lady painting

 

Oct 2008 Journal

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Art notes (review)


‘Hadrian – may his bones rot’ was the Hebrew curse against the Roman emperor during Bar Kochba’s revolt in AD 132. Sixty years after Masada, Hadrian quashed Jewish aspirations for independence in three short years, killing 580,000 people and razing 985 villages. Countless more were starved and suffocated in the caves where they took refuge and whose escape route he blocked. To ensure that Judea would never rise again, Hadrian renamed it Syria-Palestina, deepening the country’s desolation and economic decline.

The British Museum has a natural interest in the man who built a wall from Cumbria to South Shields, the furthest reach of his empire. In Hadrian: Empire and Conflict (until 26 October), this man of war is equally a man of culture with a penchant for architecture. Hadrian consolidated, rather than expanded, the Roman Empire, and his Roman Pantheon has been famously copied, notably in the Museum’s own magnificent Reading Room, where architectural treasures and sculptural fragments loaned from Israel and Europe recreate an extensive journey back to ancient Rome. There is an impressive model of Hadrian’s luxurious villa, the Tivoli Gardens, just outside Rome.

However, the man who freed slaves and grieved at the death of his young Greek lover, Antinous, was to the Jews a hideous antisemite, a Hitlerian prototype. The Israel Museum has provided moving evidence of life for the Jews hidden in the Cave of Letters, west of the Dead Sea, including bronze implements and utensils, rough knives and keys, coins on which Hadrian’s head is daringly over-struck with Temple and other Jewish motifs, including a perfect cut glass bowl, all preserved by the climate of the Judean desert. The revolt of Bar-Kochba, Son of the Star, was finally suppressed in AD 136.

Wyndham Lewis was an apologist for Hitler who refused to take Nazi antisemitism seriously. Athough he later recanted, his reputation never recovered. An exhibition of his 58 portraits at the National Portrait Gallery describes a confused personality of multiple gifts and electrifying personality. He founded the Vorticist movement in 1914 and edited the cult journal Blast, in which he attacked Victorian provincialism and prescribed a pure, English art form. A somewhat uncouth Modernist of energy and wit, Lewis wrote ten books and produced paintings in diverse styles in an attempt to recreate the Avant-Garde movement which died in the wake of the First World War. His striking portraits of literary celebs, notably T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Stephen Spender, James Joyce and Edith Sitwell, first marked him as an artist of style, rather than substance. He won plaudits probably in excess of his talents, particularly from Walter Sickert, who described him as ‘the greatest portraitist of this or any other time’ for his incisive art-deco drawing of Dame Rebecca West.

After illness and poverty softened Lewis’s character, his portraits reflected a kinder, more compassionate artist at work, particularly those of his long-suffering wife, Froanna. Almost blinded by a terminal brain tumour, his final portrait of T. S. Eliot poignantly suggests a mirror of what Lewis might have been – a great artist and Nobel laureate.
 

Gloria Tessler

 

Gloria Tessler

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