Francis Bacon and Walt Disney

This was the title of a chapter in John Berger’s book “About Looking”. I saw the Bacon exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts some months ago and when I saw the title of this chapter  I had to read it again to make sure I had read it properly!

In fact Berger’s point is the way in which both Bacon and Disney take a particular part of the human anatomy and emphasise it out of all proportion to how it is found in nature. Thus Jiminy cricket’s head is huge in comparison to its body and Bacon will sometimes take a feature, Isabel Rawsthorne’s eye or nose for example, and emphasise this way beyond the attention given to the rest of the face.

I found that having read this chapter in Burgess book I was able to look at Bacon’s work anew. When I first saw it I obviously saw the “grotesque” eye or nose or whatever but perhaps didn’t think beyond that. Having read Berger’s words it made me think more about what Bacon was trying to achieve and why he had painted the portrait in the way that he had.

Berger wasn’t directly comparing the work of Bacon and Disney but the point that he made about how they both overemphasise parts of the body made me think in a lot more detail about the work of Bacon that I had seen.


BERGER, J., 2009. About looking. London: Bloomsbury.

A Very Fine Line

This was a discussion in The Guardian between David Hockney and the art critic Martin Gayford about what turns a picture into a masterpiece.

It was an interesting article and one quote from David Hockney struck me. In a discussion on landscapes in general and Monet’s Sunset on the Seine in Winter in particular, he said “Renaissance European perspective has a vanishing point, but it does not exist in Japanese and Chinese painting. And a view from sitting still, from a stationary point, is not the way you usually see landscape; you are always moving through it. If you put a vanishing point anywhere, it means you’ve stopped. In a way, you’re hardly there”.

I found this to be a fascinating point and one which made me reconsider my whole values regarding landscapes and landscape photography. Are most landscapes “a view from sitting still”? I guess that a painter, with an easel, stopped at one point and reproduces his or her interpretation of the scene from that point. A photographer would do the same, plant their tripod at a particular point and then frame the scene they want to reproduce using a different focal length to obtain the exact scene.

What is the alternative? Hockney mentions Japanese and Chinese paintings and it is certainly true that the landscapes on the Sotatsu screens I studied earlier in this course were very different from those produced in the traditional European landscape mould.

This made me wonder if photography could emulate the Japanese and Chinese tradition rather than the European tradition of perspective and vanishing point? I guess the closest I’ve seen to this is Jeff Wall’s “A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) 1993” which takes as its inspiration “Travellers Caught in a Sudden breeze at Ejiri (c.1832) by Katsushika Hokusai.

In the original the plane of the landscape is very flat with limited recession into the scene. Wall’s version attempts to achieve a similar effect by using a grey flat sky, a river or canal that is cut off at the front and rear of the scene by ground giving a very limited feed of being led into the picture. Instead the viewers’ attention is drawn straight away to the tree, papers and people right at the very front of the image.

Wall is well known for the degree of digital manipulation that goes into his images and this may be the key to producing effects such as those achieved in Japanese and Chinese landscapes. In thinking about my next module for this course I was considering the level II module of landscape photography. I may just have discovered a very fruitful area of investigation for that course.

What is art?

I had struggled somewhat with this question, most recently in my review of the course. I found it difficult to imagine how something, that was not created as a work of art, could be considered as such. This was particularly brought to mind when I visited the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts to look at items displayed as art but which were created for devotional, spiritual or even functional purposes. With the help of an explanatory sheet from the Sainsbury Centre it became clear how something, not originally intended as an art form, could nevertheless be endowed with the qualities which we would now describe as artistic.


No sooner had I thought that I am beginning to recognise what art is, than my thoughts were challenged again when I read an article in the Tate Magazine. In it Alistair Hudson discusses ‘Arte Util’, roughly translating as “art as a tool”. He describes it as “proposing moving away from a market-driven, object-based conception to a broader creativity that is fundamental to human activity, with art able to transform ordinary life and effect social change by reconnecting to the world and the concerns of people”.


