Friday, 14 December 2018

#PaintingOfTheWeekNo8


 Plum Tree in Blossom by Camille Pissarro, 1894
This week’s painting is a gorgeous work by the French impressionist Camille Pissarro.  I’m not entirely sure why he gets less attention than many of the other impressionists like Manet and Degas – neither of whom really liked the term or felt it applied to them.  Yet if anyone deserves to be called the ‘father of impressionism’ it is Pissarro: only he showed in all eight impressionist shows.  It was he that Cézanne claimed taught them everything.  

This particular painting is at the Ordrupgaard museum near Copenhagen. Indeed Pissarro was part-Danish (having been born in the Danish Antilles to Portuguese and French parents).  Ordrupgaard is one of the thousands of wonderful galleries throughout the world that sometimes get overshadowed by the mega-museums but really should always be on any traveller’s itinerary if one is in the area.

Pissarro came to France as a foreigner and maybe always saw the landscape through the eyes of a detached but somewhat awestruck outsider and observer.  In Paris he studied the works of great painters like Millet and Corot – and landscapes were always to be his metier.  Unlike Monet who was forever travelling in search of new landscapes and cityscapes, Pissarro was comfortable to capture the location around him; the life around his own house and family.   It should be said, mind you, that money – or lack of – played a part in his decision.  I recently read Pissarro’s book ‘Letters to his son Lucien’ and one of the common themes in the near-destitution he lived in.  Once again, it is our friend Paul Durand-Ruel who pops up to offer an economic crutch to lean on.  In 1884 Pissarro and his family moved to Éragny, north-west of Paris. This painting is from the garden of his new house.  The garden is wonderfully bathed in a glittering spring light.  Pissarro is clearly entranced by the light as it skips across the flowering fruit trees.  Everything is both still and active at the same time.  Of a moment and yet timeless.

A final word about the gallery the painting now resides in.  ''I might just as well confess now rather than later that I have been rash and made substantial purchases,'' Wilhelm Hansen (1868-1936) wrote to his wife, Henny, in 1916. ''I know, though, that I will be forgiven when you see what I have bought; it is all first class.''  Hansen, a wealthy Danish insurance tycoon, had just bought two landscapes by Sisley, a Monet cathedral and a portrait by Renoir and a Pissarro.  His interest may have been triggered by a 1914 show of 19th-century painting in Copenhagen that was stranded there by the outbreak of the First World War. Prices for art then dropped during the war, when Americans were absent from the European market, and Hansen made his first purchases thus in 1916. These paintings were to become part of the most important collection of 19th-century French paintings in northern Europe.  We have just finished a film entitled DEGAS – PASSION FOR PERFECTION and Hansen’s collection and Degas intertwined.  Hansen and his associates made many purchases after 1916 but one important one was to acquire the collection of a Parisian dentist, George Viau, which included more than 200 paintings notably part of (the deceased) Degas's collection and studio. They also secured three Degas works from Ambroise Vollard, among them the late pastel ''Three Dancers'' (c. 1898). Thus it is that paintings end up all around the world. Hansen’s fine collection, along with a fine group of paintings by Danish artists of Hansen's day and earlier, was given a fine home at Hansen’s large country home in the town of Ordrupgaard outside Copenhagen. After his wife's death in 1951, the house and the paintings became the state-owned Ordrupgaard Museum. 

Monday, 3 December 2018

What's coming next? Find out here!


Sunday morning and catching up.  I’m too busy to even go for a run today but with Christmas around the corner there’s a lot to get done.  Last Friday we finished YOUNG PICASSO which I think is one of the best films we’ve done.  I think we had the idea almost four years ago so it has been a long time in the making.  

I personally have learnt a huge amount about this titan of art history.   I know plenty of people actually know relatively little about Picasso’s origins – and the importance certain cities played in his development.  Too often films just list achievements without explanation: I like to know why a small child from Málaga rises to become arguably the greatest artist of the 20th century.  The 26-year-old that paints Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: where does he come from, who does he learn from, was he just plain lucky? And so on.  I hadn’t realised what a full and fascinating youth Picasso had has – and I was extremely fortunate to be able to work with the experts of the (wonderful) Picasso museums in Spain and France. 

