Why everyone wants a piece of Hans Hartung

Courtesy of Nahmad Contemporary, photo Tom Powel imaging

Sometimes the stars align and an artist who has languished in obscurity for years can suddenly rise to the top of an art advisor’s wish list. And how does this magic transformation occur you ask? Why, with just a sprinkling of fairy dust from some of the most influential galleries in the world.

T1982-E15 1982 by Hans Hartung 1904-1989Hans Hartung, ‘T1982-E15’, 1982, Tate, London

Hans Hartung might be one of the most important lyrical abstract artists that emerged from the ruins of Europe after the Second World War, but he is hardly a household name. In fact, you wouldn’t be blamed for finding the name entirely obscure.

Celebrated for his warm and poetic form of abstraction defined by heavy mists and expressive clouds of paint; Harting joined the ranks of de Staël, Dubuffet, Soulages, Riopelle and Poliakoff in the École de Paris when he settled in France during the 1930s. This group of artists provided an emotional response to the austerity of Mondrian’s grids and Malevich’s black square, and rejected the well trodden path of Abstract Expressionism in America. Hartung’s practice became even more evocative as his body deteriorated and he was forced to work from a wheelchair. Employing a host of new tactics for painting including whipping the canvas with olive branches from the trees beside his house in Antibes and the heavy handed tools of house painters, Hartung’s work took on a new fierce and visceral energy.

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Of course museums have long known about Hartung’s impressive oeuvre, examples of which can now be tracked down lining the walls of Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Kunstmuseum, Basel; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and Tate, London to name a few. But when it comes to the art market, sometimes it takes an army to get collectors to believe.

Timothy Taylor should perhaps be credited with starting the stampede in London with their show in 2011, which highlighted Hartung’s enigmatic late paintings for the first time in the UK since Tate’s display of drawings back in 1996 (when the power plant on South Bank was just a power plant). In the press release for this show, Timothy Taylor calls the early 2000s a  revolutionary moment, as Hartung’s work enjoyed ‘a revival of critical and curatorial interest’ in seminal group shows at Fondation Beyeler, Basel and Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris.

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Galerie Perrotin, A Constant Storm. Works from 1922 – 1989, New York, 2018

But if Timothy Taylor was the spark, it seems the taste for Hartung is raging now like a full-blown forest fire. This fresh furore is down to the helping hand of Galerie Perrotin, who took control of the Hartung estate back in 2013 and have since made it their mission to catapult Hartung into the big leagues. This year Perrotin joined forces with the Nahmad family’s contemporary outpost in New York (his first show in the city since 1975) and Simon Lee in London to host three simultaneous exhibitions that have kickstarted 2018 with a bang for Hartung. From these shows Hartung’s prices have settled into the six figure range, with a good-sized late painting setting you back around €350,000.

The question is whether it will stick and if the Hartung market can really sustain all this commotion. Last year a poetic work from the 1950s in heady slashes of black managed to tip the £1,000,000 finish line at Sotheby’s in Paris, setting the tone for Hartung as a collector’s item. But compared to a more settled artist at auction like Pierre Soulages, whose prices have rested steadily in the millions since 2014, it feels like those galleries betting it all on red with Hartung have some ground to break yet.

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Hans Hartung, ‘T1986-H34’, Simon Lee Gallery, London, 2018

The Royal Academy | 250 years of high drama

When we think of the Royal Academy, we imagine a place of grandeur, tradition and of course – outrageous scandal through its 250 year-long history. As the only privately funded British institution that offers free arts tutelage for all, the Royal Academy holds a special place in our hearts. This oldest art school in the land also has a starry line-up of alumni and presidents including Joshua Reynolds (wrly called ‘Sloshua Reynolds’), Edward John Poynter, Frederic Leighton and currently, Christopher Le Brun to its name.

But what secrets lie behind the curtain of pomp and circumstance? Set up by King George III in 1768, the Royal Academy has seen its fair share of public outcry. In honour of its illustrious 250th birthday in 2018, when a bumper crop of exhibitions is planned to fill the shiny new building designed by David Chipperfield, let’s take a look back at some of the Royal Academy’s greatest moments.

