Richard Hamilton



RICHARD HAMILTON: Word and Image: Prints 1963–2007, Alan Cristea Gallery

Mark Godfrey Paul Schimmel and Vicente Todoli, editors, RICHARD HAMILTON (352pp. Tate. £29.99)

Jonathan Jones, RICHARD HAMILTON: Word and Image: Prints 1963–2007 (155pp. Alan Cristea Gallery. £25)

Richard Hamilton was a relative unknown when in 1956 he produced the collage for which he is still, perhaps, most famous: “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” (The original is too fragile to travel, and a print version produced by the artist in 1992 takes its place in the Tate’s show.) The piece was included in the Whitechapel Gallery’s seminal This is Tomorrow exhibition, and it would be difficult to claim that the British art establishment ever overlooked him again: the Tate’s current retrospective is its fourth since 1970, and includes some 200 works covering an almost sixty-year career. With two installations from the 50s re-created at the ICA, and fifty prints on show this month at Alan Cristea, this is a useful opportunity to take stock, three years after the artist’s death.

In a world that jostles for firsts, Hamilton has frequently, and plausibly, been put forward as the first Pop artist. “Just what is it . . .” with its rich panoply of consumer objects contains not only the first appearance of the word “Pop” (on the muscleman’s badminton racquet), but also a tin of ham, eight years before Andy Warhol’s soup cans went on show in New York in The American Supermarket exhibition. In a letter around this time, Hamilton defined Pop’s preoccupations, as a school that is: Popular, Transient, Expendable (easily forgotten), Low-cost, Mass-produced, Young, Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous and Big business. Most, apart from “easily forgotten”, can be found in “Just what is it . . .”

And then, over the next five decades, it seems as though the artist set out to test the boundaries of all of those categories in turn. In terms of technique, Hamilton produced installations, oil paintings, prints, drawings, photographic works, computer-manipulated images, industrial design, multiples and collages. He was also one of the early enthusiasts to work substantially in the interstices between techniques, what he called the “marriage of brush and lens” as he painted over photographs, or manipulated layers of mechanical reproductions.

His subject matter, too, was both wide-ranging and unusual. His work adheres to very traditional genres – still lifes, portraits, landscapes, conversation pieces, agitprop and religious subjects – but his most steadfast commitment was to the products of the modern world. In this he was (apart from, in different ways, Warhol) working almost entirely on his own. David Hockney’s subject matter would not have surprised an eighteenth-century artist, allowing for the substitution of river-bathing with swimming pools; Roy Lichtenstein’s would have been (mostly) familiar to the Impressionists. But toasters? Toothbrushes? “Just what is it . . .” included a television, a tape recorder, a vacuum cleaner, a magazine; when Hamilton revisited the idea in 1994, the new print now showed a computer, a microwave and a video-recorder. A 2004 work, “Chiara and Chair”, returned full circle, to 1956’s vacuum cleaner, even as computer-aided perspectival possibilities allowed the artist to take his exploration of the modern interior further.

The two great subjects that spanned Hamilton’s career were consumerism and the industrial world, and space, and how it can be interpreted. “I would like”, he said, “to think of my purpose as a search for what is epic in everyday objects and everyday attitudes.” In this search, he turned initially to James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp. Joyce taught him that he “did not need a style of working”, while from Duchamp he took the idea of the artist not merely as craftsman, but as someone who chooses objects, and by his selection, and scrutiny, turns them into art. A third influence, it seems to me, was Le Corbusier: in Hamilton’s work the “machine for living” appears to be both the artist’s eyes and the screen, whether film, television or, latterly, computer.

The first big step forward was in the 1960s, when Hamilton moved on from the constricted perspectives of “Just what is it . . .” to a series of interiors, a subject that would continue to provide him with creative impetus until his death in 2011. “Any interior”, he said, “is a set of anachronisms”: the objects that fill our houses, whether purchased or inherited, create layers of time. In the transformation from lived space to artist’s vision, further layers of potential are imposed on the subject.

