So while in London, I decided to grab a newspaper (which was rather surprisingly heafty) and read up on Londons’ events of the day. These included the new headlines of a £1M court fine and new information about Brexit. Those headlines and news articles I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting this;
The double page spread article
Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, c. 1638.
David Dawson’s The Queen Sits for Lucian Freud, 2001.
Did you get my best side?
The latest display from the Royal Collection captures the great artists themselves in all their intensity, from Reynolds to Freud.
The Queen’s collection includes hundreds of pictures of artists collected over many centuries, with new acquisitions still coming in. In this selection we see these exotic creatures at their most idealised and artificial but also sometimes their most natural. (If you want to see them at their most surprisingly orange, there’s a Hockney iPad self portrait from 2012.)
The work ranges from a 2001 colour photograph by David Dawson showing Lucian Freud painting the Queen (remarkable both for Dawson’s ingenious staging of a three-part scene, Freud painting, the Queen, and Freud’s portrait looking nothing like her) to self-portraits by Rembrandt and Rubens.
We’re invited into the lives of a couple of Italian artists in England in the 1770’s. It was usual then for successful artists to be resident foreigners. Bartolozzi and Cipriani lounged around and drew each other. Two sketches – Bartolozzi drawn sleeping by Cipriani; Cipriani drawn painting by Bartolozzi – are presented in the same mount. The pencil lines are artless and informative. You get lost in the same momentarily interesting details they got lost in themselves, as if you’re there, in the room, 250 years ago: the heel of Bartolozzi’s shoe, Cipriani’s folded hands as he sleeps.
A self-portrait by Joshua Reynolds shows him old and bespectacled. At this time his sight wasn’t yet so deteriorated that he had to wear glasses for painting. Their presence is symbolic and signifies any painters’ task of intense looking. Instead for use over a formal wig they make a curious object, not hooked behind the ears but tied with a narrow band around the back of the head.
Reynolds appears again as an old man with an ear trumpet in Johan Zoffany’s 1772 painting of artists in the Royal Acadment, first exhibited that year at the academy’s Summer Exhibition, where it was bought by George III.
Dozens of academicians, with every individual feature picked out in detail, attend a lecture about life drawing. Zoffany invents a fictional space to sum up real life events and behaviour. An oil lamp hangs high to emphasise dramatic shadows; there are life casts, sculptures and paintings, and a couple of naked models on a stage, one posing, the other resting. The RAs are awkwardly out of scale with each other but if the scene is discomposed it is full of narrative richness. Haughty, dressed up, bewigged, the artists chat and gesture, and carefully examine the musculature, balance and lighting of the naked men. Zoffany looks out, with his palette and brushes; behind him one of the earliest Chinese visitors to England, the sculptor Tan-Che-Qua, also attends the lecture.
In a watercolour from 1810, cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson satirises the typical romantic artist – irascible, myopic, irresponsible, fathering children by accident, living in a mess. Babies and drying laundry tumble about, half-eaten meals are on plates on the floor, a cat claws his leg and a chamber pot’s contents spill over his foot as he paints a wild visionary with standing up hair.
The family scene where everybody dies is an interesting macabre sub-genre of the artist’s self-portrait. Jan de Bray populates his Banquet of Cleopatra (1652) with relatives. Within a few years of completion everyone was gone except De Bray and his brother. In the picture De Bray looks on from the side while his brother looks out from a shadowy background. His own children laughing in the corner had already died of infancy, the other children and everyone else including De Bray’s parents, given starring roles as Mark Antony and the Queen of Egypt, died from the plague.
As a great enactor of the popular cliché of the artist as a passionate lover of his models, Cristofano Allori paints his own smouldering handsome head gripped by its curly hair in the hand of a beautiful woman who has just chopped it off.
She was known as La Mazzafirra, and was reported to have brought Allori “nothing but misery” during their short affair. Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1613) is his version of the famous biblical subject and also expression of his feelings, These details are recorded by an art historian, Filippo Baldinucci, who was only seven when Allori died, but we can assume they’re true while regretting he didn’t fill in more of the narrative.
Completing a line-up, with De Bray and Allori, of three tremendous Baroque scenes, is Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (c. 1638). Gentileschi’s status as a feminist icon is more than deserved, a powerful painter regardless of gender, at the same time femininity is vital in the subjects she depicted. Enduring and surviving horrific early experiences – the daughter of an artist, she was raped by an employee in his workshop and then tortured by the jury trying the rape – she not only won the case and went on to become the only woman member of the art academy in Rome but also achieved fame throughout Europe for scenes of female victims, warriors and heroes.
Allegorical depictions of La Pittura, the female personification of painting, had been common for at least a century. Conventionally, her mouth is covered by a cloth, because art is visual not literary, and she wears a chain of gold bearing a mask with the word Imitation (art must imitate life). Gentileschi leaves out the gag and presents herself as a working artist, combining appropriate idealism with reality. With muscular forearms, grubby hands, dishevelled hair and wearing a worker’s apron, she leans on a marble slab of the kind that painters used for grinding pigment.
The painting is an amazing visual invention – the body, seen from an angle looking down, makes a great green curve in a dark space. The hair with its falling strands and the heavy bun is a dense black accent countering face, breasts and left shoulder, which are flooded with bright light. The sleeve of the dress over the left arm, a massive looming shape, all complicated curves and textures, is countered by a little gold classical mask beside it, hanging in a void, the links of the chain glinting with points of light.
She either painted it for Charles I or brought it over from Italy when she came to London to work for him in 1638. (It shows her younger than she actually was at this date.) Her self-portraits were valued and sought after in her own time but this is one of the few that survive. It’s the highlight of a dense and varied, often bizarre, consistently intriguing show.
Portrait of the Artist is at the Queen’s Gallery, SW1 (royalcollection.org.uk), from Friday until April 17
Source: Evening Standard, Wednesday 2 November 2016, pages 32-33