Piranesi Drawings: Visions of Antiquity

1908,0616.44 (recto)-1

(British Museum, London, 20 February until 9 August 2020)

What do you think of when you think of Piranesi? Labyrinthine staircases and ominous prisons? The ruined monuments of ancient Rome? Marble vases brought home by Grand Tourists and Swedish kings? All of these would be absolutely correct, but each of them offers only one facet of the man. One way to get a broader sense of Piranesi’s achievements, as architect, designer, printmaker, publisher and art dealer, is by looking at his drawings; and, by happy chance, you can do just that at the moment here in London. In a completely shameless act of self-promotion, I wanted to flag a free exhibition at the British Museum (curated by me), running from tomorrow until 9 August 2020. Piranesi drawings: visions of antiquity presents all 51 of the Museum’s drawings by Piranesi. It’s one of the richest collections in the world, spanning his career from his arrival in Rome in 1740, as a young man of twenty, to his death in 1778 as one of the most influential and admired advocates of ancient Roman architecture. There’ll be traces of ‘your’ Piranesi here, whether you know him best as a visionary printmaker or a methodical antiquarian, but I hope you’ll also get a sense of just how exuberant and wide-ranging his talents were. Join me below the line for an unofficial romp through Piranesi’s life and work.

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The Renaissance Nude


(Royal Academy, London, until 2 June 2019)

What do St Sebastian, Lucretia, Hercules and Eve have in common? All four of them allowed Renaissance artists to experiment with representations of the nude body. The Royal Academy’s new exhibition – formerly on view at the Getty in Los Angeles – focuses on this depiction of the unclothed form during the 15th and 16th centuries, taking in both Northern and Italian art, and explores the different meanings that the nude could have: from innocence to eroticism, Christianity to classical myth, brute strength to sensuality. It’s almost a shame that a subject of such breadth and promise is confined to the cramped Sackler Galleries upstairs, but the five rooms nevertheless include a select treasure-trove of paintings and drawings by some of the most celebrated artists of the time – some very famous works, other less familiar but remarkably beautiful.

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Mantegna and Bellini

Mantegna: Presentation in the Temple

(National Gallery, London, 1 October 2018 – 27 January 2019)

Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was not used to being refused. She was one of the most enlightened and demanding patrons of the Italian Renaissance, a well-educated woman who appreciated antique sculpture as much as the work of her brilliant contemporaries. However, in the years around 1500, Isabella found herself rebuffed by not one but two of the greatest painters of the day. The first was Leonardo, whom Isabella pursued in vain in the hope of getting a painted portrait (she eventually made do with a portrait drawing). And the second was Giovanni Bellini, whom Isabella approached via her Venetian agents. She invited him to contribute a picture to her famous studiolo – her private study, where she displayed a bevy of sophisticated allegories – and her instructions were that Bellini should paint an historia: a picture based on historical, mythological or allegorical themes. Bellini, very politely, declined. Isabella’s agent wrote to explain: it wasn’t that the elderly painter (Bellini was about sixty-five at the time) wanted to spite Her Ladyship, far from it. He just baulked at the thought of painting something so different from the devotional pictures and portraits which were his strength. Besides, the agent added, Bellini didn’t wish to set himself up against Andrea Mantegna, who had been the Gonzaga court artist for forty years.

You can understand Bellini’s wariness. Mantegna was an acknowledged master of the complex, esoteric allegories that Isabella and her courtiers so loved, and a difficult man to boot; but this was more than a case of professional discretion. Bellini and Mantegna were brothers-in-law. For more than fifty years, they’d been aware of each other’s work, borrowing ideas and motifs, experimenting with the same themes while developing strikingly distinct styles. But their rivalry had so far been a friendly one, and Bellini had no desire to affront his famously irritable brother-in-law. It is this strange relationship – a little-known connection between two of the greatest Renaissance artists – which forms the topic of the National Gallery’s autumn exhibition, and it’s one which is particularly close to my heart: I’m co-curating this show, alongside three wonderful colleagues, and we’ve been preparing it for two long years. Finally, the opening day is almost here, and I thought it was high time to give you a sneak peek. (Get a cup of tea first. It’s a long one.)

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Dorothea Lange: The Politics of Seeing

Lange: Unemployed lumber worker

(Barbican Art Gallery, London, closed on 2 September 2018)

Dorothea Lange was no stranger to adversity: at the age of seven, she survived an attack of polio which left her with a limp for the rest of her life. After studying photography in New York, she moved to San Francisco in 1919, opening a portrait photography studio in the city centre. She became the favourite photographer of the city’s elite, gifted with a shrewd insight into the personalities of her sitters. But in the early 1930s something changed. Lange began to see impoverished men, women and children flooding into the city from the ‘Dust Bowl’ states out east. Droughts and over-farming, coupled with the economic crash of 1928, had ushered in the Great Depression. Their plight electrified her: in 1934 she closed her studio and devoted her life to cataloguing the world around her. The Barbican’s stunning retrospective was a worthy celebration of this remarkable woman: a visionary artist with a social conscience, capturing images which, even a century later, evoke the brutal realities faced by many thousands of her countrymen.