I was not too sure what this meant as I read it, but further on he mentioned a “strong and defensive reaction to Assemble winning the Turner Prize last year, particularly for those heavily invested in a system based on control and connoisseurship”. This made things a little clearer. I recall seeing an exhibition of Assemble’s work at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery last year. I remember thinking at the time how interesting a project it was with artists living in a disadvantaged part of Liverpool producing functional works of art (I particularly remember the fireplace surround’s made of concrete, but which contained demolition material from the area”. Hudson goes on to describe our current conception of art as “an autonomous thing, created by genius, mostly distinct from the messy, ordinary world, separated from it by the frame, the museum and the market”.


This stimulating article challenge my conception of art even further than had occurred with a visit to the SCVA. I liked Hudson’s description of our current definition of art being separated from the real world by “the frame, the museum and the market”. Thus all those objects I had studied at the SCVA, and which I had difficulty conceiving as art, I now not just regarded as such but also as part of an old fashioned, exclusive, elitist view of art.


But Hudson is not saying there is no role for the traditional view of art, but that we need an even wider view of what constitutes art.


Once again my view of what is art is challenged and expanded accordingly – no doubt this is a process that will continue.

Tutor Feedback on Part 6

I received feedback from my tutor on the last Assignment (No 5) in which there were, as always, many good points. One of the interesting questions she poses is how the relationship between my critical and creative thinking skills has progressed during the course (in terms of exploring new ideas). This is something I will give a lot more thought to once my Critical Review is out of the way..

I also need to show my critical and evaluative skills and have I reflected on and mapped my learning in a sustained way. Again this is something I need to look at in more detail and I will use the time once the critical review is completed to assess this and add to my Learning Log

A final question is have I become more confident in using art history specific vocabulary. I believe that, through my reading of the recommended course books, my knowledge of art history vocabulary is much wider than it was at the start of the course. I am sure that if you look through the annotations and exercises it should be clear that my use of language is much wider as the course has progressed. I have tried to visit as many exhibitions as I can over th period of the course and I have also learnt a lot from reading the catalogues and critical reviews of those exhibitions. One thing that has changed over the period of the course is that, at the start, I would often search out and read critical reviews before visiting an exhibition to see what others have said about it to help form my own opinion. Now I am much more likely to read such reviews after seeing the exhibition and consider whether or not they concur with the views I formed from having seeing it.

I also received some extremely useful feedback on the early draft of my Critical Review. Bearing this in mind I have changed the title (but not the subject) of the essay and will remove a lot of the introductory material which contained a lot of words but didn’t really contribute much to the main theme. I have also decided on a new structure for the essay given the comments made on the order of my analyses of the Burne-Jones and Rossetti paintings. I think that this will make the essay much sharper and provide a clearer structure in answering the central question.

Annotation: David by Michelangelo

The annotation in this part of the course was the statue of David by Michelangelo. There are any number of photographic images available, but it is very difficult to get a true appreciation of a sculpture from a two dimensional image.

The original statue is in Florence, but I knew that there was a copy in the Cast Court at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Going to Florence wasn’t an option (sadly) but a visit to the V&A when I was next in London was much more manageable.

So I went to see the copy in the Cast Court and I am really glad that I did. The statue is HUGE, something that you really do not appreciate from images in books or online. Descriptions refer to it being an imposing statue, but when you see it (albeit a copy) you really appreciate just what that means. Text book descriptions detail the veins on David’s hand or sinews in his arms, but it is only when you see it on the statue that you realise how important those features are in conveying a sense of anticipation and poise, ready for action. Indeed seeing the copy really brought home Michelangelo’s superb realistion of a sense of strength, concern and poise; you feel as though the statue could spring into action at any moment.

So yes I got a lot more out of seeing the copy at the V&A rather than tring to study it solely from photos.

This is my annotation of Michelangelo’s David

Building a Collection of Middle Eastern art

I was able to attend this lecture at the British Museum, given by Venetia Porter the curator of Islamic and contemporary Middle East. The Museum has been collecting works by Middle Eastern artists since the late 1980s and is continuing to develop the collection, concentrating on works on paper.

