Unsilent Night: The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens - The Adoration of the Magi

Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi 

Originally published on theartsdesk.com 20 December 2012 as part of the Yuletide Scenes series

Rubens’s gigantic masterpiece loudly contradicts the folkloric silent night. This typically muscular painting is deafening in its depiction of the commotion around the holy family when the Magi arrive to offer gifts to the divine king of Christian belief. The enormous entourage of camels, braying donkeys, war horses, servants and soldiers, richly ornamented in oriental colour and clothing, pile up in a decrescendo behind the composition’s quiet, even vacuous, centre of gravity: a tender moment as one of the Magi (perhaps Caspar) lifts the lid on his gift of gold coins which the infant Jesus delicately touches. In the characteristic theatricality of the baroque style, you can almost hear the quiet chink of the gold coins amid the cacophony surrounding the serenity of the holy family and the reverent Magi.

Originally painted for the Antwerp Town Hall in 1609 to commemorate a truce between Spain (at its imperial height) and the Netherlands, the original painting was given over to the Spanish in 1621 perhaps to win favour for Antwerp as aggression still loomed. When Rubens joined the Spanish court in 1628, he expanded the size of the canvas and reworked the painting while still under the stylistic influence of Titian. With its wedge-like composition and writhing figures clad in drapery, there’s more than a passing resemblance between this painting and, say, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne which hangs in our own National Gallery. Rubens added a self portrait on the far right and increased the height of the canvas to include the flying putti and the inclined camel’s head which pushes our eye back across the action toward the infant Jesus.

It’s a painting which underscores the political power in Christian art, particularly at its height in the post-reformation baroque period, during which painted and sculpted Christian allegories were wielded as increasingly theatrical weapons of influence and persuasion as kingdoms competed for the souls of their subjects. One of a series of Adorations by Rubens, who was an emissary for the Spanish Court, the message here is that all earthly kingdoms, in their racial and regional diversity, must submit to God and, by extension, the Roman Catholic Church.

Goya, Witches and Reason

Goya, Witches in Flight, 1798

Goya, Witches in Flight, 1798

Partially naked warlocks wearing coned hats levitate in the night sky clutching a naked man struggling against them, two appear to be biting him. Immediately below them a man with his head covered in a blanket stumbles forward with his arms out, he holds his thumbs in his clenched fingers in a gesture of figo – the warding away of evil. From the darkness to the right, a donkey stares forward uncomprehending and unfazed while on the left another man lies face down clutching his ears.

It’s a mysterious painting, and little is known of what Goya intended of the darker images he painted as he grew weary of the Spanish establishment from the late eighteenth century. Goya had a serious illness in the 1790s that left him deaf and withdrawn, he continued to paint for the Spanish court but also began a huge body of experimental work that was kept largely private, including Witches in Flight. At the same time, his privately expressed liberal and rationalist views increasingly alienated him from the Spanish establishment, culminating in his self-imposed exile in the 1820s.

The ironic reading of this painting is that Goya wasn’t attacking witchcraft, rather the opposite: he was attacking the organised religious authorities that mutually buttressed the ruling classes. Intermittently from the Inquisition onward, authorities exploited hear-say and hysteria among the lower orders of society around the practices of witchcraft (most notably during the Basque Witch Trails which implicated thousands). Maintaining a sense of fear of the occult guarantees it’s opposite: hope in the power of the church and faith in God.

While the meaning of the painting is a matter of speculation, I’m inclined to buy into the ironic reading. I’m inclined to do so not just because of circumstantial evidence, but more importantly because of the way the painting was produced: its composition and formal elements. Form and content, you see, are not mutually oblivious.