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The battle ground of great artist rivalries

Probably the most famous stories surrounding the Royal Academy are the tussles that have broken out on varnishing day – originally the time that artists would put the finishing touches on their works submitted to the annual Summer Exhibition. On one particular occasion, two giants of British art squared up to each other across the marbled floors of the academy. The notoriously eccentric J.W.M. Turner saw John Constable’s colourful and monumental scene of Waterloo Bridge beside his own meagre offering and began to pace back and forth like a blood hound. With a flick of the brush like the jab of a rapier, Turner placed a daub of brilliant vermillion at the heart of his painting’s grey seas, making Constable’s work that had taken him over 13 years to complete seem positively dull. Such was the scandal that another Royal Academician described it as like a gun going off.

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How not to flog a Leonardo

Even the Royal Academy, that bastion of high culture, has found itself in dire straights over money troubles in the past. Back in 1962 the President at the time, Sir Charles Wheeler, decided it was time to take drastic measures and announced that the small sketch of the Virgin on the Rocks would be put up for auction. Curiously it was the art critic Richard Cork, then aged 14, that first rounded up the cavalry and demanded the cartoon be rescued for the nation. And you’ll still find it still lurking somewhere in the Royal Academy library vaults today…

 

Connoisseurship gone awry

Plenty of artists have faced the backlash of misplaced taste at the hands of the Royal Academy. Take the horse painter Arthur Munnings whose presidency was described as ‘truly disastrous’. He was so violently opposed to Modern Art that he tried to get Stanley Spencer arrested on account of his obscene painting, tossed a sculpture by Jacop Epstein onto the rubbish pile and deplored the work of a young upstart called Pablo Picasso. So it seems, even the mightiest of connoisseurs can make errors of judgement.

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Anything but ordinary please

Once a battleground for stuffy middle of the road artistic types, the Royal Academy of the 21st century is quickly changing its image and embracing a new generation of contemporary artists. Leading the charge is Cornelia Parker, Tacita Dean, Anish Kapoor and Grayson Perry: the vocal transvestite potter that rebranded the face of ceramics. Perry can always be relied upon to arrive at the annual Royal Academy Summer Party dressed to the nines and ready to give the newspapers their front page.

Speaking of the Summer Party…

Lifestyles of the rich and famous

Each year the Royal Academy celebrates the opening of the Summer Exhibition with a party so glamorous it would make Donatella Versace blush. From artists and critics to supermodels and Hollywood’s finest, Burlington House is positively overrun with the great and the good of British society, set to appear in Tatler the next morning. Last year, under the watchful eye of Grayson Perry, Princess Eugenie rubbed shoulders with Amber Le Bon while Charles XCX provided music from the decks.

As the Royal Academy heads into a new era, we’ll have to wait and see how the institution will keep a cool head and manage to balance the old guard of tradition with the ambition of daring young artists. But if we’re lucky, there’ll be some good old fashioned scandal along the way.

 

 

Has Modern Art has gone off the boil in Copenhagen?

For years Copenhagen has been quietly building a reputation as one of the trendiest places in Europe to see contemporary art; drawing artists and connoisseurs alike to its chic Scandinavian streets.

Not only does Copenhagen boast the only international art fair in Scandinavia with Code art fair and CHART at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in late summer, it plays host to several breathtaking museums at ARKEN and Louisiana that have become global institutions in their own right. Just two years ago the city’s Paper Island welcomed Copenhagen Contemporary: the latest art centre to draw crowds eager to lap up Anselm Kiefer, Christian Marclay, Bill Viola, Pierre Huyghe, Bruce Nauman, Yoko Ono and other movers and shakers in the contemporary art world.

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Gallerists have also established a strong trade for contemporary art in the city, including Christoffer Egelund, Nicolai Wallner, V1 Gallery, the small but mighty LARM, Clause Anderson’s stronghold for Olafur Eliasson and the like, and even British dealer David Risley who jumped ship from London’s Bethnal Green in 2009. And the appetite for contemporary art in this stylish Scandinavian stronghold just continues to grow.

Much like Berlin in the post-Soviet boom of the 1990s and 2000s, when young artists and galleries flocked to fill the cheap studio and exhibition spaces in the eastern edge of the city, something has clicked in Copenhagen to make it the next capital of cool.

