Visual arts

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

Darkness visible | 16 November 2017

All photography requires light, but the light used in flash photography is unique — shocking, intrusive and abrupt. It’s quite unlike the light that comes from the sun, or even from ambient illumination. It explodes, suddenly, into darkness. The history of flash goes right back to the challenges faced by early photographers who wanted to use their cameras in places where there was insufficient light — indoors, at night, in caves. The first flash photograph was probably a daguerreotype of a fossil, taken in 1839 by burning limelight. For the next 50 years, photographers experimented with limelight, which was familiar from theatre illumination, with portable battery-driven lights — which Nadar

The play’s the thing | 16 November 2017

‘It’s all wizards and elves, right? Dungeons & Dragons stuff?’ Such is the general response when you mention larp, or live-action role-play — the peculiarly Scandi pastime that conjures up images of people dressed up in the forest play-fighting with sticks. Well, they wouldn’t be completely wrong. It’s a weird world and with the help of artists it’s becoming even weirder. In the past few years, larp has become more visible in mainstream culture. And in Britain, it has noticeably begun to infiltrate the art world, becoming popular among artists interested in the potential of play. Major institutions such as Tate, the V&A and Serpentine Galleries have worked with artists

The female gaze | 2 November 2017

Every weekday, I travel by Tube to The Spectator’s office, staring at the posters plastered all over the walls. I like looking at the plays and exhibitions that have recently opened or wondering whether that shampoo really will add more ‘oomph’ to my hair. Often there is a pretty girl on the poster. A picture of a woman can sell almost anything. I’ve rarely thought much about the individuals who produce the posters. But as a new exhibition at London’s Transport Museum called Poster Girls reveals, there is a rich history of female art running through the city’s concrete veins. For more than 100 years, the transport network has provided

The old ways

I’m sitting across a café table from a young man with a sheaf of drawings that have an archive look to them but are in fact brand new. His Jacob Rees-Mogg attire — well-cut chalk-stripe suit and immaculate tie — sets him apart from the others in the room, who are mostly architects and architectural fellow travellers like me. We don’t dress like that. But George Saumarez Smith is indeed an architect, a very good one. He just happens to be a trad. A traditionalist, mostly a classicist. And now is very much the time of the architectural trads. They have crept up on us. There’s a revival going on,

It’s the thought that counts

During a panel discussion in 1949, Frank Lloyd Wright made an undiplomatic comment about Marcel Duchamp’s celebrated picture of 1912, ‘Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2’, in the presence of the artist. ‘I am sure he doesn’t himself regard it as a great picture now.’ At this Duchamp bridled, exclaiming in his excellent English, ‘I beg your pardon, sir!’ However, the architect had a point, as the exhibition Dalí/Duchamp at the Royal Academy bears out. I came away from it reflecting that Duchamp wasn’t a very good painter. This is not the point, obviously, that the RA intended to make. The idea was to reveal how much this improbable pair

The Bilbao effect

Twenty years ago I wrote of the otherwise slaveringly praised Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao: I’m in a minority of, apparently, one. It strikes me as a consummate gimmick… a fantastically elaborate and rather wearisome joke. Has mankind spent all these centuries perfecting Euclidean geometry and orthogonal engineering in order to have it overthrown by massively expensive crazy cottages clad in titanium? Apparently mankind has. So much for the building. What of the ‘Bilbao effect’, an epithet that I am accused of having coined (I can’t remember, but it’s inappropriate because there is, typically, no effect). Even before Frank Gehry’s earth-shattering masterpiece was finished, word was out and post-industrial cities on

Snap, crackle and op

Stand in front of ‘Fall’, a painting by Bridget Riley from 1963, and the world begins to quiver and dissolve. Something you normally expect to be static and stable — a panel covered with painted lines — undulates and pulses. In addition to just black and white, the pigments actually present, other hues appear and disappear: faintly luminous pinks and greens. To her irritation, the artist was once told, ‘as though it were some sort of compliment’, that ‘it was the greatest kick’ to smoke dope while looking at this painting. The remark, much though it affronted Riley, is wonderfully characteristic of its epoch, the mid-1960s. We usually think of

Object lesson | 3 August 2017

Why did Henri Matisse not play chess? It’s a question, perhaps, that few have ever pondered. Yet the great artist provided an answer, which is quoted in the catalogue to Matisse in the Studio, a marvellous new exhibition at the Royal Academy. He did not care, he explained, ‘to play with signs that never change’. It’s a revealing reason in several ways. For one thing, it underlines how different Matisse was from his younger contemporary Marcel Duchamp: the most celebrated chess-player in art. Duchamp loved logic, so his work tended to turn into a series of theorems. Matisse, in contrast, lived and worked in a beautiful muddle, surrounded by clutter

League of nations

‘Are you enjoying the Biennale?’ is a question one is often asked while patrolling the winding paths of the Giardini and the endless rooms of the Arsenale. It is not easy to answer. The whole affair is so huge, so diverse and yet — in many ways — so monotonous. Like the EU, an organisation with which it has something in common, La Biennale di Venezia believes in the principle of subsidiarity. Therefore individual nations are allowed to do what they like within their own pavilions. However, there are also strong homogenising forces at work — so much of what is on view in the national pavilions and elsewhere tends

