Summer treats: Christopher Allen’s picks
Christopher Allen takes a critical glance at the best exhibitions in Australia and overseas
Australians are fortunate that our long holidays are not at the same time as those of the northern hemisphere. There can be disadvantages, of course: the days are shorter, London and Paris can be gloomy and seasonal resorts in the Mediterranean turn into windblown ghost towns in the winter months, but these are generally outweighed by the pleasure of having cities like Rome almost to oneself without the invading tourist hordes.
Museums and galleries too are much more pleasant in the off-season; but best of all is the fact that the low season for tourism coincides with the high season for significant exhibitions. So for readers who have been saving up their frequent flyer points, there is an embarrassment of riches in international galleries over the next few months.
The Renaissance is represented by the eccentric but intriguing figure of Carlo Crivelli, whose strangely cool Virgins and trompe-l’oeil flies always stop museum visitors in their tracks, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Botticelli’s rediscovery in the 19th century began with the pre-Raphaelites and this is the subject of The Botticelli Renaissance at the Gemaeldegalerie in Berlin, which will later move, as Botticelli Reimagined, to the Victoria and Albert in London. Since the pre-Raphaelites, Walter Pater’s essay in Studies in the Renaissance, Marcel Proust’s Odette and our own Picnic at Hanging Rock have all helped make Botticelli’s paintings the most eagerly visited works in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
There are important exhibitions covering the baroque period too. The Mauritshuis in The Hague has an exhibition of 17th-century selfportraits, with the cringe-making subtitle Selfies of the Golden Age. Rembrandt was by far the most prolific and important of self-portraitists in this period, but by no means the only one, and the 17th century in general became fascinated with the artist’s self-representation. Another important exhibition from this century is Zurbaran: Master of Detail at the Kunstpalast in Dusseldorf, devoted to the Spanish artist second in importance only to Velazquez himself.
In a somewhat different vein, diarist Samuel Pepys, witness to the Stuart restoration and the Glorious Revolution, the plague in London and the Great Fire that followed it in 1666 — and chronicler of his own life and erotic adventures — is the subject of the concisely titled Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.
Art theory in the 17th century was marked by a famous debate, beginning at the recently founded Academy in Paris, over the primacy of line or colour in the art of painting. The opposing parties initially took Raphael and Titian as their respective heroes, and later updated them to Poussin and Rubens. The debate was renewed in the mid-19th century between the exponents of neoclassicism and romanticism, and it happens that the two modern champions of line and colour are each surveyed in exhibitions on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
Ingres, the master of line, is the subject of what is described as the first monographic exhibition of his work in Spain, at the Prado in Madrid. Meanwhile, Delacroix, the hero of Charles Baudelaire, greatly admired by Manet and Whistler and considered the champion of younger artists such as those who would later become the impressionists, is celebrated at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. As the title of show suggests, Delacroix’s Influence: The Rise of Modern Art from Cezanne to van Gogh, while including 30 of the artist’s paintings, also seeks to demonstrate why he was considered the leader of the moderns.
This exhibition will move to the National Gallery in London in February, but in the meantime the gallery is showing an outstanding survey of Goya’s portraits. As with his great predecessor Velazquez, portraiture represents a significant part of Goya’s oeuvre, and official portraits at that. And yet, like Velazquez, he manages to infuse a deep and often disquieting sense of real, vulnerable and imperfect humanity even into portraits of the royal family.
Contemporary with Goya, but an utterly different painter, was Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, the most celebrated female artist of the 18th century and personal painter to French queen Marie Antoinette. Her work is surveyed at the Grand Palais in Paris.
Two exhibitions deal with moral ambiguities of the 18th and 19th centuries, the first drawing its title from Choderlos de Laclos’s gripping and seemingly amoral epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), best known to Englishspeaking audiences today from its stage adaptation and a film with John Malkovitch and Glenn Close (1988). Dangerous Liaisons, at the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt, will focus on new ideas and representations of sentimental love in the second half of the 18th century.
The other exhibition also draws its title from a famous novel, Balzac’s Splendeurs et miseres des courtisanes (1838-47), one of the main pillars of the immensely long series known as La Co- medie humaine. The exhibition, at the Musee d’Orsay, is titled Splendeurs et Miseres and subtitled Images of Prostitution, 1850-1910. Manet’s Olympia is included, as well as many works by the artists best known for their interest in the subject, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec.
In the field of ancient art, the National Gallery in Washington has Power and Pathos, a survey of bronze sculpture in the Hellenistic world, which was previously shown at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence and then the Getty in Malibu, from tomorrow to March. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has an exhibition called Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, covering the period from about 2000 to 1700BC, which was one of important changes, as the exhibition’s title suggests, including an implicit opening of the afterlife to the broader population and not only the aristocracy.
Three other exhibitions consider less familiar historical periods: the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid is showing The Illusion of the American Frontier, which looks at the way the westward expansion of the US was imagined, including the romanticisation of pioneers and cowboys and mixed attitudes towards Native Americans. The encounter with tribal peoples and exotic cultures is also the subject of an important exhibition at the Tate: Artist and Empire, described by The Guardian as “awe-inspiring”, presents art, artefacts and documents from the 16th century to the present day.
In Australia, the most important show of great paintings and drawings is undoubtedly the Art Gallery of NSW’s Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, even if it has been rather ineptly marketed under the title of The Greats. It will be a pity if the gallery fails to achieve the numbers the exhibition deserves, because it contains both paintings and drawings of a quality seldom found in the usual run of blockbusters.
In the field of Australian art, by far the most significant exhibition is the new survey of Tom Roberts, the leader of the Heidelberg school, which conceived a new image of the national landscape in the decades before Federation, and who was also a talented painter of figure subjects — Shearing the Rams being his most celebrated canvas — and the best Australian portraitist of his time. This talent led to the commission to paint a monumental commemorative group portrait of the dignitaries who attended the opening of the first Australian parliament after Federation. The picture, which usually hangs at Parliament House, has been dismantled and moved with some difficulty, and, though not the best example of Roberts’s work, will nonetheless be a highlight of the exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia.
In the international field, the massively hyped double exhibition of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei at the National Gallery of Victoria will be an interesting opportunity to see whether there is a real affinity, and not merely an opportunistic meeting of brands, between these two artists. Gilbert & George, at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, meanwhile, also offers an example of how much the contemporary art business can make from very little, as long as one persists, and keeps a straight face.
There are, however, some less heavily promoted but perhaps more interesting exhibitions throughout the summer. Next week I will be discussing The Enclave, Richard Mosse’s harrowing vision of the hell that is Congo today, loosely inspired by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Charles Wimar’s El rastro perdido from The Illusion of the American Frontier in Madrid
A Cornelis Bisschop self-portrait, part of
Dutch Self-portraits at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, left; a work from Botticelli Reimagined at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, above