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But this forward-thinking, innovative landscape doesn’t have the same hold over modern art. In fact, the 19th and 20th century collections that pepper Copenhagen are downright unpopular. If you ever want to find yourself alone on a Friday evening, just head over to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek beside Tivoli Gardens. This astonishing museum, topped with a botanical greenhouse and over 10,000 works of art, was first established in 1888 to house Carlsberg brewer Carl Jacobsen’s dreamy collection of  Gauguins, Van Goghs, Monets and more. The Glyptotek positively has Rodin sculptures coming out of its ears.  But unlike Louisiana or ARKEN, this traditional museum is woefully unsubscribed. You’re likely to find more punters in the Tivoli amusement park next door.

A visit to the enormous Statens Museum for Kunst, where El Greco sits beside Rubens, Munch and Hammershoi, tells a similar story. It’s a dizzyingly broad selection, matched by its history of a veritable who’s who of royal art collectors through Danish history. But the hoard of visitors flooding the halls of Louisiana are nowhere to be found. Then of course there is the Design Museum (for essential lessons in hygge) and Thorvaldsen Museum dedicated to the Danish neoclassical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, and Denmark’s first public museum.

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In contrast to the ferocious queues at the Louvre or National Gallery where elbows are out to see a glimpse of the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s sunflowers, footsteps echo in Copenhagen’s bastions of modern art.

It’s true that there is a certain razzmatazz surrounding contemporary art that steals headlines and convinces collectors to write a cheque for hundreds of millions. More so even than a painting by Pablo Picasso because – let’s face it – we crave the drama. We want to be shocked and outraged by the price someone will put on a piece of art made yesterday and looks like anyone could have done it.

Copenhagen’s blossoming scene is testimony to this magical ingredient in contemporary art and the draw of specially-designed international museums that have become the calling-card of star-architects. But while Denmark’s daring contemporary exploits deserve a round of applause, we should not allow that priceless Gauguin on display for all to see and enjoy to simply gather dust.

 

Cook, Baker, Candlestick maker | What made Chaïm Soutine such a formidable painter?

The focus of the Courtauld Gallery’s winter show is the famous émigré painter Chaïm Soutine, whose dalliances in the underworld of 1920s Paris are somewhat legendary. Hanging out with the likes of Amedeo Modigliani in the garrets of Montparnasse, Soutine is often placed in the bracket of struggling immigrant artists when in reality he was somewhat successful. And that’s not the only thing surprising about Soutine.

A careful selection of paintings at the Courtauld of everyday bellboys, cooks and servants reveals Soutine’s chops as a painter – a smack between the eyes that I did not see coming. Aside from the curious subjects of humble waiting staff, the paintings are filled with a  wonderfully tormented brushstroke that twists and turns with flecks of pigment that inks colour across the skin. Soutine is often spoken of in the same breath as Vincent Van Gogh – and in this exhibition it is easy to see why with powerful swathes of paint conjuring up the same raw expression of scenes like the Saint-Rémy asylum.

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Heading back to the start – Chaïm Soutine always saw himself as something of an outsider. A Russian Jew living in Paris with few friends and even fewer patrons, from a young age Soutine’s artistic leanings had been harshly discouraged. Living in the shabby artist’s residence of ‘The Beehive’, Soutine rejected the popular whisperings of lyrical abstraction and tachisme in Paris in favour of figuration. He held fast to a radical, unique vision of painting that was positively brimming over with a frantic energy and frustration that reflected his personal and professional problems.

In a tidal wave of cubists and dadaists between the two World Wars, Soutine is often described as the only expressionist at the party who paved the way for American Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism. You just have to look at Francis Bacon’s harrowing Popes to feel Soutine’s ghost lurking in the shadows.

He had no social graces and positively put people off with his scruffy appearance and lack of manners. He even used to rip canvases to shreds or set them on fire if he thought they were below par. The plot thickens when Soutine’s work was noticed by Albert Barnes (the notorious private collector and creator of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia) who proceeded to buy an entire studio worth of paintings. Suddenly Soutine was a sensation, a trendsetter – much to his quizzical disdain.

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Looking at the surface of these works now they still hold the same power. They are hocks of meat hanging from the bones of carcasses in the butcher’s warehouse. They are effortlessly evocative.

