Available now, my survey of forty ceilings from around the world, from mosques to Baroque palaces, churches and Las Vegas casinos with in-depth essays on their histories.
Included in THE TIMES best art books of 2019 by Rachel Campbell-Johnston
Ahead of my women and art summer school at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London, I wrote this piece about the increased visibility of women artists in this year’s Venice Biennale. I also got thoroughly drenched.
When not writing and talking about feminism and art I have also been working on another book project on fine art ceilings for White Lion called The Art of Looking Up which will be published in autumn 2019. Unfortunately this entry didn’t make it into the final manuscript due to an issue with images, and this was especially sad for me as it was the only work in the book that had been potentially by female artist, so this is the ideal space for a preview. Even more so amid the current re-engagement with the art of Artemisia Gentileschi who potentially painted a large proportion of this ceiling for the Queen’s House in Greenwich, which is now installed in Marlborough House, London.
Orazio and Artemisia ( ?) Gentileschi, Allegory of Peace, Marlborough House, London, UK
Before the establishment of the Royal Academy in England in 1768, and without a state or crown sponsored national art school, England relied on importing painters from the European continent. This imported talent was necessary if the ruling classes and the royal court wanted to immortalise themselves with portraits, decorate their palaces in keeping with the princely fashions of neighbouring nations, and craft their funerary monuments. And so European painters became indispensable members of English aristocratic households on whom their aspirational patrons depended for constructing a carefully constructed and idealised identity through images.
It was under these circumstances that Orazio Gentileschi, an Italian painter from Tuscany, arrived in England in 1626 with his three sons and was ensconced in the household of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. British shores were hospitable and lucrative for Gentileschi, who lived the remainder of his life in the UK and was rewarded for his services with an illustrious final resting place in the Queen’s Chapel at Somerset House on his death in 1639. A favourite at the court of Charles I, the artist was particularly favoured by the king’s wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, for whom he produced an Allegory of Peace- a visual cycle of nine canvases that were originally installed in the ceiling of Great Hall of the Queen’s House at Greenwich. The work was moved in its entirety to Marlborough House in the eighteenth century; a royal residence in London that was initially built in 1711 for Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and confidante to Queen Anne. Since 1965, the house has been leased by Queen Elizabeth II to the Commonwealth of Nations and is the seat of the Commonwealth Secreteriat.
The painting cycle comprises a large central tondo (circular painting format) surrounded by four rectangular canvases and four smaller tondi, one in each corner. Together they present a ceiling decoration that is very much in keeping with the simple and bold geometry of Inigo Jones’s Palladian interior in the work’s original location at the Queen’s House in Greenwich. But an Allegory of Peace also functions as something of a diplomatic visual manifesto about cultural, or what we now call ‘soft power’.
In the central image a personification of Peace sits high in heaven on a cloud with an olive branch and staff and presides over a circular assembly of twelve female figures who personify the trivium and quadrivium of liberal arts which were the central learning principles from Latin Antiquity. Directly beneath Peace is the central figure of Victory holding a laurel wreath and with her foot on an overflowing cornucopia. An armed personification of Reason sits on her right, and was believed to be the guiding principle of all human creativity and activity. Reason looks to a trio of women who represent the Trivium of Liberal Arts and brandish rather arcane symbols to distinguish them. These comprise of Grammar watering a plant and sharpening the sword of Rhetoric who holds a mirror. She stands next to Logic whose symbols are a snake and a bunch of flowers. On the other side of Victory sit personifications of the Quadrivium, from Astronomy holding a book of stars, to Arithmetic, Geometry and a hooded figure of Music. The identity of the final three figures has been disputed but may include the Mechanical Art of Agriculture with a crown of corn , the winged figure of Fortune, plus a possible personification of Meditation who appears with a book. In the rectangular panels surrounding the central assembly are figures of the nine Muses who inspire the creative forces of humans, from poetry to dancing, while the corner tondi depict figures of Painting, Architecture, Sculpture and Music.
The overriding message here is verbiose but with an essential concrete message to impart – that Peace (a product of good government and rule) allows the endeavours of learning, knowledge and creativity to flourish under the guidance of the cool headed Reason, in a mutually reinforcing relationship with victory and prosperity for the British realm. It further seems fitting that that painting’s sentiment should be adopted in the more recent function of its home in Marlborough House as the Commonwealth Secreteriat, responsible for the victorious prosperity through good governance and peace across fifty-three nations.
