Fascinating insight into the mind of Michelangelo

You’re pushing 60 and an important patron asks you to repeat an artistic feat you accomplished in your thirties. There’s nothing more daunting than having to compete with your younger self, but the patron is the Pope. How can you say no? Besides, it’s an excuse to get away from Florence, where your work for the republicans who expelled the Medici has become an embarrassment since their return. So you tell Pope Clement VII that, yes, you will move to Rome and paint a Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Bladder stones, colic, backache, gout – Michelangelo had them all and moaned about them in letters

Fresh and dreamy: Edward Lear, at Ikon Gallery, reviewed

‘It seems to me that I have to choose between 2 extremes of affection for nature… English, or Southern… The latter – olive – vine – flowers… warmth & light, better health – greater novelty – & less expense in life. On the other side are, in England, cold, damp & dullness, – constant hurry & hustle – cessation from all varied topographical interest, extreme expenses…’ That choice was effectively made for Edward Lear in 1837 when he gave up the natural history studies by which he had made his name in his teens and headed south to Rome on doctors’ advice, aged 24. Prone to asthma and epileptic seizures,

Fortifying snapshot of the gardener’s year: Saatchi Gallery’s RHS Botanical Art show reviewed

Elizabeth Blackadder, who died last month at the age of 89, was probably the most distinctive botanical artist of our time. Her paintings of lilies and irises, of cats poking their heads imperiously between poppies and freesias, are more alive than any such chocolate-box description could convey. The first woman to be elected to both the Royal and the Royal Scottish academies, Blackadder showed that botanical painting did not need to be twee and parochial. It could be as vibrant and interesting as narrative. The 15 artists and 19 photographers participating in this year’s Royal Horticultural Society exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery follow in Blackadder’s tradition. The Saatchi may not

Covid has been great for drawing

Amid the greatly exaggerated reports of the death of painting issued and reissued over the course of the past century, nobody thought to check on the health of drawing, perhaps because what artists did in the privacy of their own studios was considered to be no one else’s business. Drawing wasn’t a saleable commodity. Yes, Hockney’s portrait drawings attracted admiration, but most artists kept their scribbles to themselves. Then about 20 years ago, just after Saatchi’s 1997 Sensation exhibition seemed to have consigned all traditional art forms to the bin of history, it was noticed that drawing was alive and, if not kicking, showing unmistakable signs of continued health. It

The bizarre art of Scottie Wilson deserves to be better known

On eBay I have an alert set for ‘Scottie Wilson’. Nine times out of ten, it’s a diamanté Scottie dog from the jewellers Butler & Wilson. Once in a while, it’s a gem. Scottie Wilson didn’t think much of journalists. Art critics were ‘just jugglers — dodgers’. The sort of people who went to art shows — his or anybody else’s — could be counted on to go about ‘blabbing a lot of stupid muck. A lot of blah blah. They get paid for it too!’ Which makes it tricky to write about Scottie (always Scottie, never Wilson). You just know he’d light a cigarette and scowl. I came late

Why is the smoky, febrile art of Marcelle Hanselaar so little known?

I first became aware of the work of Marcelle Hanselaar in a mixed exhibition at the Millinery Works in Islington. All I remember now about the show, and my review, is that I said she could teach Paula Rego to suck eggs. From the mischievous energy packed into her small figurative paintings I assumed she was young enough to be Rego’s granddaughter. That was in 2003; she was pushing 60. Born in Rotterdam in 1945, Hanselaar is essentially self-taught. She dropped out of art school in The Hague — it was the 1960s — and ran away to Amsterdam; what she learned about painting she picked up from the artists

The mediums who pioneered abstract art

In the 1850s Britain was hit by an epidemic likened by The Illustrated London News to a ‘grippe or the cholera morbus’. It came from America rather than China and afflicted the mind rather than the body. The craze for table-turning was sparked in Hydesville, New York, in 1848 after two young sisters, Maggie and Kate Fox, claimed to hear mysterious rappings in the floor of the family home and attributed them to a spirit called Mr Splitfoot. Epidemics are by nature democratic, respecting neither education nor class. Eminent naturalists, scientists, novelists and social reformers were gripped by the grippe. When unseen forces such as electromagnetic waves were being discovered,

Figurative painting is back – but how good is any of it?

