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June 20, 2007

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

I hadn’t realised the scale of Van Gogh’s work until I visited this museum. In just ten years (1880-1890) he produced over 900 paintings, many of which were on display. Hung alongside paintings by his contemporaries such as Gauguin, Monet, Manet, Alma-Tadema and Courbet, his work illustrates the developing styles and techniques that were popular in Holland and France in the late nineteenth century.

The Courtesan, 1887

I was particularly interested in learning about the Japanese influence. In a letter to Theo, Van Gogh wrote that all impressionists share a love of Japanese painting. Certainly, throughout the galleries, the proliferation of bright colours, wide brush strokes, blossom trees, and wide decorative frames evidenced this. After watching the Van Gogh episode of Simon Schama’s The Power of Art was touched by the story of Van Gogh’s struggles and ultimate failure to achieve his vision of setting up a house where artists could work together in harmony. I hadn’t previously realised that the artistic communities he envisioned were based on Japanese models. It made me wonder whether groups in England such as the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood also based their ideas of existing together in an artistic circle on the Japanese. It’s something I’ll have to look into.

Pieta (after Delacroix), 1889

Van Gogh painted Pieta in 1889, during his confinement at the hospital in Saint-Rémy. It is a variation of Delacroix’s painting of the same subject rather than an original composition. What stood out for me though, especially after seeing all the self-portraits Van Gogh had done of himself, was the similarity between Christ’s features and his own. Jesus is even given reddish hair in the painting. Is this because Van Gogh identified with the suffering of Christ, because he saw himself as a redeeming figure in the art world, or because he wanted to imitate Christ?

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890

Alongside The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows was the painting that I was most interested to see in the museum. For such a small painting, the density of its brush strokes and the bright yet ominous combination of colours were the first things that struck me. It is as difficult viewing the painting in reality to tell whether the crows are coming or going or whether the path is leading us, with the artist, away or towards the thunderous looking sky.

NB- Just click on the paintings to go to the museum’s website where they are given short explainations.

June 18, 2007

Hidden Burne–Jones


The Hidden Burne-Jones exhibition, on at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until July 1st, is definitely worth visiting. I’ve always admired Burne Jones and to see his finished paintings alongside his preliminary sketches heightened my interest in his work. I was especially interesting to see his designs for stained glass windows and tapestries. The size these images in which numerous symbolic meanings could be identified were fascinating.

Nonetheless, I found the most remarkable aspect of Burne-Jones’ work, as displayed in this exhibition, in his depictions of garments. Revealing as well as concealing features of the body, his numerous studies of various forms of drapery highlight the ways in which the garments which appear in his final masterpieces were carefully thought out.

Since I have recently been writing about Christina Rossetti’s 1858 poem entitled, ‘“Rivals”: A Shadow of Dorothea,’ it was interesting to see Burne-Jones’ depictions of the legend which relates how St Dorothea, in AD 303, was mocked on the way to her execution by a young man, Theophilus who had heard her say she would soon be in a garden. He asked her to send him fruits from her ‘garden.’ When Dorothea subsequently knelt to pray, a child-like angel came with a basket of roses and apples, which Dorothea asked to be sent to Theophilus. He was converted to Christianity and later became a Christian martyr (Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems [London: Penguin, 2001], 1139). In Burne-Jones’ sketches of the scene with the dead Dorothea wrapped in her shroud, Theophilus looking down upon the numerous mourners gathered beneath his house, and the child-like angel standing beside him, the focus on the folds of drapery is highly wrought.

Alongside many of the works on permanent display in the Museum, such as two of the four ‘Pygmalion and the Image’ paintings, Burne-Jones’ sketches were on display. Like those of the legend of St Dorothea these sketches help trace Burne-Jones’ composition processes and enable a deeper understanding of his final works.

Since visiting the exhibition last month, I’ve found the Burne-Jones resource site accompanies it a very useful resource.

