Visual arts

What’s That Thing? Award for bad public art 2017

Imagine climbing the hills that surround Belfast and stumbling upon this 11-metre-high steel bollock. ‘It will be visible from a number of different points throughout the city,’ coos the Arts Council. Haven’t the people of Northern Ireland suffered enough? ‘Origin’ is the winner of our second What’s That Thing? Award for the worst new public art of the past year. The creators claim the six-metre ‘raindrop’ stuck on top of a five-metre pole represents the ‘elegant flow’ of the Farset River and ‘appears to hover’. Hover? Do you think they know what the word means? Clumsy, aggressive, cheap-looking (despite costing £100,000), it’s the very opposite of a raindrop. Like the

Going underground

When Wireless Nights hit the Radio 4 airwaves in the spring of 2012, I was not at all sure about Jarvis Cocker’s particular, not to say eccentric, manner of presentation, butting in, making his presence felt, never letting us forget that it’s his programme, he’s in charge. His coy comments were too self-conscious for my taste. He didn’t sound natural; his after-dark meanderings felt too contrived. Now I realise I had completely missed the point. Cocker’s deliberate mannerisms, his upside-down way of looking at things, his curiosity and desire to share with us his thoughts are all very much part of who he is, and once you get used to

Paradise lost | 9 March 2017

The American dream was a consumerist idyll: all of life was to be packaged, stylised, affordable and improvable. Three bedrooms, two-point-five children, two cars and one mortgage. The sense was first caught by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835–40), where he talks about a people more excited by success than fearful of failure. We all know when the dream died: on 9 November 2016. People in Brooklyn were crying. In Manhattan they couldn’t breathe. A national angst had been revealed: the land of plenty had become the land of the plenty cross. But when did the dream start? There was the Jeffersonian trinity of life, liberty and the

Snap happy

These days the world is experiencing an unprecedented overload of photographs, a global glut of pictures. More and more are taken every day on smartphones and tablets. They zip around the world by the billion. When I went to Wolfgang Tillmans’s exhibition at Tate Modern, the galleries were full of people taking snaps of the exhibits. Some visitors posed to have their pictures taken in front of the larger ones — huge photographic prints of such diverse subjects as the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, a weed growing in a London garden and a hugely enlarged close-up of a male bottom. These, and a great many more, are shown in

The good, the bad and the ugly

Vladimir Putin notoriously declared the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 to be one of the greatest disasters of the 20th century. However, as Revolution: Russian Art 1917–32 — an ambitious exhibition at the Royal Academy — helps to make clear, the true catastrophe had occurred 82 years earlier, in 1917. Like many of the tragedies of human history, the Russian revolution was accompanied, at least in the early stages, by energy, hope and creativity as well as by murderous cruelty and messianic delusion. The greatest symbol of the last was Vladimir Tatlin’s huge projected ‘Monument to the Third International’ (1920), a sort of communist successor to Bruegel’s ‘Tower

Hull’s a poppin’

In early January, recommended its top 15 destinations for 2017. In 12th spot, just above Montreal, Croatia and Japan, was Hull. And if you’re tempted to opt for a snooty chuckle at this point, my advice would be to go to Hull — because, judging from my recent experience, even on a cold January weekend, the place is buzzing with a hugely infectious, if still slightly bashful, sense of rediscovered civic pride. ‘I’ve lived here for 50 years,’ one man told me, ‘and this is the greatest thing that’s happened to the city in my time.’ The ‘this’ he’s referring to is, of course, Hull’s status as the UK

Seeing everything in black and white

Two divergent approaches to printmaking are on view in an exhibition of graphic work by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud at Marlborough Fine Art, Albemarle Street. For the former, media that depend on line, such as etching, were of little interest, since — as his friend Freud would point out — Francis couldn’t draw very well. But, Freud would add, Bacon’s painting was so brilliant that he made you forget that limitation. Bacon’s prints were essentially reproductions of his oils, signed and numbered by the artist. The etchings Freud made in the last three decades of his life were not like that at all. Though the models for the etchings

James Delingpole

The real George III

Before he died aged 44 (probably of a pulmonary embolism, poor chap), Frederick, Prince of Wales, compiled a list of precepts for his son, the future George III. ‘Employ all your hands, all your power, to live with economy,’ was one. ‘If you can be without war, let not your ambition draw you into it,’ was another. The result of such sensible parentage is that today, about the only things we know about our third-longest-reigning monarch are that his nickname was ‘Farmer George’, that he lost America, and that he went bonkers, providing a lucrative franchise for the significantly more famous playwright Alan Bennett. This — as Robert Hardman’s charming,

Is Maria Balshaw such a good choice for Tate? I tremble for the art I love

The last couple of years have seen changes at the top of all of London’s major art musuems. In 2015 we saw new leadership at the British Museum and the National Gallery. This year it’s the turn of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate. The change at the top of the Tate is particularly momentous. When the last director Nick Serota was appointed Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister and there was no Tate Modern. Furthermore the directors of Tate Modern and Tate Britain who report to the overall boss are themselves new appointments and almost all senior curators have been appointed since 2012. If there is an institution

Kenneth Clark was much better at opening people’s eyes to great art than Marxist John Berger

It is one of those interesting quirks of postwar cultural history that John Berger, who has died at the age of 90, could have presented Civilisation. Millions of viewers who saw that unsurpassed – unsurpassable – series when its 13 programmes were screened in 1969, or who have seen it in the years since, associate Civilisation with Kenneth Clark – Lord Clark of Civilisation, as he came to be known. But Berger might easily have got the nod. It was Clark himself who suggested to Michael Gill, Civilisation‘s producer, that he might find a more congenial ally in Berger, who, of course, three years later presented Ways of Seeing as a counter-argument to