Once again, I urge you to luxuriate in the artwork on the big screen.  My word, he is quite extraordinary from such a young age.  The film is out in February: don’t miss it.  The blue period paintings in ultra HD on the big screen are worth the price of admission alone.   Meanwhile, our film DEGAS: PASSION FOR PERFECTION is doing OK on its release.  I admit I wish we were getting the kind of numbers that theatre and opera get in the cinema but we’ll just keep plodding away. Certainly we get a lot of great reaction to the films themselves so that’s very motivating.  I don’t think Degas was very well known by even those who declare themselves lovers of the impressionist period (which frankly should be all of us!).  We’ve just had some great reviews out of France echoing that: see the Degas film in your local cinema and (re)-discover an artist you probably didn’t really know or appreciate.   France is such a tough market – cinephiles for sure but awash with films and with a preference for French-speaking (and why not?) or Hollywood.  Again, we’ll carve out our niche and keep beavering away.  

My colleague David is currently editing VAN GOGH & JAPAN and that’s going to be a cracker too.  This is a fascinating time in the world of cinema as so many are built in new territories: I was recently invited to speak at a cinema conference in Dubai and I have to say I was staggered by the money being spent on absolutely high-end cinemas (albeit often in shopping malls) across the middle east and United Arab Emirates. Billions of dollars.  It’s true that it’s Hollywood and Bollywood that are what most screens will show but I think with determination I can pop our films on the odd screen now and again!  And we have to believe art has the power to influence and change….   Enjoy your day; why not walk down to your local gallery and pop in and say hi.  Talk to us on our facebook and Instagram sites – let us know which galleries and which painters you love. 

Thursday, 22 November 2018

#PaintingOfTheWeekNo7

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci
This week I am going to quote from the book 'Great Artists' that I wrote with Tim Marlow and Philip Rance a few years ago and is now available on kindle and audible.

In spite of the ghostly appearance of the work, itself a monument to Leonardo’s desire to experiment and achieve a lasting technical perfection in fresco painting, The Last Supper still has an extraordinary presence.  It is so precisely composed and painted that it resembles a latter-day hologram flickering in and out of vision. Even today it looks as if Leonardo has managed to create another room beyond the refectory in which the work is sited. This is enhanced by the semicircular lunettes painted about The Last Supper which originally contained the Sforza coat of arms to remind all who saw it who had commissioned the work and had ruled absolutely.  

The painted vision is an elevated one: the viewer looks up in awe at a scene which, if rendered strictly according to the laws of nature, would be almost invisible since the most anyone would see would be the underside of the table. Leonardo subtly tilts it forward to reveal the drama unfolding in a deep illusionistic space. The scene centres on Christ in every way possible. Each of the disciples either has his eyes or hands pointing forwards towards their Lord and Master who has just revealed that one of them will betray him. Christ is framed by three windows behind him and seems to illuminate the table, its contents and the surrounding figures himself. The twelve figures are broken up into four groups of three, order imposed by Leonardo on an image of unprecedented expressiveness. Each figure is emotionally connected to the others in his group (with the exception of Judas who is slightly pushed forward and thereby isolated by Peter who whispers manically in the ear of John, to the immediate left of Christ as we look at it) but is, at the same time, depicted as feeling something entirely personal. It is almost as if Leonardo is producing a case study in human response to tragedy. 

In turn, the work can also be read as a diagram by the artist-scientist who was analysing the workings of sound waves and their impact. ‘Those who are nearer understand better’ scrawled Leonardo in his notes to The Last Supper and ‘those farther away hear poorly’.  The work was immediately hailed as ‘miraculous’ and ‘divine’ though it quickly began to deteriorate. But copies were made and artists as significant as Rubens and Rembrandt in the north and Caravaggio in the south, and even, much later, Andy Warhol out west, drew inspiration from the work. It remains Leonardo’s most monumental and significant artistic achievement, even as it continues to fade away.

I have been to see it in Milan – and it continues to pack a powerful punch in its original location.  But an alternative for those in or visiting London is a superb replica at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

#PaintingOfTheWeekNo6

DANSEUSE CAMBODGIENNE Auguste Rodin (1840 -1917)

I wanted this week to talk about a painting that I see at least once a day – as I have a copy in my bathroom at home.  It’s a surprising painting as normally we associate the artist Auguste Rodin with one media only – sculpture.