April 09, 2007

Linda Ekstrom’s ‘Opera Apum’ (1996)


I was struck by this sculpture which is used as an illustration for the cover of Biblical Religion and the Novel 1700-2000 Mark Knight and Thomas Woodman (Ashgate Publishing, 2006). In the acknowledgements (ix) we are told that the Ekstrom created the image by placing a Bible inside a beehive and allowing the workings of the bees to adorn it with honeycomb and honey. Considering that the book as a whole highlights the multiplicity of hermeneutical approaches to the Bible in the novelistic genre, the symbolism of the cover is very much appropriate.

Ekstrom’s website features a range of other fascinating images which interrogate the links between art, religion and language. I was especially interested by her artistic altering of the text of St Teresa’s Interior Castle. Here, erasures and alterations highlight the materiality of language and interiority of the book itself.

April 01, 2007

Poetry in Stitches

The aim of this collaborative project between The National Needlework Archive and Poems in the Waiting Room to promote two important cultural media and present them in an exciting new way to allow a new perception of each in relation to the other. Thousands of people will have the chance to see this literary and visual fusion in places like hospitals, airports, stations, offices and government buildings over a period of six to twelve months.

At the ‘Sewing for Pleasure’ and ‘Hobbycrafts’ exhibition that I attended on Thursday in the Birmingham NEC, I came across a stand promoting this exciting community art project. After speaking to the co-ordinators, I was enthused to buy the book and have been poring over it since. Full of textile pieces (embroidered, quilted, printed and painted) inspired by a huge variety of poems by writers from Shakespeare and Milton to Wendy Cope and structured in four sections according to the essence of the season reflected by each piece, the book is well presented and hugely inspiring.

Due to the success of the project and the book, the authors are bringing out Poetry in Stitches 2 next year.

November 15, 2006

The Power of Art

Writing about web page

The power of the greatest art is the power to shake us into revelation and rip us from our default mode of seeing. After an encounter with that force, we don’t look at a face, a colour, a sky, a body, in quite the same way again. We get fitted with new sight: in-sight. Visions of beauty or a rush of intense pleasure are part of that process, but so too may be shock, pain, desire, pity, even revulsion. That kind of art seems to have rewired our senses. We apprehend the world differently. (

I have been watching Simon Schama’s new series ‘The Power of Art’ with interest. From Caravaggio’s and Rembrandt’s personal dilemma’s and their conflicts with political authorities to David’s participation in the government of the French Revolution, Schama focuses on the circumstances and events that led up to the production to some of the most renowned masterpieces.

In the light of my own research interests, I found the programme about Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini especially fascinating. In this, Schama claims that, in his statue, entitled The Ecstasy of St Theresa (1644-47) in order to make visible the tide of ardent feeling washing through her, Bernini turned Teresa’s body

inside-out so the habit- the protecting garment of her chastity, the symbol of her discipline- becomes a representation of what is taking place deep within her. It is, in fact, the climatic shudder itself, a storm surge of sensation cresting and falling as if the marble had been molten.

October 02, 2006

Richard Dadd Exhibition


The Richard Dadd exhibition, on at the art gallery in Leamington’s Royal Pump Rooms, is definitely worth a visit. Dadd (1817-1886) lived a very turbulent life- most of his paintings were completed whilst he was living in the criminal lunatic department of Bethlem hospital. He was committed to the hospital at the age of 27, after stabbing his father to death in the belief that he was killing the devil and remained institutionalised for the next 42 years. With titles such as Jealousy, Madness, Hated and Murder, many of the paintings on display draw attention to certain mental states. Other narrative paintings on display show children, fairies, and mythological figures.

August 24, 2006

Salvador Dali's melted clocks


Last week I visited the Dali Universe on London’s South Bank. I was keen to go and see Picasso’s works, but, once there I was drawn primarily to Dali’s surreal sculptures. I was especially fascinated by the repetition of the image of the melted clock and watch and have since been contemplating what it reveals about the nature of time. For me, the sculpture entitled Profile of Time (pictured above) suggests a perception of time that is fluid and malleable, and the position of the watch on the tree signifies time’s fragility and its dependence on the natural world. The caption that accompanies the sculpture states that as the watch melts over the tree, it transforms into a human profile, underlining the relationship between humans and time. This straightforward elucidation made me wonder how far, especially in exhibitions of surrealist art; explanations of artefacts actually limit rather than increase the interpretive possibilities of the viewer? In spite of my reservations about such clear–cut interpretations, I found most of the information the exhibition gives, which contextualises the paintings and sculptures, incredibly useful in coming to a deeper understanding of the work on display. It was especially helpful, for instance, to be prompted to consider Dali’s work in the context of early psychoanalysis and the emerging fields of psychology.

