Girls, if you’ve been wishing to feel more svelte, You'lll like Rembrandt and his Women at the Royal Academy. You won’t lose an ounce, but you’ll feel like Twiggy in comparison to his models, examples of 17th century Amsterdam prostitutes. Good women couldn’t disrobe in front of men, even painters, for money. The tiny etchings revealed exquisite lines, and I learned that he was an innovator in that craft. The paintings are wonderful, large and luminous, often portrait commissions or works done with a Biblical reference in order to sell more easily and keep up the payments on his enormously expensive house. Three babies soon died, then his wife Sonia, before he went to court against his mistress, her nurse. Finally he took up with his young servant Hendrijke, soon accused in a stern Protestant court of living with him in sin (she was 5 months pregnant with their daughter). Social snubs on top of his lavish lifestyle may have contributed to his bankruptcy, before he died penniless at 63.
Also with that show at the Royal Academy is Frank Auerbach, painting very thickly with huge brushes. Based on his early works, mostly portraits and landscapes, I would love to be his paint supplier, but later works are less than 5 inches thick in dried paint, and use a bit of color. He wipes off most of the paint at the end of the day, and restarts. If it’s charcoal, he erases and restarts. One portrait bust, looking close-up like a plate of extra-thick intertwined spaghetti, took 300 sittings over many years! I like his energy and later colors, best seen across a room. He still works here in London.
The Dulwich Picture Gallery (“Dull’-ich”) requires a short train ride from London’s Victoria Station, and then about a ten minute walk down Gallery Street in a pretty college town. It’s the oldest public gallery in Britain, one story, and newly refurbished. There are English paintings by Lely, Britain’s most famous seventeenth century portrait painter, Turner, and Gainsborough. The collection includes Rubens and Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Poussin, Canaletto, Watteau (Flemish, not French, I learned!), Teipolo, Veronese, Raphael, and Guercino. These were all collected privately, and finally donated to the gallery. Popes and kings are shown, mythology and religion. A couple of huge Renis hang at the end of a long gallery in natural light from a glass ceiling. After a lecture from docent Wendy, four of our tour group lunched in a paneled town pub with a garden, although there is a gallery restaurant and a small shop.
Mike and I visited the Courtauld Gallery along the river to see “Art on the Line,” which hangs nearly 300 paintings as they would have been at exhibitions years ago, arranged floor to ceiling. The Royal Academy jury’s favorites were hung “on the line” at the wooden molding strip on eye level. This influenced buyers, and pleased or enraged painters, including Joshua Reynolds, its first president, and Thomas Gainsborough, his successor. Usually, small paintings were placed lower, including portraits, but large full length portraits hung higher. The paintings represented over 300 Royal Academy shows that formerly used the exhibition space. There were many mythological references and some incredible frames. The gallery offers bins of plastic binoculars to better peer at the topmost “skied” paintings. The Royal Academy was founded in 1768, backed by George III.
It was winter. Outside, ice skaters glided around a rather watery rink where dancing fountains play in warmer months. (This has been the second warmest year on record.) It’s Somerset House, not Rockefeller Center, and only in its second year of ice-making, but it’s great fun watching skaters in the courtyard of the magnificent palace that houses the gallery. A soft blue floodlight bathes the scene theatrically. There’s a restaurant and busy outdoor tables alongside. The buildings also contain the Gilbert Collection and the Hermitage Rooms, full of objects d’art.
The National Gallery, Portrait Gallery, and Lord Nelson dominate Trafalgar Square. We visited the Albert Cuyp (“Kipe”) exhibition at the National Gallery, showing Dutch 16th century art, a show organized in the US. It’s not the most exciting art, but a film and good signage offered a look at Dutch power and taste. British collectors awhile back were mad for the stuff. Three large plaster cows, one painted with a scene from Cuyp’s work, advertised the show on the lawn outdoors, since cows were symbols of fertility and wealth, and the Dutch esteemed both. Trafalgar Square, across the way, was filled with tents for the St. Patrick’s celebration and parade the next day. It’s a first for London, a pet project of the mayor. He still hasn’t convinced all the pigeons that Trafalgar Square is off limits.
