13 July – 17 October 2021

This gallery tart was invited to a preview of the Sophie Taeuber-Arp exhibition at Tate Modern this week, so I grabbed the chance and headed down to the South Bank on a sunny weekday evening.  This was my first time in the Blavatnik building, strangely enough, it has been open since 2016!  It’s all concrete and angles, very hipster and contemporary, as befits, I guess, a building housing modernist art and exhibitions.   

I didn’t know much about the artist so I was interested to see what she was about. The exhibition starts with her Vertical-Horizontal Compositions, the catalogue describes these as her forays into abstraction based on her textile work, it’s an interesting thought that for this artist abstraction came from this angle, an area she had gravitated towards during her studies and indeed taught design and embroidery herself. They’re interesting, precise, pared-back and beautifully coloured. Vertical, Horizontal, Square, Rectangular, 1917, immediately brings to mind Gustav Klimt, I think because of the gold and the tessellation effect of the different geometric shapes, it shows as well though, Taebur’s interest in interior design.

Taeuber’s work was very diverse including an interest in theatre, she was asked to create the stage sets and marionettes for the play King Stag, staged in 1918 and a whole showcase contains many of the puppets she created. I almost thought they must have been reproductions as they are really well preserved and also look fresh and contemporary. They’re fascinating, very modern looking, simplistic and yet expressive. They are really well displayed by the gallery, many of them have been hung mid-air on their strings helping the viewer to see them as they were meant to be displayed.

Marionettes for The Stag, 1918

The marionettes were made of turned wood and another set of exhibits in this room is the larger wooden turned sculptures. Again we see Taeuber’s fine, simple and precise hand in these objects, Dada Head, 1918, is a nod to the Dada movement, Taeuber moved within the Dada circles and this is her style of interpretation. I would say though that the often violent, and intentionally so, wild nature of Dada is absent here for me, rather you see the designer coming up with a narrative for new art in a more subtle way.

The next room introduces Arp’s work in stained glass, they were created as skylights for the Hotel Hannong, once again it’s amazing they’ve survived.  The catalogue tells us they were developed out of her Vertical-Horizontal Compositions and you can see this.  When you think of Art Nouveau stained glass and it’s ornate references to botanical forms these seem incredibly plain but I guess that was the point and the Dada side of being anti-art.  They also inevitably recall Mondrian’s abstract work, was Arp influenced by Mondrian, was he influenced by her, we’ll never know, what’s interesting is that they both reached for abstraction but came at it from very different beginnings.

Who influenced who?

There’s an interesting aside here as well, looking at the artist’s travels across Europe there are some paintings and photographs from these time.  I mention them because I think they really reveal her style and interests, looking at the photographs it’s all about shapes and geometric angles, even the one on the beach is about shapes on a background.  This translates into the paintings, Sienna but not Sienna, Paris but not Paris, the elements are there, arches, domes, turrets and vivid bright colours for Sienna and sharp angles and trunk shapes for Montmartre cemetery with cooler more sombre colours but they are abstractions, flattened against the paper in her pared-down, essential style.

Sienna and Paris, 1920s

The next area I’d like to mention is her free line drawings made during the second world war, the catalogue suggests they may have a textile background as well as they look like fragments of cord fallen to the ground.  I like their freedom, the colours and shapes suggest dance and joy.  I couldn’t help notice though that in Geometric and Undulating Lines, 1941, the straight lines form the Star of David and I wonder whether this had significance of what was happening at the time.  As this part of the exhibition progresses Taeuber’s work becomes more constructivist, it may just be co-incidental but her work seems to lose it’s free energy into much more compressed geometric balls like Geometric Construction, from 1942.  Still showing that simple, expressive style, the wild freedom seems in retreat.  Or maybe my imagination was running away with me!

Great exhibition, it brings to light an artist I hadn’t heard about or covered in Art History studies, the curators explore the reasons for this which tend to come down the ever present argument of applied vs fine art, which somehow or another tends to reside as female vs male artists.  That’s a whole other discussion but good on Tate Modern for pulling this exhibition together and including all of her repertoire. What came out for me was an accomplished artist who explored the avant-garde through her own interests.  A pioneer in interior design who incorporated abstraction into her work leading to simple, yet complex designs that are still fresh to contemporary eyes.

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Rita – Gallery Tart

The gallery tart headed off to the National Maritime Museum this week, back home from the wilds of Essex and into the heart of London.  Well, saaarff, as they say, my husband asked me if I had my passport as I was going across the water, riverism alive and well in London then.  I like the south, much greener, and artier I think, in any case, thanks to the fabulous TFL I quickly arrived at the museum and set about the exhibition.

How do you squash 500 years of quite complex royal history into one exhibition? Well, the Maritime Museum has a pretty good stab, let’s face it, we all know a bit of royal history, there’s Henry VIII and his many wives who upturned religious devotion, there’s all the wives, then there’s Victoria who reigned forever and Edward something who abdicated and of course our own dear Queen.  Beyond that though, most people are fairly sketchy, there are a lot, and will generally glaze over at the know-it-alls who can actually name them in any kind of order.