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Monet and Architecture

Monet: Houses of Parliament

(National Gallery, London, closed on 29 July 2018)

And I’m late again in posting about an exhibition. Sorry about this: summer travelling really isn’t conducive to getting things done on time. Anyway, it’ll be a good way to look back on a lovely show. Now, I’ll be upfront: I have not traditionally been a great fan of Monet. I don’t dislike his pictures – he doesn’t make me shudder, as some late female nudes by Renoir do – but, when I’ve seen his paintings in museums, they’ve rarely moved me to anything more than dutiful appreciation. As ever, much of my indifference was due to a lack of understanding. And that’s why the National Gallery’s present exhibition was such a revelation to me, because it rescued those waterlilies and seascapes and rivers from their chocolate-box ubiquity and reframed them as part of a dynamic story of experimentation and evocation. Monet was a painter of light and air and water, but he was also an inveterate painter of architecture, and this exhibition shows how he used a variety of man-made structures to order his compositions, emphasise the interplay between man and nature, and display the transformative power of light.

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Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography

Cameron: Sadness (Ellen Terry)

(until 20 May 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shouldering up against the wall, the girl turns her face away from the light. We catch her in an unguarded moment, her blouse slipping off her shoulder and her hair mussed, her fingers tangling in her necklace. This is the celebrated actress Ellen Terry at the age of seventeen, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron during her brief, ill-suited marriage to the much older painter George Frederick Watts. It isn’t a portrait but an allegory, titled Sadness, and Cameron gives us the impression of trespassing on something deeply personal. It’s one of the most arresting images from a clutch of wonderful mid-Victorian photographs currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery, tracing the early days of this art form through the works of four pioneers: Cameron herself; her teacher Oscar Rejlander; Lewis Carroll; and the ‘amateur’ artist Lady Clementine Hawarden.

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Rubens: The Power of Transformation

Rubens: The Fur

(Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, until 21 January 2018)

My apologies for the recent silence. It’s been a rather frantic weekend and I’m only just getting to the point where I can think again. I was also off on a business trip last week in Vienna, which was (as ever) an utter joy. I fetched up at the Kunsthistorisches Museum last Tuesday afternoon, planning to have an indulgent hot chocolate in the wonderful café, and then to potter in the Italian galleries; but my visit was supplemented by this very impressive exhibition about Rubens.

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Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

Scythian Rider

(British Museum, London, until 14 January 2018)

Since I began the year with a tale of adventure in the Caucasus, I thought I’d follow that up by (finally) sharing some thoughts on the Scythians show at the British Museum. I hasten to add that the exhibition is nothing to do with me: I’m simply a visitor, and an enthusiastic one at that. I’ve been round five times now and the exhibits never cease to amaze me. Excavated from the Siberian permafrost, they offer a compelling picture of a people largely overlooked by the modern world, but who were admired and feared in equal measure by their ancient contemporaries. The Scythians were lethal horse-archers, notorious drinkers, proud warriors and superb craftsmen in gold, wood and leather. And yet so little of their culture survives. These treasures from frozen tombs help to bring that scintillating world back into focus.

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Canaletto and the Art of Venice (2017)

Canaletto: View of the Salute

(Queen’s Gallery, London, until 12 November 2017)

In 1762, the young George III purchased en bloc the collection of Joseph Smith, the British consul in Venice. In doing so, he became at one stroke the owner of the greatest collection of Canaletto paintings and drawings in the world. These works have been in the Royal Collection ever since and now, gloriously, they’re brought together in a stunning exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, offering an abundance of Venetian delights. All in all, if you have any fondness for Venetian splendour, you must not miss this show.

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Michelangelo & Sebastiano (2017)

Sebastiano: Christ Carrying the Cross

(National Gallery, London, 15 March-25 June 2017)

The current National Gallery exhibition is a lovingly-crafted feast for the mind, focusing on a remarkable, though somewhat one-sided friendship. This is the tale of a talented young painter in search of new opportunities, who manages against the odds to become friends with the most difficult, most demanding artist of the age. Our painter is amazed when this great maestro decides to collaborate with him. But that collaboration must come at a price: the young man departs from the style of his youth and devotes himself to assimilating the master’s aesthetic. But what happens when the friendship sours? This is a story worthy of a novel, full of ambition, envy, manipulation and exploitation, Renaissance rivalry and tragically one-sided devotion. And some truly beautiful art.

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