Royal Academy

Hide and Seek with Rubens at The Royal Academy

The Royal Academy's current show attempts to break down the work of Peter Paul Rubens thematically from poetry to violence to lust and everything in between, so I was expecting all senses to be triggered and hoping to see a showcase of the enduring influence of Rubens on Western art. 

I was ready for Rubens' optimism, colour cascades, voluptuous nudes and dreamy classical subjects but instead was faced with a display of Constable’s landscapes, Reynolds' portraits of the wealthy and not much by Rubens. It's tricky to trace Rubens' legacy when his presence is so low key in the display. 

L-R: Rubens: Maria Grimaldi, 1606 and Sir Thomas Lawrence: Mrs Arthur Annesley, 1790

Rubens travelled from Antwerp to Italy at the age of 23 and stayed for eight years, becoming a court painter to the Duke of Mantua who continued to fund his travels. He soaked up inspiration from the Renaissance masters Titian, Tintoretto and Michelangelo among others, who he credited as shaping his artistic style. Despite these influences he's often cricitised for displaying a lack of gravitas in his own work, but there’s something reaffirming about Rubens' sense of optimism particularly in his idyllic mythological scenes where nudes are softly modelled in glowing light and dynamic yet harmonious compositions.

L-R: Rubens: Hermit and Sleeping Angelica, 1626 and van Dyck: Jupiter and Antiope, 1620

Jenny Saville’s curated room with modern allusions to Rubens (from Picasso to Sarah Lucas) did breathe some fresh air. This room finally felt like a celebration of the painter's own impact on art history. Cy Twombly’s Bacchus may owe more to Titian, but it proves the enduring influence of the grand masters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and shows a raw and new approach to classicism that continues the painted tradition.

L-R: Francis Bacon: Sleeping Figure, 1959 and Cy Twombly: Bacchus, 2004

Perhaps I'm a bit shallow but I was left wanting more bounty and Bacchanalia … the kind of thing Rubens does best..

L-R: Rubens: Venus Frigida, 1614 and Edouard Manet: Study for 'The Surprised Nymph', 1860

Sexism/Sensationalism/Seduction? Allen Jones at the RA

Allen Jones still has the power to push buttons, his current show at the Royal Academy has reignited longstanding debates questioning objectification over empowerment inherent in his fetishised female forms.

The show pulls together iconic works like Chair from the early 60s to recent images of commercial icons including Kate Moss. Perhaps I should have been offended, but instead I was entirely seduced by Jones’s women. I was struck by the contradictions and ambiguity embodied in the female representation in his drawings, paintings, sculptures and furniture.

Jones controversial stance was evident from the outset even as a student at the Royal College of Art, where he trained alongside David Hockney and Peter Phillips, eventually being kicked out in 1960. In 1964 a year spent in New York marked a turning point in his career, he established his bright, flattened, Pop iconography and stylised women, launching his name into fame. It was in 1969 that he really made his mark however - exhibiting Chair, Hatstand and Table – cast fibreglass women wearing leather bondage gear in erotically charged poses transformed literally into household objects. When they were exhibited at the ICA in 1970, feminists let off stink and smoke bombs in protest, paint stripper was later poured over Chair at the Tate in the 80s attempting to destroy the offending body. There’s a Duchampian sense about this outrage however; just as Duchamp’s wheel attracted criticism it got people debating, critiquing and most importantly, created a barrage of attention – these protests against Jones ironically acted only to elevate his name as an artist to be reckoned with.

L-R: Chair, 1969 and Table, 1969

Of course the outrage is completely logical; Jones presents us with simplified yet idealised, plastic mannequin-like, objectified women, mostly nude and generally passive while his men are clothed and active. Arguably Jones follows age-old stereotypical female representations; the body becoming object to be viewed by male gaze, his bondage-clad mannequins are intrinsically fetishised and sexualised. John Berger’s comments on art historical canonical trends spring to mind; ‘to be born a woman is to be born into an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men’ he expressed, ‘men act – women appear’. On the other hand, unlike the sculptures from classical antiquity and beyond that Berger was commenting on, Jones’s women make no attempt to conceal their nakedness, on the contrary they embrace nudity with their powerful stance – in one triptych Three-Part Invention the female subjects overshadow and dominate their male counterparts.

L-R: Three-Part Invention, 2002 and First Step, 1966

His focus on figuration both eschewed and embraced Clement Greenberg’s championing of Abstract Expressionism and its focus on flatness. Rather than abstracting form, he found a new way to flatten the human body, “Pop seemed to be a new way of representing the figure” he explains. Even his sculptural works often blend into the flat plane behind them.

L-R: Stand In, 1991-2 and Fascinating Rhythm, 1982-3

Is he a misogynist or merely following in the footsteps of classic sculpture? Jones denies that any of his works have a fine-art source, yet there’s no ignoring that the idealised female form he presents to us follows the traditions of classic painting and sculpture. Jones said recently ‘I think of myself as a feminist’ and perhaps it is a sense of playful pleasure in the female form that elevates them from mere misogyny.

Allen Jones at the Royal Academy of Arts is on now until 25 January 2015

Myth, Memory & Mourning: Anselm Kiefer at the RA

“I am a storyteller with a broken story” confesses Anselm Kiefer. His monumental retrospective at the Royal Academy spans forty years and chronicles his attempt to make sense of his German heritage. Kiefer’s obsession with Holocaust remembrance and emphasis on rich symbolism from mythology, folklore, religion and alchemy to poetry and opera are what he is sometimes criticised for; occasionally labelled as sentimental and contrived. Call me impressionable, but for me his outright symbolism and its accessibility is precisely what draws me in to Kiefer’s web of myth, memory and mourning.

The show begins with his late 60s early 70s series of himself performing the Nazi salute. These works signalled his arrival as a highly confrontational artist and led to him being misunderstood by some as Neo-Nazi. What followed was a lifetime of work which includes painting, sculpture and installations which intertwine recognisable iconography of German history, expose how compelling and seductive images of mythology can be and how, more dangerously, they can tap into the collective unconscious.

His early series of attic paintings feature his own attic studio, and with their theatrical wood grained texture they are the very stuff of German folklore reminiscent of Grimm’s Tales, Norse Myths and ancient legends.

Moving through the gallery we’re drawn in to the claustrophobic Margarete and Shulamith series. Paint is viciously handled, treated like earthly matter, the materials are sacred but appear gouged and destroyed like the lives of the heroic female victims they represent. Here too are representations of Van Gogh’s sunflowers and wheat fields, now decaying and menacing.

Further massive canvases of forests and fields are encrusted with earth, clay, dried flowers, remnants of discarded clothing, even teeth. Layer upon layer of impasto paint cracked like the dried earth they represent, some depict paths though Teutonic forests, railway lines disappearing into unknown destinations alluding to German folk stories but also are powerful signifiers of the Holocaust.

Kiefer’s Morgenthau series, despite being based on an abandoned American Government plan, awakens an aesthetic optimism. Drawn up in 1944, the original plan proposed to turn Germany into an agricultural state, effectively as a means to destroy its weapons industry and create a new pastoral idyll. References to alchemy, destruction and rebirth are themes Kiefer returns to time and again acting as a metaphor for human tragedy and rebirth … “creation and destruction are one and the same” he tells us.

With its wealth of symbolism the show is compelling and profound – it’s on until 14 December, see it and unravel some of Kiefer’s broken story for yourself.