But there is a ghost in the historical archive associated with these paintings. The suggestion of another hand at work whose contribution has not been duly recognised and which raises another interesting issue of authorship and politics, reason, and victory. Scholars such as Mary D. Garrard believe that up to six of the paintings in the Allegory of Peace are by the hand of Orazio Gentileschi’s daughter Artemisia Gentileschi. She is better known as the most famous rape victim of art history and proto-feminist artist in an overwhelmingly patriarchal system of art production that only allowed a woman to pick up the tools of her painterly trade because she grew up in a studio of artists with her father and brothers. Because in the seventeenth-century women appeared in diplomatic, nation building art as abstract muses and ideals, not as the active architects of that dream of prosperity and victory through peace. And while her father was gloriously immortalised with a tomb in the heartland of the British establishment whom he served, his daughter’s potential testament to her glorious achievements while on London soil is left to the footnotes of scholarly squabbles.
Ah yes, the familiar reclining nubile female nude of art history, frozen in time and laid out for our voyeuristic pleasure in a post- coital doze, cheeks ruddied from exertion or quixotic feverish dreams. We’ve seen hundreds of paintings of bodies like these, sometimes given biblical or mythological names with the sheer volume of the format granting some sort of universal permission to gawp and gaze at sleeping women through erotic goggles. But sometimes the best paintings suggest more about the spectator of the image rather than its subject. So as we look uninterrupted at this passive figure, we join the audience that was there first. In this case it is a black woman, arms folded on her lap, a cigarette cocked between her lips, its blunt ember edging dangerously close to all that exposed white flesh that could so easily be violated – with eyes, cigarette, or something else. And so we assume the gaze not of the white bourgeois European male for whom the history of art was practically invented, but a minority ethnic woman who is seen to be consuming all the visual pleasures that priviliged male archetype feels entitled to. Moreover, it casts that white default viewer as its unsettling polar opposite – a black woman whose agency is perhaps terrifyingly unmoored in post-abolition Europe in 1913. But still, the complexities around Felix Valloton’s La Blanche et la Noire continue to muddy our expectations of the reclining nude archetype. For embedded in this dyad before us is an Orientalist fear and desire for interracial erotic fantasy. So while the western eye bristles at being cast as the black ex- slave, this is tempered by the suggestion of illicit and transgressive relations between the two women.
I came across this image in Denise Murrell’s catalogue for the exhibition Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet to Matisse to Today- currently on show @museedorsayfrom @wallachartgallery . I’ll be talking about it this and other images concerning racial politics in this year’s Women and Art summer school @sothebysinstitute London .
I am back again at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London this July with another round of the Women and Art summer school, led by me and with a roster of marvellous speakers ranging from academics to curators and covering topics as diverse as Renaissance women and images of goddesses and queens to feminism and contemporary art and politics in China and Russia. All welcome, with no written requirements.
I’m so thrilled that my art writing feminist polemic Women in the Picture is going to published by Icon Books next Spring. I’ve been working so hard on developing it and teaching around the subject of women and art that it’s a real joy to think it’s going to go out into the world in book format. I’m now hard at work pulling it all together for the manuscript.
This is the catalogue text I wrote for British painter Jake Wood-Evans’s 2017 show at Unit London.
The act of looking to the past is always riddled with complexity. We can’t help but look back through a lens of history that distorts what has come before, sometimes for better, often for worse. Sometimes the past comforts us, or it can unsettle. Sometimes we see with nostalgia, or sometimes with derision.
Ironically, perhaps the only constancy is that the past doesn’t stay still, but can change. Such is the suggestion in Jake Wood-Evans’s 2017 show Transitions at Unit London. Large scale canvases painted in oil conjure up the ghosts of old master paintings by Constable, Landseer, Rubens, Van Dyck, and others, as if seen through a rain-smeared screen, or reflected in a beaten tin mirror. The effect is of something half-recognised and partly erased to create something new.
The interaction of time and the image is our subject matter here, rendered across the surfaces of the canvases, many of which have been intentionally scored and scratched to suggest the deterioration of age. In others such as Portrait of a Man with a Beard after Rubens, the paint bleeds across the image as if melting; decomposing to reconfigure as something else. Other transformations unfold in Reclining Nude after Boucher in which the classical serpentine lines used to picture the female nude harden into blunt, linear brushstrokes that lend a geometric weight. The result is a body of work that mixes the figurative and abstract on the same canvas, blurring the boundary between the descriptive and the evocative.
