New work in response to masterpieces in the National Gallery, London
4 July to 18 August 2006
Eileen Cooper: Piero di Cosimo
Luke Elwes: Giovanni di Paolo
Anna Gardiner: Alesso Baldovinetti
Diana Hulton: Titian
Simon Lewty: Claude Lorrain
Alex Lowery: Aelbert Cuyp
Bridget Macdonald: Nicolas Poussin
Will Maclean: J M W Turner
Lino Mannocci: Titian
Jack Milroy: Paulus Theodorus van Brussel
Partou Zia: Andrea Mantegna
EILEEN COOPER RA
Piero di Cosimo: A Satyr mourning over a Nymph, c1462
I have always loved this painting but recently it seems more poignant than ever.
I love the dog and all the life and potential in the horizon.
Giovanni di Paolo: Saint John the Baptist retiring to the desert, 1454.
The journey starts with a departure, a leaving behind.
What is known, contained, ordered, gives way to the distant and unscalable space of the wilderness.
The path is both a physical passage and an internal exploration. It has a beginning but no clear ending, a curved ascent through time and space.
There are moments when Giovanni's magical image recalls the sky-bound ascetics in the mountains of Chinese pictures; and others when I remember walking in the mapless desert, with the acute sense of uncertainty and discovery it engenders in the pared down and vulnerable presence of the traveller.
Alesso Baldovinetti: Portrait of a Lady in Yellow, about 1426-1499
This portrait is an advertisement. Either to catch the eye of a prospective suitor or to present a daughter as representative of her family's brand value in the eyes of a watching society.
As apparently simple as this painting is with a charming profile in a harmony of yellow and blue, the sitter's hairstyle, jewellery and dress are all sending out complex messages that we not only understand today, but continue to use ourselves.
How have things changed in the 600 years since this was painted? Not as much as might be supposed: braiding and 'bling', bunny logos and hipsters, tattoos and trainers beam out the word on us. Perhaps we are a more sophisticated audience: we know that sometimes to reflect actual wealth, a look of deliberate sartorial poverty may be what's required.
However, the only truly significant change is that now we place the ads ourselves rather than our fathers doing it for us.
Titian: The Death of Acteon, 1565-76
In the drawing, the four main quadrants and all the characters, Diana, moon, Actaeon, dogs, and distant hunter find themselves transported to a wood in Scotland. The change in the environment is seamlessly integrated with Titian's foreground river composition so that the new wood looks as though it has always been the scene of the drama. The receding line of Beech trees suggests deep spatial movement, while creating a diagonal that leads to the hapless Actaeon. This diagonal is reinforced by the strange coincidence of the downward branch from a Sycamore tree that continues the symbolic dialogue of vengeance represented by the curve of Diana's bow and its inversion in the flaying arms of Actaeon. Everywhere the filtered light is maintained to correspond with the ebb and flow of Titian's chiaroscuro. The removal of all colour references has a strange cinematic effect. Other more subtle transformations have taken place in the form and attitude of the dogs which have shed their playful characteristics. Actaeon's expression is further defined and the sprouting branches of a chestnut tree echo the terrible growth of his horns. The main adjustment to the Diana is in her profile which has become imperceptibly more imperious in line with her majestic scale. The remainder of the drawing pays full homage to the subtle genius of the Master.
In the painting, the Anglicising theme is further emphasised by a careful analysis and translation of Titian's oil painting technique into watercolour. The element of magic and metamorphosis is enhanced by the way the new woodland absorbs and reflects the light and by the way the watercolour technique has been applied to lift and intensify Titian's original palette. The activity in the heavens and the moon breaking from the clouds are integrated with the Beech Wood and absorbed into the atmosphere of changing light. Where Titian's wood is a barrel vault of shadows the new wood is more of a temple structure infused with light.
Claude Gellee, le Lorrain. Landscape: Cephalus and Procris Reunited by Diana, 1645
I have known this painting, one of the great poetic masterpieces of Western Art, ever since I used to visit the National Gallery, almost every weekend, in the early 1960's. Seeing it again a few weeks ago, its magic seemed only to have increased. I have not tried to use it directly, as I feel quite unable to add to or take from it, or to change or vary it in any way. My picture is a response and an 'hommage'. Claude's handling of space and light can induce a state of reverie in which the landscape becomes, almost literally, the space of myth, the site of dream. I had to find out what the myth was (there are several different versions) and try to 'hear' it as Claude (from all accounts the least 'verbal' of artists) might have done. I have long wanted to do a picture in French, and this seemed the ideal opportunity. I used a number of different sources both from books and from the internet, and I mixed my own words into the repetitions and variations of the French. The larger work is concerned with the totality of the myth, and the smaller echoes the dying words of Procris.