An oxymoron is a clever gambit in an exhibition title. The Whitechapel Gallery’s Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium is designed to trigger the reaction: ‘Radical? Figures?’ before revealing quite how radical the figure can be. But like all good marketing, it is deceptive. Figurative art may have been consigned to history by Clement Greenberg 80 years ago, but history since — neo-romanticism, school of London, neo-expressionism — has repeatedly proved him wrong. The ten painters in this exhibition aren’t a school: the only thing their work has in common is its statement-making scale. The three-metre canvas at the entrance, Daniel Richter’s ‘Tafari’ (2001), was inspired by a news

I didn’t expect to be so moved – galleries reopen

I’m in Mayfair and I’m boarding an airplane. Or rather, I’m boarding an approximation of an airplane. In the centre of Hauser & Wirth, there are airplane seats, organised into a formation that resembles a section of economy, and dislocated windows, hung on the walls where paintings might normally be. The seatbacks are stuffed, and a spring/summer 2012 edition of Sky Shop magazine is splayed across one of the seats. We are frozen in time and space. Like most of us in recent months, this plane — an installation by German artist Isa Genzken — isn’t going anywhere. It remains perpetually rooted. Its windows open on to white walls. The

‘I think I’ve found a real paradise’: David Hockney interviewed

Spring has not been cancelled. Neither have the arts ceased to function. David Hockney’s marvellous exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery may be sadly shut, but the artist himself is firing on all cylinders. ‘I was just drawing on this thing I’m talking to you on,’ he announced when I spoke to him via FaceTime the other day. He was sitting in the sunshine outside his half-timbered farmhouse in Normandy. ‘We’re very busy here,’ Hockney explained, ‘because all the blossom is just coming out, and there’s a lot more to come. The big cherry tree looks glorious right now. Next the leaves will open, but at the moment the blossom

The gloriously indecent life and art of Aubrey Beardsley

Picture the young aspirant with the portfolio of drawings pitching up nervously at the eminent artist’s studio, only to be turned away at the door by a servant; then the master catching up with him, inviting him in and delivering the verdict on his portfolio: ‘I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art as a profession; but in your case I can do nothing else.’ Within two short years of this fairy-tale meeting in the summer of 1891 between Edward Burne-Jones and the 18-year-old Aubrey Beardsley, the self-taught insurance clerk who had fallen under the Pre-Raphaelite spell had turned himself into the most talked-about artist in London. Van

Remarkable and imaginative: Fitzwilliam Museum’s The Art of Food reviewed

Eating makes us anxious. This is a feature of contemporary life: a huge amount of attention is devoted to how much we eat, when we eat it, where it comes from, to toxic foods, organic and inorganic ones, environmentally damaging groceries, those that tot up too much mileage or cause damage to the rainforest. Some of these worries are relatively novel, but preoccupation with the nourishment we consume is not. A remarkable and imaginative exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800, documents just how obsessed our ancestors were with every aspect of their meals. At its heart are a series of

Strokes of genius

In 1965 a journalist asked Paula Rego why she painted. ‘To give a face to fear,’ she replied (those were the days of the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal). But when asked the same question shortly afterwards, Rego added a qualification: ‘There’s more to it than that: I paint because I can’t stop painting.’ Rego has carried on making pictures ever since and the results can be seen in a remarkable exhibition, Obedience and Defiance, curated by Catherine Lampert at the MK Gallery, Milton Keynes. This is not quite a career retrospective — Rego will get one of those at Tate Britain in 2021. But it is the first time that

