Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Pastures Green and Dark Satanic Mills
The British Passion for Landscape at the UMFA
Constable is known for depicting the British sky more accurately than his rival Turner: He painted it gray.
It is true that there is a great deal of ‘grey’ in British painting . . . some even downbeat,” writes Salt Lake City artist and gallery owner Karen Horne in an e-mail exchange. “Not quite the aesthetic of French painting. My husband Michael [Rowley, who grew up in London] and I were agreeing this morning how the Camden Town artists were a bit like the Ashcan school in New York City.”
You, too, will be having similar conversations over your Cheerios (or gluten-free granola) after seeing the blockbuster touring exhibition at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, The British Passion for Landscape: Masterpieces from National Museum Wales. It’s a not-to-be-missed experience that readily lends itself to “Do you remember seeing this?” and “Did you notice that?” – a show that will stick in your memory for a long time to come.
Curated by Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, and Oliver Fairclough, then Keeper of Art at Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales, the more than 60 works date from the 1660s to 1999. It was several years in being realized and a year in its installation in the main gallery by UMFA antiquities curator Luke Kelly via computer images, models, and razor-sharp planning. Because of its value and the age of most of the works, the show travels to only four venues: the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Fla.; the Frick in Pittsburgh; the UMFA and Princeton University.
UMFA Executive Director Gretchen Dietrich met Barringer when he was on campus in 2011 to deliver the Gordon B. Hinckley Lecture for the College of Humanities. During a visit to the John and Marcia Price Building, he told her that Yale was collaborating on the landscape exhibition with the National Museum Wales and the rest is, well, yours for the enjoying through Dec. 13. Plan to take time exploring it – there’s much to take in, both old art and new. Dietrich says there is “something for everyone.”
Several of the Camden Town artists are included, and Horne’s observation is a valuable one. That group of Post-Impressionists held just three exhibitions in London in 1911-12 and included among its members Walter Sickert, Robert Bevan and founding member Harold Gilman. A major retrospective at the Tate in 2008 did not include work by some of the group, but you can see two of the important artists excluded there at the UMFA: Augustus John and James Dickson Innes.
Pastures Green and Dark Satanic Mills, title of the catalog and also of its essay by Barringer (taken from 19th-century artist and poet William Blake) aptly describes this exhibition, centered around the Industrial Revolution, “from its 17th-century beginnings to the 20th-century postmodern era,” says Kelly, a time when important changes occurred in the art scene: air clogged with smoke from trains and factories (not to mention London’s famous “pea soupers”) meant artists ultimately couldn’t really see to paint a landscape. But they could, for the first time, buy paint in tubes (or in pig bladders!), which freed them from having assistants round up pigments. On a recent media walk-through, just before the show opened to the public, Kelly explained that in the 1700s, the Welsh painter Richard Wilson (who inspired Constable), when told there was a new artificial pigment being invented, said that ‘there was too many colors already.’”
And by the 1800s, photography was coming in. Kelly stood before the work of Roger Fenton, first a painter, then an archaeological photographer and later a war photographer who, the curator said, “became a lawyer because he thought photography was becoming too commercial.” (It was a fascinating walk-through. Wish you’d been there.)
A dramatic entrance leads to the dimly lit gallery that houses the exhibit – you will immediately notice that the light is quite low in order to preserve the oils, watercolors, photographs, and works on paper divided into six thematic sections.
The exhibition includes four watercolors (from the 1790s up to 1835) and two oils by Turner and an oil painting by Constable, the first time the pastoral works of either have been shown in Utah, Dietrich believes. They are, of course, central figures in the landscape genre. A watercolor hanging nearby is the work of Thomas Girtin, who died in 1802 at the age of 27. According to Kelly, Turner once said, “If Tom had lived, I would have starved.”
Thomas Gainsborough is another big name in the show. His wooded scene is a classic example of the 18th-century landscape.