But where is Clement Greenberg when you need him?Of course the press have happily toed the line to talk about the underworld of characters in this show and Soutine’s fascination with a man in uniform at a time of wartime garb. Despite the importance of Soutine’s figures, it is the formal beauty of his painting technique that captures the imagination. And where the true magic lies is the surface dripping with blood and life. These are not individuals from the kitchens and sculleries of France – they are a pack of wild animals.

Nicholas Logsdail & Lisson Gallery | The Secrets to Success

Towering over London’s embankment this autumn is a monument to the legacy of a certain dealer that stretches far beyond the edges of the river Thames. The founder of Lisson Gallery, Mr Nicholas Logsdail commemorates the 50th anniversary of his powerhouse gallery in style with a colossal show that dominates the Strand’s Store studios. Curated by Lisson’s equally formidable Curatorial Director, Greg Hilty and Head of Content, Ossian Ward, there are 45 works of art on display across the different floors of the building by a stable of artists that have defined a generation.

Even the most fervent non-believers of contemporary art will be blown away by the ambition of this exhibition, which finds contemporary art royalty Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramovic and Anish Kapoor beside lesser known names on the public’s lips Haroon Mirza, Ryan Gander, Arthur Jafa, Wael Shawky and Cory Arcangel. It’s a veritable who’s who of the contemporary art scene and it’s hard to escape the feeling that Logsdail is the common denominator behind them all.

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Arthur Jafa, Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death at Store Studios

Back in 1967, in the first years on Bell Street in London, Lisson made its name showing American conceptualists from Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre to Lawrence Weiner before turning to a generation of British sculptors for its bread and butter: Tony Cragg, Bill Woodrow and Richard Deacon. Led by Logsdail and his then wife Fiona Hildyard, it was a golden age when Lisson’s artists were being handed Turner Prizes by the armful. It was even Logsdail that reportedly managed to get young Charles Saatchi onto conceptual buying.

It all started as you might expect with a privileged upbringing in rural Buckinghamshire with studies at Bryanston (a boarding school with a naughty, but creative reputation) and the Slade. In fact Logsdail was asked to leave the Slade because he spent far too much time lauding other people’s work and organising exhibitions instead of touting his own. He first caught the art bug from his uncle Roald Dahl who would take young Nicholas on buying expeditions to Cork Street and return him to his parents with a Francis Bacon in the boot.

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Haroon Mirza, A Chamber for Horwitz; Sonakinatography Transcriptions in Surround Sound (2015) at Store Studios

When it came time to set up his own gallery, Logsdail turned his back on the movers and shakers of Mayfair and headed to the run-down side of Marylebone; separating himself from the old guard of traditional art dealers. Of course this was before the age of YBAs and Tate supremacy when contemporary art became mainstream. Logsdail was one of the first to keep his eyes firmly on the future and nurtured a roster of living artists. It was even Logsdail that orchestrated the sale of Carl Andre’s scandalous pile of bricks to Tate in 1972.

The question is, however, in the battle for art dealer supremacy, who would you rather have fighting your corner – Nicholas Logsdail or the Jay Joplings of the world? Crucially Logsdail has kept Lisson from becoming a mega-gallery (like a vortex sucking in all of the mid-sized and young galleries around it) along the lines of White Cube, Gagosian or  even Hauser & Wirth by refusing to define his business purely in monetary terms. He does not make any old sale or expand his brand just anywhere – he carefully navigates the art market to leave them wanting more.

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Of course now he’s got an OBE to his name and his son Alex as heir to the Lisson empire. The original gallery has gone and in it’s place seven properties on Bell Street have sprung as well as outposts in Milan (2011) and New York (2016). While he might not make as much of a song and dance about scandalous front page stories, Logsdail is quietly the rebel of his time. And this birthday party for the ages is like a flashing neon sign remind us all of that.

Playing the villain | Marie-Hortense and Cézanne’s Portraits

The latest blockbuster to take the stage at London’s National Portrait Gallery has an unlikely star performer. Step aside Mont Sainte-Victoire and so long to you bowls of fruit – the real leading lady of Cézanne’s Portraits is the oval-faced bookbinder turned artist’s model, Marie-Hortense Fiquet.