Born in 1840 in a poor part of Paris – the son of a clerk and his wife.  By his teens, Rodin had decided to become an artist and studied at a design school but he was hampered by his shortsightedness and was refused entry aged 17 to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts; But he persisted and started to specialize in sculpture. It took time but by his mid-40s he had established himself as one of the preeminent sculptors in the country.  His works were to include The Age of Bronze, The Kiss, The Thinker, and The Burghers of Calais.  If you don’t know his work I thoroughly recommend visiting his museums in Paris or Philadelphia – both of which are wonderful – or simply see The Burgers of Calais at the Met in New York.  (Alternatively, have a look at our Tim Marlow meets Tony Bennett – where it is one of Tony’s choices to talk about).


But a painter?  No-one thinks of Rodin as a painter.  His own art collection had 6,000 works including paintings by Van Gogh, Monet and Renoir.   He loved paintings and loved to paint.  

In July 1906, Rodin, 66, went to see the Pré-Catelan in Paris, the show given by the troupe of Cambodian dancers, who came to accompany king Sisowath of Cambodia, during his official trip to France.  Rodin was bewitched by the beauty of the dancers and even followed them to Marseilles to be able to draw them again and again until they sailed away.

A few days later his comments were reported in the newspaper The Figaro: 
"These monotonous and slow dances, which follow the rhythm of a hectic music, have an extraordinary beauty, a perfect beauty ... [They] taught me movements that I had not met anywhere yet ..."

This particular painting I find absolutely gorgeous.   A gouache of ochre for the arms and head as well as a deep blue for the dress.  There is an absence of detail but that is not missed. The curve of the wrist, the slight tilt of the neck, even the rise of the knees carry with them a grace and control that is bewitching.  The energy and control are captured by a master artist.  This is what one sees time and time again with good and great artists – the ability to say so much with so little. It’s true of film-making too: often the skill is knowing what to leave out, knowing how to summarise in a few words or images what may be a complex tale.  To entertain, inform and move.  Rodin, painter as well as sculptor, was a master.



Monday, 1 October 2018

Test before you invest... The inconsistency of printing photos!


I am an old-fashioned chap at heart – I like my photos in albums.  I have yet to really enjoy the family huddled around a lap top looking at images of my kids growing up in quite the same way as we do when it’s albums we are gazing at. Maybe it’s just how I was brought up. The downside is that it’s a huge task and, despite my best and continuing efforts, I am currently 7 years behind.  It takes ages to ingest and log photos on all the many devices we as a family have – never mind going back through more than 20,000 photos we have on-line to make sure they too are properly labelled. Then one has to choose from the thousands that accumulate in any one year and make a representative selection. I recently did just that for 2012 and totalled up more than 200 that I needed printing. 
The big question then is ‘where’? I have tried on-line, department stores, supermarkets, chemists and photography shops and only their inconsistency is consistent!  The colour black can be anywhere from light grey to coal black. Colours are all over the place and white can be, well, anything. So I decided to do a test. I chose five locations in my hometown of Brighton and sent each the same five images to print. These were the photography chain Jessops, Boots, and photography shops Zoingimage, Colourstream and ClockTowerImages. The results were frankly pretty shocking.  It may be unfair to rank them but I will tell you the best one – and it rather surprised me:  Jessops.  I went in there to ask about their gear and they said they use a dry-printing method and that helps them keep standards high and regular.  I did ask their PR department for more information on exactly what equipment they use but no response has as yet been forthcoming.  
But the conclusion is: do a test in your local area and make sure you find out who prints best before cramming your photo albums with below-par reproductions of your fine photography skills!

Thursday, 27 September 2018

#PaintingOfTheWeekNo5

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs

This is one of those paintings that, on its own, is worth the visit to the National Gallery.  Its size, its ambition, its audacity all embrace you. In my career as a film-maker I have often had reason to include images of kings & emperors on their trusted steeds.  Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Alexander, Ulysses S.Grant, Zhukov (on his white steed in Red Square), and plenty more.  But it’s rare that the horse itself is the subject. No bridle in sight, no stirrups, no whip. This is a horse bursting with life and freedom. There is no background but you can add that in yourself. For me, it is the gorgeous Sussex countryside where I live that fills in the blanks but it could be anywhere. Some have argued that Stubbs was supposed to have filled in both background and rider but I simply don’t believe it.  I am sure the painting is just as he wanted it. 

18th century Britain was passionate about horses – and horse-racing – and this was a race-winning horse (notably the 2000 guineas at York in 1759) that didn’t need a monarch on its back to tell a great story.  We know that Whistlejacket – strange name, possibly to do with the colour of the coat matching a drink of that colour made of brandy – was foaled in 1749 and was owned by the Marquess of Rockingham, who was twice Prime Minister.  The horse had been retired by the time Stubbs was commissioned to paint him in 1762 but he must have been still much loved and admired. And why not – he is magnificent, flaring, all-powerful.  