The various elements surrounding the central action suggests that this picture is allegorical, as does the sparse backdrop: the sky is pure blackness, there is no register of air: no clouds of any kind, no horizon, not even tree canopies to imply atmospheric movement. Only the clothing of the men holds the implied movement of their sudden ascent. The picture has space without environment. Only an arid ground serves as stage here for these four principal elements that are not necessarily connected. The man escaping is blinded while warding away evil that he couldn’t possibly see, the other man cover his ears, to muffle the screams? But he too cannot see what is taking place. Could it be that the air-borne victim is the spiritual doppelgänger of these terrified or insane men?

Supporting this reading are interpretations of Goya’s later Black Paintings. Some, including Saturn Devouring his Son (1820-23), and A Fight to the Death (1820-23), are highly allegorical or reflective. They are read as a commentary not only on the ageing Goya’s mental state but also on the fate of the Spanish nation from which he was exiled to France.

The Great He-Goat (Witches Sabbath)

Goya, The Great He-Goat, 1820-23

Included among them is a return to the theme of Satanism, The Great He-Goat (1820-23). Here witches sit in the presence of the devil in the form of a goat. These distorted faces betray the horrific vision before them while an isolated and veiled woman to the right of the group, possibly an initiate, sits still. The witches may well be hallucinating (various potions and brews were often drunk during these ceremonies), but the tables are turned here: the devil is clearly defined in silhouette while the coven of Satanists are distorted, they are, in other words, a synthesis of the manifestation of their inner state with the outward appearance. For us, there’s something dreadful not in the appearance of the goat, but rather the people themselves who appear to be less than human, abjectly obedient and drunk on superstition.

In the context of the Black Paintings, The Great He-Goat is seen as a horrific satire of the slide into superstition of Spanish spiritual life. In the aftermath of the French retreat from the Iberian peninsula intellectuals and scientists were persecuted by the church, and tales of witchcraft multiplied as Spanish royalists snatched power back in the vacuum that Napoleon left. Could The Witches Flight be a precursor to late Goya’s ambivalence to church and state? Were the seeds of Goya’s private dissent already sown? No one knows for sure, but I hope my formal analysis of the painting goes some way to suggesting that this is the case.

Rothko/Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Seascapes, Pace Gallery

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Baltic Sea, Ruegen, 1996

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Baltic Sea, Ruegen, 1996

Written for The Arts Desk 10 October 2012

Half-way through Death in Venice, Thomas Mann’s tragic hero, Aschenbach, settles down on a beach to gaze out to the sea to “take shelter from the demanding diversity of phenomena in the bosom of boundless simplicity.” Aschenbach is suddenly returned to earthly complications when the horizon is intersected by the boy he desires. The passage is evoked on entering Pace’s new and enormous Chipperfield-renovated gallery as suited attendants walk among Rothko’s hard-edged late paintings and Sugimoto’s seascape photographs. It’s a fitting quote given not only the bisected format of all the works, but also the artists’ ambitions to evoke a sense of this “boundless simplicity” and the heroic inadequacy of their attempts.

Both artists are juxtaposed here for the purpose of what the Pace Gallery describes as a visual dialogue. The similarities, on the face of it, are superficial: the works are characterised by a binary format of a black and grey surface and, as such, rhyme visually. But it is nevertheless an interesting pairing. The whispered subtleties alternately chime together on the same walls or face-off as counterparts on parallel walls.

Mark Rothko, Unititled, 1969

Mark Rothko, Unititled, 1969

Rothko’s late black and grey paintings can be seen as a new direction or a dead end. Given the artist’s suicide not long after they were made, it’s tempting to read them as the latter. But despite the limited and arguably sullen palette, these works show a Rothko breaking out of his famously sumptuous mode of painting towards territory that is hard-edged and minimalist. Patches of paint no longer float like figures, replaced by bands of horizontal colour that evoke contemporaries like Ad Reinhardt and (early) Frank Stella. You can only wonder where Rothko could have gone with this new format were it not for his suicide.

