light interacting with Fanny’s luminous shawl and pearl earrings, as well capturing the subtle highlights of her brow and cheekbone. In contrast, Evelyn De Morgan embraces the pre-Raphaelite manifesto and explores literature and mythology in vivid colour and dramatic scale. Defying social standard, the determined Evelyn gave up the leisurely life expected of an aristocratic woman and became one of the first women to be admitted to the Slade School of Fine Art. The final painting of the show, ‘Night and Sleep’ 1878 depicts two figures clothed in billowing robes reminiscent of a setting sun, floating through air, scattering poppies and dragging a brooding night sky behind them.
If you’re a long-term lover of the pre-Raphaelites then the National Portrait Gallery’s attempt to highlight the achievements of the little known sisterhood won’t wholly disappoint. Visually the artworks are breathtaking and showcase a diverse range of skills that encompass the powerful colours and symbolic markers of the movement’s style. The fascinating research highlights the crucial role each woman undertook in her life to contribute, support and inspire the pre-Raphaelite era. The exhibition’s curator, Dr Jan Marsh was brave to embrace the contemporary shift in female empowerment and challenge art history’s prolific silencing of female voices. However, as a viewer I felt caught in a struggle, trying to fight my way behind each voluptuous and sensual staring goddess to meet the incredible lives of each pre-Raphaelite sister. The topic did not pose solely a research challenge, but also a display. In a bid to involve the classical ‘show stoppers’ the exhibit relied heavily on the brotherhood’s Victorian examinations of beauty and gendered morality. Unfortunately, the male gaze hung between each female contribution like an inescapable shadow.
Female Artists: Joanna Wells, Fanny Cornforth, Marie Spartali Stillman, Evelyn de Morgan, Christina Rossetti, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Effie Millais, Elizabeth Siddal, Maria Zambaco, Jane Morris, Annie Miller and Fanny Eaton.
National Portrait Gallery: https://www.npg.org.uk
8 February - 30 March 2019
Although social media has much to answer for I can however, give thanks to the beguiling (addictive) charms of Instagram for introducing me to the artist Flora Yukhnovich. Her pastoral compositions defined by saturated pastel colours and theatrical mark-making made her a compelling follow and I was thrilled to learn that she was having a solo exhibition at Parafin gallery, London.
Inspired by the fête gallante scenes of early 18th century French Rococo, Yukhnovich’s large scale paintings explore ‘a series of binary positions: feminine and masculine, low and high culture, good and bad taste.’ Having recently seen Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s most famous painting ‘Les hasards heureux de l'escarpolette or The Swing’, 1767 (a consequential ‘poster child’ for the Rococo) alongside other artists from the period at the Wallace Collection, London - it was a pleasure to see Yukhnovich embrace all the elements of the Rococo, whilst maintaining an original and contemporary voice.
Although Parafin’s long and narrow floor plan made it difficult to stand well back from the generously scaled paintings, it did encourage a closer inspection of Yukhnovich’s rich and fluid brushwork. Described as navigating ‘a terrain between figuration and abstraction’, it is clear that the artist has a solid understanding of the human figure - most notably the female. Within each ample mass of swirling colour there is a glimpse of a reclining form or voluptuous limb. Her style evokes contemporary comparison with the expressive and ‘figural’ works of Cecily Brown. However, Yukhnovich’s paintings seem more refined and romantic. For me, the dynamism of these works are shaped by the thoughtful placement of colour rather than the physical and impulsive mark-making found in Brown’s work.
‘As an artist working in the twenty-first century the works of Fragonard, Boucher and Watteau and the cultural freight they carry become a vehicle for her (Yukhnovich) ideas…’
In particular, I found there were natural parallels between François Boucher’s ‘The Rising of the Sun’ 1753, located above the main staircase at the Wallace Collection and Yukhnovich’s ‘Both Sides Now’ 2019 (see images). Originally, one of the designs for a diptych tapestry commissioned by Madame de Pompadour, the depiction of dramatic skyward atmospheres are emphasised in Boucher’s painting by contrasting blue hues. The figures and their swathes of drapery, inspired by the Mythological god Apollo and the nymph Thetis, follow the powerful waves of cloud, sea and wind in a circular motion, revealing the clear sky in the centre of the composition. Yukhnovich’s painting seems to reflect Boucher’s sentiments. It sensitively suggests the naiads and plump putti within the fluid movement of the rushing sky, providing a central respite of light blue.
