Posts Tagged ‘The Royal Academy’

Auction | Modern & Post-War British Art

Friday, October 28th, 2011


Modern & Post-War British Art

Sotheby’s, London. Evening Sale, 15th November, 2011

Exhausted. Broke. Britain, after Hitler’s war was a barren and desolate landscape. But while the rest of Europe rapidly recovered, rebuilding both their shattered cities and economies, Britain lagged behind, its population having to endure food rationing – that had begun in 1940 – until 1954. The country’s economy never really got going again until the latter half of the 1980s. It might be surprising and seem ironic then that a group of paintings, drawings and sculpture representative of the prodigious output by British artists from the post-war years, together with others from the 21-year inter-war period – itself dogged by unemployment and poverty, and hit hard by the 1929 Wall Street Crash – are expected to reach a combined total of £7.2 – 10.8 m ($11.9 – 17.3m) in this forthcoming auction at Sotheby’s, London.

Born in 1878 – well before WWI during which he was a war artist – master-draughtsman, Augustus John’s, David at the Table portrays the somewhat idealised image of a haggard though handsome, wild-eyed young man in work clothes sat slumped at a plain table on which one senses there is no food and might not have been for some time. Generally considered to be the most famous British artist of his day, John himself was never short of money or commissions, however he cultivated a bohemian image inspired by his admiration for the lifestyle of gypsies. Perhaps the bluntness of Laurence Stephen Lowry’s painting, The Cripples (Political Argument) executed shortly after WWII comes closer to reality. Along with other Lowry’s it is also included in the sale.

Bridget Riley, born to middle-class London parents in 1931, would have been eight years old when war broke out in 1939. Raised in the relative safety of the west country, she was educated at Cheltenham Ladies College before coming up to London to study at Goldsmiths then at The Royal College of Art. Her signature, disorientating Op Art painting style matured at the beginning of the 60s with which it and she became synonymous. At a time when the younger generation, anxious to escape the dullness and squalor of the 1950s, living in the shadow of the Cold War and of the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, experimented with hallucinogenic drugs, these paintings were said to inspire audience participation. Becoming disillusioned when her style was exploited for commercial purposes, Riley abandoned it in favour of pursuing ideas concerned with colour, in so doing backing away from the limelight. She was fifty-one when she painted the strikingly linear Praise 1 at the dawn of the 80s.

The same age as Riley, Frank Auerbach, whose gaunt work, Head of Gerda Boehm, among others is also included in the sale, was born of Jewish parentage in Berlin. Sent to England in 1939 to escape Nazism, his mother and father remained behind and perished in concentration camps. Young Frank was evacuated to Shropshire but ended up attending London’s St Martin’s School of Art and going on to the RCA, where he and Bridget Riley were contemporaries.

Painter, William Roberts, started out as a poster designer and studied at the Slade; leaving the school in 1913 he travelled in France and Italy and fought in the trenches during WWI, the sheer horror of the experience, as with many other artists who went to fight, significantly changing the direction of his work. Roberts was one of the signatories to the first issue of BLAST, the short-lived literary magazine of the Vorticist movement in Britain. He developed an interest for representing and interpreting the predominantly working class elements of metropolitan London’s everyday life and events – visits to the cinema, the dancehall but treating them with dignity and humour. Roberts’ painting:s The Boxing Match, produced between 1919-25 and The Barber’s Shop, circa 1946, along with Bath Night, 1929, are all in this sale.In contrast, Barbara Hepworth’s Mincarlo: Three Curves with Strings, created in 1971, only four years before the sculptor’s death and, although small in size – only 16.5 cm high, excluding black, polished stone base – is unashamedly extravagant and luxurious in use of materials.

Hepworth, from Wakefield in Yorkshire was born in 1903 to middle class parents and died in 1975; her adulthood spans much of the scope of this sale. Aged 17, not long after the Great War ended, she went to Leeds School of Art before being accepted at the RCA, soon becoming well-connected to the up-and-coming art cognescenti including sculptors Henry Moore and John Skeaping. Marrying the latter, the couple regularly exhibited together to great acclaim but drifted apart and separated in 1931. Soon after Hepworth met Ben Nicholson whom she was later to marry and to form a long-standing creative relationship with in which together they moved into abstraction. Both artists benefited enormously from forging links to the continental avant gardists – Picasso, Mondrian, Brancusi – and from those artists who fled Europe and came to England prior to WWII – Gabo, Walter Gropius, Moholy-Nagy. When the war began Hepworth and Nicholson relocated to St Ives in Cornwall where they continued to work and succeeded in their efforts to attract international attention. In the 50s, after divorcing Nicholson, Hepworth confirmed her reputation as one of Britain’s major artists producing two sculptures for 1951’s Festival of Britain and retrospective shows in Wakefield and at London’s Whitechapel. Both the 50s and 60s were good to her; Hepworth’s international stature grew. She was awarded the CBE and later, the DBE. She had a further retrospective in 1962 at the Whitechapel, became a trustee of the Tate and had a retrospective exhibition there in 1968. Barbara Hepworth died in St Ives in 1975 – her studio and garden there are now a museum administered by the Tate – after a long battle with cancer. Celebrating her achievement and named in her honour, 2011 saw the opening of the Hepworth Wakefield gallery in her home town.

Sold earlier this year through Christies and significantly surpassing its estimated sale price of £70,000 – £100,000, ($112,980 – $161,400) selling at £145,000 ($236,612), the Mincarlo: Three Curves with Strings, sculpture is of 18 carat gold (Apparently, the best gold you can get for making precious objects, 22 carat is too soft). Deep in the current world recession, apparently far worse than that of the 30s and in post WWII Britain, and as gold prices head towards $5,000 (£3,127) an ounce, curiously in Sotheby’s Modern & Post-war British Art sale the estimated price for this piece exactly matches the earlier Christie’s estimate.