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

Roving eye

Photography has many genres, even more than painting, and most photographers achieve fame by focusing on one of them. There are technical reasons for this. Armed only with a bunch of brushes and a palette of colours, a painter can achieve a variety of effects — close-up, distance, soft or sharp focus, motion — for which a photographer needs a battery of cameras and associated paraphernalia in the form of lenses, films, lights and filters, and the technical know-how to get the best out of each. There is also professional snobbery. Jobbing photographers who work across genres for magazine assignments are less likely to be taken seriously as artists. The

Animal magnetism

‘I frequently went to bullfights with Picasso,’ Sir John Richardson remarked, quite casually, as he showed me around the exhibition Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors, which he was installing at the Gagosian Gallery, Grosvenor Hill. He mentioned this by way of explaining why a large and splendid linocut was inscribed to him by the artist: ‘à mon cher ami.’ They saw many fights together in the 1950s, either in Nîmes or Arles. Picasso took these occasions seriously. ‘If the fight was going well he was silent, concentrating totally. What he couldn’t stand was people talking. He would sigh and say, “Oh, I wish they’d shut up.” All around him people were

Put a spell on you

Many of the mediums from which art is made have been around for a long time. People have been painting on walls, for example, for about 40,000 years. Similarly, figures have been fashioned out of stone and metal for millennia, and still are. But if there is one ancient medium you might think was now definitely over and out, it would be tapestry. But no! In this era of artificial intelligence and omniscient Google, the ancient practice of painstakingly twining coloured wool into pictures is undergoing an unexpected revival. The latest contemporary artist to give tapestry a go is Chris Ofili. His exhibition Weaving Magic at the National Gallery gives

Cover stories

These days, Aubrey Powell is a genial 70-year-old who can be found most mornings having breakfast at his local Knightsbridge café. But in the late 1970s, he did something that surely no other human being has done before or since. He photographed a sheep lying on a psychiatrist’s couch on a beach in Hawaii. Its coat had been treated with Vidal Sassoon products, and it was sedated with Valium because it was scared of waves. So what on earth was he up to? The answer — as anybody who recognises Powell’s name will guess — was creating one of the 373 album covers that his company Hipgnosis designed back when

Constable on sea

John Constable was, as we say these days, conflicted about Brighton. On the one hand, as he wrote in a letter, he was revolted by this marine Piccadilly, populated with: ‘ladies dressed & undressed — gentlemen in morning gowns and slippers on, or without them altogether about knee deep in the breakers — footmen — children — nursery maids, dogs, boys, fishermen’, all mixed together ‘in endless and indecent confusion’. On the other, as a brilliantly conceived little exhibition at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery makes clear, the town was one of a small number of locations that were crucial to his art. He went there, however, not because

Pleasure boats

There isn’t a luxury ship that wouldn’t look better for having sunk. Barnacles and rot bring such romance to the lines, like spider webs in the sea. Even the decay Damien Hirst has applied to his Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is quite appealing. It crawls over many of the objects that he claims to have salvaged from a shipwreck of the 1st or 2nd century ad. A mouldering Mickey Mouse. A bronze portrait of the artist encrusted in faux-coral. It’s Trimalchio meets Disneyland meets Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It so happens that Hirst’s exhibition at the Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi in Venice (until

A woman of genius

‘Your favourite virtue?’ ‘I don’t have any: they are all boring,’ wrote the 21-year-old Camille Claudel in a Victorian album belonging to an English friend in 1886. The remark perfectly matches the photograph of the aspiring sculptor taken two years earlier by César: childlike, sullen, attitudinous, beautiful. Claudel was in England on a break from working in Auguste Rodin’s studio, where she had been taken on as an assistant in 1884. She had met Rodin through her mentor Alfred Boucher, who discovered her precocious teenage talent on a visit to his hometown of Nogent-sur-Seine in the 1870s, and continued to supervise her subsequent studies in Paris. When Boucher left for

Both sides are missing the point in the row over Dana Schutz’s painting

‘Let the people see what I have seen’, said the mother of Emmett Till. In 1955 her son, a 14-year-old black boy from Illinois, was falsely accused of flirting with a white woman, tortured, murdered and dumped in a river by the woman’s husband and his half-brother, both of whom were summarily acquitted by a white jury. The photographs taken of Till’s corpse – battered and bloated beyond recognition – succeeded in shaming and inflaming a nation: he became an icon of the civil rights movement. The recent police shootings caught on camera, and the response from Black Lives Matter, gave Dana Schutz – a New York-based painter of considerable talent – the

Internal affairs | 23 March 2017

Over 20 years ago I wrote about Giambattista Tiepolo in The Spectator. Shortly afterwards I went to visit Howard Hodgkin in his spacious, white, light-filled studio close to the British Museum. It turned out that he had read my column and was pleased that someone had been discussing this 18th-century Venetian, who was just his idea of what a painter should be: a subtle master of colour, poetic, sensual, a bit neglected — in other words, much as he saw himself. The real subject matter of an artist such as Tiepolo, I suggested that day, is not really the Madonna or the apotheosis of some minor aristocrat. It is something