Category Archives: Exhibitions and books

WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

A mix of fact and fiction, memory and photographs, written in a precise, dream-like (sometimes nightmarish) prose.  The author hangs his wide-ranging tales on a solitary journey on foot through a lonely corner of England. Tenuous connections are made between unlikely subjects as the author’s thoughts flow back and forth like the tides and shifting sand-banks of the East Anglian coast, forever opening up new channels.

He recounts history, but history is as unreliable and as selective as memory, as we learn from Benjamin. Sometimes Sebald’s stories morph into imaginary events, sometimes the desolate countryside around him is transformed into a threatening and dusty wasteland and he is forced to hide or stumble along, walking but never moving forward, like a ship caught in the tide, straining to make way.  I was reminded of Kim Edwards dark and desolate monotypes and paintings of Sizewell and Dunwich

I thought this was a book unlike any other I’ve read, and it left me wanting to read more of Sebald, to enter again into his world and see where it takes me.



References, accessed 30/7/2017

Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald, pub Vintage, 2002


Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

It was a great pleasure to read Virginia Woolf’s novel, a literary observation of London and some of its inhabitants just after the end of WW1. All of Woolf’s senses are wide open to the sensations of place nd character, and her observations are sharp, incisive and often very funny.  The novel’s literary style is what I think is called a ‘stream of conciousness’, with no chapters, and seamless transitions, not only between one person’s meandering thoughts and feelings but also from character to character.


The whole novel takes place in the course of a single day, and is built around Clarissa Dalloways’s preparations for a party that evening.  She seems an impressionable person, someone who goes through day to day life breathlessly working hard at finding happiness and wonder in everything around her.  At the same time, underneath she feels lonely and ageing, and is seeing a psychologist for her depression, as is Septimus, a war veteran, whose thoughts and feelings echo those of Clarissa. Sadness lies beneath the surface for many of the characters in fact; the novel mainly concerns their thoughts rather than their surface appearances.


The writing is a roller coaster, great long rambling sentences punctuated with commas amd semi-colons swept me along, and I felt I needed to hold on tight until i came to the end of the ride.  I finished the book quite quickly, unlike my usual slow pace, and was left with the (unusual for me) feeling that I’d find more to enjoy in a second or even a third reading.



Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, Kindle Classic Bestseller

David Hockney at Salts Mill


I went to see David Hockney’s work in Saltaire (near his home town of Bradford) today, and I loved his bright colours and the patterns and marks he makes in his backgrounds.  I saw a large four panel folding screen, Carribean Tea Time.  It uses mixed media, combining print and hand-painting with stencil and collage.  In it he plays with perspective; he contended that traditional western perspective places the viewer outside the painting, and he attempts here to pull people in by subverting the rules; he makes objects further back larger rather than smaller, and receding lines (such as the back edge of the table below) longer rather than shorter.  He uses triangles and square shapes to explore his pictorial spaces, and overlapping to create depth.  Also in Caribbean Teaparty foreground objects are hotter in colour temperature (reds, yellows) than background elements (blues, turquoise), an aerial perspective device used to depict distance.


Ther were many works on paper, including prints, drawings and watercolours.  Watercolour isn’t a medium normally associated with large scale work and Hockney solves this problem by combining several smaller paintings in one large image.  Cactus Garden III  2003 is 40×51″ is made of four smaller sheets.  There are many more examples of Hockney’s multi-sheet watercolours here .  The painting below (Four Views of Montcalm Terrace, 2003. Watercolor on four sheets of paper 34 x 48 in. overall) i is especially relevant to my current project, painting interior scenes in watercolour.  These are fresh and unaffected, and look as though they were made quite quickly, maybe originally intended as sketches.  I like the arrangement of the two diagonally opposed pairs, defined by their two limited colour palettes – one painted in blue and green, the other grey and red/brown.  They are also pairs compositionally; the densely painted blue green compositions have quite a static feel with their strong horizontal lines, and the focal element placed firmly in the centre.  The grey/red pair show the terrace in perspective, creating diagonal lines which, together with the rocking chair, and the airy spaces where the white of the paper is allowed to show through, create a more dynamic composition.


Colour – The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts

Visit to Fitzwilliam Museum


A display in two darkened rooms of 150 illuminated manuscripts from prayer books, an alchemical scroll, the Macclesfield Psalter, and the ABC of a 5 year old child.  The images have been sheltered in cherished volumes from medieval and renaissance times, while panel and wall paintings have often been destroyed.