Scattered throughout the exhibition small preparatory oil studies on paper are displayed in simple white frames. Ripped edges and unpeeled masking tape at their corners - these works are a collection of uninhibited moments of creative exploration and when they are included in the curation of a show they give the viewer an insight into the artist’s process. Described as ‘pared down responses in the historical canon by Fragonard, Boucher, Tiepolo or Pater’, the spontaneous application of paint varies in degrees of figuration and abstraction. They have a presence and for me, to view such intimate work comes close to physically visiting an artist’s studio.
Described as ‘tastelessly florid’ and ‘feebly pretentious’, the Rococo’s negative connotations have debatably overshadowed the efforts of the 18th century artists. Yukhnovich’s paintings are dynamic and strikingly contemporary in approach, successfully revitalising this era of ‘bad taste’ and reenergising my interest and love for the Rococo.
Parafin Gallery: http://www.parafin.co.uk
Flora Yukhnovich: https://www.florayukhnovich.com
The Wallace Collection: https://www.wallacecollection.org
Suffering from SAD (seasonal affective disorder)? Pierre Bonnard has the remedy.
‘The C C Land Exhibition: Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory’
Tate Modern, 23 Jan 2019 - 6 May 2019
In this bleak, monotonous winter and in these wretched, uncertain times you wouldn’t be blamed for dreaming of a bright place in the sunshine, nor would you be blamed for the incessant *ping* that plagues your inbox with yet another expensive and out of reach holiday deal. Fortunately, the Tate Modern has curated the antidote. Across the cold and muddy waters of the Thames, Bonnard’s vivid oil paintings of the never-ending French summer landscape and his balmy domestic interiors will provide you with the perfect respite from those seasonal blues.
Despite the extraordinary vitality and complexity of Bonnard’s colour palette, his unique voice was hushed by his Impressionist predecessors and boisterous Modernist contemporaries such as Gauguin and Picasso. Deemed ‘the greatest of us all’ by artist and close friend Henri Matisse, Bonnard’s work is sadly still relatively unknown to the average art lover. The first major Bonnard exhibition in the UK in 20 years, the Tate’s retrospective attempts to readdress this oversight casting a new light on the naturally shy yet enigmatic artist. Spanning over forty years of Bonnard’s career - starting in 1912 as his signature style began to mature until his death in 1947 - the exhibition brings together over 100 expressive oil paintings, drawings and photographs on loan from museums and private collections.
The bringing together of these works however is not a revelatory idea in the international context. Previously, I was able to view the 2015 ‘Pierre Bonnard: ‘Peindre L’Arcadie’ (translation: ‘Painting Arcadia’) show, curated by the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Referring to perfect visions of pastoralism, the exhibition chose to focus on Bonnard’s sumptuous landscapes including his earlier decorative panels inspired by Japanese kakemono hanging scrolls. Although the thematic approach was simplistic and explored one angle - the quest for an aesthetic ideal in landscape - Bonnard’s paintings proved far more complex than the exhibition gave him credit for. This year the Tate delves into the diverse roles of colour and memory, exploring 13 rooms of bounteous sentiment and sun-warmed nostalgia.
Before stepping into the gallery the ticket entrance sets the tone for the exhibit by providing a monumental photo mural of Bonnard’s ‘The Garden’, 1936. Adjusted to the dreary pallet of London’s underground your eyes squint and blink by the imposition of colour. The enlarged details emphasise the diversity of his palette - ranging from soft lilac to terracotta orange and indigo blue to cadmium red. The wall feels like a visual warmup in preparation for what hangs inside. Nicknamed ‘les fauves’ (the wild beasts) the artists Matisse and André Derain pioneered the use of raw colours in the creative hub of Paris. Preferring the solitude and slow-pace of the countryside Bonnard felt compelled and began to develop his own individual approach to colour. Bonnard wrote in a letter, ‘Certainly colour had carried me away. I sacrificed form to it almost unconsciously.’ Placing such a fervent emphasis on the need to experience and express in colour, Bonnard was able to challenge traditional rules in a multitude of hues and pigments.
Most notably, the expansive canvas of ‘Summer’, 1917 (Room 3) depicts blue stained children playing in the shade of a wooded landscape whilst two orange-hue women bask in the golden hour of day. The painting, measuring over three meters wide, hangs with ease on the large and ceremoniously pompous walls of the Tate. Unable to view the sweeping landscape as a whole the painting transforms the shallow gallery into a panoramic ‘view point’. Despite the frustrations of orientating around the crowds - ironically, a common feeling for the summer tourist - the audience are invited to stand and contemplate the nostalgic scene, absorbing every warm dappled leaf and radiant body. Bonnard was not oblivious to the war at this time, describing scenes of destruction in ‘A Village in Ruins Near Ham’ 1917 (Room 4), however in this same year he seems to share an alternative vision of hope. In the seemingly rebellious use of colour there is however law and order. Equipped with the rules of colour theory Bonnard was able to combine warm and cold complimentary colours. By enhancing the billowing trees in a range of ultramarine blues and exaggerating the summer meadow in an acidic orange, Bonnard was able to harmonise colour in a way that still feels shockingly contemporary.