While many of the works in this exhibition invoke an ephemeral, haunting vision of the original painting, others bring a dynamism to the surface, liberating an energy that was otherwise distilled in the original. For example, The Hay Wain, after Constable transforms the quiet, static grandeur of agricultural labourers at work in nineteenth-century Suffolk into an experiment in abstract expressionism with impasto bolts of white paint.
Other works pull our gaze inwards beyond these agitated surfaces into a murky middle ground where we seem suspended between points in time, such as White Horse in Stable after Henry Landseer. Here, a ghostly horse, whose rider has evaporated in a milky haze of paint, hovers in a field of perception that suggests the not-quite- past and not- yet- present.
With a commitment to employing the tools, techniques and subject matter of the so-called ‘old master’ painters, Wood-Evans distinguishes himself from contemporary artists whose work responds to a prevailing appetite for the new. This was ever the case. At Falmouth School of Art in the late 1990s, the artist was ‘radical’ for his interest in draughtsmanship and the traditional artistic processes inherited from the Renaissance. During this time, teaching in British art schools tended to reject traditional techniques and subject matter in favour of more conceptual work. This is exemplified in the defining art of the Wood-Evan’s student years – the notorious ‘Young British Artists’, who enjoyed commercial success with works made from found materials ranging from animals in formaldehyde, to blood, cigarettes and dirty bed linen.
Following his graduation, Wood-Evans was awarded a prestigious scholarship to study first-hand the paintings at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, a palatial setting housing the works from the former Spanish royal collection. It was here that he encountered the paintings of the seventeenth-century Flemish artist Rubens, reflected here in his tribute After Rubens Peace and War. Where once there was clarity in the original painting, Wood-Evans adjusts the focus, turning the figures into veiled, semi-abstract mannnequins, and heightening the sense of mystery. In such he encourages us to look again, beyond the surface of the traditional image and see anew.
In an age dominated by the ubiquitous screen that flattens out everything into a pixelated image in a frame, Wood-Evans work feels like a welcome antidote. First there are the surfaces, with their layers of paint creating a depth of composition that requires slow looking and mental absorption. Then the way in which many of the images themselves resist the borders and framing of the digital picture, as the raw edges of the canvas are left visible at the edges. Perhaps we are left with the potential that these works are ephemeral, ready to shift again at the next viewing.
Born in 1980, Wood-Evans also occupies a particular moment of transition in the history of the image. Not quite millennial, and a so-called digital immigrant, his is the last generation to have grown up without the dominance of social media and the ‘insta-image’. In such, the works in this show are defiantly analogue. His ambition has been to restore a sense of monumentality and quiet beyond the superficial aesthetic of the twenty-first century.
Although he claims that there is no uniting thread in this exhibition, and that the works are open-ended, we cannot help but think about a certain theme of Britishness, especially because the largest paintings in the show are inspired by British painters Landseer and Constable. Hampstead Heath after Constable with its violent red nest of brushstrokes in the foreground invites us to see the heritage of the land with a different gaze, one that at this moment of our history is perhaps more chaotic and up for grabs. Other painters referenced in the show such as Van Dyck and Rubens both were foreign artists who produced work for the British monarchy in the seventeenth-century, so in a sense they also represent our historical entanglement with Europe. At a time when our history with Europe is breaking down and re-arranging – much like the paint and composition in these works- ‘Transitions’ seems to be a very apt metaphor.
This is an excerpt from my catalogue essay published by Halcyon Gallery London to accompany Lorenzo Quinn’s monumental sculpture at the Venice Biennale 2017.
A pair of monumental stony hands reach imploringly out of the Grand Canal, lurching towards the pink façade of the Ca’ Sagredo, in the Canareggio district next to Santa Sofia. It is perhaps a strange sight, but then nothing in Venice, the amphibian city which is part dream, part miracle, can ever seem that impossible. But whom do they belong to, and where are they reaching from? It isn’t clear whether this is a body that is sinking out of view beneath the water, or a superhuman body that is emerging like a guardian river god from the canal-bed. And so we start to ponder, are these hands from a past that has been submerged and that we cannot recuperate? Or do they belong to a future determined to support its ancestors?
Lorenzo Quinn’s sculpture ‘Support’, installed to coincide with the city-wide celebration of art for the 2017 Venice Biennale draws an entanglement of issues to the watery surface of the canal. Among these are the city’s dialogue between past and future, its relationship with water, and the inevitable ecological concerns for a city that is known to be sinking. The Ca’ Sagredo palazzo has occupied the canal-side since the fourteenth century, and represents the heritage of the past which seems to be in dialogue with these monumental hands.