So the prospect of an exhibition covering this whole period was daunting but the museum does a superb job of handling it by using the theme of royal portraiture and taking the viewer through the various royal houses chronologically.  Starting at the Tudors, portraits of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon were hung together with an image of Anne Boleyn next to them.  Dating from the 14th century it never fails to amaze me that we can just see these paintings close up after all this time, of course, time and events have washed over many times but I couldn’t help thinking that these three portraits represented the reasons behind the one of the biggest ruptures to English religious culture.   

Anne Boleyn

Moving swiftly on, we came to the Elizabethan portraits and the ‘Ditchley’ portrait of Elizabeth I.  Tudor and Stuart art were periods I studied during the Art History degree so Elizabethan portraiture and the way her image was used to portray and disseminate her as monarch came back to me.  The detail of these portraits is amazing, the more you look, the more you see.  There’s all sorts of symbolism in the portrait, the pearls symbolise purity, she standing on a map of England showing her right to reign, the dress is bejewelled showing wealth and power.  There’s a good interactive tool at this point that shows a comparison of portraits of Elizabeth I and their different interpretations.

Queen Elizabeth I

Next came the Stuarts and James I, he was a great patron of the arts and collector.  One of the first portraits in this section is of George Villers, it is a beautifully depicted image by William Larkin.  Really rich in detail, texture, colour and imagery, it was obviously an important commission with the curators pointing out that he and James may have been lovers.  Several further portraits of James I show him as monarch although, interestingly, a comparison is also drawn to his imagery post execution. This became quite martyristic and was often used as devotional imagery as well.  The allusion to Jesus complete with stigmata in one image is unescapable.  

King James I as Martyr?

Further into this period we find a portrait of Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, this shows a young black girl sitting with the Duchess, often overlooked, it was good to see the curators make a point about how the portrait not only asserts the wealthy position of the sitter but that it brings to mind ideas of imperialism and subordination.  I do wonder though whether there is more to it than that, portraiture is full of symbolism  so what was being presented here with this child?  Is she meant to be a servant at all?  The clothes are fine and she wears a necklace, not exactly the attire of servants, the National Portrait Gallery’s own catalogue entry on this painting talks about using the child to aggrandise the Duchess but perhaps there is also a reading relating to  trade.  The 17th century saw the establishment of global trading routes by companies such as the West India Company and it’s not hard to see an allusion to a less developed country proffering its goods in return for protection.  A thought provoking inclusion by the curators.

What’s the interpretation here?

We emerge into the Georgian period, so many Georges, I was very attracted to the unfinished portrait of George IV made by Allan Ramsay’s studio, one of many copies disseminated into the political arena to establish the King’s image. It seemed starkly modern compared to more formal portraits from the same studio such as the pair of George III and his wife Charlotte of Hecklenburg-Strelitz hanging nearby. It’s much more personal and introspective, lacking photos from this period I’d be inclined to think it was more representative of George IV as a person. His hair is wildly tousled and there’s definitely a hint of a smile by his lips, a beautiful animated representation.

King George IV

Further on we come to the Victorians, starting with Sir John Hayter’s coronation portrait of Queen Victoria, very well sited by the curators as the introduction to the Victorian era, it’s huge and has majesty, as is obviously intended.  Fabulous detail in the strong tradition of royal portraiture and, as ever, laden with symbolism.  Crown, sceptre, throne, you can’t miss it, Victoria is almost secondary, and that’s the point isn’t it?

Queen Victoria

Photographic portraiture starts to appear in the Victorian period, as does the proliferation of royal imagery into the homes of ordinary people.  The exhibition labelling tells us that the photograph of Queen Victoria by Alexander Bassano from 1887, created the defining image of Queen Victoria and that certainly seems true, if you had to conjure an image from the popular imagination of her this would certainly be it.

Finally we reach the current dynasty, the Windsors, of course there was focus on the abdication of Edward VIII, whatever you think of that crisis, the portrait of the lady that caused it, Wallis Simpson by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst is lovely. For a woman that supposedly rocked the royal family it shows her in a very simple light, if royal portraiture is about symbolism what does this image tell us or not? She wears a very simple blouse and skirt, echoing the spare and the minimalist rather than royal trappings, except for the large brooch, a gift from Edward. A really beautiful portrait and photographs nearby of the couple show that the painter really caught Wallace’s character.

The exhibition ends with images of the current royal family, there are lots of different approaches, informal oils, photographs and even a Warhol.  I liked all of them but particularly the images by Annie Leibovitz, one of the Queen in stately grandeur and a less formal one of the Queen and Prince Philip.  I really liked the siting of the formal portrait with the Queen at the window to the side of the photograph, Leibovitz brings out what it is to be Queen with both its privileges and heavyweight responsibilities.

Queen Elizabeth II

I know it’s been a long read this week but there was a lot to see and cover.  A great exhibition, the museum’s approach is brilliant, the sectioning into distinct eras was a master-stroke, as was having a board with the succession line for each period.  You could clearly see when you left one period for another and which royal followed who, as well as forays into the wider courts throwing up ideas about the era of production.  Very good for an encapsulation of royal history and well worth a visit to the saaarrf!

Rita – Gallery Tart

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I’ve been having a secret affair with Wivenhoe for a few years now, well not very secret, just about anyone who knows me knows, I don’t know what it is but from the moment we drove into Wivenhoe for a visit, several years ago, I’ve felt a connection to this small town.  It’s such a wonderful mixture of old and new buildings with a really lovely riverfront and just an air of beauty and peacefulness. 