The first painting confronting the visitor entering the gallery has an opaque black, its grey section is more a soiled white. Broken brush scuffs of grey skip over the surface of black, and there is both speed and contemplation in the execution of this painting. To the left, Untitled, 1969, has a translucent grey-black, over a muddy grey. Washes and dry-brushed scumbles animate the veil of paint with an anxious energy. A lot more than tiny differences set these two paintings apart, and they open the proceedings up beautifully. There’s a language to them, rich in intonation if limited in vocabulary. To their right, Sugimoto’s Liguran Sea, Saviore, 1993, has such a sharp contrast that it feels like a painting, as if the colours meet on its surface as blocks. But as you approach you can make out the dark water’s low undulations emerging from a grey haze.

As you turn into the second suite of pictures, things diversify a little more. Sugimoto’s images diverge from the bisected format, some carrying soft patches of light that are hard to imagine as vast swathes of water. The largest Rothko (which is huge) taking a central place in the gallery seems to ground not only the images around it but also the people. Its extreme – but not hard-edged – horizontal of two metres or so foregrounds the living figures that intersect it in a way that a shoreline gives distant silhouettes an existential gravity. It’s this animation of the surroundings around the pictures that is most minimalist about them, that emphasises the break Rothko had made from his earlier work, not only in form but in the spirit in which they were intended: less imagistic and contemplative, more sculptural.

Lake Superior, Cascade River, 2003

Lake Superior, Cascade River, 2003

Sugimoto’s nature-capturing work is of course softer. Lake Superior, Cascade River, 2003, is almost monochrome, a uniform faint grey except, as you look closer, for the skeins of little waves that evaporate again as you step back. All these photographs situate you at the cusp not just of land, but also, in the imagination, at the cusp of consciousness in their evocation of a kind of primordial sublime. While Rothko’s late paintings attempt to turn away from romanticism, Sugimoto wholeheartedly embraces the tradition. Given that Sugimoto claims to have been driven in this direction by seeing these particular Rothko works in 1978, the notion that there’s a dialogue going on here starts to slip a little. This isn’t a conversation, this is a counterpoint duet.

Lisa Lou’s distillations of time

Liza Lou Canvas #6 2011

Liza Lou Canvas #6, 2011

I wrote this review for the Arts Desk 23 April 2012

There was something perverse about the opening of Liza Lou’s show at White Cube in Hoxton Square on a wet Thursday evening. It was as quiet as I’ve ever known it inside, while outside, barred from drinking among Lou’s fragile works, a throng of people guzzled free beer on the other side of the street in the rain.

From the second floor where the most plaintive works shimmer against the white walls, you could look down and wonder why White Cube insists on plying them with beer. It seems to add the same kind of crowd-fuelled bluster to the event as movie premieres, to make the invited feel special. The contrast seemed apt, however, because the White Cube is hos­ting largely shy works that whisper, that demand an intimate peace when you stand close before them. The show entirely comprises mixed-sized “paintings” supporting sheets of varying sized beads delicately stitched together.

Lou has carved a niche from her favoured medium: she once produced a life-scale kitchen in beads, and a bead backyard with a beaded lawnmower shaving a lawn in which every blade of grass was a string of beads. Both painstaking projects (which are said to have given Lou tendonitis) have the same cranky devotion to craft as some of the most extreme forms of outsider art, as thrilling and repulsive as scar tissue. Both are lurid with the obsession invested in them matched by the warped proximity to the forms and colours of their subject matter.

In contrast, despite the same medium, the work here is plaintive and largely quiet. We have collector-friendly canvases supporting mostly monochrome or almost-monochrome sheets of beads in ivory, blue and gold. There are patchworks of modulating tones and colours of beads stained in the working process. Though none are particularly large, these are monuments in terms of the time invested in them.

A smaller canvas, Zulu Love Letter No.2, is the only work with a title as such and it helpfully aligns all the “paintings” to bead work in Zulu culture which plays an important and symbolic role in courtship. The small monochrome is exquisite, its lines of tiny gold beads are cleaved apart to yield to the frays of the cut threads that held them together. These cuts have a heightened violence to them like a plant uprooted to reveal its underside.