Works from top
Bridget Riley, Praise 1, circa 1981. Estimate £150,000-250,000
Augustus John OM, RA, David at the Table. Estimate £20,000-30,00
Dame Barbara Hepworth, Mincarlo: Three Curves with Strings, 1971.
Estimate £70,000-100,000
Frank Auerbach, Head of Gerda Boehm, 1971. Estimate £180,000-250,000
William Roberts RA, The Barber’s Shop, circa 1946. Estimate, £70,000-100,000


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Printing Money

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

The 25th London Original Print Fair
The Royal Academy of Arts, London. 29th April – 23rd May

I felt sorry for the girl in her twenties leaning against a table, staring into space, in front of a white wall full of bright prints by an artist I’d never heard of, whose work I would never wish to own. She had a chair to sit on but I sensed she had already done a lot of sitting and had stood up to break the boredom with a change of perspective. It was the first day of the show and I hoped that for her sake things might pick up.

Much like the atmosphere in their often-busy book illustrations, the adjacent booth buzzed with Jean and Laurent de Brunoff’s Babar the Elephant fans. Elsewhere, not giving much away – every so often, though there expressions never changed, they mumbled quietly to one another – a well-dressed, elderly couple tottered from one booth to the next of the sixty seven crammed into the Academy’s main galleries. Whether they were more excited by Sean Sculley’s blocky abstracts, the dark Goya aquatints or by Allen Jones’ erotic editions was difficult to say.

Agents – the male ones – almost to the man, sported that Euro-look; dark blazer worn over a sky blue formal shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, with once-washed, dry-cleaned, dark denims, ironed but not creased, and brown slip-on leather shoes, probably from Bally or Gucci. Tanned, too, of course, they had well-coiffed hair – close-cut at the sides and back, quiffy at the front – sometimes with just a hint of blonde streaking. Incessantly talking loudly into their Blackberrys, now in English, then in German or French or perhaps Russian, it was difficult to guess at their origin. Exceptions were the two or three obviously English dandies, one in a cream linen suit and dark green shirt worn with a black tie, whose longish dark hair was swept straight back to reveal a good deal of forehead, whose booth was decorated with a big, square glass vase filled with the most exquisite, orange tulips.

Afraid they might already have missed the Matisse they saw earlier and weren’t sure about whether it would go with the drawing room carpet a rather plain, middle-aged couple darted quickly from one stall to the next. People all around me were actually buying Goyas, Picassos, Hockneys, Bridget Rileys and Kitajs. Arriving with the intention of whizzing around in about twenty minutes, I stayed almost an hour and a half, wandering around making the occasional note in my catalogue; I’m sure I was taken for a dealer. If I could have afforded anything it would have been one of Julian Opie’s 3D Lenticular prints, View of Mount Fuji with daisies from Route 300, 2009.

Did anyone visit the print fair? Please post a comment
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A Letter to Van Gogh

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters
Royal Academy of Arts, London.  23 January to 18 April, 2010

I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen two massive Van Gogh exhibitions in the last 18 months; the first at the Albertina in Vienna, the second, yesterday, at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. Having always wondered what all the fuss was about Van Gogh’s work, the Vienna show represented for me personally, an extraordinary epiphanic event. Rarely do I put myself through the ordeal of struggling past the reverential, head-phoned hordes, who inch along, pausing for far too much time in front of each and every painting, to go around any art exhibition a second time. But, on this ocassion, bowled over, suddenly transformed into an ardent Van Gogh fan, I couldn’t help myself.

The same, or similar hordes – the plague of most large, metropolitan galleries – were in full attendance at The Royal Academy. Dimly-lit, because many of the rarely-shown, fragile originals of Van Gogh’s letters – mostly written to his brother and life-long supporter, Theo – are on display, the tall-ceilinged main gallery space had the air of a compact cathedral: spot-lit, Van Gogh’s bright, colourful paintings substituting for stained-glass windows. When I was able to get near enough to look at the letters – very often by craning my neck to view them through the gloom over someone’s shoulder – I saw that that Van Gogh had added in wonderful, tiny but often detailed pen and ink sketches many of which were scaled-down roughs for the paintings he was working on, which the gallery had hung alongside.

For a man who died aged only 37, Van Gogh produced a prodigeous oeuvre. The Royal Academy show is extensive and even then, I could barely remember many of those images on show being part of the Vienna selection. Half-way round, somehow not as impressed as I had expected to be, I overheard someone say quietly to a companion: “I’m disappointed, one picture is marvellous but the next looks as if it was done by a child.” And that was it; I had exactly the same feeling. The early, very bold drawings of peasants going about their arduous work in the fields are incredible. Van Gogh’s deft flicking in of a few irises at the corner of a field outside Arles demonstratively illustrate the confident hand of a master draughtsman. With natural skill, he uses charicature to emphasize the great mass of a bending, full-skirted woman’s bottom; choosing a low viewpoint, and fish-eye perspective, he draws attention to a man’s enormous wooden clogs. But, almost all of the early paintings on show are poor and do little more than highlight the artist’s struggle with oils. Struggle over, into his stride – a man with a mission – we are shown how Van Gogh goes on to produce the most sublime paintings of vases of flowers, trees and landscape as well as his portraits, including the version included from the famous postman series. But, even amongst these later works, albeit the worsening state of his mental health, I saw more than a few that, if he were around today, I can’t help thinking, Van Gogh would have lopped off the selection list.

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