As I said a few weeks ago about Dulwich Village, it has that sense of idealised Englishness about it, pretty cottages, beautifully kept gardens overflowing into the streets and a couple of fab bookshops.  I wasn’t at all surprised to see that Joan Hickson had lived here.  So, when a friend alerted me to the Wivenhoe Art Trail this weekend I knew I had set off and have a look around.

There were 24 art studios involved in the trail and over 40 artists, for a town of its size that’s an amazing amounts of artists, it’s wonderful to see an artist colony growing here.  We covered most of the studios on the trail, it was a lot, they were all very welcoming and happy to open and share their studios which are also often private homes.  Here are a few of the studios we visited.

Margie North at the Bookshop.  I liked North’s work, she’d included an explanation of the inspirations of her work during lockdown and I found the everyday scenes of making toast and pouring taps both comforting and reflective.  I read recently of a critic complaining that artists weren’t reflecting the pandemic within their work, but surely this is it, this was life in lockdown, down to the essentials, eating, washing, what else was there for artists to work with? The interior and the view from the window was all that was open to us and I think our enforced domesticity will resonate in art when we reflect back on this period.

Margie North

On the riverfront we found the work of Annie Bielecka, I loved her work, made in textiles, it’s full of colour and movement.  I was really fascinated by how the textiles were used to create artworks, I did a bit of research about the artist and learned that she considers these to be painting with textiles and they certainly look that way.  Bielecka does also work in paint and I was particularly drawn to one image, not a great photo here I’m afraid, which features in an interview on her website.  There’s so much in it, the grid made me think of Agnes Martin but this is not about rigidity, it’s much more joyful and uplifting.  Full of colour, I loved the pieces of iridescent shell and bits of thread all seemingly interconnected with little golden dots.

Annie Bielecka

Further along the river we found Jo Angel, her paintings were part-abstract and full of colour.  I was drawn to Roma by the blends of pinks, ambers and gold.  It put me in mind of a sweeping staircase and a window looking out on blue skies but that may not be it all, no matter, I liked the brightness of the light that comes from the tone of the colours.  As the title suggests, we’re not in Wivenhoe any more. 

Jo Angel

Continuing to the Wivenhoe Sailing Club, we found several artists exhibiting here, the driftwood and metal sculptures of Fiona Harmon were really interesting.  They felt playful, restructured into miniature boat scenes, they seemed toy like, pirate ships and simple play boats.  Looking at her website, Harman explains she considers her work outsider art,  I like that she doesn’t reformulate her materials to fit her art, they are all as found.  It goes further than that though, through not changing or refining her materials Harmon may be making the point that what exists in Wivenhoe as is should be valued and that the town is in danger of changing too quickly due to development with the consequent loss of its beloved character.

Fiona Harman

In here too, we saw the work of Debra Weiss, great portraits, I had a sense of Spain coming through the portraits and the artist explained that she is a restorer of old paintings and her influences are probably coming through to reflect that feeling.  I liked them, they had an idea of the past and timelessness but are clearly contemporary.

Debra Weiss

The final stop I want to mention is Jane Watson Arts, at first I wasn’t sure of the media, the art style looks like collage but feels like painting.  The artist kindly explained that she creates collages from fine tissue paper which then have the effect of painting.  Many are based on scenes of Wivenhoe, their collage nature brings to mind a cubism rooted in the simple pleasures of life like boats floating on the water, washing fluttering in the breeze and wildlife doing its thing.

Jane Watson

I really enjoy looking at art, talking about it and discovering it’s histories through research but, most of all, I am in awe of artists.  So, it was rather wonderful to spend a day talking to artists and having them be so welcoming in talking about and showing their work.  Obviously they are making a living, but even so, their passion for their creative endeavours was fully evident.  I couldn’t write about every artist or even get to them all, maybe next time I should visit over two days, but the website is well worth a visit to discover more about the extent of the community and all the individual artists. 


The Art Trail is a brilliant idea, it gives artists a chance to showcase their work, possibly make some sales but also to raise their profile and that of Wivenhoe as an artistic community.  I certainly enjoyed my day and recommend a visit to the next trail!

Rita Fennell – Gallery Tart

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This week the Gallery Tart wandered off to the fields of Suffolk for a bit of fresh air and the joys of Audley End.  This history of this grand house stretches back to pre-reformation having started out as the site of Walden Abbey in the 12th century.  The abbey was dissolved by Henry the VIII and granted to Sir Thomas Audley, who rebuilt the house into a Jacobean mansion which was completed in the early 1600s. It has had various histories since and survives today in a reduced but still magnificent form.

Covid restrictions still apply, so all masked up, we took the very specific route through the house.  Unfortunately, taking photographs is not permitted within the house so you’ll have to rely on my descriptions.  The first stop is the Great Hall, beautiful, if I had to think about the ideas of Englishness that have permeated to me over the years, this would be part of them. There’s a fabulous oak screen that covers the whole wall around the entrance arch, very beautiful with fantastic carvings, all still intact, after all this time.  The wooden panelling theme continues throughout the hall and around the fireplace.  Obviously this area was intended to impress visitors and indeed it does. 