Cézanne met the young woman that would become his wife in 1869 when he was studying his craft at the Académie Suisse in Paris beside the likes of Camille Pissarro. Transfixed by Hortense’s curious beauty, with her angular face and central parting of auburn hair, Cézanne painted her more than anyone else during his lifetime. At the National Portrait Gallery, her round eyes stare out from the walls like the faint memory of a life lived in the shadow of a great artist.

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But in comparison to most artists’ other halves, from Dora Maar to Amélie Matisse, Hortense has been dealt a pretty terrible hand. In fact, she has been downright demonised. In History of Art 1-0-1, I remember learning the undisputed truth that Cézanne was a loner and his wife was extremely difficult. But for someone that Roger Fry dubbed ‘a sour-faced bitch’ and Emile Zola referred to as mere ‘dust’, she was certainly happy to play the artist’s muse.

The story goes that Cézanne, the son of a wealthy banker, gravitated towards Hortense as much as he was repulsed by her low station. And the work that appeared in his studio over the years fanned the flames as Hortense appeared scowling and glum. Rumours swirled that Cézanne’s girl was aloof and unreasonable – his friends were baffled by the attachment.

It’s true that Hortense often looks stoney-faced, perhaps even a little crotchety in her portraits. But she certainly had reason to be a bit miffed. For one thing Cézanne was a notoriously abrasive character and hardly a bed of roses to live with let alone sit for. He was painfully slow in his process and demanded absolute stillness from his models – which luckily Hortense had a certain knack for. When they finally married in 1886, Cézanne was far from gentlemanly in his loud complaints to anyone that would listen that he had fallen out of love with Hortense and was only marrying her to make their son Paul legitimate. From that point on the couple lived very separate lives, though Cézanne continued to paint Hortense over 29 times. When Cézanne died in 1906, he hammered the final nail into the coffin by disinheriting Hortense and bequeathing his entire fortune to Paul.

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With all this bad blood, it’s hardly surprising that Hortense is viewed with some distaste by history. It’s hard to shake off those initial mutterings from the most powerful artists and critics of the day, which have since translated into what we perceive as historical truth. Whispers that she missed Cézanne’s dying moments because she was dress shopping follow her and even Matisse suggested that she did not care about art at all, only how much money it raked in (something that Matisse would have found abhorrent).

Of course there are holes in the argument because there are some images of Hortense that show a greater warmth and emotion. Just take the painting of Hortense breastfeeding from 1872 (now hidden away in a private collection). A deeply intimate and tender moment, it’s hardly the making of a villain. However, even these moments have been challenged. The famed art theorist Meyer Schapiro suggested that any sense of feeling that we see on Hortense’s face was not really her, but a projection of the artist’s inner emotion. Evidently the opposite could never be true.

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Crucially, Hortense became the human embodiment of Cézanne’s famous cylinders, spheres and cones, which he returned to over and over again. Was he that self-punishing to spend time with a woman he detested? Or was Hortense actually very different to her bad reputation? It was Cézanne that kept his wife as a shameful secret, hidden away at a distance. So much so that the art world intelligentsia saw her as irrelevant.

Who said romance is dead.

What’s unsettling is that Hortense’s story is so familiar. So she was annoyed at her boyfriend for ignoring her. So she didn’t want to hobnob with art world aficionados. Did she really deserve to be the villain of the story? If Hortense had been allowed to answer her critics we might have a very different idea of life in the Cézanne house. For now though we are stuck with the predictable narrative of the ‘difficult’ woman and all the pesky connotations that go along with it.

The King is dead, long live the King | Why Basquiat has stolen the crown for most important American artist

Jean-Michel Basquiat is a name that is commanding new respect for collectors and art aficionados everywhere. The poster boy for post-punk New York and the rise of street art during the 1980s, Basquiat has become one of the most influential players in the art market today with enough pulling-power to draw the highest bidders in town. And as his prices soar, it seems that museums are finally catching up to the craze as the Barbican prepares to open the first major UK Basquiat retrospective this autumn. Curiously there are only a handful of Basquiat paintings in public collections around the world, while the others are hidden away in Swiss vaults or hanging in billionaire’s yachts. So who is Basquiat and, more importantly, why are collectors willing to pay top dollar for him?