The British Museum holds many wonderful lectures, but the worse part of the trip is navigating crowded Oxford Street, the most congested street ever, both in the street and on the pavement. Episodes of sidewalk rage threaten dallying walkers. At one point, I got off the bus and spoke to the taxi driver behind the bus, asking if he could get me to the museum within the next 10 minutes. He thought not, so I had time to climb back on the bus as it inched along. When I got off, I had a few blocks to walk, and asked another taxi waiting at the light if he could get me there fast. He advised me that walking was fastest. I enjoyed the lecture, except that I paid £35 for a talk that I could’ve almost given myself. I am thinking about doing just that next year, and have agreed to give painting classes here this summer. Busy Oxford Street and Bayswater Road are a continuation of the same avenue, changing names at Marble Arch.
I met friend Patti at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, and afterwards we walked to the Royal Academy for the Buddhas and the summer show. The small Serpentine only shows modern art, this time an old Gilbert and George exhibit of black and white photos of “dirty” words, shot in black and white in dirty parts of urban London, mixed with photos of inhabitants and the artists. What relationship do the people and places have? Remember G&G from the 60’s when they were included inperson as part of their art? They live here. The Serpetine now has a new outdoor area for summer concerts.
The Buddhas were found buried in Qingzhou, eastern China in 1996, while preparing for modern construction, often partially destroyed by nature or maybe humans during persecutions when Buddhism was surpressed. Since the faces are mostly intact, maybe they were gathered and buried in reverence after being damaged. They show many images of Buddha with his bodisatvas, attendants, enlightened beings who postpone their own entry into Nirvana in order to help others achieve it. They’re often covered in gold leaf or gilded, in gentle meditative poses. The attributes of the bun, the earlobes, the hands entreating or granting, are evident in various ways, and the quiet dignity is shown in large and small figures in all materials and styles over six hundred of years. The drapery, the poses, sometimes a smile, and the serenity of the pieces is most pleasant.
Buddhism began in India after Siddhartha Gautama, a prince, renounced wealth and set off on a walk to find the cause of suffering. Under the sacred bodhi tree he found enlightenment, and is called Buddha, “The Enlightened One.”
The religion spread from India 500 years BC to China in the first century AD. There were many images of Buddha made in an effort to accumulate karma and be rewarded in future lives. Some of the donor names are visible on the statues. Many statue bases are lotus flowers, symbols of purity. Added were many wonderful flying dragons, bringers of good fortune in China.
The RA Summer Show has some of everything, as ever, with room after huge room filled to the ceiling with today’s artwork for sale. Painting, sculpture, installation and prints had many red dots marking sold work. I‘ve sold several pieces lately, and have commissions to work on, so I’m happy. I also taught several home classes, to no more than six people, because of space at my dining room table, and will continue in the fall. The hardest part is finding the time, but I love doing it.
Mike and I went to a wonderful 60 year retrospective on a Sunday at the Tate Britain, the “old Tate,” of Lucien Freud, Siggy’s grandson, which started with a basket of apples done in art school in the 30’s and ended with six foot nudes done last year. The painter, now 80, felt that by painting “normally” he limited his artistic exploration and growth, so he expanded into a more vigorous style. He really pushes and pushes, always looking and exploring, using more paint, and only models he felt wanted to be with him for the lengthy process. His unflattering nudes even include his grown son, but he also paints plants and places, especially when he has other things on his mind and avoids personal interaction. He mixes charcoal into his whites so they will never be too brilliant, and one of the paintings of his mother has his mortar and pestle shown under her chair. His plant pieces could go into Kew Gardens for exactitude: one was about 6 feet tall and had thousands of small leaves, no two alike. Perhaps you saw the small head of the Queen with five-o’clock shadow that caused such a stir. He had about 6 sittings with her, I think, and usually requires many more, but she requested he do the portrait. It's not flattering at all.
Kenwood House, once a private mansion upheld by Lord Iveagh’s Guinness money, has Rembrandt, Hals, Turner, Van Dyck and others. My friend Darlene, another Navy wife, is a volunteer. Its famous classical library is by Robert Adams; the comfortable house overlooks a lake amid 112 landscaped acres. It’s a lovely quiet getaway from the hustle and bustle of London, overlooks the city from Hamstead Heath, and is seldom crowded. Several films were made there. We keep meaning to go to one of the summer concerts on the lake, but summer will be nearly over when I get back from SC and Russia, and the days will be short again. A few American spouses have jobs with the government, but none of us can be legally employed here—and with husbands so often on travel, we try to tag along when we can. Mike and I went to Budapest and he worked on computer modeling while I played