The exhibits on show range from the 6th to the 16th century, and include Byzantine, Armenian, Sanskrit and Persian manuscripts from all over Europe and the Middle East.

The technologies used to produce these beautiful miniature paintings, and the meanings and values ascribed to the paintings were explained in the exhibition.  I picked up a magnifying glass from a table by the entrance to the exhibition.

To view these finely detailed, postcard sized paintings, I had to position myself just inches from them.  The glass and my proximity revealed wonders I’d never expected – I felt as if I had crossed into the paintings, that I had crossed into another world, like Alice Through the Looking Glass, or Harry Potter on Platform 9 3/4.

The detail and colours in these paintings are exquisite, but more than that, they were made in an imaginative, expressive way.  Depending on the subject, colours were used to express moods such as melancholy, grief, joy etc.  Colours – often pinks juxtaposed with greens – were used inventively to describe atmosphere, such as the strange eerie light of dawn.  Colours – azurites and deep vermillions – were used to describe intricate folds of garments, with subtle gradations of dark to light tones. Varieties of gold abounded – gold leaf punched with a stylus, or powdered gold bestowing a textured gleam.

The subjects ranged from religious scenes, soft and sinuous compositions painted with moving realism; to depictions of the science and the wondrous discoveries of the day; to fantastical inventions – alchemists’ scrolls of dragons and amphibious men.  All were painted with feeling, engaging my mind through the intense visual stimulation, and stirring up my emotions.

This intricate, patient, disciplined art is a far cry from what we’re accustomed to think of as modern art today.  Viewing the illuminations, i did come to see that detailed, skilful, patient work and creative, imaginative outcomes aren’t mutually exclusive.  I looked at the work of Mark Fairnington in Part 1 of my course, and when I’m back at home I’m going to try to find some more examples of contemporary practise which combines fine, painstaking detail on a small scale, with a creative, imaginative interpretation of subject.



Fitzwilliam digital resource:

Museum visit – classical fragments

Visit to Antalya Archaeological Museum

This museum has collected together archaeological fragments from the surrounding ancient regions of Pamphylia, Lycia, Cilicia, Psidia – Classical Greek and Roman sites such as Xanthos, Aspendos, Perge, as well as other more ancient settlements.  Uninterrupted history from traces of earliest human settlements to the present is found in this coastal Mediterranean strip and the fertile lands inland.


Some fine Pergeian sarcophagi, elaborately decorated in high relief stone carving, are on display here.  The carvings depict human and mythical creatures, with scenes from myth, legend and life (the twelve labours of Hercules; the Killing of the Nemean Lion and the capture of other animals, Hercules again, this time in combat with the Cretan Bull)


There are more than one hundred 2nd century ad. marble figures from the Roman period of occupation of Asia Minor, mainly from the nearby ancient city of Perge.There is also a rich collection of busts, each a unique  work of art, at the same time being rooted in the distinctive Perge sculpture tradition of sharply delineated contours and details.

The most engaging and ‘human’ of these sculptures is that of a dancer, carved in a whirling motion, the folds of her clothes revealing the contours of her body. Her hands hold the folds of her skirt, and her neck is turned to lead her motion in the dance.  These are effective strategies to express movement in the human figure.  I liked how the clothes and hair were from a type of darker marble, and her body was carved from white marble. Whereas most of the marble statues are static poses, carved to depict power and prosperity, this one seems to be honouring beauty and vitality.


Artists through the ages have used Greek and Roman statuary as source material and inspiration.  I was struck with the similarity of style, pose and gesture between the statue of the dancer above and the work of Sandro Botticelli shown at Botticelli Reimagined, such as his Venus and Warhol’s reimagining of it.



I like the fragmented nature of these statues.  My eye was engaged in filling in the missing elements and constructing my own vision of the pieces I was looking at.  At the same time, the broken fragments speak of passing ages, and of the recurring disruptions and destructions that seem to go hand in hand with human society.  Nothing stays the same; things, whole societies are broken and destroyed; but vestiges, fragments, remain to bear witness to what was; and elements of what was endure, develop and métamorphose into new forms, new cultures.

In other halls there are gold, silver, bronze and ivory aretefacts from the Phyrigian and other much more ancient cultures  – fine statuettes, silver plaques, belts, cauldrons.  Some of the most beautiful are the statuettes and talismans with pure, simple lines.  I took photos of a few objects which appealed to me, but there were many many more.

