Mar 2007 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

The political turbulence of eighteenth-century Europe, with the overthrow of the French monarchy and its eventual reinstatement after the fall of Napoleon, is the backdrop to the Royal Academy's current exhibition, Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830. As crowned heads rolled in France, Europe, Britain and America were caught in the turbulence of war, a clinically insane king, George III, was deposed, and the rising bourgeoisie challenged traditional concepts of absolute monarchy with radical new ideas.

This ushered in the age of the Enlightenment and artists like Reynolds, Ingres, Goya, David and Delacroix were on hand to depict what was arguably the greatest intellectual rethink since the Reformation.

But only one painting in this extremely dense exhibition conveys any sense of the French Revolution. This is The Death of Marat, murdered in his bath by Charlotte Corday. The iconography in this painting, by Jacques-Louis David, recalls Christ taken down from the cross, symbolic of the quasi-religious status revolutionaries were accorded. Even though the French Revolution was secular in its bloody-mindedness, it offered high-minded ideals, like the pursuit of truth. There are many formal and official portraits, rulers in coronation robes, statesmen philosophers and - perhaps most telling - the Ingres portrait of an enthroned Napoleon, with all the trappings of power, more flamboyant than any of the royals the Revolution destroyed.

The Enlightenment's new middle class saw children differently too. Family portraits by Romney and Gainsborough abandoned the dynastic bloodline in favour of the child within a loving family.

A classical revival in portraiture was soon replaced by Romanticism and Realism. Typical of this are Pajou's busts of architect Charles de Wailly and his wife looking intimately at each other. The exhibition continues until 20 April.

'The photograph fulfils my deep need to stop things from disappearing', says Dorothy Boehm, whose vision at the age of 83 remains fresh, humorous and original. Ambiguous Realities, at the Ben Uri, tells the story of her grasp of the fleeting scene, its humour and quality of endurance. Boehm left her childhood in Lithuania, when she came to England as a refugee from Nazism in 1939, and her innovative work implies a strong grasp of loss, fear and sudden change. She has a feeling for colour and texture, for the dappled effect of light and shadow, and for her cubic, near-architectural pieces, which create a semi-abstract effect. Camden Town is famous for its street effects: Boehm, here at her quirkiest, captures a massive trainer suspended from a building and gesticulating dummies.

Wolf Suschitzky was a refugee from what he terms 'Austro-Fascism'. Ironically, it is the Austrian Cultural Forum which features the black-and-white images which show him to be a cameraman at heart. He has an eye for mood and movement, the misty haze of a winter morning, or the images seen in a wet pavement at night as a girl runs away. Symbolism does not elude him either, for instance in his shot of a monkey at the feet of a huge Buddha.
Gloria Tessler

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