August 23, 2006

The Victorians and the Visual Imagination

4 out of 5 stars

1. The visible and the unseen; 2. 'The mote within the eye'; 3. Blindness and insight; 4. Lifting the veil; 5. Under the ice; 6. The buried city; 7. The role of the art critic; 8. Criticism, language and narrative; 9. Surface and depth; 10. Hallucination and vision; Conclusion: the Victorian horizon.

‘The slipperiness of the borderline between the visible and the invisible, and the questions which it throws up about subjectivity, perception and point of view, lie at the heart of this study.’ (p 2)

In Kate Flint’s own words, this book ‘is about eyes, and about sight.’ It is especially helpful in highlighting the distinction between our post–modern habits of visual interpretation and the Victorian act of gazing. The Victorians were fascinated with the act of seeing, with the problems associated with the reliability of human eyes, and with the problems of interpreting the visual. Throughout her study, Flint examines the ramifications of these problems for Victorian culture and discusses the extent to which they affected various aspects of life. She concentrates especially on the discussion of the visual in literature and repeatedly returns to the work of George Eliot, Henry James, Elizabeth Barrett–Browning, and John Ruskin to illustrate her discussions.
She also draws particular attention to the Pre– Raphaelites and their contemporaries.

In considering the various lenses through which art, people, and the environment were viewed by the Victorians, Flint does not shy away from grappling with some very mystifying but yet pertinent issues. For instance, she devotes an entire chapter to understanding the subtle differences between hallucinations and visions and explaining, in depth, how these differences have shifted over time.

My attention, however, was particularly drawn to chapter 9, which is entitled ‘Surface and Depth.’ In this chapter, Flint focuses primarily on Edward Burne–Jones’ 1877 painting, The Mirror of Venus, and encourages us to see its relation to a developing matrix of ideas about the connections between art and science. In it, a group of women gaze at the reflections of themselves in a stream. Among other things, Flint considers: the purpose of the standing woman, the significance of the forget–me–nots, the idea that the surface of the mirror (or in this case, the stream) serves as a barrier between a woman’s image and her interiority, the depiction of selfhood (when a woman looks in a mirror does she see an isolate selfhood or merely one member of a larger social category– ‘women’?), and the relevance of the post– Lacanian concept of the mirror as a metaphor for the act of self–fashioning.


July 28, 2006

Rebels and Martyrs. The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century

Yesterday I went to the National Gallery to see the exhibition: ‘Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century. The exhibition traces the development of the idea of the artist as an outsider. A ‘rebel’ battling against society and a ‘martyr’ willing to go to the utmost lengths to convey a vision which was at odds with popular taste.

The exhibition was divided, chronologically as well as thematically, into seven rooms. Moving from late eighteenth century depictions of the Romantic artist to early twentieth century tormented self–portraits, the increasing emphasis on the artist as a suffering and broken figure is made apparent. At the end of the short film which complements the exhibition, the presenter asks the question:

Do we celebrate such figures because we think they are actually what artists are like, or do we celebrate them because they are what we want them to be?

Although this exhibition celebrates the figure of the suffering artist, it also highlights the process whereby he/ she became entrenched in the public imagination as a rebel and martyr. Instead of challenging expectations, over time it seems that portraits of the tortured and tormented artistic genius actually fulfilled them and met a particular desire.

Room 1: Hero of the Establishment

This first room contains paintings of artists from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. Among them is a self–portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds. His courtly dress along with his artistic paraphernalia emphasise the important place of the artist among the aristocracy. His depiction of himself, along with the other paintings in the room, highlights the importance of the patrons for the artist as well as the necessity of fashioning the self as an integral part of the establishment. I was interested to read that the only painting by a woman in the room– Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun’s self portrait was actually based on a painting of Rubens’– his 'Portrait of Susanna Lunden'. Looking stylish in clothes that are obviously not suited to the artist’s workroom, Vigee Le Brun depicts herself as cool and collected. Although she is holding a pallet and some brushes, it seems that she sees herself as first and foremost a distinguished lady rather than an artist.