The talk was mainly about contemporary artists and works recently acquired by the Museum. The speaker showed work by many different artists, too numerous to mention here. I was interested to see all the work shown but I was particularly interested in four different artists.

Earlier in the day I had been to see the Kakiemon exhibition at the Museum, so it was particularly interesting to be shown the work of Raed Yassin from Lebanon. He used Chinese porcelain to portray key scenes from the Lebanese Civil War. We saw a photo of “The Mountain War” which was a white porcelain vase with battle scenes from the mountains painted on it in blue. I found it a telling contrast – the pure white of the porcelain and the blue painting – the purity of the porcelain depicting the horrors of war. Photos can be seen on Raed Yassin’s website.

The photographs of Abbas “Iran diary” 1979 were contemporary street photography but in the middle of the Iranian revolution. Many of the images were very striking and they can be seen on the Magnum Agency Website.

It was interesting to see a number of works where there were figural images. I had thought that representations of the human figure were very rare in Islamic art but Ms Porter stated that “figural representation has always been there in Islamic art – just not in a religious context”.

Calligraphy is renowned in parts of the Middle East, particularly in Iran and it was interesting to be shown a series of images where calligraphy real or abstracted – form part of the image. Mahmoud Hammad from Syria painted images in a cubist style, but incorporated calligraphic text within it. The work showed an artist “engaged with the modernist tradition” but who has added their own interpretation to it. “Untitled” can be seen here.

The final work shown was avery moving one. Syria’s Farideh Lashai had produced work based on Goya’s “Disasters of War”. It is very difficult to describe some 80 original photo intaglio prints (based on Goya’s work), had been created and then used to produce a video. The 80 prints were shown on a 10 x 8 grid and a spotlight shone on the various scenes in a seemingly random fashion. As they were spotlighted some of those individual scenes of war became animated. This is very difficult describe but it was very moving to see. The original prints can be found here

All in all a fascinating talk and one that expanded my knowledge of Middle Eastern art (from a very low base!).

Painting with Light at Tate Britain

This exhibition at Tate Britain explored the relationship between photography and painting. The Exhibition Guide explains “the invention of photography in 1839 contributed to a period of change for the visual arts in Britain. The development of new materials and techniques influenced painters and photographers who shared ambitions and ideas. These conversations were at the heart of artistic innovations in the Victorian and Edwardian ages”.

I found it a fascinating study of the subject. Some of the gallery notes explain how the two practitioners (photographers and painters) were intertwined. “Many photographers trained as painters” and “painters and illustrators used photographs as preparatory studies and as a substitute for props, costumes and models”.

There were some striking counterpoints in this exhibition. For example John Brett’s “Glacier of Rosenlaui” 1856 alongside Friedrich von Martens photograph of the same name from 1855.

John Brett

John Brett [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I found Brett’s oil painting much more evocative conveying a sense of place far more than the photograph was able to do. This is not a criticism of the photographer so much as a recognition of the nature of photography in its early days. It was interesting to note that Brett drew on photographic sources for his painting.

I tried to assess why I much preferred the painting to the photograph. I think that perhaps comes down to a number of factors:

  • Lighting of the scene. The photographer had to expose the film to represent the light grey of the sky, the whiteness of the snow and glacier. The difference in tonal range was huge and would be difficult to capture today let alone in the 1850s. In comparison Brett was able to apply his own interpretation to the dynamic ranges of light in the picture. This has given a more even illumination and allowed detail to be seen in all parts of the scene both very light and dark.
  • Brett has used the striations and formations of the rock and ice to emphasise pattern and rhythm which is not apparent in photograph.
  • The subtle use of colour in Brett’s painting has emphasised the scene. Obviously colour photography was not an option at the time. I don’t know how von Marten’s scene would have looked had he been able to capture it in colour, but I think that the limitations of black-and-white film are borne out in his photograph compared to the oil painting.
  • While the painter no doubt tried to faithfully record the scene, he was able to have his own’ interpretation’ to it, something not available to run Martin’s.

