We left it too late for the Vermeer exhibition, and the Rijksmuseum was sold out, but as a consolation we saw Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition yesterday, in which the curators took us on a two-hour tour, and we learned more than we would have done just by standing in front of the paintings.
From my last visit I remember that no reproduction can do justice to the brilliance and depth of colour of The Milkmaid. X-rays showed that she was first painted with things behind her but Vermeer decided to simplify and placed her against a bare wall instead. I’d never noticed – because Vermeer didn’t want you to consciously notice things like that – that her side in shadow is placed against a light wall and her side in sunlight against a dark wall, to make sharper contrasts. The red shutter in The Little Street was added later to stand out and balance the composition.
With some boldness, Vermeer made the biggest feature in The View of Delft a dark cloud, puts the foreground in shadow and creates perspective by showing sunlight only on the distant buildings.
He was the painter of light – the painter of light more than the painter of colour, because colour is the manifestation of light. Seeing his pictures in sequence in this film makes you realise that his faces are often unsaturated and out of focus so that they recede behind brighter, more sharply painted fabrics.
Early accounts of studio pottery, notably those by Muriel Rose (1955) and Paul Rice and Christopher Gowing, (1989) were selective and very partisan, basically, just showing the pottery they liked. Oliver Watson’s 1993 survey of studio ceramics in the V&A was the first to cover the subject in an objective and dispassionate way and after Watson there were numerous scholarly studies. The revision of Watson’s volume by the V&A’s senior ceramics curator, Alun Graves (above) has been a long time in preparation and it’s now out. Watson acknowledged the significance of figurative studio pottery in the 1920s and 1930s (ignored by Rose, Rice and Gowing) but he had to exclude it for reasons of space. Graves’s book covers the modellers, in which there’s a growing interest, and it’s a welcome addition to the literature.
Alun Graves, StudioCeramics (London: Thames and Hudson/V&A, 2023)
Picasso’s art is under review because of his bad character. The Brooklyn Museum is mounting an exhibition, It’s Pablomatic, from June 2 – September 24, 2023, which spotlights his attitude to women and his use of ideas and artifacts from African art. It may be iconoclastic but it proceeds from an acknowledgement of his greatness.
The great step forward in art history in the late 19th century was the move away from biography and judgement to formal analysis. Formalism was a strand of 20th-century modernism and Mondrian’s and Rothko’s Olympian abstractions seem to preclude biographical inquiry.
Picasso never followed the route to pure abstraction yet remained respected even at its high tide, but his reputation is so high now that it’s hard to grasp how late fame came to him in Britain. To be sure, in France his precocious talent, ferocious energy and self-promotion earned him recognition very early, but at the time of his big London retrospective in 1960, when he was 79, he was still regarded as a charlatan in some artistic circles.
Post-modernist, Marxist, feminist and post-colonialist narratives have displaced formal analysis and have replaced aesthetics with the sociology of art. Even when abstract art is displayed, curators focus on social explanation, context, biography and stories. Narratives foreground the artist, conditions of artistic production and social meanings of display, and they attach little importance to the object itself, and since concept became elevated over object and imagining was severed from making, little attention was paid to what art actually looked like. We have always been more or less interested in the lives of the artists, of course, but art and the artist have merged. It’s not surprising that now one of the most popular artists is Frida Kahlo.
Biography and sociology are valid endeavours but the conditions giving rise to art and the value of art occupy different universes of discourse. The art is not the artist. Put simply, bad people can produce good art – and it may even be the case, as Lord Acton said, that great men are almost always bad men.
The National Gallery offers an excellent review of the making of modernism between the last Impressionist exhibition and the First World War, focusing on developments in Paris and their spread through other important cities – Vienna, Berlin, Brussels and Barcelona – but there was nothing from Milan, unless one counts the single exhibit by Medardo Rosso, who was included because he moved to Paris.