And then there’s Claude Monet. What’s a French painter doing in a show of British landscapes, you may ask? Well, that painter was in London twice: once as a refugee fleeing the Franco-Prussian War when he painted shipping along the Thames (“The Pool of London,” 1871) and then back as an artist in 1899 when he started “Charing Cross Bridge,” 1902, a stellar work depicting the Houses of Parliament in the fog, later finished from memory at his house in Giverny.
Oskar Kokoschka, the Austrian expressionist, also makes an appearance here with his image of Waterloo Bridge.
There are engaging paintings by women, too. Evelyn Dunbar’s wartime painting “Baling Hay” (1940) shows women at work in a countryside devoid of men. Laura Knight’s “The Cornish Coast” (ca. 1917) shows two “modern” women on a rocky shore gazing out to sea, a shaggy black dog asleep nearby. The catalog (for sale in the Museum gift shop) tells us the artist may have been influenced by the small landscapes and figure studies of Augustus John, who worked in Cornwall in 1913.
The show also features land art, a la Robert Smithson, from the 1960s, by his contemporaries in Wales and England.
One thing that spoiled the exhibition a bit for this writer was that the informative and well-thought-out addition to the show on “Constructing the Utah Landscape” (which includes an interactive video) did not feature any living Utah artist, of whom there are many excellent ones, who might have offered talks and demonstrations for visitors: Earl Jones, Mark Knudsen, Tom Howard, Randall Lake, Denis Phillips, Leslie Thomas are some in Salt Lake City who come immediately to mind. A few, surely, have work in the UMFA collection; others could lend a landscape for the show. We were delighted to see a painting by Anton “Tony” Rasmussen, whom we lost in February, and it was essential to include V. Douglas Snow. But there are two works by Maynard Dixon, for example – surely one could have been replaced with a landscape by someone who could TALK about the process for visitors. Or they could simply have added a couple more paintings.
There is a show-stopper, of course: Lionel Walden’s “Steelworks, Cardiff, at Night,” 1895-97 – a massive industrial scene of rail tracks, huge glowing steel furnaces and an approaching train with a steam engine. The “dark Satanic mill” of the catalog’s title, it has a wall to itself and dominates the room. There’s even a Where’s Waldo? for the kids. Can they spot the lone, almost invisible figure holding a lantern? For that matter, can you? Did you notice that?
Exhibition Review: Provo
What's in a Name
Six centuries of British art at the BYU Museum of Art
Let's be honest, Utah lacks a world-class art collection (whether that be due to historical circumstances or financial means is a subject for another time); which means that for the non jet-setting citizens of the state it is to traveling exhibitions that one must turn to experience works by the big names of Art History (the ones thousands of college students across the state are encountering this month in their introductory humanities classes). In this regard Treasures of British Art, 1400-2000: The Berger Collection, up at BYU through the end of the year, does not disappoint: Gainsborough, van Dyck, Whistler, Holbein, Singer Sargent . . . they are all here, along with lesser-known, though not always less interesting, talents.
But, caveat emptor, while the big names are here, their big works are not: Whistler's work is tiny, almost negligible, and van Dyck's portrait of an English noblewoman in mourning isn't particularly inspiring. The Sargent, on the other hand, while not one of his famous society portraits, bears a sustained glance. In fact, it seems important precisely because it doesn't announce itself with the bravura brushstrokes of his society work: the portrait of Rosina Ferrara, a young girl Sargent met in Capri when in his early 20s, and who was a frequent model during his stay on the island, is an understated piece, careful brushwork bringing out the subtle charms of her face in profile.
As private collections like this tend to be, the Berger Collection is idiosyncratic, featuring lesser works by greater names, and greater works by lesser ones, but it does provide an intriguing if brief survey of five centuries of British art. The exhibit has been organized chronologically, the earliest work a 14th-century crucifixion panel which, with its cartoon-like figures, brings a touch of the Middle Ages in a room dedicated to Renaissance portraiture. Among these latter there is a portrait of Henry VIII, shown as a young man looking nothing like the Holbein portrait we have come to associate him with, as well as portraits of two of his children: Edward, as a baby, painted by Holbein and looking very much like an infant version of the portrait we know well; and a sour-faced Elizabeth painted 12 years into her reign, recently excommunicated by the Pope and facing enemies from within and from without.
