What does the ‘i’ in iPhone stand for?

According to Steve Jobs biography it all started with the first iMac, you remember the one with a CRT display and a semi-transparent case in white and aqua blue. Well, it was the first computer that was ready to connect to the internet straight out of the box. Hence “i” for internet and the rest is history.

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Leonardo Da Vinci – National Gallery

AN exhibition focussing on Leonardo da Vinci’s painting opens at the National Gallery London on 9 November 2011 and has managed to persuade many galleries around the world to lend works for the show, although surprisingly the Louvre hasn’t lent the Mona Lisa.

Here’s the exhibition link:

Of the 18 paintings included in the exhibition, five were showstoppers and one made me wonder if it was really by Leonardo at all.

We visited the show first thing on a Sunday morning. Even so there was a queue around the building for that day’s tickets and inside the exhibition was very crowded. It made it difficult to get a good look at the paintings because they are mostly fairly small, but the effort was well worth it.

Leonardo’s technique was so refined that it is difficult to see what he was doing and how he achieved his effects without getting within a couple of feet of the works. This applies especially to the drawings, many of which are as small as, or smaller than postcard size. He must have had incredibly sharp vision to put so much detail into such small work.

“La Belle Ferroniere” 1490-94 is an oil painting on wooden panel. It appears a very simple composition of a beautiful young woman sitting at an angle, with her head turned towards the viewer. The flesh and features are painted with unbelievable delicacy. Look closely and you realize the face has no outline it just fades imperceptibly into the background, but her hair draped across her left cheek is surprisingly flat and lacking in detail. Has it been restored or was Leonardo only interested in painting the structure of the head and the texture of the skin?

“Lady with an Ermine” 1489-90 is also an oil on panel. She was Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Duke Ludovico who Da Vinci worked for. The composition is more complex, the body turned to the left and the head turned to the right. In her arms the young woman holds the ermine in the title and allows Leonardo to show his virtuosity in rendering fur as well as flesh and skin. As with La Ferroniere, the background is completely dark, focusing attention on the woman and her pet ermine, which in the 15th century was a symbol for purity. It is a wonderfully calm portrait, but the 15 year olds hand that holds the ermine seems huge in relation to her head and also very masculine. It is almost as though the painting is an assemblage of closely observed elements.

Apart from the figure of St Jerome himself, much of this painting was left at the under painting stage and is difficult to engage with.

By contrast the two paintings of “The Madonna of the Rocks” 1495-1508 are both highly finished despite their size, surely a sign that the studio assistants did much of the background painting? These are both great compositions with beautifully painted women and strangely unpleasant images of babies. Why was it that so many Renaissance artists struggled to paint convincing babies and children?


My final highlight is another Virgin and child, with a goldfinch nestling between them (a symbol of Christ’s passion and the crucifixion). The painting is tempera on canvas and the colours are sharp and clear. The Virgin wears blue and red robes and behind her the wall of the chamber has two windows showing a glimpse of the outside world – an Italian landscape. It is a far more tender image than the much grander Virgin of the Rocks and is extremely detailed thanks to the use of tempera which must be applied in individual strokes as used in fresco painting, quite different from oil painting technique.

Andrew Graham Dixon questions whether the Virgin is by Leonardo himself and also questions the authenticity of the recently discovered “Salvator Mundi”. For me this work is painted in strange ghostlike colours and lacking the sharpness of vision seen in all the other works. The colours are most unrealistic and the contrast range is very flat. If it is indeed a genuine Leonardo, it’s difficult to believe that it hasn’t gone through some over enthusiastic restoration in the past and that what we see is at best the under painting for a work. It is understandable that the pressure to authenticate it as a genuine Da Vinci is immense because of the commercial value of such a rare commodity.

Finally, I found the room devoted to the Last Supper strangely fascinating. There was a life-sized facsimile of the original, but hung low enough to look at in detail. There was also a copy borrowed from Oxford that is not brilliantly painted, but which does show much of the detail that has been lost forever in the original and a number of drawings that could be studies for the work.

Overall, you could say it was more like archaeology than an exhibition but interesting and well worth the visit.

Andrew Graham Dixon, in his review of the exhibition concluded: “The astonishing depth of anatomical and scientific research that underpinned all of his work as a painter – and distracted him from doing more of it – is also evident here, in a broad and vivid selection of his drawings and studies.

“He stands confirmed as one of the least prolific, yet most profoundly innovative artists who ever lived.” 

Praise indeed.


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Burra Brilliant at Chichester

The Edward Burra exhibition at the Pallant Gallery Chichester is a stunning show. If you ever thought watercolour is a twee, gutless medium you need to see these paintings. They use watercolours, as you have never seen the medium used before, to create some amazing images.

Clearly Burra was not content to dwell on the formal aspects of painting but used his imagination and talent to set down his commentary on the society in which he found himself, whether that was Rye in Sussex where he lived, Paris where he studied, New York and Harlem which he visited, or the horrors of the Spanish civil war.