Many important works were included and artists like Cezanne, Gaugin and Van Gogh were well represented and I was interested to see the ceramic made by Gaugin with Ernest Chaplet, an aspect of his work I was unaware of, and early representational paintings by Mondrian, which never fail to please.
And there were arresting exhibits by lesser-known artists, like Seated Girl with a White shirt and Standing Nude Girl (1906) (above) by Paula Modersohn-Becker, who developed her artistic language in Paris from influences including Puvis de Chavannes, the Nabis, Henri Rousseau and Picasso and used it to depict a world of private, predominantly female experience when she returned to Bremen.
Space is always limited but it could be said that Milan was no less important than Bremen. Cities defined as peripheral are rarely shown in London, despite their wealth of wonderful art. My first visit to the National Gallery of Budapest was a revelation of a rich artistic tradition closed off by forty years of Communism and well worth exploring.
The scant regard paid to Italian modernism, which centred on Futurism in Milan, was unfortunately part of a pattern. Tate Modern marked the centenary of the Futurist Manifesto with an exhibition in 2009 and the Estorick Gallery gallantly promotes 20th century Italian art and design but the Severini exhibition never came to Britain. It could of course be said that Futurism before 1914 was in thrall to Paris and had no style of its own, borrowing from Pointillism and Cubism, but that misses the point that in its embrace of the machine and urbanism it was the most modernist of modern art. One can’t avoid the suspicion that it is ignored not for artistic reasons but because of its later association with Fascism.
I acquired this self-portrait, In The Slow Lane, by David Cheepen, who died last year, from his daughter, who bought it at auction. I was pleased to have it as a memento of him, but how it had come to auction? I found on David’s website that it had belonged to Peter and Alina Peretti, which led to an extraordinary story.
Alina Peretti was born in Poland before the Second World War and had been swept up in the horrors of the German occupation. Last year she published a memoir, Little Bird of Auschwitz, about what had happened to her. In the last few months of the War, following the Warsaw Uprising, in which her father fought, she and her mother and sister were among the thousands of non-Jewish Poles deported to Auschwitz. Her experiences there, which she hardly ever spoke of, cast a shadow over her entire life.
Then, in her nineties, after being diagnosed with dementia, Alina began, with the help of her son, Jaques Peretti, to recall her experiences, which included forced medical experiments and being put in front of a firing squad. She remembered everything perfectly and said that there had never been a day when she hadn’t thought about them.
This connection gives a deeper significance to the painting, for David’s ancestors were Polish Jews.
An interesting feature of all the notes you’ll read about Spanish pottery is that there’s no mention of tin glaze. That’s because virtually all pottery made in Spain is tin glazed, and drawing attention to the fact is like drawing attention to the fact that it’s made of clay. So take it as read that all the pots and tiles shown here are tin glazed.
Above is a large 19th century basin, about 60cm in diameter, from Seville. It’s typical of the basins (lebrillos) made in Triana at that time, the district in Seville where the potters have worked for centuries, vigorously painted on tin glaze in blue, green, yellow and black with a characteristic border and a motif in the centre, either a bird, an animal a portrait or an abstract pattern. They’re made from a pale buff clay, of which there were abundant deposits in Seville and which was the foundation of its ceramic industry.
This dish is from the collection of Laura Salcines, whose excellent shop, Populart, at 4 Passaje de Vila, near the cathedral in Seville, I visited when I was in the city. As Mrs Salcines doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, I couldn’t be sure exactly what this superb piece of pottery was used for, but I gathered it had something to do with pork.
There’s a review of ceramics, the Collecion Carranza, in the Alcazar Real, covering the 15th to 19th centuries, with examples of Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo pottery and the azulejos made in Triana, including some fine religious tile paintings. The notes to the exhibition, in English as well as Spanish, are good. The Carranza collection call the age of Baroque tiles the Golden Age, which is moot because a common view outside Spain among artist potters is that the Hispano Moresque period from the 12th to the 15th centuries is the Golden Age and that there was a decline thereafter. Curators and historians, however, for example, Alice Wilson Frothingham, tend to take a broader view, but potters are interested in vessels and Spain has lavished much of its ceramic effort on tiles.