At this stage, Hamilton worked with photocopies and photographs, cutting and rescaling elements to create perspectival shift, to build mood as well as shape. In “Interiors I” and “II”, and “Desk”, he inserted a cut-out photograph of the B-movie starlet Patricia Knight into an office of terrifying instability: the black, thrusting rectangle that is the side of the desk suddenly wavers; the desktop, at one side solid enough to hold a pencil so realistically reproduced that any nineteenth-century copyist would have been proud, on its other side slithers away into white nothingness; in the second version, the desk itself vanishes, and only its identifiable angular thrust remains: the smile of a deskbound Cheshire Cat.

In the 1990s, computers gave Hamilton the ability to go further, producing two brilliant series, Seven Rooms and Annunciation. In Seven Rooms, Hamilton engaged with the idea of the installation, but reconsidered it for our computer age, to become what might be thought of as non-site-specific-site-specific work. He photographed a series of rooms, and the images were digitally printed onto the gallery walls; this print, complete with gallery wall, was then in turn photographed, and printed onto canvas, some overpainted, some not. Rehung as they are in the Tate, the viewer sees a Russian doll installation in two dimensions. The distancing forces us to examine not merely the life on show, but how lives are lived. These repetitions and reiterations become a way of considering the expressive capabilities of scale, perspective and harmony, in emotional as well as technical terms.

While this is where Hamilton’s significance will, in future, surely be seen to lie, the Tate retrospective reminds us of what a skilled craftsman he was too: an early oil, “Chromatic Grid” (1950), with its swirly pinpoints; or “d’Orientation” (1952), and the Trainsition series, show a lovely delicate colourist in watercolour and gouache.

But this hand-on-canvas work was soon left behind. Hamilton was far more interested in ideas, and these found their expression most often in prints. His 1970 series, Kent State, uses an image from the recent killings at Kent State University, when students protesting against the Vietnam War were shot by the Ohio National Guard. Hamilton selected one image, a student lying paralysed on the ground, replicating it over and over, his heavily mediated framing device never allowing us to forget that the work is not only about a government murdering its citizens, but also about the dissemination of that knowledge.

Hamilton described how he first came across the Kent State image on television, sandwiched between The Black and White Minstrel Show and Match of the Day, and his consequent reluctance to use it: “It was too terrible an incident . . . to submit to arty treatment. Yet there it was in my hand, by chance – I didn’t really choose the subject, it offered itself. It seemed right, too, that art could help to keep the shame in our minds”.

His concern to separate entertainment from an exploration of a state’s abandonment of morality appears to have passed the Tate by. Hamilton elsewhere warned that “Political or moral motivation is hard to handle for an artist”, but so it is too for those who show the art. Here, however, the curators have chosen to display the Kent State pictures across from Swingeing London, Hamilton’s series showing Mick Jagger being arrested for dope smoking, and another series, Fashion-plate, collages of women’s faces taken from fashion photographs. Absent Hamilton’s thoughts on art and morality, the suggestion presented by this hanging is that all three series have some sort of equivalence. (The quotation instead is to be found in the very good Alan Cristea catalogue. The Tate catalogue, hefty even by modern museum standards, has splendid reproductions, but the essays take a lot of space to say remarkably little, while Cristea’s carefully selected quotations from Hamilton himself are consistently enlightening.)

More generally, the Tate’s panels supply minimal information, not even a single biographical outline. That is left to the ICA, which has on show recreations of two installations Hamilton made in the 1950s. There we learn that Hamilton was born in 1922 (although, mysteriously, there is no mention of his death in 2011). As was common for working-class children at the time, Hamilton left school at fourteen, finding employment as an office boy in the advertising department of an electrical engineering firm. He received wartime training in technical drawing, and then worked as a mechanical draughtsman creating templates for tools – that is, making reproductions, the subject that was to consume him.