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Basquiat was the beating heart of the New York art scene when Keith Haring and Julian Schnabel were busy dismantling the old guard, Ronald Reagan was in charge and police brutality against the black community was rife. The son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat grew up in the Brooklyn suburbs and ran away from home at 16 to become an artist. In a remarkably short space of time he went from selling drawings on the street to hanging out with the city’s movers and shakers, including Larry Gagosian, David Bowie, Madonna and even Andy Warhol. Fans crowded into his East Village studio to see the unstoppable tornado who supposedly dressed in an Armani suit while he worked. Overnight the boy from Brooklyn became a superstar. Just a few years later in 1988, Basquiat tragically died of a heroine overdose aged 27, joining the illustrious ranks of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.

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Collectors, from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio to Johnny Depp, are gaga for Basquiat because he has achieved what few have done before – cult status. Tragic death? Check. Celebrity friends? Check. A limited supply of work to get our hands on? Check. The heavyweight art critic Robert Hughes explained the phenomenon saying, “the only thing the market liked better than a hot young artist was a dead hot young artist, and it got one in Jean-Michel Basquiat.” So when a Basquiat does appear on the market, it is all collectors can do to snatch it away from their rivals.

The Basquiat –effect is also a nod to the American obsession with labelling the best of the best. Salinger, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald might have battled it out for the title of great American novel, but Time Magazine declared Pollock was the greatest living American painter in 1949. Nowadays Warhol, Rothko and Cy Twombly are amongst the handful of 20 th century American artists that have stood the test of time in the art market. But it’s Basquiat that is having the last laugh.

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2017 is the year that Basquiat stole the crown for most expensive American artist at auction from none other than his mentor Andy Warhol. The painting in question, a ferocious canvas with wild eyes and gnashing teeth, was snapped up at Christie’s New York by a Japanese collector for a whopping $110.5 million. In contrast, Warhol’s record is a respectable $105 million, achieved in 2013 at Sotheby’s New York for the serigraph ‘Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)’. This dramatic shift is a new line in the sand for ‘great’ American art.

Warhol and Basquiat’s relationship was itself complicated and turbulent. The pair met in 1980 when Basquiat approached the Pop legend at a restaurant to show him his work, but it was only in 1982 that Basquiat truly made an impression. He quickly became a favourite at the Factory. Together Warhol and Basquiat collaborated on a number of works, including the radical ‘Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper)’ that was originally planned to sit across the street in Milan from Leonardo da Vinci’s original mural. There are even rumours that Warhol was in love with Basquiat. When the King of Pop died in 1987, his young protégé lost a protector and turned to prescription drugs to forget and to survive.

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While once-a-upon-a-time it was Warhol that brought the star power to any auction, it’s Basquiat that is now turning heads. The sheen of Warhol’s in-jokes about modern consumerism have dulled and Basquiat’s uncompromising vision of the world is striding in to take its place. The Barbican’s pivotal new show is just the latest in a long line of hints that there is a new sheriff is in town.

The Hepworth Wakefield | Why the Museum of the Year 2017 deserves everything it gets

Tucked away in the backstreets of a small West Yorkshire town is an unlikely star-attraction. Of all the gin joints in the world, Wakefield happens to be the birthplace of one of our most celebrated home-grown sculptors, Barbara Hepworth, and now the backdrop for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017. As Londoners through and through, it’s often hard to imagine a world outside of the big smoke, but the Hepworth Wakefield is making our eyes turn north.

From dreary pumpkin to golden carriage, this Cinderella story began in 2011 when the largest purpose-built museum for 43 years was built in God’s Own Country. Ever since, the Hepworth Wakefield has become a bastion of British culture, celebrating the likes of local heroes Hepworth and Henry Moore in a permanent collection that would make plenty of London-based institutions balk. Starry additions to the roster of names include David Bomberg, Roger Fry, Patrick Heron and Frank Auerbach, most of which formed the original Wakefield Art Gallery collection. The quality of this 100 year-old collection is a nod to the prowess of director Simon Wallis OBE, who first cut his teeth at the Chisenhale Gallery, ICA and Tate Liverpool before venturing further north.