The motivation for the tile makers was often religious and artistic considerations were secondary, so the quality of the drawing is sometimes poor, but but the limitations of the medium – a few colours and the difficulty of correcting what’s been painted on the glaze – result in simplicity and directness. That, and the fact that the colours don’t fade or darken like paint, means that Spain has a wealth of street art, some of it outside churches and some in mundane places, on buildings now used as flats or corner shops.
The Collecion Carranza say –
“During the Baroque period, streets and squares were invaded by numerous examples of religious imagery. In Seville, the tiles reproducing images for devotion became a type of holy painting for exteriors with evident advantages for their preservation. The facades of churches, convents, houses and hospitals, in addition to the religious murals located at many different points throughout the city, fulfilled the task of extending religion to exterior spaces and served as a backdrop for rituals encouraged by the Catholic Church.”
They have documented hundreds of azulejos, mainly religious, in Spain’s churches and other public places, covering a period of over 500 years. They record an essentially conservative art, almost a folk art, except that the painters are specialists in tile painting.
In the Alcazar Real is chapel whose walls are covered in tiles painted with flowers, arabesques and grotesque figures. These paintings, from about 1600, are different from Hispano Moresque painting but they’re just as good in their own way. The colours are rich, dominated here by Naples yellow, and the drawing is fluent. Below are a few panels of fantastic, quasi-human figures.
Our Lady of Hope, the lachryomose Nuestra Señorade la Esperanza, is revered in Seville and is local to Triana, where she’s a constant in the bars alongside the pictures of footballers and bullfighters, all of whom appear to be venerated equally. Tile images of Mary are common, and this one (below), The Virgin of the People, who used to be in the Convento del Popolo and is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, dates from about 1670 and is a very good example of what can be done with a few pigments – in this case, only three – cobalt blue, antimony yellow and manganese purple.
Other saints can be found in very ordinary places, like this St Augustine tucked between the blaconies on the first floor of a house. There’s a larger image of him below.
There are still tile companies around Seville making religious images, like this realistic 1982 Christ (below) outside the Church of SS Francisco and Eulogio in Córdoba, by J. Soriano. Modern work has the advantage of a wider range of colours and is highly finished but it lacks the simple vigour of the older tiles.
On Facebook, Rabbi Jeremy Gordon drew my attention to this beautiful Hispano-Moresque dish now in the Israel Museum. It’s very large, 57 cm across, decorated in superb detail in gold lustre and blue and with a central inscription in Hebrew which makes it plain that it was designed for a Jewish client to be used in the Passover Seder meal. A timely post, as Passover begins today. It’s an important piece of Judaica because it’s the oldest surviving Seder plate and a record of Jewish life in Spain before the expulsion of 1492.
But the extraordinary thing about this ceramic tour de force is that the inscription is illiterate. It’s supposed to say Pesach Matzah Maror Seder, referring to elements of the ritual meal, but everything is mis-spelled. This is difficult to understand. Spain was a centre of high Jewish culture, with great philosophers like Maimonides and poets like Ibn Gabirol, and it’s hard to credit the rich client who commissioned this item with such illiteracy, for illiteracy is the only credible explanation.
The lustre technique was brought to Moorish Spain from the Middle East and North Africa and it was common for Muslim potters to make ceremonial items for Christians and, as this plate shows, for Jews as well. Asked to decorate a Seder plate, the potters could be expected to be given the wording for the Hebrew inscription. Is it possible that the potters made this item on spec to advertise their skills and had only rough idea of what to write on it? Given the size and complexity of the piece, that seems unlikely. Was the inscription mis-copied? That’s possible too but also unlikely, because the letters are correctly formed, and the potters wouldn’t have known how to write them without a guide. So it remains a mystery, an extraordinary achievement of the potter’s art, with well-formed Hebrew lettering but the product of ignorance.