I was struck by the huge differences between these earlier statuettes and the later grand Pergeian sculptures of the human figure.  What simplicity and eloquence of line in the earlier works.  They express a very fine sense of the imaginary world, achieved through simplification, exagerration and distortion of line and form.  They communicate an appreciation of simple beautiful lines, and express an empathy with the human condition.  Barbara Hepworth had a collection of ancient objects which served as inspiration for her own work, in which she echoes the simplicity of form of the ancient objects.

I saw these and hew work in The Hepworth Wakefield recently.


The later Greek and Roman monumental statues displayed in Antalya express power, wealth, authority, and achieve a fine realism; embedded in the culture of the time,  the mythological subjects are expressions of the human imagination too.  But the sculptures portray them in a realistic human form, their attributes identifying their story and their powers.

I’m looking forward to seeing Marc Quinn’s take on this in the spring. In an exhibition of his new works ‘Drawn from Life’ at the V&A, where he will show a series of fragmentary sculptures based on antique sculptures in the museum, to reveal resonances between historical artefact and contemporary life.  The fragments are said to be  ‘ integrally ambiguous, demonstrating both destruction and the passage of time, whilst showing the potential for completeness.’ (  These works will continue his long conversation with the art of the classical world, which I first came across at Arter Art Space in Istanbul in 2014, where he exhibited The Complete Marbles and Self among other works (see my log here).




Walter Benjamin Archive

Various aspects of Walter Benjamin’s personal archive are examined by the editors of this book.  It’s not an orderly, objective archive, its very personal and it reveals the passions and interests of the man, who was evidently a keen collector.  There are chapters on the photos he took, his collections of Russian toys and postcards, the sayings of his son as a child, games and riddles, scraps of paper he wrote on, notes he took, the graphic appearance of his writing on the page of his notebooks.

Benjamin’s purpose in creating his archives was to record the present moments and physical surroundings in which he lived.  Saying this seems self evident.  But most of us do live as though the everyday will always be the same; we take our surroundings so much for granted and don’t notice or take an interest in much of it.  Reflecting on, recording and collecting the everyday things around him was an important part of his life and work.

He looked back to the past nostalgically as well.  The toys he was interested in weren’t the factory mass-produced ones of his times, but the beautifully hand crafted ones made by people living a way of life that was remote from his and that was disappearing – that of the rural peasantry.  The ancient past also appears in his archives, for example in a collection of postcards of mosaics of the Sybil’s from Siena cathedral.

Benjamin’s archives, whether recording past or present, are, to us, from a lost past world, both in content and form.  The act of hand-writing these days is quite unusual to see.  While traveling the other day I saw a fellow passenger across the aisle writing – putting physical pen to physical paper – in what looked like a journal, and then later marking up a book with her notes.  I was taken aback by how unusual the sight seemed to be nowadays.  Like the pages of Benjamin’s archives, her writing had a graphic, personal appearance on the page, which expressed her decisions and interests, that made a physical, enduring mark, in a way that electronic media doesn’t.

Benjamin’s archiving techniques – collecting excerpts and cuttings, montaging and sticking them in his journals – can equally be used in the work of the visual artist. They can inform the work and / or become a physically integrated part of it.  Collage comes to mind.  Mona Hatoum’s video, Measures of Distance, herecombines in layers a reading out loud of her mothers letters, with facsimiles of those letters interwoven with Hatoum’s video of herself.  In my work, I layered the sung words and the dance of flamenco in part one work.  In part 2 I layered collages of newspaper consumerism with a painting of household collections to express the modern frenzy of accumulating ‘stuff’.

As I continue through this course I’m hoping myself to become more aware of the visual qualities of everyday objects and events around me.  Apart from providing a source of visual inspiration I think this habit developed may ground one more in the present.

Erythraean Sybil – Floor mosaic, Siena Cathedral
Erythraean Sybil – Michaelangelo

Abstract Expressionists and King Lear

What an extra-ordinary exhibition this is.  They say the paintings were born of the common experience of artists living in the 1940s. Many of the works in the exhibition reflect the darkness of those times, marred by two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, atomic bombs.  Out of this context, dark works emerged, later segueing into a contemplative movement characterised by freedom of expression.