Some beaded sheets and nets hang off simple wooden frames, and these are the least interesting. For one thing, riffing on the support has already been done to death and these works would seem like a student’s conceit if it weren’t for the extreme delicacy of the fabrication. They are also manage to push the viewer back with their emphasis on shape. It’s the subtlety of the larger mono- and duochromes that seduce, that invite close inspection. They sparkle gently under the light as you approach, get intimate with the surface and find yourself immersed in the labour invested in these sheets.

Liza Lou Canvas #8

Liza Lou Canvas #8, 2011-13

Beads denote rhythm, they serve to quantify and count, and Lou fetishises the rhythm of labour as a negation of living. Every threaded bead could be a moment doing something else and you can’t help but ponder on her assistants’ time cruelly divested. It’s the accidents and imperfections that structure your experience at closer inspection: the loose threads, ruptures, pocks and dimples, and it’s here, up close, to our relief, that we find the life in these works. This is particularly the case for the ivory and cream works upstairs. Five conventionally shaped paintings titled Canvas (#4,#8,#9,#5,#6), see through the success of this method, and, dare I say it, there’s something of Rothko’s Seagram Mural about these works, together so quiet and exhilarating.

In Lou’s unique way of working we find a synthesis of the miniature and monumental, an artistic feat. But the works show mixed success with some misplaced interactions with the supports and works that feel like mere variations of Lou’s method.  It’s the refined and quieter works which, in their simplicity, distil time and experience so potently.

Remote Control at the ICA

Those Who Don't Change Will Be Switched Off', by Simon Denny, 2012

Those Who Don't Change Will Be Switched Off, Simon Denny, 2012

I wrote this review for the Arts Desk 5 April 2012

Remote Control and its accompanying series of events, Television Delivers People, coincides with the analogue to digital switch-over, marking a shift in the history of a medium which will soon be eclipsed by on-demand content. While this may sound mundane on paper, the humble light-emitting box has been the elephant in the room for the last half-century, profoundly transforming living habits and shaping political discourse. What’s more, television at its worst has represented the kind of passive, habitual looking to which art-making is intrinsically opposed. The show itself is a survey of artistic meditations and interventions, looking to break open the social and political mechanics of programming.

The exhibition is torn between two poles: on the one hand is the physicality of the equipment, and on the other how the medium is used for artistic ends. Indicative of the former are Matias Faldbakken’s rough-shod casts of flat-screen television sets presented with partial cardboard and wood casing. These stained and fractured ghosts are evocative of urban decay but textured with the moulded contours of consumer technology. Then there’s Simon Denny’s remnants of a huge, now obsolete analogue TV transmitter, which, with its defunct switches and levers, occupies a central place in the gallery. But beyond its impressive size, it’s not really adding much to the discourse.

Beside this mass of old technology are artists’ TV projects, each of which you can watch with a single pair of headphones and totalling up several hours of footage. Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People, 1973, a bizarre addition to this sculptor’s oeuvre, is a polemic against the medium. White text floats up a blue screen while muzak plays, informing us that “You are the product of TV… You are delivered to the advertiser who is the customer”. It attempts to do what Serra accuses corporations of doing (changing our behaviour), but with less success.

Serra’s sloganeering can’t match the nuances and complexity of the medium, and more compelling are the artistic deconstructions of televisual language. Stuart Marshall’s The Love Show, 1979, examines constructions of sexuality, as does Joan Braderman’s satire of Dynasty, whilst KRIWET takes on that seminal moment of communal television-watching: the 1969 moon landing. Surprisingly, Andy Warhol and Chris Burden, two major artists who notoriously ventured into the medium, are not present.