Room 2: Romantic Hero

‘It is the lot of genius to be opposed and to be invigorated by opposition.’ Henry Fuseli

In this room, I was most taken with Gustave Courbet’s 'Self Portrait ('The Desperate Man')' of about 1843. Positioned in the centre of the room, it arrested my gaze as I looked on at the haunting eyes of the artist. The veins stand out as the subject tears at his hair in a state of agony. Courbet’s signature, in blood red at the bottom of the painting, is an interesting feature that cannot be seen in reproductions. It makes the idea of sacrificing the self in the process of creating an artistic vision especially apparent. Next to Courbet’s painting is Henry Fuseli’s sketched self–portrait. Again, the eyes of artist stare out at the gazer. However, here they seem more melancholic than desperate. The self–scrutiny of the artist is emphasized in his perplexity. Perhaps the fact the drawing lacks any external stimuli and focuses solely on the gaze suggests that Fuseli wanted to convey the sense his inspiration comes entirely from the depths of himself?

Among others, many paintings in this room are from members of the Brotherhood of Saint Luke– a group of Viennese artists during the early nineteenth century who settled to paint in an abandoned monastery and isolated themselves from worldly concerns. The idea of artist isolation was emerging and the figure of the artist as a martyr seems to have become commonplace.

Room 3: Romantic Myths

Vasari’s Lives of the Artists was widely read in the nineteenth century and the themes of the great artists and poets of the past were hugely popular. Among others, the paintings in this room contain representations of the myth of Orpheus and the story of Tasso. The most striking painting in the room is Henry Wallis, 'Chatterton' (1856). Every time I see this painting in person (it is usually held in the Tate Britian), the whiteness of the dead Chatterton and the gloominess of his surroundings startle and depress me. Its inclusion in this room elevates the suicide of the young Chatterton (he was only 17) to the status of myth.

Room 4: Bohemia

The bohemian or the artistic adventurous rebel is the subject of the paintings of this fourth room. I was struck by the repeated image of the stove in many of the depictions of bohemian life here. Many of the paintings include the stove along with items of food in order to bring out the artist’s struggle to survive and sustain himself, especially in a climate where he is unappreciated.

Room 5: The Dandy and the Flaneur

Fantin–Latour’s full size portrait of Manet takes prominent place in this room. In it, Manet is shown to be the proper gentleman. Immaculacy dressed and attired, he is not given the appearance of one who it was traditionally expected would challenge bourgeois society. However, depicted as the typical ‘dandy’, his isolation from the worldly and vulgar is made apparent in a different way to that of the bohemian. Paintings of other dandy’s and flaneur’s by artists such as Whistler and Beadsley are also prominent in this room.

Room 6: Priest, Seer, Martyr, Christ

‘The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher; by so much more am I an artist– a creative artist.’ Vincent van Gogh

Many of the paintings in this room, dating from the 1880’s and 1890’s, depict the artist as a visionary or martyr. Included are self portraits of Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Ensor in the guise of Christ suffering, or preparing to suffer, the crucifixion.

Room 7: Creativity and Sexuality

Considering that for the most part, the artists whose works are displayed in this exhibition are men belonging to exclusively male groups, it is unsurprising that rather than being depicted as artists themselves, the women in this section figure largely as inspiring muses or as dangerous femme fatales. In Munch’s painting, ‘Vampire’, a woman envelops the artist with her red hair. Without the title, it seems that the woman could be seen as a protective influence on the artist. However, as a ‘vampire’ she comes to him disguised in an attempt to devour and destroy. As the paintings in this section make clear, the traditional understanding of woman as ‘other’ largely held firm whilst other ideologies were being challenged.