It was also interesting to see how painters used photography in their work. For example there were a number of photographs on display taken by John Robert Parsons of Jane Morris. The photographs were taken by Parsons, but Morris’s pose was determined by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the subsequent images were the source of both composition and natural detail for a series of paintings made by Rosetti of Morris including “Mariano”. The exhibition guide explains how the photographs were set up to emphasise Morris’s striking beauty, “they were set against flat backgrounds to accentuate the effect of the folding drapery and set off the dark hair profile. The focus emphasises Morris’s large dreamy eyes, and her attitude recalls Watt’s advice to Cameron that relaxed poses would create more beautiful impressions.”

Another area where photography and painting were totally intertwined was shown in the work of John Atkinson Grimshaw who took daytime photographs of street scenes and painted directly onto them using a technique of thinly applied paint coated with quick drying varnish. He may well have purchased some commercially published views of London for this purpose.

This led me to consider which is the art form in the “nocturnes” that he produced – was it in the original photographs? There must have been some artistic merit in the original scene, at least in terms of composition – the scene that Grimshaw painted would have been dictated by the photograph he chose to use.

Is there artistic merit in the painting of a photograph or is it just an early version of “painting by numbers”? Personally I thought that there was a lot of skill involved in Grimshaw’s method, the final product is very appealing as an image, he may well have “improved” on the original. What would have been interesting to see, though probably not feasible, would have been an original photograph that Grimshaw worked on and the final image that he produced.

All in all a really interesting exhibition on how photography has been used to produce classic images – both as photographs and as paintings.


Kakiemon exhibition at the British Museum

In preparation for an earlier exercise on this course I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum. While there I saw examples of Kakiemon porcelain. So I was very interested to see that the British Museum had a small exhibition of Kakiemon – how it is produced and decorated, together with examples of Kakiemon porcelain and of other styles that it has influenced.


I learned from the exhibition that Japanese porcelain was first produced in the town of Arita. One of the main kilns in the town was run by the Kakiemon family, hence the name of the porcelain. The porcelain comes from a naturally occurring mix of kaolin, feldspar and silica (called porcelain stone). When this is subjected to very high temperatures it becomes white, semi-translucent and extremely strong.


The potters also make their own tools and the preparation and maintenance of tools and workspaces are important rituals in their working lives. Designs are painted onto the porcelain body with brushes. In 1647 Kizaemon was the first Japanese potter to successfully apply enamel colours to a glazed porcelain surface.


There were several examples of Kakiemon ware in this exhibition. In “Dish with tiger, plum and bamboo” 1670 to 1700 the gallery notes state that “the refined yet sparse decoration of this dish is typical of Kakiemon porcelain made during the late 1600s. The tension between the undecorated and the decorated areas give the designer distinctive graphic power”.



The exhibition also demonstrated how Kakiemon influenced porcelain produced elsewhere e.g. China




And Chelsea where “English ceramic factories also copied the Kakiemon style. Chelsea, the first major porcelain factory in England, made numerous Japanese-style ware”.



The final exhibit was of contemporary Kakiemon ware a “Large dish with wagtail and bamboo” from 1971. The gallery notes explain “the design of a wagtail singing as it rests on a branch of bamboo reveals a refreshing naturalism that was new to the Kakiemon repertoire”.


It was really interesting for me to see in much more detail how something I had studied as a work of art was produced and how it influenced porcelain ware in other countries of the world. There was also a video showing the creation of Kakiemon porcelain where it appeared as though the production methods and values have changed little since 1670!

Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate modern

Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings are very well known and I was quite familiar with many of them, but only from books and magazine illustrations. I was not very aware of her other work (I’d seen occasional images of skull paintings) so it was a learning experience to see the full variety of her work in this exhibition.

The gallery was laid out in 13 separate rooms each looking at a specific aspect of her work from “The Early Years” to “Late Abstractions and Skyscapes”. The benefit of this was that it gave equal weight to each period, placing them all on the same level of skill and importance. To me this didn’t really work up as I found some paintings to be more appealing than others. For example I was somewhat disappointed by the flower paintings that were on display and would have liked to have seen many more of them. O’Keeffe’s “Jimson Weed” is the image chosen for the exhibition poster, but personally I found it flat and uninspiring. I appreciate that O’Keeffe’s intention was to make the flower image so much larger than life so that they were immediately noticeable. But I found this particular image rather limp and lifeless.