We continued on up the stairs to the saloon, quite magnificent with painted and gilded wooden panelling in here and an amazing ceiling.  All in white plasterwork, it’s a panelled ceiling with the bosses  at the corners of the square panels elongated into long downward pinnacles.  It feels completely over the top, an exaggeration of the ceiling in the great hall which in contrast feels more formal and sombre, it certainly sets the stage for entertaining.

Next we came to the drawing room, another beautiful room but the ceiling is less prominent and instead we were drawn to the substantial collection of paintings hung in here.  The collection is mainly down to Sir John Griffin, Griffin, (not a typo), who was a collector during his period at the house in the 17th century, the hang is as arranged by the 3rd Lord Braybrooke during the 19th century.  Collecting is a whole area of study in itself, as is the bequeathing of the collection onwards.  To establish themselves as gentlemen, men collected and displayed their collections, indeed many museums we have today rest on this collecting activity since it became fashionable to bequeath them to the nation to enable wider artistic consumption.  It’s good though that this particular collection remains here and can be seen in situ.  Used to the contextuality of national galleries and museums, it’s quite interesting to see old masters just casually hanging there as they used to be.  

We moved on through the libraries, wonderful, scholarly spaces, with, again, collections, this time of books.  Books are dying, they tell us, as we move ever more towards a digital life but somehow I think there will always be a place for them.  Looking at these beautifully bound volumes you just wanted to reach out, I didn’t dare, and touch them, the spines, the covers, so carefully made and tactile. 

We came then to the dining room, laid out for dessert in the 19th century, great big candelabra in the middle, beautiful crystal glasses and gorgeous crockery and cutlery.  I couldn’t help but think about how important entertaining is in diplomacy, here is a big house, where powerful figures gathered to discuss life changing ideas and in the centre of all that is entertaining and the of simple act of offering food and drink as a sign of friendship and trust.     

The next part of the collection I found really fascinating was the Natural History collection, and by that, I mean the collection of stuffed animals that fill the upper and lower picture galleries.  The collection was mostly amassed by the Hon. Richard Neville, the 4th Lord Braybrooke during the 19th century.  Obviously, in contemporary contexts hunting, catching and stuffing animals for display is not acceptable but I think one needs to put on a historical hat and see these collections within the thinking of the time.

For a start, as with the photographs of botanical specimens from the exhibition at the Dulwich Gallery I reviewed a few weeks ago, these were mainly intended for scientific study and teaching exemplars.  Although, of course, you cannot get away from the ideas of self-positioning that this collection throws up, just as with the books and paintings.  The idea of man at the top of the animal kingdom tree, the sense of empire being perpetuated through the collecting of specimens far and wide and the unintended consequences of hunting to extinction that came out of the thirst for such collecting.

That aside though, and looking just at the collection, it’s really interesting how far and wide the collecting went, without our digital access, this was the only chance to see a different world inhabited by different species.  The quality of the taxidermy is of a really high standard, it was quite an art.  The placement of the animals in display cases is also not accidental with realistic backgrounds built to reflect on the areas the animals came from.

As a final note on waxing lyrical on taxidermy, you can clearly see here the influence of such collections on contemporary artists.  I know I’ve referenced Damien Hirst before but his formaldehyde animals started here, as did his butterfly-scapes, while the careful layout of collections of shells recalls his carefully laid out pills and packets in Pharmaceuticals, 2005.  More shockingly perhaps, contemporary artists are working with taxidermy today, you might want to have a look at the work of Darwin.Sinke van Tongeren, finetaxidermy.com  

Of course, there is the house, then there are the grounds, wonderful, we left the house, and, refreshed by coffee and cake, headed off for a walk around the park.  Fabulous as well, the parterre garden at the back of the house, where we exited, was designed by Capability Brown in the mid-18th century, the vogue gardener of the period.  Of course, it declined with the fortunes of the house but it was restored by English Heritage and is now blooming in full glory again.  We were lucky to be visiting in summer when all the flowers were out giving a real riot of colour, even in the English drizzle.

Further out we found the ponds, the kitchen gardens and the stables.  It was lovely, you’re free to explore and we spent ages walking and coming upon little nuggets of fun, old oaks, bridges and even a waterfall. 

A great day away from the Smoke, it was wonderful to have the privilege of wandering around this house and grounds and over so many years of history. So, get out of London, put your walking boots on and go and see some of our fantastic cultural heritage.

Rita Fennell – Historic House Tart

Royal Academy 18th May to 1st August 2021

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Emin/Munch exhibition started before the pandemic and the RA is determined to allow it to run, I was glad to hear that grabbed one of the few tickets available and headed off to Burlington Gardens in anticipation.

The show is quite small and intimate and highly personal to Emin.  I’ve always been a fan of hers as I really like her bravery in sticking her neck out about the reality of being a woman and a woman artist, at that.  In between Damien Hirst’s putrefying cow heads in A thousand years, 1990, and the Chapman brothers’ various mutilations such as Sex 1, 2003, Emin has placed the female voice through equally aggressive attention grabbing such the famous My Bed, 1998, and vitrines displaying used tampons, The History of Painting, 1999, both showcasing the reality and messiness of womanhood in contrast to its idealisation.  I wasn’t then, expecting an easy journey, and I didn’t get one. 