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So it has a great collection of British art – but what else makes the Hepworth Wakefield so special? For one thing the building itself, designed by David Chipperfield Architects for a cool £35 million, is a delight. Rising and falling in peaks of harsh concrete, the structure leads visitors over the crashing River Calder into a serene space where the sound of running water is suddenly silenced. Some of the locals were none too happy about the concrete, utilitarian look of the building, but they’ll change their tune when this museum stands the test of time.

Head honcho Simon Wallis has also crafted a challenging exhibition programme that unites contemporary artists, including Eva Rothschild, Roger Hiorns and Lynda Benglis, with the museum’s bread and butter 20th century collection. The current exhibition focuses on the raucous painter Howard Hodgkin’s time in India; celebrating a joyful period of work by one of our most beloved artists. But there is little time to rest on laurels.

The Wakefield has cleverly carved out a place for itself as a tastemaker in the noisy world of contemporary art. In 2016 the museum launched a brand new sculpture prize for British or UK-based artists (joining the Turner Prize in casting off any age restrictions). What made this prize instantly powerful was the fortuitous fact that the first recipient, Helen Marten, went on to be crowned winner of the Turner Prize a few months later. A handy coincidence for a brand new award.

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Most reassuring about the Art Fund’s decision to single out the Wakefield as the best museum of the year is that it is not in London, though past winners have been spread far and wide. As a Londoner perhaps I’ve become too accustomed to a brisk tone or a casual shoulder to the body because the warmth of the Wakefield was a surprise. There is a fierce sense of pride amongst the gallery invigilators and staff, eager to answer any and all questions, which arguably does not exist in London. We are far too busy assuming our galleries and museums are filled with the finest art public money can buy.

As government funding for the arts falls by the wayside, it’s important to give props where props are due. And the Hepworth Wakefield has earned its place on the world stage by showcasing British art in an intoxicating new way.

 

Laura Theresa Epps Alma-Tadema and life in the shadows

Leighton House Museum, that idyll of Orientalist splendour with Arab halls, resplendent Gold domes and embellished mosaics, are trying to revive the reputation of Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Who you might ask?

The Dutch painter who made London his home during the late 19th century lost favour with ‘Joe public’ as tastes changed and the Victorians began to seem downright parochial. And it was not a modest fall from grace. One of Alma-Tadema’s now most celebrated masterpieces of Moses being rescued from the River Nile by the Pharaoh’s daughter was once bought by an art dealer simply for it’s glitzy frame and unceremoniously dumped in a backstreet after it was removed.

But this show is not all about Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Emerging from the shadows is another artist who’s work has been similarly overlooked. Alma-Tadema’s wife, the mysterious Laura Theresa Epps Alma-Tadema.

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Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Finding of Moses (1904)

As an impressionable 17 year-old, Laura Epps met the mischievous and gregarious artist Alma-Tadema at a gathering of London society. The daughter of a well-to-do doctor and a great beauty, Laura immediately caught Alma-Tadema’s attention and he soon returned to London on the pretext of giving her painting lessons. Is there an older trick in the book? A year later Lawrence uprooted his family and moved to London permanently to marry Laura, who became mother to the artist’s two young daughters Laurence and Anna from his first marriage. While Laura became known for her glorious hostess skills at Grove End Road and a frequent model for her new husband and other artists including Jules Dalou and Jules Bastien-Lepage; she was also a phenomenal painter in her own right. How much of these new found talents were down to Alma-Tadema’s instruction? That is up to interpretation.

Lawrence-Alma Tadema was already surrounded by creative women as both his daughters showed signs of artistic talent, and Laura had similarly grown-up in a throng of artists and musicians. It’s hardly surprising then that Laura’s two sisters Emily and Ellen Epps also took up painting, studying under the Pre-Raphaelite John Brett and illustrious Ford Madox Brown.

Laura Theresa Epps Alma-Tadema, Sweet Industry

Like other female artists trying to be taken seriously in the man’s world of Victorian London, Laura took to painting domestic scenes of family life – her best source of inspiration whether she liked it or not. Reminiscent of Dutch 17th century interiors, Laura also looked to the classical subjects of Ancient Rome and Egypt that obsessed Mr Alma-Tadema. Light, colour and beautiful texture are all at the heart of her work, which is far beyond any amateur pastime.