In the room dedicated to the 17th century, formal portraiture is joined by history painting. General George Monck, an important figure during the English Civil War, is shown in gleaming armor, a barely visible formation of soldiers in the distance. Monck was a Royalist who while imprisoned turned to the Parliamentarian side, becoming an admiral in the navy and governor of Scotland; but after the death of Cromwell, he helped to depose the son, Richard Cromwell, and was largely responsible for restoring Charles II to the throne (which explains all the pomp and finery that surrounds Monck in this portrait). The portrait hangs next to a battle scene by Adriaen van Diest (that's right, British art here does not necessarily mean art by Brits), showing a battle during the Second Dutch War in 1665 (the 17th century was not a peaceful one for the British).
In the 18th century, portraiture was still very much in vogue, and its range became broader and more intriguing: among high society it became all the rage to have oneself painted in a classical or biblical pose. Anne Gardiner got two for the price of one when she posed with her son Kirkham — the painting brings to mind both the Madonna and child, and Venus and Cupid. Susan Rushbrooke wanted her portrait done in profile, to resemble Roman coins — a fancy that artist John Downman was willing to indulge, but he insisted his sitters be shown in contemporary clothes, and the gossamer-thin shawl she wears in this miniature is executed with consummate skill. For another virtuoso touch, look for the portrait of Queen Charlotte by Benjamin West: from the right angle(s), the glass face of her wrist band looks three-dimensional.
One of the most famous portraitists of that century was Thomas Gainsborough, but he is represented here by a different forte—and his personal passion—landscape. As the exhibition tombstone indicates, Gainsborough liked to work from his imagination rather than real life and it shows in this painting. "Coastal Landscape" is an unnaturally crowded scene, packed with a dozen peasants, half a dozen cattle and four boats. It is a daydream of the rural childhood Gainsborough remembered rather than a scrupulously rendered piece of reportage. In color and tone it is much closer to the artists that would follow him, like Constable (who also appears here), than it is to his own, much darker work on exhibit at the UMFA right now (see left column).
The Brits are well-known for their equestrian art, a genre well-represented in the Berger Collection. The most famous of equestrian artists was George Stubbs, who was known as "the horse painter" and produced a textbook on the anatomy of horses that aided generations of painters. His 1786 painting of a saddled bay hunter is as refined and classical as any portrait of the period. Compare it with James Ward's "A Cossack Horse in a Landscape" and the shift from the Neo-Classic to the Romantic is evident. Stylistic evolution in equestrian art extends into the 20th century with the works of Sir Alfred J. Munnings. The mundane setting of his portrait of the famous racehorse Tiberius is in marked contrast to the fame of the subject, and he manages to capture the strength and poise of the prize-winning horse with just a few gleaming brushstrokes. And in "The Start of a Horse Race," which has touches of both Degas and Delacroix, Munnings' stormy brushwork and off-balance composition manages to capture the excitement of a mad dash of beast and man about to begin.
As loose and expressionistic as Munnings strokes are in this 1952 painting, they were still outdated compared to the then-dominant abstract expressionism. But this was a style that never really caught on in Britain, where leading avant-garde artists like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud remained wedded to the figure. One of the few artists that we do associate with abstraction in the British post-war period is Howard Hodgkin, whose late work, "Storm," is full of bright color and luscious brushstrokes, and closes out this survey of British art.
Like brands, names can obscure as much as they can entice. In Utah, a chance to see a van Dyck or a Constable, major or minor, is reason enough to visit Treasures of British Art,1400-2000: The Berger Collection, where the cost of the gas it takes to get you to Provo is the price of admission. But the exhibit’s success is much more than a list of names: the most interesting portrait of the entire show—of a mother and her two sons in the 16th century—is attributed simply to "English School;" and while the fact that David Hockney's name appears here as subject rather than artist will disappoint many, Adam Birtwistle's portrait of his colleague as a strong yet enigmatic, working-class hero is the type of painting that will stay with you long after you've left the building.