The ICA’s concise but well-rounded display of his graphic design work shows yet another facet of this protean artist. His typographic skills were not merely comprehensive, but joyous – a poster advertising a Francis Picabia show is an object lesson in how to make grey fun. Alan Cristea Gallery’s selection of fifty prints is similarly astutely pared down, offering an almost flip-book-like ride through six decades.

For Hamilton produced vastly, prodigiously. Often an engagement with new techniques took decades to come to fruition. The late Rooms series is a masterful summation of a lifetime’s work. So, too, are his photographic self-portrait projects, some in the style of Francis Bacon, others tiny Polaroids taken by his friends over a quarter of a century. Other areas are less successful. The Tate has devoted an entire room to what it primly refers to as his “scatological” period (in reality, brightly coloured prints of turds). In retrospect these works appear to be more experiments in new printmaking technology. Similarly, his incursions into politics, whether a portrait of Tony Blair as a gunslinger, or a triptych of reflections on the Troubles, are clearly heartfelt, but their didactic finger-waving brings them perilously close to kitsch.

Hamilton was a trailblazer, and his best work belongs with the very best, a fizzing, dazzling reminder of what a great intelligence brought to post-war art. A pity, then, to dilute it with so many dead ends and false beginnings.

Published in the TLS

Peter Doig Revisited

In 2007/8 the Tate had a splendid Peter Doig show. In honour of his Edinburgh retrospective, I am resurrecting my TLS review.


One of the quietest but most resonant presences on the art scene since the early 1990s has been Peter Doig. He is resolutely unfashionable: not just a painter, nor even a figurative painter, but a landscape painter. What could be more out of sync with his contemporary YBAs than that? Yet at the same time, Doig – Scottish born, Canadian raised, resident in Trinidad – is more perhaps more easily described by what he is not.

He is not, for instance, despite this showing in Tate Britain, particularly British. Also, for all that this show is called a ‘mid-career retrospective’, the retrospect is fairly limited, blanking some the interesting deviations his career has encompassed. There are no works pre-1989, and a resolute rejection of all his North American ‘city’ images – no comic cowboys floating in the sky over Woolworths, no luridly coloured, brilliantly lettered city-scapes.

Instead, what might someday become known as ‘Doig-land’ begins in Canada’s snowy backyards and suburbs. In subject the images are ‘homely’ – both in the sense of plain, and frequently, too, of ‘homes’: a standard Canadian country house in The House that Jacques Built (1882), or the truck trundling across country in Hitch Hiker (1989-90), Wyeth-ey not only in theme but also palette. Yet there is a constant tension in his images: Hitch Hiker is Wyeth in theme, but Richter in treatment; The House that Jacques Built is divided horizontally into three, with the house in the centre, all coloured bricks, fairly lights, even a somewhat anthropomorphized ‘face’ in the windows; then the upper and lower strips magnify tiny elements, taking us unnervingly in close-up, finding the strangeness in the mundane.

This strangeness is located in a variety of ways – images of houses that have been destroyed in Pine Houses (Rooms for Rent); or in buildings that are falling apart in the Concrete Cabin series of a decaying Le Corbusier development gently mouldering in the woods. It was with this trip that the painterliness for which Doig has become noted begins to take over. The first Concrete Cabin image is fairly figurative – the building appears sharply behind a painterly scrim of trees. In Concrete Cabin II painterly elegant begin to float in, the light diffused on trees becoming concrete, as white rectangles that punch sharp holes in the picture surface, pushing back the ‘concrete’ of the buildings.

This tension between painterly style and figurative shadow becomes a major preoccupation. The small Snowballed Boy (1995) is covered by a white tracery that is visibly the trajectory of snowballs. By Figure in a Mountain Landscape (1997-8) these white skeins have become a maplike tracery covering the large figure looming over the landscape, echoing the filigree of the landscape itself. Ski Jacket appears twice, as a tiny study (51 x 46 cm) and as a vast (nearly 4 x 3.5 metre) oil. The original study is a ski slope filled with tiny figures, in colouration more beach- than ski-scene, while dark bands of trees, Munch-like images of doom, creep in at the edges. The larger work was amended in progress by turning it into a diptych, which moved the trees from the sides to the centre, surrounded now by candy-coloured skiers. The trees thus become festive ornament; a perspectival shift that changes everything.