Serial genius

‘It’s no use at all,’ says Posy Simmonds in mock despair, holding up her hands. ‘I can’t tell my left from my right.’ She is ambidextrous. ‘This hand [her right] writes and draws; and this hand [her left] cuts out, sharpens pencils, throws balls, plays tennis… I can’t drive. I’ve never taken a test. I’m always on the wrong side of the road.’ Looking at these wonderful hands, elegant and almost limp, one would never suppose they had created, over the past 50 years, such a large volume of intensely enjoyable and astute drawings. Reliably funny and wise, her work ranges from Fred (1988), about the secret rock-star life of

On Van Gogh and Rembrandt

Being in the south of France obviously gave Vincent an enormous joy, which visibly comes out in the paintings. That’s what people feel when they look at them. They are so incredibly direct. I remember in some of his letters Vincent saying that he was aware he saw more clearly than other people. It was an intense vision… [H]e must have been doing some very concentrated looking. My God! After working for a long time, I get very tired eyes. I just have to close them… Photographs of those fields around Arles that Van Gogh painted wouldn’t interest us much. It’s a rather boring, flat landscape. Vincent makes us see

The odd couple | 31 January 2019

The joint exhibition of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Bill Viola at the Royal Academy is, at first glance, an extremely improbable double act. Viola is one of the contemporary-art stars of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. He was one of the first to achieve fame in the new medium of video art, and is still its best-known exponent. While Michelangelo, as they say in showbusiness, needs no introduction. But there’s more to this bromance, across eras and continents, between a 16th-century Florentine and a contemporary Californian than might immediately be apparent. The more you think about the pairing, and follow the argument of the curator Martin Clayton, the more

Fine prints

Artists’ prints have been around for almost as long as the printed book. Indeed, they have similar origins in Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and the boom in book and paper production that followed. Consequently, although the art dealer Bernard Jacobson has been around for quite a while — his gallery celebrated its 50th anniversary this year — and began as a print publisher, he arrived on the scene rather too late to have acted for Albrecht Dürer in person. Nonetheless, and for good reasons, it is with Dürer that he begins his current exhibition, Prints I wish I had published. Dürer was the first great artist to achieve

Comic genius

For the hundredth, possibly the thousandth, time, Lucy van Pelt offers to hold the football for Charlie Brown so he can kick it. She cajoles him with the innocence of her eyes. He falls for it; he falls for it every time. Lucy, as she always does, whips the ball away. Charlie loops into the air and crashes to the ground. ‘What you have learned here today, Charlie Brown,’ she explains, ‘will be of immeasurable value to you for many years to come.’ Lucy is a cynic, a sadist, a huckster, a realist. Nevertheless, she would be right but for the fact that nothing is ever of ‘immeasurable value’ to

Out of this world | 5 July 2018

In G.F. Watts’s former sculpture studio in the Surrey village of Compton, a monstrous presence has interposed itself between the dusty plaster models of ‘Alfred, Lord Tennyson’ and ‘Physical Energy’. Standing 14ft tall, the brightly painted soldier with fez and sabre is a replica of a colossal puppet made by James Henry Pullen (1835–1916) while an inmate of the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots in Redhill. So terrifying was Pullen’s ‘Giant’ to the local children that it was confined to quarters after causing a rout at a Guy Fawkes procession. Its maker was inside, operating a system of pulleys and levers that batted the eyelids, waggled the ears, rattled the

Dark side of the Moomins

Tove Jansson, according to her niece’s husband, was a squirt in size and could rarely be persuaded to eat, preferring instead to smoke fags and drink whisky. And when she did eat, it was usually salted cucumbers — to go with the drink. You know, this late in life, I may have encountered my role model. We were at the launch of an excellent edition of four books in her Moomin series at the Finnish embassy. London is in the grip of a kind of Moomin madness right now, what with the books, a Moomin event at the South Bank and a new exhibition of Tove Jansson’s artwork at the