The very same day I went to see the RSC’s production of King Lear with Anthony Sher in the lead role, and it resonated with the dark preoccupations of the AbEx’s.  In our times, just as in King Lear’s and the AbEx’s, anxieties are focussed on isolation, dementia, war and terror, and the miseries of millions of displaced and enslaved people.But back to the paintings themselves, and thoughts of what they might mean for my own practise.



The exhibition is arranged in 12 rooms, each one devoted either to a single artist, or a small group of artists whose work had something in common.

Arshile Gorky – an artist I haven’t looked at before, I found the drawing quality of his paintings, and his use of colour very appealing. Water of the Flowery Mill (1944, oil on canvas, 107×124) is an abstract, landscape inspired painting. I can interpret elements from the landscape – flowers, sky, grass etc – but they’re disguised well.   It’s bright, warm colours appeal to the senses, make me feel warm and happy. It has a complex, strong design of light and dark areas; of large shapes around the edges and small shapes drawing the eye to the centre; together with drawn marks.  I also liked Gorky’s works on paper with their fine graphite marks mixed with broad swathes of roughly applied colourful crayon. My overall impression of his work is playful (think scribble, graffiti), colourful, with a strong element of drawing.

Jackson Pollock was an artist I looked at in Painting 1, and I was excited to see his work in the flesh here, especially one I’d studied and adopted in my own work at the time.  I’d never come across the monumentally scaled Blue Poles (1952, enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, 212×489 cm) before.  The title is interesting – it was called simply “Number 11, 1952” originally, and I agree with others the name “Blue Poles” rather distracts from the whole.

In a discussion of the work on the making of the painting is described as a long and exacting process.  It appears spontaneous but was not, it took time and planning.

Sam Francis is an artist I hadn’t come across before.  His huge paintings were represented here by the large grey canvas ‘Black Clouds’ and a couple of colourful canvases.  I particular liked Summer No 2 for it harmonious palette of blue, green and turquoise, with two thirds of the canvas left white.  This induced a feeling of peace and fresh air, maybe the reason for the artist’s choice of title.

By contrast the canvases of Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline in the next room were composed of large, simple, dramatic – you could say violent – black marks on a white ground.  Motherwell introduces a small amount of a third colour, burnt sienna or lemon yellow, which looked elegant and softened the overall effect.  Kline would use a projector to compose his paintings, enlarging and cropping an image until just a few abstract marks remained.

De Kooning canvases seemed to alternate between abstract and figurative, and his female figures are distorted, harsh, monstrous.  He used oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas in the works exhibited.  The treatment of the female in his work is sometimes described as misogynistic; he claimed they were not, but it’s hard to believe the artist saw anything attractive in his subject.

Barnett Newman‘s work in the next room was different from the others, in that his canvases (while still huge) were composed of neat vertical stripes or simple geometric areas, and not gestural abstractions.  His compositions and choice of colours (blues and reds, e.g. Ulysses) feel balanced and satisfying.  The canvases appear simple, but colours and edges are subtly modulated.

His paintings led as in a sudden shift of quality to those of Mark Rothko.  There are similarities – simple, geometric shapes and lines in harmonious colours on large canvases – but to my eye Rothko’s paintings are infinitely more subtle.  I felt I could sink into his canvases the longer I contemplated them – there seemed to be layers on layer of veils of colour hiding infinite depths.  Edges dissolved, colours wavered.  I was surprised at the palette on these Rothkos, being more familiar with his dark black and red works at the Tate; here were yellows and oranges, light, bright colours, but also one black on grey canvas.

Clifford Still‘s paintings like Newman’s are dominated by the vertical.  I identified in these large abstract zig-zag compositions a similarity to the landscape of my home; chasms, gorges, abysses, layer on layer of jagged edges separating receding tones; pine-forested planes receding into the distance.  The colours are flat and simplified.

Finally, I came to a vast four panel painting by Joan Mitchell, Salut Tom 4 and spent a while basking in the sunny yellows, greens, blues and whites of this abstract, expressive composition.


Abstract Expressionism isn’t characterised by one group of artists working together, using one style, technique or approach.  Rather it is a roundup term for those artists working (broadly) in the US between the world wars, whose paintings have in common a more or less abstract, expressive quality, and which are often made on a very large scale.  This definition allows for a wide variety in the works  on display in the exhibition.  Each artist stood more or less alone, there seemed to be little shared in common  by them as one sees in, for example the impressionists or cubists.