All black and white

Leonardo da Vinci thought sculpting a messy business. The sculptor, he pointed out, has to bang away with a hammer, getting covered in the process with a nasty mixture of dust and sweat. In contrast the painter can sit at his easel, dressed like a gentleman, and portray the whole wide world and everything in it. (Michelangelo, not surprisingly, disagreed.) Such spats were by-products of the paragone — a sort of Punch-and-Judy debate, much enjoyed in 16th-century Italy, about which of the arts was the most powerful. Intriguingly, the National Gallery has revived the paragone in one section of its new exhibition, Monochrome. There are no works by Michelangelo or

The better angels of our nature

Late one afternoon, early in the year, I was walking through the Vatican Stanze with a small group of critics and art historians. While we were admiring the Raphael frescoes that fill these private apartments of the Renaissance popes, Matthias Wivel, curator of the Michelangelo & Sebastiano exhibition at the National Gallery, made the most eloquent case for the painter I have ever heard. Suddenly, I felt a new enthusiasm for Raphael. Essentially what he said is that Raphael is the supreme master of depicting human beings in interaction. Each of the frescoes around us, Wivel pointed out, was made up of a huge number of figures, all engaged with

The play’s the thing | 18 May 2017

Donald Winnicott once told a colleague that Tolstoy had been perversely wrong to write that happy families were all alike while every unhappy family was unhappy in its own way. It is illness, Winnicott said, that could be dull and repetitive, while in health there is infinite variety. Winnicott was reared in an environment of plain-speaking west-country Methodism. He was a people’s doctor who earned his spurs in the crowded children’s wards of east London’s wartime hospitals, allergic to dogma and fearless of being labelled a heretic. He believed that mothers did not need experts to tell them how to care for their own babies and, equally, that artists didn’t

The odd couple | 16 March 2017

Only once did Michelangelo sign a sculpture. It was the ‘Pietà’ of 1497–1500, and he did so using an incomplete sentence in the past imperfect: ‘Michelangelo Buonarroti the Florentine was making…’. The implication was that actually completing a perfect masterpiece was an unattainable goal, so instead he just had to leave off (a great many artists still feel the same about finishing a picture). The ‘Pietà’ is included in Michelangelo & Sebastiano, a remarkably ambitious new exhibition at the National Gallery: not, of course, the original marble, which remains in St Peter’s, but a plaster cast from 1975. Nonetheless, in some ways, the cast gives you a better view than

Sunny delight

No Californian could have painted Hockney’s pools. No La-La Land artist, raised on sun and orange juice, would have done tiles and diving boards and tan-lined bottoms as the boy from Bradford did. It had to be a Hockney, brought up, the fourth of five children, in a two-up two-down. Hockney, who aged three had sheltered from bombs with his mother Laura, father Kenneth, four siblings and a lady neighbour in the cupboard under the stairs. A Yorkshire child steeped in Typhoo tea and fortified by meat and potatoes from Robert’s Pie Shop. A painter who had bicycled the Wolds in the rain, and lived in the garden shed of

The beast in man

Ernest Hemingway loved going to the zoo, but not on Sundays. The reason, he explained, was that, ‘I don’t like to see the people making fun of the animals, when it should be the other way around.’ He would probably have enjoyed Animality, an entertaining exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery, Lower John St, W1. It contains quite a few jokes, but generally the laugh is on Homo sapiens. The humour tends to comes from an age-old ploy: birds, reptiles and mammals wearing clothes. It was the basis, for example, of many works by the caricaturist J.J. Grandville of cats, bears and other such fauna dressed up as early 19th-century French

Going Dutch | 27 October 2016

In debates about what should and should not be taught in art school, the subject of survival skills almost never comes up. Yet the Dutch, who more or less invented the art market, were already aware of its importance in the 17th century. In his Introduction to the Academy of Painting (1678), Samuel van Hoogstraten included a chapter headed ‘How an Artist Should Conduct Himself in the Face of Fortune’s Blows’. Top of his casualty list of artists ‘murdered by poverty …because of the one-sidedness of supposed art connoisseurs’ was the landscape painter and printmaker Hercules Segers (c.1589–1633). This year, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has mounted three shows devoted to

Out of this world | 16 June 2016

It is London in the summer of 1871. Queen Victoria has just opened the Royal Albert Hall in memory of her beloved husband; Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice in Wonderland has just been published, and French refugees from the Franco-Prussian war continue to arrive in the capital. Among them is Claude Monet, who is having a miserable time in the fog and mist. Not far from the Thames views that he had been painting, a fellow artist has just opened her first exhibition of 155 ‘Spirit Drawings’ in a gallery on Old Bond Street, in the heart of London’s art quarter. She was Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884), a 57-year-old London-based middle-class

What is it about Bill Viola’s films that reduce grown-ups to tears?