It is clear that Bonnard struggled with proportion and facial features. There is a contrasting uncertainty in the mottled pink faces and over extended limbs of his figures. Bonnard studied law and briefly trained as a barrister so was never formally trained in the classical academic style of painting. Attending a couple of classes at the École des Beaux's Arts in Paris, Bonnard found that he preferred to work from drawings and memory. As seen in the preparatory sketches for ‘The Bowl of Milk’, 1919 (Room 5) Bonnard takes inspiration from the small interactions and rituals of daily life. Entwined in the complexity of colour and composition your eyes find a way to forgive these inaccuracies. In a technology conscious society where memory has been replaced with the iPhone to provide visual prompts, Bonnard’s ability to translate memory into paintings seems all the more impressive.
Very rarely does contemporary art provide this strand of nostalgia and vitality. Instead we are often faced with minimalist, sterile work that relies too heavily on the power of jargon. In an art world that can feel so exclusive and alienating Bonnard’s paintings roar softly in the austere white spaces of the Tate. Bonnard’s intimate scenes of domestic life provides us respite from the uncertainty of political affairs. Do I have to say it? Brexit. Perhaps for Bonnard, his focus on the gentleness of everyday scenarios and objects acted as an escapism from the unpredictability that plagued the years surrounding the world wars. Curator and head of displays at Tate Modern, Matthew Gale, said, ‘His paintings really reward very close and extended scrutiny.’ For example 'Still Life with Bouquet of Flowers’, 1930 (Room 10) encourages you to look amongst Bonnard’s possessions like a curious and somewhat nosey house guest. You imagine strolling from room to room, sipping from a citron pressé as you go. Casually you sift through a pile of loose sketches on the study table revealing a book, the ‘Venus of Cyrene’. A particular favourite of Pierre’s you wonder? Bonnard’s painting subtly reminds us of the man and life behind the canvas.
In particular, behind and on that canvas was Marthe de Méligny. Resisting the traditional conventions of the time, Bonnard and Marthe lived as a couple for thirty years before marrying in 1925. For the majority of their relationship Bonnard used Marthe as his principle model, appearing in his photography and drawings (Room 2) and most famously his bathroom scenes. A complex character, Marthe suffered from various physical ailments which required her to take regularly prescribed baths. In John Richardson’s review of the Tate’s last Bonnard exhibition in 1998, he cruelly describes Marthe as the ‘amphibious wife’. Semi-submerged and soaking, Bonnard’s tender depiction of Marthe in ‘Nude in the Bath’ 1936 (Room 11) is serenely intimate yet claustrophobic. There is an underlying tone of anxiety - the porcelain tub embraces her pale figure like a sarcophagus, priming her body for death.
Critics of the time avoided the more sombre aspects of Bonnard’s paintings, describing him as a ‘painter of happiness.’ Bonnard later noted, ‘he who sings is not always happy.’ Bonnard was to live through two world wars, the death of his mother, the suicide of his mistress and the long-term illness and subsequent death of his wife Marthe. The consequence of these events are shown in the melancholic self-portraits of the artist. ‘The Boxer’ 1931 (Room 10) confronts the artist in the reflection of a mirror. Without his pallet and paintbrush he is unarmed with firsts raised, a shadow falling across a tense and anxious face. Situated towards the end of the exhibition, these important and juxtaposed self-portraits remind us that even in Bonnard’s eternal summer there is human frailty and pain. Not all experience and memory are summoned from joyous occasion and it would be easy to misdiagnose Bonnard’s bright and optimistic work exclusively to the realm of unadulterated bliss. Fortunately, the Tate avoids sensationalising these paintings through periodic contextual reminders.
‘The Colour of Memory’ successfully explores the man behind the painting. From the vivacious landscapes that dominate the Tate’s walls with generous dollops of colour, to the small provincial paintings that gently ask to be heard. The exhibition asks us to understand the artist’s life, with all the joy and inevitable uncertainties, in order to understand Bonnard’s purity of expression. Bonnard reminds us that in the midst of winter there is an endless summer.