Stubbs was a master of painting horses – and he certainly sought and caught the individuality of this stallion. It is no accident that he so wonderfully captures the tension and strain in the musculature – Stubbs had gone so far as to dissect horses to gain greater insight into their inner workings.  Stubbs was in his late 30s when he painted this. Born in Liverpool, son of a leather worker, largely self-taught as an artist, he ultimately specialized in anatomical paintings especially of the horse.  No doubt the bones and skins from his father’s tannery were some kind of inspiration but he went much further than that. He studied anatomy to such a degree that he lectured medical students on it and even apparently, in 1756, rented a barn near Hull and, with a female assistant, Mary Spencer (his unofficial companion for 50 years), spent 18 months dissecting horses. They were delivered to him live, and he undertook the messy work of slaughtering, with the objective of learning equine anatomy through detailed personal investigation.

Stubbs published a book with drawings called ‘The Anatomy of the Horse’ in 1756 and soon thereafter he received his first London commission from the artist Joshua Reynolds.  One group of potential buyers who were immediately taken with Stubbs's ‘Anatomy of the Horse’ drawings and enticed by the idea of a portrait or two of their own much-prized horses were wealthy young aristocrats with country estates.  And within another few years, as mentioned, the twice-Prime Minister himself commissioned Stubbs for Whistlejacket.   It is a striking picture, well worth a few minutes of your time when you are next passing the National Gallery.  And, as an afterthought, if you live in or are visiting Ireland, I’d also recommend Stubbs’ painting Hambletonian which hangs in the National Trust property of Mount Stewart in County Down. We filmed it when we made our film Tim Marlow on Stubbs and the Horse in 2005 and it is another gorgeous work.

Monday, 17 September 2018

#PaintingOfTheWeekNo4

L’Absinthe, Edgar Degas,

We all need people that influence us as children and I was fortunate that my sister was (and is) a wonderful English teacher and literature enthusiast. I don’t think many 11-year-olds in my day read Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad but I remember doing that one long summer. Even more to my liking was the author Emile Zola who my sister introduced me too. The first (gripping) book of his I read was Germinal but that was soon followed by L’Assommoir.

Now, I am sure many of you know (especially if you saw our recent film on Cézanne) that Zola plays a role in late 19th century art history but what struck me about L’Assommoir was the cover. Yes, you guessed it: L’Absinthe by Edgar Degas. It was – and is – so striking. The work was painted by Degas in 1875/6 and first exhibited in the Second Impressionist exhibition held in art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery in rue le Peletier. The ‘easier’ artists had front rooms and the ‘harder’ artists (including Degas) were sent to the back. Degas had over 20 works on display (including The Cotton Office which is magnificent and can be seen in our forthcoming Edgar Degas film). Among them was one called In the Café.

According to Sue Roe in her excellent book The Private Lives of the Impressionists the Irish art critic and writer George Moore was there and his views were strident:

"Heavens! What a slut. A life of idleness and low vice is upon her face, we read there her whole life. The tale is not a pleasant one, but it is a lesson." 

 Each to their own, I suppose. That is not what I see.

I see exhaustion and sadness at the impossibility of escaping from the drudgery of working class life in Paris. Actually the female model – an actress Ellen Andreé – was rather hurt by how she was portrayed by Degas. Some even assumed she herself must be an alcoholic and this upset her even more. The male model, by the way, is Marcellin Desboutin, another artist. Certainly it depicts isolation, an inability to communicate, even hunger. Look beyond the narrative too: the skill of Degas the painter is wonderful to behold. The marble tables, the metallic walls, the collapsed shoulders, the scruffy clothes and even the absinthe drink itself. Moreover there is an amusing connection to the city in which I live – Brighton in the UK.

One of the first art dealers in the UK was a Captain Henry Hill. He bought In the Café and showed it in September 1876 in the Third Annual Winter Exhibition of Modern Pictures – literally minutes from where I am writing this now, 142 years later. He exhibited it as A Sketch at a French Café. It is, of course, far more than that – it is a masterpiece. It is believed that when it was shown in London in 1893 the name was changed to L’Absinthe. And Zola? Well, it is likely that he saw the 1876 exhibition and it is probably no coincidence that L’Assommoir (which recounts the ravages of alcoholism in Paris’s poor) was released the following year.