JBD

 

May 2011 Journal

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Art notes (review)

The work of the late 17th-century Flemish artist Jean-Antoine Watteau anticipated both the essence of the French Rococo and the much later Impressionists. In Watteau: The Drawings, at the Royal Academy of Arts until 5 June, many sketches were intended as works in progress, yet this use of red, white and black chalk conveys both lightness and seriousness, making chalk go further than it had ever been used before. His drawings are considered the most extraordinary in Western art.

Watteau worked on hand-made gritted paper pre-laid on wire and dried, which gave the drawings an added opacity. His fêtes galantes, or elegant social gatherings, are a narrative of high society which includes portraits of elegantly coiffed ladies. His subjects range from the Commedia dell’Arte to Savoyards, Gypsies who came to town in the winter seeking work as chimney sweeps or knife grinders, to high-ranking Persian diplomats, with colourful attire and animated personalities. Watteau’s genius lies in his attention to fine detail and the compassion which lends his poorer subjects dignity and sensitivity. He once said that he found it hard to convey this immediacy in oils. Watteau drew his inspiration both from contemporary life and historical subjects by studying old masters like Rubens or van Dyck, Titian or Campagnola. His career spanned the end of the reign of Louis XIV, when the academic approach to art was softened by the more relaxed period of the French Regency.

The Bohemian photographer Ida Kar, at the National Portrait Gallery until 19 June, represents the post-war avant garde. All the artistic greats of her era are captured in her lens - the famous subjects besides their even more famous works. The work itself is expressive but not innately innovative. Whether it is Jean-Paul Sartre, Iris Murdoch, Henry Moore, Georges Braque, T. S. Eliot or Bridget Riley, her portraits always dwarf them in the greater presence of their creations. The exhibition follows Kar from her first Cairo studio in the late 1930s to her move in 1945 to London, where she encountered the British art world through Jacob Epstein’s family and her second husband, Victor Musgrave. Her first solo exhibition in London was in 1954 and she incorporated the leading artists of the St Ives modern art movement in Cornwall, like Barbara Hepworth behind a netted armature. Stanley Spencer lurks beneath his trademark black umbrella, his face pale and bleak. Laurie Lee looks wistful beside his pin-ups like Gina Lollobrigida, and Doris Lessing is surrounded by hyacinths.

Luke Kendall is a young artist to watch. In The Comical Tragedy of …, at the Air Gallery in London’s Dover Street, he demonstrates his boldly painted and surrealistic approach to childhood, laughter, the unexpected and the unexplained. Behind the laughter there is often cynicism and symbolism drawn from other worlds. A baby whose face is full of oblique experience is shown with a cigarette. One of his most poignant works has two Lego dolls entwined. There is a dramatic sense of scorched earth in his political, anti-war paintings. Kendall’s highly graphic and original work features on the album artwork of alternative rock band Secret Cinema Band.


previous article:Seder in Bombay in 1944
next article:Setting Europe ablaze (review)