Perhaps Michael Gove should get the Turner Prize

It is a week where you’d imagine most British politicians would be occupied by the Supreme Court ruling over Brexit. But late last night and in the early hours of this, two members of the last government found time for a spat about art on Twitter. Former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove said the Turner Prize had ‘nothingtodowithJMWTurnersgenius’ and that contemporary art was basically all ‘#modishcrap’, showing off his art expertise by misspelling winner Helen Marten’s name. Former arts minister Ed Vaizey stood up for the prize, and acknowledged that ‘brilliant’ contemporary artists could and did exist. The argument, of course, is an old one: older than the Turner

Order, order | 10 November 2016

The catalogue to Pallant House Gallery’s latest exhibition features a favourite anecdote. It is 1924 and a competition is being held to find the woman with the most pleasing vital statistics. As a paradigm, the judges choose the Venus de Milo. Thousands of women queue up to find out whether their measurements — not only bust, waist and hips, but thighs, calves, neck, wrists even —approximate closely enough to those of the ancient sculpture to earn them the prize of £5. No one thinks to mention that the Venus is missing both arms. Classical myth was all the rage after the first world war. When the world felt like chaos,

Romantic modern

In 1932 Paul Nash posed the question, is it possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British?’ — a conundrum that still perplexes the national consciousness more than 80 years later. It is true that the artist himself answered that query with an emphatic ‘yes’. But, as the fine exhibition at Tate Britain makes clear, his modernism was deeply traditional. The truth is that Nash (1889–1946) was what the author Alexandra Harris has termed a ‘romantic modern’. In other words, his art was a characteristic Anglo-Saxon attempt to have things both ways. Equally typically, he managed to do so — but only some of the time. Nash’s early drawings and

Face time

As a chat-up line it was at least unusual. On 8 January 1927, a 46-year-old man approached a young woman outside the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris and announced, ‘You have an interesting face; I would like to do your portrait. I feel we are going to do great things together.’ The approach was successful, even though the woman in question, Marie-Thérèse Walter, was bewildered by his subsequent announcement, ‘I am Picasso!’, since she had never heard of the famous artist. Undeniably, great works did result from this chance meeting — as well as an intense affair, which lasted for years. Several are included in the splendid Picasso Portraits

Shady past

David Hockney: It is a kind of joke, but I really mean it when I say Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting. It is an invention, in that he quickly worked out how to light things dramatically. I’ve always used shadows a bit, because that’s what you need below a figure to ground it, but mine are more like Giotto’s than Caravaggio’s. I use shadows that you see in ordinary lighting conditions; you don’t find ones like Caravaggio’s in nature. But there are other varieties of Hollywood lighting. The ‘Mona Lisa’ is one of the first portraits with very blended shadows. That face is marvellously lit, the shadow under the nose, and

Muslim magic

In 1402, when the Turkic conqueror Temur, better known in the West as Tamerlane, was poised to do battle with the mighty Ottoman Sultan Bayazid I, the greatest power in the Muslim world, he called in the astrologers. Knowing which side their bread was buttered on, the court officials duly pronounced that the planets were auspiciously positioned and gave a green light to attack. Temur was victorious. Not for nothing was he known as lord of the ‘Fortunate Conjunction of the Planets’. Half a century later, in 1453, Bayazid’s great-grandson Mehmet II stood at the gates of Constantinople. Anxious to galvanise his siege-weary troops, he summoned court astrologers, diviners and

Overshadowing all the rest

We don’t know what Caravaggio himself would have made of Beyond Caravaggio, the new exhibition at the National Gallery which is devoted to his own work and that of his numerous followers. But, by chance, we do have a very good idea what he would have said at least of one exhibit: ‘The Ecstasy of St Francis’ (1601) by Giovanni Baglione. Two years after this was painted, in 1603, Caravaggio stated in a disposition to a Roman court that he didn’t know of any other artist ‘who thinks Giovanni Baglione is a good painter’. Very few of Caravaggio’s own words survive, and those that do are mainly in the records

All things bright and beautiful | 6 October 2016

For much of the Middle Ages, especially from 1250–1350, ‘English work’ was enormously prized around Europe from Spain to Iceland. Popes took pains to acquire it; bishops coveted it; the quality was such that the remnants have ended up in the treasuries of Europe. London, especially the area around St Paul’s, was famous for its production. And what was English work? Embroidery, that’s what. Beautiful, costly, high-quality embroidered pieces, much of it using gold or silver thread, sometimes embellished with pearls and precious stones. Matthew Paris tells a story about Pope Innocent IV spotting some English bishops wearing lovely vestments and badgering them to find some of it for him,

American beauty | 29 September 2016

‘At last,’ wrote Patrick Heron, a British painter, in 1956, ‘we can see for ourselves what it is to stand in a very large room hung with very large canvases by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline and others.’ Just over 60 years later, we, too, can stand in a series of grand galleries at the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism and see what Heron saw, and much more. He was at the (greatly anticipated) first showing of those fabled American artists in Britain. Since then, they have frequently been exhibited individually, but there has been just one collective show of the movement. Now Pollock, de

One day in November

The weather was ‘treacherous’ on Saturday, 23 November 2013, the day chosen randomly by Gary Younge as the focus for his latest book, Another Day in the Death of America. As he described it, a ‘Nordic outbreak’ of snow, rain and high winds swept across the desert states and up into the northern plains. It was for many Americans a winter’s day like many others but for ten families a shot rang out sometime during those 24 hours and their lives changed for ever. Not that these ten disparate events made the national news. Death by gunshot is so commonplace in the USA that not even when those who died