Perpsective is the key: Red House (1995/6) is virtually the first image in this show where a house is part of a neighbourhood, not isolated and damply brooding. But it too is estranged, distanced by a series of shadowy figures in the lane, some talking together, some alone, but all looking like grand opera assassins, held in place by a dead, leafless silver birch that rips the canvas into two. More frequently, it is water that divides the canvas, or a wall, or both. In the excellent Laperyrouse series, of a waterfront wall (four versions, ranging from a 2.5m canvas to a 30cm study), we move in and out, like a camera, focusing and then withdrawing: the head of the passing figure, the umbrella over it, the diffuse light, then, in a tight shot, the wall and its peeling texture.

Doig’s handling of paint shifts with his focus, from thick gobs floating on the surface to a pigment that is so thinned down that the canvases can appear almost flayed: the combination of saturated, lush, dense colours, and bone sharp, thin washes is extraordinary. In Figures in Red Boat (2005-7) the background has been pared down to the most vestigial gesture: the shore is a single line of white around a grey-green line of pigment only slightly darker than the blue-grey sky: the red boat is the single concrete object, bleeding its fine, thin colour into the water as the ghosts of passengers stare out blindly.

This late painting is from his more recent work in Trinidad. This section could perhaps have been more rigorously edited – many of these images seem transitional. But where Doig is going, as much has how, is consistently engrossing.

TLS, 14 March 2008

Pompeii Live, from the British Museum

The hot exhibition ticket in London is the British Museum’s Pompeii show. For the rest of the summer, many dates have only late-evening tickets available. So the expanding reach of cinema experience of live events (previously confined to opera, dance and theatre) is very welcome.

We open to hustle-bustle music, to get us in the mood for our guided exhibition tour, and a crane-shot zooms down on Peter Snow at the front entrance, telling us how exciting this all is. Then another introduction breathlessly itemises the number of people involved in putting the show together. And Neil MacGregor, the Museum director, appears for a third introduction, again stressing numbers. It’s as though they don’t trust their material.

Which is odd, because the material is fabulous. Telly dons abound – Mary Beard, Bettany Hughes – as well as the chef Giorgio Locatelli, who gives a recipe for stuffed dormouse. “Just like rabbit!” he cries. “Use pine-nuts”, he encourages the appalled Peter Snow.

The brilliant Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, enthuses about sewer archaeology to the still-appalled Snow: “The Herculaneum sewers are an absolute joy,” he cries. And it is a joy that he can make us understand why, as he shows the jewels, ceramics, even statues that slipped down the drains.

Bettany Hughes takes over the appalled slot, as Mary Beard looks at a winged phallus windchime. We don’t know what the phallus represented, she makes clear; she lists possibilities, but is good on the great uncertainty that is the past.

Hughes then warns us to avert our gaze as we get to a statue of the god Pan having sex with a goat. (“How do you make love to a goat?” she asks nervously. Very carefully indeed is the obvious, but unspoken reply.)

After a reconstruction of the eruption and the pyroclastic surge that engulfed the two towns in volcanic ash, the final display, a collection of possessions found on the beach at Herculaneum, is heart-breaking: a lantern used as the fleeing crowds stumbled around in the night that descended at midday, a key to a house to which its owners will never return.

Peter Snow, no longer appalled, is now thrilled. “Isn’t it terrible?! What exciting things!” he crows. “An intense human tragedy,” he adds, chuckling over the plaster cast of a couple and their two children in their death-throes.

With gracious restraint, the exhibition’s curator Paul Roberts provides a measured and touching response to this curious empathy-bypass: the tragedy, he explains to Snow and us, enabled those who died so suddenly to live on, to share their lives with us 2,000 years later.