I would like to thank Siân Miles, of the University of Warwick, for her help with the translation and for some most interesting discussions en route. It goes without saying that any shortcomings are mine and mine alone.
Aelbert Cuyp: Ubbergen Castle, mid 1650s
In contemplating a choice of painting for this show, it soon became obvious that there would have to be a balance between a work that was not overly ambitious and held the potential for a life-times' thought and work, and one that was perhaps too light, or self-contained to bear valid overhaul. So I rejected the 'Stonemasons Yard' (Canaletto) for the former reason, and the small masterly study of the Roman Campagna by Corot for the latter. A second balance was that between a work that addressed similar issues to those that motivate me, and one that took on matters that normally hold little concern. The painting I finally landed on as suitable was the luminous 'Ubbergen Castle', painted by Aelbert Cuyp in the 1650's.
What are the attractions of this understated little panel? Most striking is the palpable sense of a raking evening light, with its rich but not strident glow behind the left hand hill, and the gentle melancholy it casts across the entire surface. It's an emotional light, which lends a fairy-tale enchantment - gingerbread castle, prince on horseback - quality to a simultaneously ordinary scene. This is something that Cuyp does, magnificently on occasion, weaving fantasy through the everyday: having it both ways, as it were. Further to this are the narrative overtones introduced via the prominent figures to the right - are they a neutral compositional device, or is there an implied comment on, let's say, social hierarchy, or some other such meaningful issue? (Learning of the widely known role of this castle in an earlier war against the Spanish arguably lends credibility to a more charged and symbolic reading.) I very much like the way our gaze is drawn, and met, by the turning head of the horse in contrast to the mutually absorbed faces of the men. Given that figures have had so little a role in my own work, it has been a stimulating experience to review such considerations.
For me the compositional matter, of building, water, sky and hill, are familiar elements, so there was a fascination in taking them from an artificial, painted world rather than from nature itself. One way of adapting Cuyp's painting was to elongate (and enlarge) the format into a shape that felt more like one I would select myself, and in the process heighten the slewed spatial recession artfully handled in the wonderfully composed original. My natural inclination tends towards simplification, so I have aimed to suppress selected detail, perhaps pointing up some of the implicitly abstract aspects - relations of tone, shape, colour and so on. Really it's been a question of following an instinctive response and developing a dialogue that goes back and forth between one's own interpretation, and a quietly stunning source.
Nicolas Poussin: Landscape with travelers resting, 1638/9
This painting made an impression on me when I first came across it in reproduction about fifteen years ago. At that time making translations from the art of the past had become quite a significant element in my work and I made a large scale charcoal drawing based on it, concentrating on the figures and their relationship to the landscape. Things moved on and I had almost forgotten about it, but while researching this project I came across the original in the National Gallery with a sense of rediscovery.
This time I came to it after a period of concentration on the painted landscape. I am interested in the way that certain conjunctions of clouds, trees, rocks, and water become archetypal images - derived not only from observation but from the memory of paintings like this one. I mean that when we see these things in nature, a particular cloud formation, monumental trees in heavy leaf, blue distances, the knowledge of such paintings adds to our response in an indefinable way. Poussin's painting has no known literary source, which is unusual in his work. It may be based on the Roman Campagna but the perfectly balanced classical composition takes it out of a particular time/place/narrative and into the universal. In my translation the figures remain an important element but now my focus is on the natural forms and rhythms of the landscape.
Turner: The Evening Star, 1830
The evening star appears as a faint point in the sky reflected in the water. The painting is unfinished and a boat has been painted out at the shoreline.
My work proposes a Turner sketchbook that contains studies for and of the missing boat
Titian: Noli me tangere, 1487-1576
The encounter with a work of art is the meeting of two substantially diverse entities, neither of them static, in fact both of them continually changing. It should follow that any attempt at seriously ranking artists in some kind order of value is a waste of time. Yet the many histories of art, from Vasari to our days, are full of precisely this desire to evaluate, categorise and fix works of art in some kind of hierarchy. The practical need to simplify prevails over common sense.