Works upstairs mostly synthesise the physicality of equipment and television images. Taryn Simon’s Alhurra TV Broadcast Studio, Springfield, Virginia, 2006-07, reveals TV’s place in the soft-power strategy of the war on terror. We see an Arab channel funded by the US congress and broadcasting from the heart of America. A female newsreader sits serenely in profile under the gaze of floating cameras while on a background screen a masked man holds an enormous rocket-propelled grenade up to a far remote camera. Richard Hamilton’s famous image of the TV-mediated Kent State massacre is here, as is Mark Leckey’s Felix Gets Broadcasted, 2007, a beautifully shot film of an early test card machine.

In his 2007 book Feedback: Television Against Democracy, art historian David Joselit argued that in a world where democracy is conducted through images, art history has the capacity to become a political science. It’s a bold and true statement, but the problem with this show is that while it comes good on giving us a decent survey of artistic responses to TV, it doesn’t give them enough thematic context. It’s an ambitious show for the weakened ICA and credit is due, but a subject like this needs a major museum’s attention.

Review: New Jerwood Gallery and Rose Wylie’s painted memory

Rose Wylie Swimming with Cats, 2002

I wrote this review for The Arts Desk 30 March 2012.

The Jerwood Gallery on Stade beach in Hastings has so far had a fraught if very short history. Local opposition, largely from the neighbouring fishing community, have campaigned relentlessly against the gallery, fearing that it would ruin the Stade’s rustic charm and bring little or no benefit to most locals. There’s negative graffiti among the huts surrounding the Jerwood and a bright orange “NO to Jerwood” banner still hangs on one of the iconic black “net shop” towers beside the gallery, fully visible from the gallery’s foyer.

Social and economic concerns aside, it’s difficult to see what the fuss is about when you consider the gallery architecturally. It has a modest silhouette from the street and it’s sensitively clad in glossy black ceramic tiles that pay some deference to the adjacent net shops and huts, as well as reflecting the huge seaside horizon and surrounding old town buildings and hills. The inside is kept simple with white walls, wooden slats and pale terrazzo all flooded with sunlight from generous windows and a glass-walled courtyard.

For the inaugural show we are treated to a retrospective of the work of Rose Wylie, the new septuagenarian star who has broken art-world convention by peaking so late in her career. As such, she has been the subject of as much feature-writing as criticism. Big Boys Sit in the Front caps a long association with the Jerwood and a slew of media coverage around her recent international successes.

It’s easy to assume Wylie is younger, as many people have done, because the paintings are executed on such an enormous scale. Getting Better with Water, 2011, comprising four large panels, is almost too big to fit between the ceiling and the floor. Running 16ft around the corner of the main room is a frieze-like combination of Swimming With Cats (Blue Twink), 2002, Green Twink and Ivy and Red Twink and Ivy, 2002 where raw, possibly un-primed canvas deadens much of the brushwork save for richly slathered patches of pea-green, blue and red, roughly delineated with syrupy daubs of black that register a quick but considered pace. The lines peter out and pick up where they left off with generous reapplication before fading again to translucence.

Wylie’s carelessness is thrilling in these details, and you get a vicarious buzz from her devil-may-care attitude as you trace the paint over the canvas. The bright smiles of swimmers with their dimples and eyelashes have a postcard feel to them, but also the fluid, confident touch of a gifted draughtswoman.

Not that these are lazy pictures. Splats of paint tell us that these canvases spent some time on the floor, and rethinking is much in evidence in the rough-hewn and peeling patches of canvas stuck to the surfaces. When it comes to placing Wylie’s work schematically, many late-20th-century painters spring to mind, particularly the Americans Phillip Guston and Jean-Michel Basquiat. But there’s a buoyancy in these pictures that those don’t have, leaving the impression that Wylie’s vision is singular.

The thread through all the pictures is recollection, be it of film scenes, newspaper stories or conversations. Wylie has said herself that she draws from memory and the drawing comes first. “Drawings look like how I see,” she says. “And the paintings look like the drawings.” There’s a lot of painted text, too. Getting Better with Water seems to recall an interview with swimmer Rebecca Adlington. The scrawled question, “What do you most dislike about yourself?” is answered “BIG SHOULDERS” in capitals that intersect the fussy figure of the swimmer who’s enveloped in a comic-like starburst.