The camera could linger longer on the exhibits, and it would be nice if, every now and again, the talking heads just stopped talking and let us look. But the British Museum’s Pompeii is an extraordinary achievement, a fine combination of scholarship and showmanship.

That it can, via Pompeii Live, reach a wider audience can only be a good thing.

The Colourist of the Future: The van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh at Work: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam Marije Vellekoop, with Nienke Bakker; translated by Ted Alkins, Michael Hoyle and Beverley Jackson (304pp. Brussels: Mercatorfonds. £40)

On May Day, thousands of Amsterdammers queued in the spring sunshine as the Van Gogh Museum formally reopened its doors after a seven-month refit, for the kind of invisible but essential works art requires: lighting, humidity-control and so on. What the museum made triumphantly visible, however, was the public face of their eight-year research project into Vincent Van Gogh’s studio practice, both on the walls and in an excellent catalogue. To stress how research, exhibition and publication are a continuous process, the exhibition and publication were all designed, impeccably, by Pièce Montée.

The museum’s first room, and the first pages of the catalogue, set out their stall. The catalogue shows a series of sensually close-up images of nineteenth-century artists’ materials – paints, charcoal, pencils – as well as some of Van Gogh’s surviving sketchbooks, and his palette, loaded with paints and seemingly ready and waiting. The exhibition begins with two self-portraits only a couple of years apart. But while the one from 1886 is a traditionally hued conventional image, the one dated 1888 is in the vivid, slashing palette we know so well.

And that is, in miniature, what the exhibition so ably explores. Van Gogh decided to become an artist aged twenty-seven, after eleven years working for an art dealer and as a teacher/missionary. He painted for a mere ten years, less than half his working life, and his start was unpromising, as the early apprentice copying from “how-to” manuals shows. Watching Van Gogh develop into “Van Gogh” is like one of those speeded-up films of a flower unfolding. In his early years, he studied books, and for a few weeks at a time, here and there, with various teachers – possibly for eight months altogether. His application of what he read and learned, therefore, was idiosyncratic. He read about colour theory, or examined the techniques of painters of the past, but in his early years had to find ways to apply them himself. For example, while many artists used perspective frames, Van Gogh was the only one we know of who physically drew the frame and the threads onto his canvases – there was no one to tell him differently.

Once in Paris, in 1886, he found friendship and shared working practices with other artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec and Émile Bernard. Here too he tried out different techniques, keeping the elements that worked for him, and discarding the rest. Toulouse-Lautrec was a proponent of peinture à l’essence, using a very thinned paint on unprimed canvas; Signac was at the height of his pointilliste style; Adolphe Monticelli was painting still lives in a heavy, dark impasto. From one Van Gogh took the heightened colours; from the next the staccato, discrete brushstrokes; from the third, the heavy applications of paint and worked surface. From Japanese prints he assimilated cropped compositions, slashing diagonals and broad, flat areas of colour. Later, the simplifications and flat patterns of Paul Gauguin were developed into the stylized, rolling lines and rhythmic patterns that could never be anything but the distinct handwriting of Van Gogh.

And this is the key to the exhibition. This Van Gogh is not the solitary genius, appearing out of nowhere, flourishing in isolation and producing an art that was born fully formed. Instead, through Van Gogh at Work we discover how he studied, and with whom, what his influences were, who were his friends, and how his art developed, as all art does, in conjunction with, as well as in opposition to, ideas of the day. This is backed up not merely by words, but in images: around a quarter of the paintings on display are by Van Gogh’s friends and colleagues, permitting us to see at first hand this artistic give-and-take.

There are also loans from other institutions, chosen and hung to display Van Gogh’s integration into the art world of his day. London’s National Gallery has lent its “Sunflowers”, which now hangs together with the Van Gogh Museum’s own “Sunflowers”, both flanking the Stedelijk Museum’s “La Berceuse (Portrait of Mme Roulin)”, a triptych – the “Sunflowers” “like candles” lighting the centrepiece, the artist wrote – planned as a gift to Gauguin.