In May 1993 I went to Paris to see a show called 'Le siecle de Titién'. It turned out to be a vast exhibition of works by Titian and his contemporaries, nearly 300 paintings and drawings, beautifully presented, over what seemed an endless succession of rooms. As I proceeded from room to room, I experienced an ever-increasing sense of elation. With every step the work of the Venetian painter grew stronger and stronger. The juxtaposition of his work with that of his contemporaries - Giorgione, Bellini, Lotto, Tintoretto, Veronese, all wonderful artists, only enhanced his genius. By the time I reached the last two rooms I was completely moved. I had never had such an intense experience in an art gallery. Since then I have done what I know I should not, and placed Titian at the top of my ideal list of great artists.
I have chosen to focus on 'Noli me tangere', a painting by the young Titian circa 1510-15 for a number of reasons, but primarily on account of the figure of Christ. It has always fascinated me; both in absolute terms, due to the bizarre twist of Christ's body, but also because of his attire and the context within which he appears.
Jesus, at first mistaken for the gardener by Mary Magdalen, does not want to be touched. He is not yet pure, and to avoid her reach, swerves away elegantly. The departures from the scriptures in this painting are many and maybe not relevant here, but it is worth noting the way in which the 'gardener' is underdressed in relation to an overtly overdressed, distressed Mary.
But as I have said, it is the drawing of the figure of Christ that I find interesting. X-rays of the picture show that Titian altered the drawing several times before arriving at the desired posture. The position of the tree was also changed, '..originally the background consisted of a tree in the middle, much smaller than the present one and inclined in the opposite direction. The outline of its foliage was changed to form part of the central cloud…'
In my reworking of the postcard of this painting I have turned Mary into a cloud, a cloud that Christ wants, and needs, to avoid. I have also eliminated the tree. In so doing there is a stronger link between the figure and the landscape. I have also added a distant sea.
This painting by Titian deals with one of the many aspects of the intricate relationship between Life and Death in Christian iconography. In my work I have moved away from this into a more generalised form of symbolism, where earth and water become, with Christ the Man, the main protagonists.
We are born in water and at the end of the journey we enter the earth.
The red silhouette of Christ in my painting is poised between these two elements. In Hebrew the word Adam refers to our biblical ancestor, but it is also the word for man. Adama is the word for earth. Adom is the word for the colour red.
Not even the elegant move of the Titian figure can avoid the unavoidable. Yet the beauty of that body and its strange twist not only gives us pleasure, but it seems to suggest that there is nothing wrong in trying.
Paulus Theodorus van Brussel: Flowers in a Vase, 1789
The Butterfly's Journey Through some of the Flowers of Western Art.
Twenty-five years ago I had a show at the Ann Berthoud Gallery in London of work based on Theodorus van Brussel's flower painting.
One of the original reasons for choosing this piece as the basis for a series of paintings and collages was that I was interested in using art to make art. I wanted to use imagery that, at that time, was deemed unsuitable for 'serious' artists. Flowers were, in the prevailing aesthetics, a more suitable subject matter for Sunday painters, calendars, and chocolate boxes. It seemed appropriate therefore, for this exhibition based on paintings in the National Gallery, to revisit the work that had inspired that show.
One of the works was titled 'The Butterfly's Journey Through some of the Flowers of Western Art' where the butterfly was the artist as plagiarist infecting each painting in the sequence with the styles of the preceding paintings. Similarly, in the work for 'Translations', I have juxtaposed these two 'pretty' images with the butterfly's actions and intentions again belying its harmless and beautiful exterior.
Andrea Mantegna: The Agony In the Garden, 1460
Though abandoned, still in faith. Though alone, still in harmonious union. Though halted, still breathing the joy of revelation.
The mount is rocky and undistinguished by any beauty. Simeon's garden has many nooks of luscious vegetation, yet it is on this gnarled and dusty knoll, which the sign for the advent of my journey will appear.
Birds and other animals take their nocturnal routes with equanimity, whilst my companions slumber in the languid dreams of their own destiny. Perhaps if they would be awakened from their comfort to come and hold me, I may endure with more acceptance; friend-to-friend accompanied as we placidly await the penultimate hour. But it is their time to sleep, and mine to remain at my vigil. To wait, cold and profoundly anxious, with no peace to cloak my trembling heart.
As the vulture flutters softly settling on the nakedly arid branches of the Tree, I feel a great surge of pleasure, and for the first time see clearly the task in this night-time drama, wherein my soul will go out to meet the throbbing pulse of Life.