To give you a little idea of the success she had during her life, Laura exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1873 followed by the Paris International Exhibition in 1878. Not only was she finding success of her own, Laura was one of the few female English artists getting any air time on the continent. Back in London, Laura exhibited at the Royal Academy and Grosvenor Gallery, with regular commissions for the English Illustrated Magazine. But since her early death in 1909 and memorial exhibition at the Fine Art society, Laura Theresa Epps Alma-Tadema seems to have fallen off the map entirely. A handful of works can be found at the National Portrait Gallery and Manchester Art Gallery in the UK, and a few others are scattered across the USA. But for the most part Laura’s finest paintings have found their way into private collections. And the question remains whether they will ever surface again?

Laura Theresa Epps Alma-Tadema, Always Welcome

Like a long line of artist’s wives that followed her like Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner, Laura Epps will have to fight twice as hard to be heard. And jumping on the bandwagon of her husband’s revival at Leighton House is definitely a step in the right direction.

John Singer Sargent, Dulwich Picture Gallery

From Madame X to Lady Macbeth, the American painter John Singer Sargent built his reputation with miraculous portraits of Edwardian society. But this summer the frocks, corsets and stiff waistcoats are out the window and Sargent’s elusive watercolours are in the spotlight at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

His reputation as a portrait painter might have preceded him, but as a boy Sargent often turned to watercolours for their natural immediacy as washes of paint dried instantly on the page. The works on display at Dulwich Picture Gallery this summer are far from the pastime of any old provincial watercolourist (and believe me it could have gone either way). This is an artist on the edge of modernity. Severing his compositions with harsh angles and lines of perspective, Sargent discombobulates his traditional subject with a radical reworking. The surface is mottled and textured, layered with stains of brilliant colour and flecks of vivid white to create a spectacular sense of three dimensionality. There is a confidence and boldness to these works that reveal an artist willing to slap on a wash of watercolour and never look back.

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The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (c. 1904-9)

While Sargent was an American by birth, he spent most of his life in Europe and England, where he became the darling of society painters. He travelled extensively through Italy, Spain, France and the Middle East, often in the company of his sister Emily Sargent who was herself an accomplished artist. In one particular image of Emily at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Sargent shows his sister at work, a paintbrush playfully gripped between her teeth, her mind turned completely towards the easel in front of her. Through this show the watercolours move through these various destinations, confirming Sargent’s society credentials as someone able to take a typical ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. There is a particular abundance of images from Venice, a city that Sargent returned to frequently and felt a great connection to. In these delicate images Sargent captures the sense of the lapping waters of the canals against the sides of stone steps and piazza walls. You can almost imagine Sargent leaning perilously over the side of a Gondola, his sketchbook in hand as he tries to illustrate the miraculous effects of light all around him.

Then there are the cityscapes of Europe and pastoral scenes of Alpine hills and shaded forests. But the real treasures come at the end, with a series of faintly more familiar figurative studies of the artist’s friends and family. In these paintings, Sargent’s nieces are disguised as reclining odalisques that recline beside babbling brooks and white parasols. A highlight not to miss in this section of the show is the wonderfully erotic and challenging study of a male nude that is a lesson in the human form as well as rich symbolism.

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A Turkish Woman by a Stream (c. 1907)

Also not to be missed are the studies from the Western Front, made in 1918 when Sargent was commissioned as an official War Artist. These terrifying images of a torn and ruined landscape seem another world away from the glittering society pictures, which have long been Sargent’s bread and butter, and provide a fascinating contrast to the rest of the show.

Curated by Richard Ormond (often regarded as the foremost expert on his Great uncle’s work), the watercolours at Dulwich Picture Gallery undoubtably have a wonderful fluency and modernity – but they are lacking that certain swagger. Through the galleries, Ormond works hard to point our how rare it was for Sargent to play with these subjects of the city and pastoral vistas, and how fortunate we are to find a whole collection on our doorstep. But maybe that is the point – teetering on the edge of chocolate box prettiness, Sargent feels like he is resting on his laurels. After such a pleasant show, I can’t help but crave a little more Sargent strut with a few elegant sitters in tow.