The only painting that stands out as different is Lovis Corinth’s 'Self Portrait with Model' (1903). In this, the female artist stands, naked, in the traditional pose of the male artist. Her hand covers her belly which is swollen as though through pregnancy. It was interesting to read that, in fact, the artist was not pregnant at all when she painted this self–portrait. However, rather than just representing her ‘artistic fertility’ as the supplementary commentary suggests, perhaps the pose and the assumed pregnancy can represent various things to various gazers.

July 03, 2006

Fashioning the Frame

4 out of 5 stars

Dress challenges boundaries: it frames the body and serves both to distinguish and connect the self and the ‘Other.’

Warwick and Cavallaro begin by asking whether dress should be regarded as a part of the body, or merely as an extension of, or supplement to it. Derrida’s analysis of the logic of the supplementary suggests that the supplement operates as an optional appendix and as a necessary element. The authors’ arguments are based upon this idea as well as upon the concept that the body is both a boundary and not a boundary; its ambiguity producing a complex relationship between self and non–self. More is written about the concept of a ‘boundary.’ Interestingly, the authors challenge the conventional notion that a boundary is a border demarcating a strict division and propose the idea that boundaries can be fluid and diverse. In their introductory essay, they conclude that boundaries may indicate ‘points where something could begin.’

In their Preface, the authors consider Tono Stanto’s photograph, Sense (1992)Sense as illustrative of Barthes’ idea that the body can be represented as a gap produced through the frame of clothing. They argue that, in the photograph, ‘the body is portrayed as a fluid boundary glimmering between two edges of apparent nothingness. Yet it is that nothingness that defines it: the body is an optical effect accomplished by clothing.’ They move onto speak of the relation between body and dress as an interplay between presence and absence and remind us that, in the face of a clothed body, we respond to a presence based on absence. They also suggest that, both the body and dress are symbolic and linguistic structures inconceivable outside the domain of representation.

The unfixable character of dress as both a personal and a communal phenomenon is largely due to its ability to quiz conventional understandings of the relationship between surface and depth. The conventional reading of dress as a superficial form to be penetrated in order to gain access to a deep content, obviously based on the primary notions of depth and content over those of surface and form, is radically challenged by a reading whereby the superficial forms of people and objects are seen to possess their own kind of depth. (xxii)

Considered in a Lacanian framework whereby the depth of a thing can be manifested on the surface by a system of signs, dress can be seen as an example of the unconscious at work. Like a symbolic language, the authors claim that clothing can speak volumes about submerged dimensions of experience. As such, they regard it as a deep surface, a facet of existence which cannot be regulated to the psyche’s innermost hidden depths but which actually expresses itself through apparently superficial activities.

After considering clothing as the incarnation of the Kristevan ‘abject’ and as an example of Lacan’s concept of the ‘rim’ (serving as the interface between the inside and the outside of the physical body), the author’s deal with the idea of ‘shielding and sprawling garments.’ They consider clothing as a shield or a surface and consequently look at the problematic ideas of corporeality. Their ideas of mask wearing are particularly interesting and worth reading.

In Chapter 5, ‘Clothes in Art– Painting In and Out of the Frame’, I was especially interested in the author’s interpretation of Waterhouse’s painting ‘Penelope and the Suitors’ (1912).Waterhouse The painting represents weaving as an ambiguous activity in that whilst women are traditionally associated with sewing and weaving as a domestic activity, they are also associated with the activity in the symbolic sense whereby weaving is connected to deceitful plotting. Warwick and Cavallaro claim that the in Waterhouse’s work, ‘the making of materials is a metaphorical equivalent for the making of the self.’ Indeed, the legend of Penelope emphasises the idea that the act of undoing is also vital to the making of the self. Looking at the painting and considering their arguments, I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s intriguing re–telling of the legend in ‘The Penelopied’ (2005).

To conclude, a central emphasis of the book is on the making and the unmaking of the self through fabric and fashion. However, as I have already discussed, the underlying theme is that of the exteriority of clothing existing as a ‘deep surface.’ The author’s have certainly made me think more about the relationship between surface and depth and have also challenged me to re–consider my pre–conceived notions about clothing or masks being devices of concealment more than aspects through which the self is revealed.

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