A showcase of Emin’s art alongside Munch’s seems an almost inevitable combination with their twinned sense of showing the interior self in all it’s raw vulnerability.  From the first room, Munch and Emin’s paintings are hung near each other to good effect making it easy for the visitor to compare their work and approaches.  Emin chose the Munch inclusions for the exhibition and said, in her conversation with Edith Devany in the guide, that she decided to focus on paintings that reflect the loneliness and vulnerability in his work for this show.

‘Being an artist isn’t about making something beautiful, ….. our job as an artist it to battle with the soul.’

Tracey Emin

There’s a set of Munch’s paintings in this room of female nudes, they stand, recline, crouch and sit, some are awkwardly posed, such as No 6, Female Nude, showing a level of discomfiture in the model with one leg on the floor and the other on the couch.  In contrast No 3, Seated Female Nude, is much more pensive, more reflective, you certainly get a sense of the contemplations going on in the head here.  Much, obviously, is made of the male gaze and the painting of women for the consumption of men but there is none of that with these nudes, while they are explicit, they are empathetic rather than predatory.  Of the paintings from Emin in this room, the one that stood out for me was, It – didn’t stop – I didn’t stop, 2019, I have to say I found this image hard to look at. It’s incredibly vulnerable, there’s such a starkness about the colours, red for blood, black for darkness and all played out in frenzied drawing and painting so that I found its implications a bit too much to face. 

In the next room,  three of Emin’s painting hang like a triptych,  The stain of you 2017, You came to me at night, 2017, and, I came here for you, 2018. Painted in Emin’s spare style, they express a lot from what appears simplistic, with bare canvas and monochrome colours, the connection comes from the violence of the brush strokes, we’re left in no doubt that these are difficult emotions.  The woman portrayed, presumably Emin, is only faintly visible suggesting that she is overwhelmed by the issues that haunt her.

The only Emin painting in the show that gave some relief from the continual grief for me, was, You were here like the ground underneath my feet, 2016.  Still painted in Emin’s distinctive style, somehow the mood is quite different, much less despairing and calmer, this gave me a chance to get away from the turbulent emotions of the other paintings to see a more contemplative state.  Behind the female outline is a shadowy figure, is that the ‘you’ of the title?  Does Emin feel like someone has her back here?  For me, the tone of this painting compares with Munch’s, Consolation, 1907.  A woman consoles another in tears, Munch’s colours and brushstrokes communicating emotion to the viewer in a similar way to Emin.  You can almost sense the tenderly placed hand on the leg and consoling words said. 

This was a small exhibition but it does pack a lot of emotion in for the viewer.  I have to say I struggled a little to connect with it, for two reasons I think, my knowledge of Munch is limited to his self-reflexive, emotion laden, images that always convey distress to me and my expectation was that we would see these kind of paintings next to Emin but the selection of Munch’s paintings are all of him in observation and, although also highly emotional, they were on a different level to Emin’s. As such, he comes off as more serene and the connection between the two artist’s work is not obviously as palpable as I imagined it would be.   

Secondly, the gallery’s hand is almost absent, this may have been intentional, and that in this situation we were expected to go with our senses rather than the context usually provided by galleries through labelling or the guide.  However, without reading the full catalogue to start with, the viewer is left on thier own. The small guide provided says very little and contains an extract of Emin conversation with Devany, which, though interesting, says very little about the origins and ideas about the concept of the show.

That is not to denigrate the quality of the artworks in the show, they are worth viewing for their raw emotion alone.  Do though, expect an explicit show that may not make for easy viewing but, as Emin says in the guide, ‘Being an artist isn’t about making something beautiful, ….. our job as an artist it to battle with the soul.’

Rita – Gallery Tart

Dulwich Picture Gallery – Until 30th August 2021

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Off to the Dulwich Picture Gallery this week, what a lovely place Dulwich Village is, all leafy and pretty shops and cafes.  There’s a feel about certain places for me that, like Dulwich Village, makes them seem that idealised English space, stuck somewhere between the 20s and the 50s, all green and genteel so that you feel like you’ve just stepped into an Agatha Christie novel, or maybe I’ve read too many!

The gallery is one of my favourites, designed by Sir John Soane, it has that tasteful pared back elegance that is his hallmark.  Still, I wasn’t there to lounge about in the garden drinking coffee, so time for the exhibition.

The exhibition looks at the early development of photography by focusing in particular on botanical photography.  It takes its starting point from the still-life tradition in painting, Jan van Huysum’s, Vase with Flowers richly illustrating how closely artists in the 17th and 18th centuries worked to realistically capture nature.  The first room showcased early Victorian pioneers of photograpy, the gallery sheds a light here on previously unexhibited works such as botanical images by Anna Atkins and Cecilia Glaisher. Both women came at botanical photography from a scientific angle, attempting to capture images of specimens that could serve to illustrate the study of botany and different species.  They are fascinating, Atikns’ images created using Cyanotype while Glaisher used the technique of photogenic drawing created by Henry Fox Talbot.

In the next room we find more previously unseen treasure, the photographic work of Charles Jones, while Jones was a celebrated gardener, his photographs seem to have been a private pursuit.  They were rescued from loss by a collector in London who chanced upon the whole lot for sale in Bermondsey.  They are really interesting, as the gallery makes clear, these photographs are mainly for the clear recording of specimens but the artistic tilt is inveitable.  The arrangement of the plants, fruits and seeds undeniably has a language, from perfectly poised onions to neatly bisected seed pods, the photographer’s hand is in the images.  I loved them, as I’ve said before, we inevitably bring our own thoughts and ideas to art and I suppose, being a bit of a neat freak, I connected with the spare simplicity of these images, the monochrome imagery adding to that, although, of course, he had no choice at this point!

