National Portrait Gallery, London
5 March – 14 June 2009
By DOROTHY FEAVER
Reliable employment yielded moments of the methodical. The Barker Children (1809), for example, has little Robert centre-stage, a truculent toddler staring from between patient older sisters. He sports the exact same red booties and odd little boy décolleté last seen on Robert Crawford some five years before, a painting that is not included in the present exhibition. There are gleams of signature vocabulary, as in the close-up of sister Mary, whose tender solidity is quickened by a dab of red on the eyelids – those same red dabs, like smoldering match stick ends, that make the landscapes fizzle. Yet from affectionate keepsakes of loved-ones to the expedient commissions, the portraits are rarely adorned by setting.
Summer ‘06 and a trip to Brathay Hall in the Lake District brought Constable into contact with Wordsworth and Coleridge, but directed by commission, it was the wealthy amateur writer Charles Lloyd that Constable happened to immortalize, a picture of romantic gloom. A sketch of a musical party engenders a particularly longwinded label: ‘It is not clear why Constable, ostensibly a dedicated painter of landscape, produced such a quantity of figure studies. One explanation is that he intended at this point to follow a career as a specialist in group portraiture and conversation pieces…they also, however, seem to show signs of sheer pleasure in recording his human surroundings.’ It would be equally plausible, and less verbose, to imagine Constable shielding himself from the discomfiture of flirting over the piano by pencil and paper.
Real pleasure enters with Maria Bicknell. From the earliest drawing here (1805-9), paper blushes with pencil. Over seven years’ courtship Maria retains the same spaniel-like charm and eminently pettable head. The portrait from 1816 – the year that Golding died, bequeathing John enough income for marriage - takes on an iconic status. John wrote to Maria, ‘I am sitting before your portrait, which when I took off the paper is so extremely like that I can hardly help going up to it. I never had an idea before the real pleasure that a portrait could offer’ (28 July 1816). So the family album takes on its own poignancy. Children appear: a baby (1819), resplendent in a just-fed stupor, all plump wrists and fat cheeks. Maria disappears. Fourteen-year-old son Charles (1835-6) sits in a comfortable slump, letting his book slip, dreaming of the open sea (he had just entered as midshipman on an East Indiaman).
Just married, Constable made a determined effort to bolster his living: 1818 is another peak of batch production. Mrs James Pulham Sr is more turkey than pullet in her silk dress, whose collar peels back like an overripe fruit. On an opposite wall, Reverend Dr John Wingfield, master of Westminster School, sits strict in horsehair wig, the wings of his collar clean as new leaves of paper. Next to him Mrs Edwards and her mother Mrs Tudor are wrapped up and beribboned like cakes at a church fete. This triple hang is an idea lifted straight from ‘Constable, le choix de Lucian Freud’, a vast exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, 2002. There, Mrs James Pulham Sr was hung in place of the Reverend, completing a drawing room drill - glossy flanks, plumed headdress, eyes right. Co-curators Anne Lyles and Martin Gayford claim the credit for organising the first exhibition to explore Constable’s life and art through his portraits – willfully overlooking Freud’s Choice, for which Lyles served on the scientific committee. The Grand Palais used portraiture to flesh out Constable’s vision of an entire world. The small Porter Gallery at the NPG – an end-of-corridor space, without natural light, unaided by beige and aqua walls or the merchandise cabinet glowering over the final room - seems, by contrast, blinkered. It is of course in the NPG’s constitution to favour the historical over the artwork.
Kippenberger's restless stylistic movements resist the monumentality that a retrospective can impart, and this resistance gives the exhibition a manic energy. Rooms full of painted pastiche spill out into sculptures, books, catalogues and installations; small sketches on hotel notepaper relate obliquely to larger pieces, and internal references bind disparate works together.
On the Trail of Wise Fools and Simpletons in the Himalayas
Those unfamiliar with Tantric Siddhas and Himalayan art, culture and religion may be surprised to learn that Himalayan history is filled with stories of spiritual beings who, it is said, attained enlightenment through highly unorthodox means. 'Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas', currently on view at New York's Rubin Museum of Art, presents more than 100 paintings, sculptures and photographs of Tantric Siddhas, produced during these figures' illustrious history.
Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution 1760-1830
The Royal Academy of Arts is currently hosting 'Citizens and Kings: Portraiture in the Age of Revolution'. However, despite the British Museum's own superb and scholarly comprehensive exhibition entitled 'Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century' (2003), there seems little evidence of deep scholarship here, building upon that masterly tour de force. Rather, this is (of course) an 'entertainment' (which it undoubtedly will prove to be for the broad mass of the Royal Academy's regular public). This is a shame, for the British Museum had unearthed a world of discovery, no less.
BP Portrait Award 2007
When this annual exhibition was launched 28 years ago it suffered some hostile critical reception but has now built itself into something of a national institution, and I personally try never to miss one. Over the years it has presented some work of good quality, and featured artists who have gone on to make a contribution to the art of portraiture. This year
On Photography: A Tribute to Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag's passionate engagement with photography is the subject of a small but intriguing bit of curatorial ingenuity; a show that offers a handful of Sontag's potent statements on the medium illustrated with images that provide point and counterpoint to her ideas.