His style exposes the subject in pin-sharp detail while the settings range from the domestic to the surreal. His modelling of bodies is more like the way many sculptors work, explaining the mass of the person using shading to describe the way light falls across the surface of 3D shapes.

The exhibition is divided into five main sections.

High Art, Low Culture – The first room includes people in bars, on the streets, talking and laughing and is inhabited by sailors, prostitutes and people in jazz clubs. The images are packed with detail, not a square inch is wasted and yet Burra’s sense of design makes them work beautifully.

In “The Snack Bar” 1930, the barman carries on slicing ham while a girl eats her sandwich, ignoring a man in the background who is also eating something. More weird is “Marriage a la mode” 1928-29 where the central group of bride, groom, best man, maid of honour and priest are surrounded by strange goings on amongst the congregation. There is a weeping woman, flying children with watering cans and a wonderful cast of lookers on. Every inch is packed but the overall design and visual logic holds it all together as a scene lit by floodlight.

The “Silver Dollar Bar” from 1953 is a virtuoso piece of chiaroscuro and composition, but in style is quite different from much of his work. It is breathtaking the way he takes liberties with perspective and uses colour dramatically rather than descriptively.

The Danse Macabre – has more serious intent, with titles such as:
“War in the sun” 1938 and “Soldiers Backs” 1942. Figures are distorted and abstracted and colours are heightened. In the civil war works the bulbous figures and purple/orange figures are reminiscent of some of the horror images in the frescos Signorelli executed in the Duomo at Orvieto. Other figures seem to carry an echo of Leger and his figures made up of cylinders and spheres.

Other images are closer to fantasy such as “Beelzebub” or “Dancing Skeletons” 1934. In “Blue Baby Blitz Over Britain” 1941 a symbolic threatening bird-like figure hovers over a barren landscape representing war.

I find these images less compelling that the more direct subjects. It’s as if when an artist decides to deliberately tackle big social themes, the images themselves lose their lightness, becoming waterlogged with their messages.

A Sense of Unease

Mainly post-war pictures including the wonderful image of a group of youths kicking around a straw effigy. Full of pent-up emotion, what is this dummy being used as a surrogate for, one wonders?

“Esso” is a scene of an industrial port with cameo beach scenes, apocalyptic black ducks and storks with spiky red legs against a backdrop of an industrial coastline dominated by a huge bridge carrying traffic across the bay. A dystopian vision which ranks alongside Lowry’s industrial best.

The British landscape sees Burra returning to the landscape around his home territory of the South of England. His colour palette is more restricted and in many works the images are more literal eg “Landscape near Rye” and Cabbages Spring Field Rye”. The lack of people in these paintings points up how important they are in getting across Burra’s ideas and in “The Harbour Hastings” it is as if with a sigh of relief his cast of characters reappears to animate this scene of boatbuilding, net mending and other seaside activity.

Not everyone shares this opinion, as one other visitor to the exhibition said on entering the landscape room “What a lovely change after all that red – just look at that lovely sky.”

Late Landscapes

Burra experimented and tried new ideas throughout his life and in 1973 he painted “Sugar Beet East Anglia” building on his landscape work, but reintroducing people, this time as semi transparent almost ghost-like presences. Was he thinking about the contrast between the permanence of the land and the temporary nature of flesh and blood? I don’t know but it makes a haunting image, as does his painting of the “Road to Whitby” wreathed in mist and bathed in sunlight by turns, just as any visitor to the North York Moors will have seen but perhaps not capture on paper.

“English Countryside” 1965 reasserts the importance of the overall design  of a picture, contrasting the abstract beauty of the landscape with the manmade scars of roads and power lines.

It is astonishing that one artist could compass so much, even without taking account of his difficulty in holding a brush or pen because of his arthritis. Finally, it was great to see him being interviewed and saying who cares about what I say, just go and look at the pictures, they tell you everything I have to say!

Mac in a Box

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Grayson Perry – British Museum

Like autumn leaves falling from the trees, the season of new exhibitions is upon us. Shows to watch out for include:

Grayson Perry at the British Museum London 6 Oct 2011-19 Feb 2012. An exhibition called “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman”. It is a selection of Grayson’s own work displayed alongside objects from the collection selected by him.

A Guardian interview questioned “How hubristic is it of Perry to place his own work alongside these hallowed artefacts? “Of course it’s hubristic,” he said. “I’m absolutely aware of the bitter irony of it being called The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman when it’s in fact a celebrity artist’s vanity project.”

However Adrain Searle was impressed by the scope of the show. His article is here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/oct/06/grayson-perry-tomb-unknown-craftsman-review?INTCMP=SRCH

Here’s a link to the Britsh Museum’s information page: http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/grayson_perry.aspx

I’m looking forward to visiting the show and afterwards will post my own reactions.

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