I was also very blown away by the photographs of Karl Blossfledt, in a fascinating, German state-sponsored project, Blossfledt travelled Europe and North Africa extensively in the 1890s photographing plants for design ideas to be used in manufacturing.  Looking at the photographs you can see where ideas for metalworks could have come from, but, not only that, these photographs show an appreciation for the strength and delicacy of natural forms.  Once again, the photographer himself did not think of his images as artistic but practical although he was very successful when invited to publish and exhibit his work in an artistic context and ranked with renowned photographers of the day.

Moving on through the exhibition the images become much more about an artistic response.  Imogen Cunningham was an early member of Group f/64, a group dedicated to getting photography recognised as an art form in the 1930s.  Her images are as powerful as they are beautiful, Two Callas, 1925, is very affecting for me, silent, the close up nature of the shot brings out their pureness of colour and soft, silky, surface.

The exhibition finally leads us to contemporary artists working with botanical imagery.  Ori Gersht’s,  On reflection, a video installation, has been placed in the mausoleum, a triptych of three videos the artwork is clearly based on Dutch 17th century still-life and it’s allusions to the inevitability of death.  The siting certainly adds to that.  Slowly the image fractures to the background tinkling of glass breaking.  It made me think of sadness and destruction, much of Gersht’s work reflects on his experiences of living in war torn environment and that much does resonate through this piece.

In the last room there are a number of contemporary works, lots of diverse approaches to the same theme of botany.  I particularly liked the image that has been used by the gallery to advertise the exhibition, Richard Learoyd’s, Large Poppies, 2019. They explain his technique which creates a grain-free image, it’s rather breath-taking, the clarity of the image is fantastic with an absolute sharpness to the petals that makes you want to touch them, I wouldn’t dare, as well as the movement of the poppies and the richness and vitality of the saturated colours.   

I really liked this exhibition, I truly believe it deserves five stars.  The curators have taken an unusual theme in art, botany, and blended it seamlessly with early photography.  I loved that they have introduced us to little known artists and techniques and also entered into the discussion of when the practical becomes art.  Within a smallish exhibition they’ve managed to lead us from photography’s roots to the current contemporary contexts for botany in art all the time maintaining the link right back to the still-life genre.  Well worth a visit.

Rita – Gallery Tart

20th May 2021 – 22 Aug 2021

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Off to the British Museum this week for the Becket exhibition, pandemic restrictions seemed more evident here than at Tate Modern last week or maybe it was just the emptiness of the Great Court, normally teeming with visitors chattering in many different languages, that made it feel that way.  The positive I suppose, is that the crowd for the exhibition was much smaller than usual and made for a better view and experience than the normal crush. 

The exhibition is about the events that led to Thomas Becket’s canonisation as revered English saint, the set-up is great, it’s low lit, there is cathedral scenery, and chants echo gently in the background all helping to create an allusion to a sacred space for the visitor. 

The first part of the exhibition speeds quite quickly through Becket’s early life, from his humble beginnings as the son of an immigrant sheriff based in London, to his rise to be Archbishop of Canterbury.  There are lots of fascinating artefacts here to see, his personal seal gives a wonderful sense of connection with Thomas Becket the individual, it even has his fingerprints, while examples of animal shin bones used for ice skating in that period position Becket as the boy growing up in London.

Thomas Becket’s personal seal, with fingerprints, how amazing is that?

Becket’s ascent to Archbishop of Canterbury is illustrated by a case showing examples of the three sacred items that are presented to the Archbishop to mark his appointment: a crozier, a ring and the mitre.  It’s quite incredible to be able to see these objects, so very old but preserved over the ages, the craftsmanship is amazing when you think about the resources available then, especially, I thought, the mitre, it must have been a privilege to work on that piece.  

The exhibition then points to the constant battle of divided loyalties between church and crown.  A reliquary triptych dating from around the time of Becket was quarrelling with Henry II over the autonomy of the church in delivering justice is used to illustrate the dominance of these issues in the cultural landscape at the time. The triptych places God as ultimate judge once earthly existence has passed reinforcing the point that God has ultimate power and, by inference, the church.  I find reliquaries fascinating, that desire to use art to elevate the ordinary to the sacred, this one was made in Belgium with lots of lavish materials and still glitters to this day. 

Triptych Reliquary, about 1160-70, Belgium

The point is further supported by the next display which is a copy of Policratus, 1159, by John of Salisbury, a lifelong friend of Thomas Becket.  In fact, he dedicated the original version to Becket. It’s inclusion references Becket’s struggle with the issues between church and crown, he read widely to come to his intellectual conclusions on these matters as well as to find support for his arguments.  Not visually stunning, it wasn’t meant to be, again, it’s quite incredible to me that the book has been preserved all this time, surviving a multitude of changing political environments thereby leaving its imprint on English history.