Repetition in many of the paintings underscores the very work of recollection. InKill Bill (Film Notes), 2007, painted from the memory of a scene in the film, Wylie paints two versions side by side, with one showing Uma Thurman’s blonde crown as she overlooks a brutally vanquished body lying over an absurdly bright pool of blood. As well as echoing the celluloid’s gradual frame-shifts, the nixed duplication demonstrates that memory is something we work at and this labour of piecing things together finds many forms in the show, in the jigsaw motif, the continual patching and reconfigurations of elements. “What you see is as important as the food you eat,” she says in the video, and it’s sharing her delight in reconstructing lost moments that leaves a lasting impression.

Sticking it to The Man

In the wake of the North African revolutions the lurid stories of pop royalty dancing for the pleasure of petro-tyrants for big money got me thinking: since when have artists ever done just the opposite and refused to sell out, opting to stick it to the man instead? There are plenty of examples of great creatives who turned their back on their own commercial success to challenge both their audiences and accountants to reassert their artistic integrity. Here are just a few…

Talk Talk

A bankable bunch of synth-poppers, Talk Talk had commercial success in the early 80’s with a string of hits. EMI loved them so much they gave them a blank cheque to produce their fourth album. What they came back with was astonishing: the slow, pained and brooding expression of sadness that was 1988’s Spirit of Eden. It’s inflections of jazz, classical dynamics and ambient music is the perfect example of a band doing a U-turn and sticking their fingers up at the record company. Quite appropriately the opening lyrics of the first exquisite song read “Oh yeah, it’s the world turned upside down”.

It was the commercial flop that changed pop history forever: all record contracts since now stipulate that the record must be “commercially viable”.

Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy had a major breakdown in later life as a result of depression. His novels had been hits and he was the pinnacle of the Russian literary world even with rivals like Chekov and Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy found solace in religion, freed his serfs, renounced his earthly wealth and turned his back on the novel form. Instead, Tolstoy grew a huge beard and wrote many, now acclaimed, parables and moralistic short stories. He became a sage-like figure and a huge political and philosophical influence on the twentieth century, inspiring non-violent rebels like Gandhi (who corresponded with Tolstoy) and had a profound influence on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who read his Gospel in Brief during the First World War.

Tolstoy’s pacifist and anarcho-Christian manifesto The Kingdom of God is Within You is still banned in Russia.

Dexy’s Midnight Runners

The jolly brummies revived the northern soul and gypsie genres for the slick 80s crowd and had the world at their feet with hits like Come on Eileen and Geno. (No wedding is complete without a jolly drunken unkle-shuffle to the former tune!) However, in 1985 lead singer Kevin Rowland sacked half the band and produced Don’t Stand Me Down which, while now seen as one of the great albums of the 80s, was a commercial disaster. The record is bitter in lyrics and sweet in music, with Rowland ranting against the trappings of fame while singing in his characteristic yodeling voice. Rowland refused to market the record and the band transformed their image with a Harvard-inspired preppy look (now very popular since Vampire Weekend liberated the bourgeois kids from pretending to be poor) which the press mocked, describing them as looking like double glazing salesmen. After fading from the public eye in the 90s, Rowland took to singing classic covers in drag. Dexy’s are now back again (2012) with a new album.

Philip Guston

An abstract painter in the 50s and 60s, Guston was lauded by the New York art world and became a poster-boy for the CIA-sponsored American Modernist movement. In the late 60s he bizarrely began to paint enormous cartoons of KKK-like “hoods” roaming naively daubed city streets and anxiously smoking cigarettes. Head hauncho Modernist Clement Greenberg went nuts, everyone else scratched their heads. But history has been kind to Guston’s turn away from the mainstream, his cartoon works have now taken critical precedence over his earlier abstract paintings.