The catalogue and the exhibition both stress, too, how the extraordinary nature of many of Van Gogh’s works would have been less extraordinary at the time. Van Gogh was using new synthetic colours, which had been developed only in the previous few decades. Because of his colour choices, many of his works have altered in ways we are no longer aware of. “Gauguin’s Chair” now has a blue background; when it was painted, it was purple.

A self-portrait of 1887 was photographed in 1903. Even in the black-and-white photograph, it is clear how the cochineal then linked colours and brushstrokes that, as the colour has faded to merely pink, now stand starkly separate.

For colour is, of course, at the core of Van Gogh’s work. He began to read about complementary colours in 1884, only four years into his studies. Being able to use a dark colour for something light, as long as the colours around it were darker still, he realized, gave the artist true freedom, leaving “the painter free to seek colours that form a whole. . . COLOUR EXPRESSES SOMETHING IN ITSELF”, he wrote with wonder. And at the end of his life, in 1890 in Auvers, in “Wheatfield with Crows” he made the contrasts of blue sky, with its pure and broken hues, the yellow-orange of wheat surrounding a red path lined with green (today the red has turned brown), into an expression of reality, not a replication of reality. In 1888, he wrote, “the painter of the future [will be] a colourist such as there hasn’t been before”. What he didn’t realize then, in fact never knew, was that he was that colourist.

The Van Gogh Museum, however, knows it, and allows us to relearn it too, in a hang that is triumphant, not merely for allowing a popular artist to shine out once more, but for reminding us, in a measured, thoughtful and intelligent manner, what museums, and what scholarship, are for.

For those who cannot get to Amsterdam, and for whom the catalogue is out of reach, the museum plans to produce apps, the first of which, covering some of the letters, is already available for download. A second, which allows viewers to leaf through the sketchbooks page by page, will follow shortly. For those who can’t wait, the Folio Society has produced a facsimile of the four surviving sketchbooks in the Van Gogh Museum, for a mere £445.

—TLS, 7 June 2013

Olafur Eliasson, Little Sun, Tate Modern

Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (2003) was one of the most successful of the Tate’s Turbine Hall grands projets. Two million people came to stare at Eliasson’s big sun, many sprawling beneath the installation as though it really were a sun and the Tate had suddenly transformed itself into a public park. This is Eliasson’s gift: his art is incomplete until it elicits a physical response from viewers. With Little Sun, viewers carry individual “little suns” – 11cm daffodil-yellow flowershaped plastic lamps strung from lanyards – and walk around a specially opened gallery after dark, their “sun” picking out each artwork.

The lamps become our eyes. No longer passive, we are forced physically to engage with the works in front of us. No longer can we automatically find the best viewing spot in front of a work. We must make conscious decisions – caption or painting? – about things we rarely think about in daylight.

The space the Tate has chosen is its Surrealism galleries, where pieces like Joseph Beuys’s Campaign Bed, or Jannis Kounellis’s Untitled (1979) – all 5 metres of charcoal drawings and stuffed birds – can no longer be encompassed in one glance: viewers must establish, section by section, the artists’ intentions. (And if the artists intended that their work be encompassed in one glance, well, that too must be pieced together.) That is Eliasson’s intention, at any rate. The Tate has, however, underestimated how much light the lamps cast, and overestimated how many people each room can hold and still remain dark. When I entered on the first blackout night, although the warder told me to turn on my lamp, there was no need: the number of lamps already lit meant that I could not only see the art, but even read the captions, with ease. Thus can artistic aims be subverted by practicalities.

Mundane necessities such as ticket sales or health and safety often win over art in contemporary galleries. The Weather Project was a simple concept, perfectly realized. By contrast, the execution of Little Sun is closer to Ai Weiwei’s notorious Sunflower Seeds (2010), where millions of porcelain seeds were spread across the Turbine Hall. There, too, visitors were supposed to interact with the piece as they walked across the crunching seeds. Then, when it was discovered that this was releasing toxic dust, the seeds were corralled behind barriers, like those public parks with “Do not walk on the grass” signs.