All this leads to a short animation film, Murder in the Cathedral, showing the slaying of Thomas Becket.  The film plays to the chanting that permeates the whole exhibition and neatly encapsulates the episode without giving way to sensationalism.  The drawings are a little cartoonish considering the seriousness that the chanting and bell tolling try to convey, but all in all, a good way to bring focus to the dramatic events.

This film works well to create a break and leads to the next part of the exhibition, Becket as saint.  His death led to his elevation as martyr and transformation into saintly miracle worker.  Pilgrims would flock to Canterbury Cathedral to obtain diluted extracts of Becket’s blood called St Thomas’s Water, it was reputedly preserved from his garments after death, for its miraculous properties.  There is a display of flasks made to hold the water which was either used on site or taken home as far away as Holland, France and Norway.  Interestingly, the labelling tells us that this was an unusual aspect of the Becket Cult, it almost feels like as distancing from the practise, yet I would argue that the notion of obtaining holy water following pilgrimage is surely universal.

Flasks for St Thomas Water, 1200-1300, Canterbury

St Thomas’s miracles are illustrated in Canterbury Cathedral by stained glass windows called the Miracle Windows.  It’s quite interesting to me that there should be these post-death miracles to validate Becket’s elevation to sainthood, as, from a contemporary perspective, it says more about the politics surrounding the creation of sainthood and the cult of pilgrimage than it does about Becket’s spiritual piety during his lifetime.  That said, they are quite awesome, the windows have been replaced and repaired many times and the ones on display here are previous windows on loan from The Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral.  They are visually stunning; I honestly think the most beautiful art comes from artists working to a purpose that is beyond material reward.  I know that sounds a bit lofty, but you can feel this here and really can’t help but be transported by the beauty of the windows.  They were easy to photograph because there’s a mathematical perfection to the images, but it was the colours that I found so wonderful, so uplifting, rich and saturated.  As I said in my first blog, sometimes it about your own sensual response to art and, for me, in this exhibition, this was it. 

The exhibition then takes us to Becket’s influence in putting Canterbury on the pilgrimage map within Europe with a side discussion of the Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  There’s an interesting display of pilgrimage mementos, or souvenirs, as we would now call them. 

It finishes on the note of St Thomas’s fall from sainthood in the eyes of Henry VIII, who went from holding him in reverence to positioning him as a traitor for his own political ends.  A sign on the wall shows Henry’s decree in 1538 that:

‘All his images and pictures shall be put down in all the realm’

This is hauntingly illustrated by a display of defaced books, poignant examples of the vandalism wrought in the name of the Reformation. I found this quite moving, all that meticulous work and thought, carefully preserved over the ages in other objects on display, violently destroyed here.  An excellent inclusion by the curators.

Vandalism in the name of Reformation

This was a great exhibition, the British Museum has over six million artefacts, the majority of which are not exhibited.  The curators have cleverly used the resources at their disposal to tell the story of a major figure in English history and to prod beneath the tale of Becket the Saint, to the reality of the man and the contexts of sainthood, politics and the influence of the church at this time. 

It was also interesting to see England pre-reformation, when it was closely entwined and inter-dependant with Europe.  I’d have liked to have seen that connection brought out more, Becket was very much part of a pan-European society, constantly haggling with the papacy of Rome and very active in territorial battles and dynastic intermarriage, reference to that may have served to highlight more of the internationalism of English history than anecdote generally tells us.

After all, did you know St Thomas Becket was French?

Rita Fennell – Gallery Tart

Tate Modern, 18th May – 21st Nov 2021

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Well here we are, my first exhibition review for Gallery Tart Reviews and first visit to Tate Modern since the start of the pandemic.  It’s great to be back, it is restricted, wearing a mask and side-stepping everyone does make you feel on guard but it is so great to see Art up close and personal again, as in many things in life, there’s nothing like the real thing.

So, to Rodin, the exhibition explores Rodin’s creative methods by highlighting his plaster casts, many here loaned by the Rodin Museum in Paris.  The curators also point to the exhibition Rodin put on himself in a specially built pavilion at the Place de l’Alma, Paris in 1900 when he exhibited mostly plaster casts.  There are two large photos of the pavilion within the exhibition and these help to give a sense of the artist and his studio.

The main gallery houses casts of many famous works, The Thinker, Balzac, The Walking Man, St John the Baptist, they’re all here.  The cast of The Thinker is wonderfully monumental, there’s an absolute solidity to it that gives a real sense of the seriousness Rodin attributed to the figure. It was fantastic being able to see it so close up and take in the details, all exaggerated strength and deep pensive thought.

In this room the curators have also placed different sized casts of the same sculpture so that it is possible to compare how casts were sized up and down.  This can be seen in The Walking Man, a small version from 1899 sits near an enlarged one from 1907.  Both of them sinewy and strong make you sense a definite allusion to the Greek and Roman statuary Rodin had seen in Rome and London at the British Museum.  A notion which is taken further later in the exhibition by focusing on Rodin’s interest in fragmented statues.

Women featured heavily in Rodin’s life, he is reported to have had many affairs and liaisons so it’s not surprising that some room is given to particular relationships. Ohta Hisa has a good section here, a Japanese actress in Paris, Rodin worked to get her facial expression through more than fifty busts of her, the ones on display show his continual efforts to grasp it.  Less impressive is the space given to Camille Claudel, a fellow sculptor and arguably one of the most influential women in his life.  Only two casts by her are shown, it’s a pity, it would have been good to see a better interaction and exploration of the influences on each other’s work, if any.