Even the most down-to-earth people get emotional about Bill Viola’s videos. Clare Lilley of Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) seems close to tears as she takes me round his new show. Lilley is the show’s curator. She’s usually so matter-of-fact, but when she talks about Viola her eyes light up. When she took her two teenage daughters to his studio in Los Angeles, she tells me, they both cried when they saw his films. I like to think I’m made of sterner stuff, but when she leaves me in the Sculpture Park’s Underground Gallery, where Viola is on show, after a few minutes in there on my own I’m blubbing like

Lines of beauty | 10 September 2015

Marshall McLuhan got it at least half right. The medium may not always be the entire message, but it certainly dictates the kind of message that can be transmitted. This is one lesson of Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns, an exhibition at the British Museum that is packed with subtle masterpieces, and as a bonus contains — for those who like such things — two of art’s great studies of dogs. I might as well start with those: one by Albrecht Dürer from around 1520, ‘Dog resting’, and the other by the later Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius of his own pet, curled up and sleeping in

He’s got rhythm

One evening before the first world war, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, fired by drink, tried out such then-fashionable dances as the cakewalk and the tango, ‘his eyes burning — his hair wild’. What was funny about this spectacle, his companion Sophie Brzeska confided to her diary, was not so much the dances as the sight of the dancer himself, ‘the young bear like nothing on earth with his seven league boots jumping in the air like an extraordinary buffoon’. It is a description that evokes many works displayed in a delightful little exhibition, New Rhythms, at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. This marks the centenary of Gaudier-Brzeska’s death; he was killed in action on

Flying witches, mad old men, cannibals: what was going on in Goya’s head?

It is not impossible to create good art that makes a political point, just highly unusual. Goya’s ‘Third of May’ is the supreme example of how to pull it off. It is a great picture with a universal message — the terrible suffering of the innocent victims of war — and one echoed, with fresh horrors, in the news today. The figure in front of the firing squad, arms flung wide, in Goya’s picture is everyman. One of the reasons for its power, and for that of ‘Disasters of War’, his series of aquatint etchings, is that images of violence and evil sprang spontaneously from his imagination. There are some

A survivor of the Copenhagen attack speaks: ‘If we should stop drawing cartoons, should we also stop having synagogues?’

Two years ago the Danish writer Helle Brix helped found the Lars Vilks Committee. The group of media figures from left and right came together to support the Swedish artist who has been under constant threat of death since drawing a picture of Mohammed in 2007. ‘We agreed that Mr Vilks should not be alone in the world,’ says Helle when we spoke earlier this week, ‘and if the establishment or the Swedish artists wouldn’t support him then we would. We wanted to give him a platform and a possibility to do what he used to do before he was unable to go out and meet the public because this

The death of the life class

‘Love of the human form’, writes the painter John Lessore, ‘must be the origin of that peculiar concept, the Life Room.’ Then he goes on to exclaim on the loveliness of that name. It is indeed a venerable institution with a delightful description: a place devoted to looking at life — or, at any rate, to earnest attempts to depict people without a stitch of clothing. Currently two exhibitions in Norwich — at Norwich Castle Museum and Norwich University of the Arts — by Lessore and another distinguished painter, John Wonnacott, focus attention on this time-honoured practice, apparently remote from the contemporary art world of video, installation and performance. Between

David Hockney interview: ‘The avant-garde have lost their authority’

‘I just stay here and do my thing,’ David Hockney told me soon after I arrived at his house and studio in Los Angeles this August. ‘I’m not that interested in what happens outside. I live the same way as I have for years. I’m just a worker.’ Hockney has been labouring prodigiously for more than 60 years now, since he entered Bradford School of Art at the age of 16. ‘There is something inside David,’ his assistant Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima noted, ‘that drives him to make pictures.’ In the summer of 2013, after a series of disasters — including a minor stroke and the terrible death of a

Egon Schiele at the Courtauld: a one-note samba of spindly limbs, nipples and pudenda

One day, as a student — or so the story goes — Egon Schiele called on Gustav Klimt, a celebrated older artist, and showed him a portfolio of drawings with the abrupt query, ‘Do I have talent?’ Klimt looked at them, then answered, ‘Much too much!’ One gets an inkling of what Klimt was getting at from the feverishly intense work on show in Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude. From childhood, Schiele drew with manic fluency. His father, a syphilitic stationmaster, was irritated to discover that a sketchbook, a gift to the boy intended to last for months, had been filled in less than a day. In 1906, at the

Andrew Marr’s notebook: Rescued by Jonathan Ross

We live by simple stories. X has a stroke. X recovers; or doesn’t. But we live inside more complicated stories. Recovering from a stroke is a long haul; I still have an almost useless left arm and walk like a wildly intoxicated sailor. In my mid-fifties, my stroke has been a special excursion ticket into old age — socks and toenails a bewildering distance away, walking sticks with minds of their own — that kind of thing. But here’s the odd bit. This is an old age whose effects (if you do the physio) lessen as the months pass. I’m living backwards — what a rare privilege! I am getting

More real art, please

Although I am an admirer of Dulwich Picture Gallery, and like to support its generally rewarding exhibition programme, I will not be making the pilgrimage to see its latest show, Norman Rockwell’s America. Although I am an admirer of Dulwich Picture Gallery, and like to support its generally rewarding exhibition programme, I will not be making the pilgrimage to see its latest show, Norman Rockwell’s America. This is not just because it’s quite a hike to Dulwich for me, involving a bus, a train, another bus and another train (anything in excess of three hours from door to door), but also because I don’t think the trip will be worth