Eliasson’s  has a second intention, and a more important one. The 1.6 billion people worldwide who live without access to electricity pay on average 300 times more for their light than we do. These solar-powered lamps provide ten times more light than the kerosene lamps most people are forced to rely on, at one-tenth of the cost. Kerosene, as well as being a fire hazard, produces emissions which are the equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. And so Eliasson established a business, the Little Sun company with the engineer Frederick Ottesen to create safer, less costly renewable artificial lighting.

Few are more fervent than I in the belief that art fills an essential need. Yet however fervent that belief, some things are more important than going to a gallery on a Saturday night. If Olafur Eliasson can enlighten those of us who have time and resources to devote to art, well and good; but if he can literally enlighten places of darkness, that must be more valuable.

Visions of Mughal India, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The artist Howard Hodgkin has been collecting Indian art since he was at Eton. For some years now his collection has been on loan to the Ashmolean, and a rotating selection of pictures from it are frequently on display. Yet to see all 100-plus works together is a revelation, as viewers get a sense not only of the collection, but also an insight into the collector’s personality: what speaks to him.

Miniatures from the Mughal empire often depict tiny, enclosed spaces, with figures delicately placed among painstakingly reproduced textiles and carefully detailed flora and fauna, the layers of pattern deftly weaving themselves into magically perfect worlds. Hodgkin is drawn to these depictions of what he calls “a whole world”, one that’s both “completely convincing” and “completely separate” from Western tradition. But Hodgkin also appears attracted to more open compositions, to works that integrate the white paper as an element in the image.

He obviously also has a passion for elephants, perhaps because they too are most often displayed against flat coloured backgrounds – though the animals’ combination of majesty and charm as painted by these Indian masters would beguile anyone. However minimal the composition, the personalities of these royal beasts shine through. One even appears to have his eye slyly on the viewer, almost smiling with shy pride at the splendour of his flowered saddle-cloth.

Other works head towards abstraction: Sultan Ali Adil Shah II hunting a tiger (1660) shows a gloriously gold-gowned bowman taking aim, but the eye focuses more on the elaborate textile folds and greyed-out background than on the action, the tiger merely snarling quietly at the edge of the page.

Some are quirky curiosities, such as Maharaja Balwant Singh and a goose, a drawing of a courtyard flattened out schematically, like a blueprint, while in the centre, staring solemnly at each other, are a goose and a man, the latter a stark black-pencilled silhouette adorned with a pair of pink shoes. What is this a picture of? An omen, a dream, a legend? Or just the ultimate odd couple?

As well as these works from the major artistic centres of Mughal art, there are also a number of pictures from smaller Rajput courts. Particularly beautiful are the tiny works created to illustrate the subjects of musical modes, or ragas (currently the subject of a smaller, less refined show at Dulwich Picture Gallery) .

While it’s easy to find analogies with Western art, the uniqueness of these works always fights back. The colour-world, for one, is inconceivable in the West before the 20th century, filled as it is with hot pinks, dazzling oranges and acid blues that make even the Fauves look tame.

Bright colours do not necessarily signify a cheerful world, though. Bhadrakali, the Destroyer of the Universe, is a blue-skinned four-armed goddess who literally consumes the dead, and here the intense colours highlight Kali’s power as she defies both time and death.

And that, of course, is what great art does: it defies time and death. In the end, the labels “Western” and “Eastern” do not matter. As these two shows allow us to discover, a “shot to the heart” is there for anyone who has the will to look, and the desire to learn.

The world of Mughal enclosures, diamond-bright and bejewelled, could not be further away from our own; and yet, like the goddess Kali, the art it produced devours time and space, defying the centuries to continue to move move us today.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, to Apr 22;

This review also appears in SEVEN magazine, free with the Sunday Telegraph

David Hockney, once again, with feeling

I’ve just been to see the David Hockney show at the Royal Academy, which is amazing. Some of the (more idiotic) reviwers are praising with faint damns, I think because he’s popular, therefore they’d better look austere and elite. Tuh. (Noise of contempt.)