A small selection is devoted to Rodin’s collection of body parts, ‘abbatis’, as Rodin called them, arms, hands, feet, they formed a stockpile to draw on.  The gallery has exhibited them beautifully here, all laid out in rows in a vitrine, I couldn’t help but think of Damien Hirst and his neat collections of the disembodied.

We then come to one of the major works of Rodin’s life The Burghers of Calais, it was commissioned in 1885 and finally exhibited in 1895 in Calais. 

The sculpture represents the six city leaders of Calais who put themselves up for sacrifice to King Edward III of England in order to save the townspeople from slaughter after he besieged Calais in 1346-7.  Originally commissioned as a sculpture of the leader, Eustache de Saint-Pierre, Rodin decided it would be better to represent the whole group.  It is a wonderful piece and so interesting to see the plaster cast.  Rodin’s method was to fully model the nude figure first and then drape it with plaster soaked clothing, this allows the fabric to sit naturally on the body and can clearly be seen from the great close up you get here. 

Muscular torsos, legs and arms push through fabrics giving a realistic presentation of the individuals involved.  It’s a devastating scene, the fear and sorrow wrought on the burgher’s faces and, even more hauntingly, each burgher has a rope around his neck in preparation for slaughter. They were eventually spared but Rodin’s representation leaves us in no doubt of the horror these heroic leaders faced up to in defence of their City and its people.

In all, it’s a really fascinating exhibition giving the viewer a behind the scenes look at the practise and production methods of Rodin, almost a down to earth view of the realities, decisions, try outs and re-tries involved in making his fabulous sculptures that viewing finished works cannot and, arguably, should not.  It’s also a great opportunity to see many of Rodin’s most famous works, now spread world-wide, all in one place.  

That said, there is one finished sculpture on display, Tate’s very own Rodin marble, The Kiss, 1901-4.  It sits at the entrance and exit to the exhibition.  It may be considered a bit ubiquitous these days, Tate’s own label suggest that Rodin found it overly traditional and called it a large sculpted knick-knack.  I beg to differ from this fashionable distancing, for this gallery tart, it is nothing less than wonderful. 

Go, enjoy, our cultural spaces need our support more than ever as we emerge from this godawful pandemic.


To launch Gallery Tart Reviews I wanted to think about my motivations for writing this blog. I’ve always loved and been drawn to Art, I grew up in Malta surrounded by Baroque Art and Architecture,  churches laden with paintings, sculpture and myriad objects made in all sorts of materials, as well as engaging in festivals involving the creation of ephemeral art such as carnivals, pageantry, Christmas and Easter displays.  I didn’t see it that way, I simply partook of church ritual, but somehow, that sense of beauty, and grandeur I guess, stayed with me.

In England, I went towards a career in finance and built a good home and family life, but then, in my 40s, on a whim, I decided to follow some sort of instinct and do an Art History degree, studying in the evenings.  I was working and had a young family but something was sparked in me by the prospectus from Birkbeck University, ‘if you’ve ever wondered what a piece of art is about, or wanted to delve deeper’ it said, come and talk to us.

So I did, it started a life changing passion for Art, looking at, discussing with friends and writing about it my essays.  I suspect a degree in a more practical subject might not have had such a profound effect but learning about all aspects of Art History became part of who I am and the way I see things.

So what does an Art History degree give you? For me, the biggest question as I set off on my venture was the usual; but my 3 year old could have done that; why is a pile of bricks or an unmade bed Art? I just didn’t get it and I wanted someone to explain why.  They did, the best thing was that Art was situated into a time-line for me, from early Greek and Roman Art through to contemporary Art.  I started to understand who commissioned Art, who created Art and the motivations, influences and drivers for artists.  Reading and delving into these issues has given me an informed view from which to decide whether I do actually like, understand or agree with what an artist is trying to convey.

The thing is though, as one person said to me as we had an impassioned discussion about Tracy Emin’s famous unmade bed, which I had become converted to, why should Art have to be explained and, if it does, they surely it isn’t Art!  This led me to the constant paradox I seem to find with looking at Art, there is the contextualised view, knowing about the artist, what they were trying to achieve and various factors like the period and the pressures of patronage which gives the informed view, but then there is the sensual view, the looking and feeling some sort of connection, be it with an ancient sculpture, a painting of ‘something you can recognise’ or something more nebulous like the oil slick one artist had created at the Saatchi Gallery, it reflected the gallery’s architecture and, for some reason, had me in awe.

So I guess what an Art History degree gives you is the tools to think about the Art you’re coming into contact with but what it doesn’t give you is your response, that is yours, for your own myriad reasons.  This is what I want to take along on this blog, I’ve set myself the target of reviewing one exhibition, museum, arty thing, each week for a year.  It’s quite an ask, but if I could do a degree and get my essays in on time while working and balancing family commitments I feel I can do this. 

Follow me, discuss with me and most of all enjoy.

Rita – Gallery Tart

This gallery tart is ready to get going, the plan is to review one exhibition, museum, gallery or cultural event a week for one year. I’m hoping it’s going to be one of those resolutions that are so enjoyable I actually make it to the end. Be great if you signed up to ‘follow the blog’ as they say.