Imbedded into the mud of the canal, Support draws our thoughts beneath the reflective surface of the water, to a place that tells the history of mankind’s relationship with the elements. It is a history that reveals a ceaseless negotiation between the human, water, and stone. For Venice was built on the salty marshes and waters of the archipelago by refugees in crisis, seeking shelter and support when barbarian forces swept through northern Italy in the fifth century AD. Temporary homes were made on the islands of Torcello, Malamocco and Jesolo, and, over time, an amphibian city emerged from the water and silt with masonry built on wooden platforms supported by stakes driven deeply into the clay of the seabed. Centuries of bathing submerged in salt water protected these wooden foundations from the oxygen in the air that would accelerate decay, and, instead, hardened the wood into stone through an invisible subaquatic alchemy.
This petrified wood beneath the surface is an echo of the stone that impossibly teeters above the surface, which is also given genesis by the sea. The white Istrian limestone characteristic of Venetian architecture is actually the compression of the shells of eons worth of marine creatures, to create impermeable stone. In such, Venice’s buildings are a fusion of the aquatic and architectural- so much so that John Ruskin gave the name ‘sea story’ to the ‘ground’ floor levels of the city’s palazzi, such as the Ca’ Sagredo, which are in constant contact with the water.
Hands define us as being human. It was mankind’s ascent to bipedalism that freed up the front limbs of our hominoid ancestors, allowing man to engage in the manual pursuits that shaped knowledge and culture. But the hands have also been associated with the godly- the notion of the ‘hand of God’ is the base metaphor for creation, immortalised in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling with the divine hand that fuses Adam’s body with life. Very often the hand has been a metaphor for the godly taking human shape, such as in medieval images, where it was often just the hand of God that would be represented; the whole divine body was considered too powerful to represent and visualise. The hand of the artist has even been reified as a parallel with godly acts of divine creation, for the way in which it transforms matter into artworks that imitate life, and this concept of creation has been explored by artists from Albrecht Durer to Auguste Rodin. Lorenzo Quinn has also explored the theme of the divine hand in his sculpture Hand of God (2009), and introduces a further spiritual element in this relationship between the human and godlike in suggesting how mankind can be held and supported by animistic forces outside of ourselves.
However, despite this celebration of the hand as an instrument of support, and artistic and divine creation, there is also an ambivalence in the hands, because as humans we have used this potential to both create and destroy, to nurture with the one hand and to harm with the other. The familiar imperative ‘do not touch’ is a reminder that touching with the hands can be an act of destruction, and it is at the hand of man that we have entered into what geologists have called the ‘Anthropocene Age’, an era of damage inscribed irrevocably onto the planet’s history.
Quinn has often returned to the narrative potential of the hands in exploring complex and abstract ideas, such as in his Love series of sculptures which visualise the silent eloquence of hands in describing the many sensations of this most multifarious of emotions. Equally manifold is the sense of touch that is largely but not exclusively governed by the hands. Support invites us to consider the effects of touch, and in turn how we ourselves are touched. Venice is a city that touches its inhabitants and visitors in more ways than one; the salt in the air settles on the skin and can be felt on the lips and in the nose, while the water is felt lapping at the edges of everything. The nineteenth-century writer Henry James remarked on this embodied experience of the city suggesting that: ‘Venice as she deserves it, is to give her a chance to touch you often – to linger and remain and return.’ While the touch of the sea and of man in its myriad ways is what is destroying Venice, Support seems to explore both how the city rises up from the seabed to touch us, and how the supportive touch of future hands might save it…..
The rest of this essay was published by Halcyon Gallery for Lorenzo Quinn in May 2017.
On 12th May I’l be giving a gallery talk and visit of feminist art in the Tate Modern collection. I’ll be looking at how twentieth century women artists have responded to the huge gender bias in the art world, that has tended to favour the idea of the heroic male in the role of ‘artist’. Routinely, art by women has been occluded throughout history, and still, despite the fact that women make up two thirds of art graduates, only one third are represented by commercial galleries. I’ll be looking at artists like Sanja Ivekovic , Carolee Schneeman and Marina Abramovic and how they have critiqued the way in which women’s bodies are controlled and contained by societal and media values alongside more well known women artists such as Louise Bourgeois.
This event is for Art History UK and tickets can be booked here: http://www.arthistoryuk.com/public-tours/unveiling-feminism-tate-modern/