The Musée Saint Grégoire sits quietly amongst the Médiéval cobbled streets and steeply laid steps of Cordes Sur Ciel, France. The gallery is ran by passionate and knowledgable Australian couple W. John, an accomplished artist in his own right, and Yvonne Hackwell. The Musée holds within it’s 4 floors an extensive collection of Aboriginal paintings and crafts alongside sculptures by son Andrew Hackwell and surrealist paintings by the artist Morris Kennedy’s (1920 - 2008). The majority of visits are organised by appointment so that the Musée can guarantee a private view and tour from the collectors themselves.
I reflected on my expectations for the space and work before ringing the bell to the Musée's stone arched doorway. Cordes Sur Ciel’s summer season sees it’s main streets lined with one-roomed art galleries which maintain the shabby charm of the French countryside while exhibiting the quaint local abstracts and small crafts. Furthermore, the minimal design of the Musée's official website (http://www.museesaintgregoire.com) combined with my lack of experience in Australian aboriginal art left me ashamedly with little or no clue of what to expect. However, it would be the Musée’s enigma that would lead to a pleasurable experience: ‘ignorance was bliss.’
Entering the Musée on the third floor, I was struck by the sheer scale of the building as emphasised by its open plan interior. Contemporary stairs lined with original paintings, sculptures and crafts lead up towards a conference mezzanine, whilst perilously placed beneath my feet two parallel glass floors revealed the intriguing first and second floor galleries some 30 feet below. The architecture alone preserves the soul of the Médiéval stone whilst integrating the unapologetic boldness of modern steel structure. Perhaps this is why Andrew Hackwell’s metallic bird and lizard sculptures stand so comfortably within the space. Engineered from scrap metal parts, the beautifully crafted utopian cockerels were a particular favourite, their hand-adjustable wings, screw-bolt feet, and metallic heads resonating strongly with the character of the French countryside and the modernity of the Musée.
The private tour led us down the fluorescent orange glow of the staircase, a futuristic homage to Australia’s sun baked outback perhaps. Dedicated to The Hackwell Collection, the ground floor showcases chronologically an extensive 25 year collection of Aboriginal ‘dot’ paintings on bark, scrap material and Western introduced canvas. Supported by John’s enthusiasm and invaluable descriptions of the indigenous artists, materials, symbolism and cultural narratives, the paintings began to transform from abstraction into visual maps of community spirit and optimism. A particular favourite, painted by female artist Ada Bird Petyarre (1930 - 2009) depicted the sacred design of her ceremonial tattoos amongst her hanging breasts. The minimalist black and white painting, drawn out with a quick self-assuredness, felt deeply expressive and personal in its simplicity. Overall I was struck by the modernity of the collection. The indigenous artists independently discovered without prior knowledge of Western contemporary ‘greats’, the visual impacts expressive yet simple mark-making can achieve when combined with a limited colour palette. For example, Bai Bai Napangarti’s striking yellow-ochre painting highly resembled the work of Joan Miro, with her use of primary colour and attention to shape. For many Western abstract painters it took years of brave consideration to master the concept of ‘less is more’, whilst oversees in the middle of an isolated village, with no formal arts education, these same conclusions were being drawn.
The surreal aesthetic of Morris Kennedy’s paintings garishly fill the second floor space, depicting symbolic visions of a deeply unhappy mind. Invasions of monstrous creatures in past and future landscapes, his work cannot be described as ‘pretty’ nor should they be. Suffering from mental illness with periodic break downs, Kennedy found sanctuary in his remote studio in the Australian bush, desperately pressing his demons into canvas before discarding them to the outback. Found in a neglected shed and riddled with rot and webs, John and Yvonne salvaged this prolific collection for restoration and display.
The entirety of the Musée’s collection holds the same personal measure of care in its selection and curation. This is perhaps more obvious with the Aboriginal paintings, sculpture and crafts. Working and advocating for these indigenous tribes first-hand, John and Yvonne have created a deeply personal and thoughtful collection. You can feel their respect for the people and the culture, however with a refreshing lack of over-reverence. For example, led to an unceremonious pile of unframed canvas, John confidently whipped, ruffled and folded each piece aside revealing the bright and traditional patterns of the paintings below. He touched them like home, with a deserved familiarity. That is what the Médiéval Musée is to this work - a home from home.
If you’re ever in Cordes Sur Ciel the Musée Saint Grégoire is a must see. To organise a tour visit http://www.museesaintgregoire.com or their Facebook page at Musée Saint Grégoire.
For accommodation: http://www.labellevuegite.com/