In contrast I was totally taken with one of her early oil paintings “Abstraction – White Rose” 1927. This wasn’t even in the “flowers” section of the gallery but I found it to be tray a great swirling effect from the very painterly way in which he was rendered with delicate colours used at the edges of petals to give the sense of the flower. I would have appreciated the opportunity to see more of the flower images and of how her technique developed over time. This would almost have merited an exhibition by itself.

But then one would not have seen the full range of O’Keeffe’s work and would perhaps have supported the view of her sexualised portrayal of flowers, something which O’Keeffe herself resented and dismissed as “when people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they are really talking about their own affairs”.

This is an aspect the exhibition covers well – dismissing the idea that O’Keeffe was simply an artist who painted sexualised images of flowers by displaying the full variety of her work – but also by explaining the influences on her, not least her husband Alfred Stieglitz the photographer who was, himself, not shy of mentioning the psychosexual aspects of O’Keeffe’s work.

Of the flower paintings on display in that room, my favourite was “Oriental Poppies” 1927 – I found the colours and composition much more interesting than the full on, flattened perspective of “Jimson Weed”. I enjoyed seeing the variety of work, it certainly taught me that O’Keeffe’s oeuvre was much wider than just flowers. I particularly liked “Nature Forms – Gaspe” 1932 which showed the mesmerising effects of an ocean storm blurring the land, sea and sky. The gallery notes describe how it “blurs the boundaries between figurative and abstract art”. Perhaps it was this aspect that appealed to me.

In a review of the exhibition in the TLS, Craig Raine describes O’Keeffe as “a hybrid of the academic painter and a commercial artist” and he concluded that in the exhibition “there are no great paintings and maybe only a handful of good pictures”.

I prefer to concentrate on what I did like about the exhibition –which is that it conveyed the full breadth and variety of the artist’s work and also of the paintings that appealed to me – interestingly none were included within Raine’s handful of good paintings”.

OCA study visit to the Giacometti exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre

I knew of Giacometti’s “walking” sculptures but didn’t realise how proficient he was with drawing and painting. I also learnt how vital a role his brother played in his work.

The drawings of Paris life were interesting – it was well-planned that at the same time the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition of Paris Street scenes was displayed in another gallery at the Sainsbury Centre

The exhibition was set into three themes –

  • early life
  • work and influences on it
  • his influence on others

I found this an engaging concept and much more interesting than, say, a chronological survey of Giacometti’s work.

In the first room Giacometti’s skill as a painter and draughtsman came to the fore. There was a striking self-portrait in oils when he was a young man and an arresting selection of his drawings of Paris Street life.

The second gallery explored what was happening in the art world at the time Giacometti was working. One striking exhibit showed the influence of African and classical art on Giacometti. A display case had about 15 art Artefacts on display with the key on the side – however approximately 12 of these were art from other cultures whereas 3 were pieces by Giacometti himself. The gallery notes explained “he was particularly enchanted by the simple power of the art and culture of the Etruscans and the Cycladic islands, which for him presented a more profound sense of reality than could be found in any other representational form”. And “inspired by these works, and by Cubism, his process became one of radical reduction”. It was interesting to join the other students spotting the Giacometti work. I found this a very effective way of demonstrating the curator’s position on the influences of Giacometti. I found the gallery notes on his walking men sculpture motifs quite enlightening where they noted that they were “the embodiment of the isolation and anxiety associated with the existentialism of post-war Europe”.

The final gallery was also an effective display of the influence of Giacometti on others. Seeing his work alongside sculptors such as Elizabeth Frink and others brought home his influence. This influence wasn’t limited to just sculpture – the use of a “cage” device or motif was first explored by Giacometti before being exploited much further by Francis Bacon.

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