An iPad drawing, 'The arrival of spring in Woldgate, 2 January', courtesy the artist/RA

I am slow to praise, and my friends tell me I carp too much. Yet my considered response yesterday was ‘The man is a fucking genius.’ The work on show at the Royal Academy is almost entirely work from the last few years, but in 2006 the National Portrait Gallery had a retrospective which was a revelation. My review from that, and from a concurrent gallery show, from the Times Literary Supplement, below:

David Hockney

A Year in Yorkshire: Annely Juda Fine Art (to 28 October)

Portraits: National Portrait Gallery (to 21 January 2007)

 There are three David Hockneys, I think, and only one of them matters. The first one, and the least important, although the most intrusive, is the public David Hockney, the 1960s owl-bespectacled mop-top turned 21st-century curmudgeon, the one who writes letters to the newspapers and fusses about what the modern world is coming to. He is amusing or irritating, depending on one’s own personality, but he is also easily pushed aside. The second David Hockney is more difficult to overlook. This is the David Hockney of reproductions, the Hockney of A Bigger Splash and Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy – not the paintings themselves, but of postcard and poster reproductions. This David Hockney is troublesome, because he stands in the way of the real David Hockney – and more worryingly, he stands in the way of a clear view of the real David Hockney’s work.

For the surprising fact is, David Hockney’s work does not reproduce well, does not give a good idea of the real thing. This is the case with many artists – Francis Bacon springs most readily to mind. But reproductions of Bacon’s work look just plain bad: unclear, muddy and fussy. Unless one is of the ‘all modern art is a scam’ school, the paintings look so bad in reproduction that it is always immediately clear that they must be poor facsimiles. Reproductions of Hockney’s works, however, look sensational. They are vibrant, clear, and full of Pop-y joie de vivre. They are slick and cheery, picking up and even intensifying Hockney’s great graphic strengths. Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71) is not just an iconic image of the 60s and 70s. It is also one of the Tate’s best-selling postcards, and it was number 5 in the BBC’s poll of ‘The Greatest Painting in Britain’ (as well as being the only 20th-century image to make the list). The image, almost certainly, is far more often seen in reproduction than it is in reality.

Without access to the actual artwork, therefore, one can easily lose sight of the fact that the reproduction is only a pale reflection of the reality. Even when one knows Mr and Mrs Clark well, and knows how reduced it becomes in reproduction – how the whites, from Clark’s cigarette, forward to the cat, back to the balcony railing, forward to the white table and lilies, back again to the white line on the wall, how these whites, that in the painting hold the composition in a tension of combatative planes, vanish and flatten completely in a photograph. Then there are the fluctuating proportions (a telephone nearly half the size of a lamp, and the same size Continue reading

Selling our souls

The Ambassador Theatre Group has just announced a wonderful new innovation. Before a play begins in one of their theatres, Gordon’s gin ads will be projected onto the safety-curtains. Maybe I’m old and sad. I’m certainly grumpy. But really, does everything have to be an opportunity for advertising: do we really have to ‘monetize’ life? Isn’t there some way of living without people shrieking ‘Buy buy buy’ into our ears every moment of the day and night?

Libraries used to be a place where one could read, or borrow, books that took you into a different world; now they are told to sell services to survive. Tubes and buses took you from point A to point B, yes, with ads on the walls, but the ads didn’t actually sing and shout, and the public-transport system was not expected to make money, just get people around the cities. If you looked something up in the encyclopaedia, the publishers didn’t have a way of selling your searches to advertising companies. National museums hand out press packets that say to journalists, ‘Pretty please, mention that Crappy Merchandise is our sponsor, otherwise we’ll never be able to put on a show again.’

And now, when we go to see Hamlet, we’re going to be bombarded with messages to drink gin. God knows, it’s enough to drive one to drink.