Saturday, April 01, 2006

Museum Stroll: Tate Britain

I’ve made mention of some of the great art I’ve seen in the past year or so since heading to Europe. It’s been one of the best aspects of this whole living abroad thing. Between Rome, Florence, Munich, Birmingham and London I have greatly added to my exposure of the world’s greatest art. In prior years I had visited a number of other of the world’s great galleries and such. But never have I had such a concentration of exposure than the last year. I also got to see a solo show by John Jude Palencar in Southern California and *just* missed the Maxfield Parrish show in San Diego by a few days last summer. Darn.

Seeing original art, as an artist, is utterly mindblowing. you see, over the years I’ve carried with me mental images from the books I own and have learned greatly from them, often having certain pages from art books open next to me as I work, for inspiration. But nothing prepares you for viewing the real deal, especially when in the grand manner the paintings were done very large. But even when small, nothing beats an original painting.

I had the pleasure of visiting London again last weekend, my first time since 1998. At the time I saw the Tate (now known as Tate Britain), Leighton House, and other museums around England. but as I was there for other purposes, shall we say, I couldn’t indulge quite as freely as I might have. This trip was basically all about the museums.

It started again at the Tate. How can you pass up the chance of paying homage to the Lady of Shalott? Well, I couldn’t, though I’d seen her 8 years ago. And though there were tons of great things to see there, she remains a highlight. Millais’ Ophelia was also on view and it made for an interesting debate as to which was better.

I swear he used a 1-2" brush for most of it. of course it's 6.5' long

Waterhouse’s work (above) has fantastic atmosphere, sheer size and vigorous brushwork on its side. Stand any closer than 4 feet from it and it begins to fall apart, the very loose brushwork is revealed and it can be a little disappointing in places. but it was painted to be viewed at a normal distance and at about 5 feet away instantly the painting snaps together in a most remarkable way and you’d think every detail was labored at endlessly. Truly stunning.

Actual overheard quote: "It's so beautiful I can't believe it," and that wasn't even me.
Sometimes humans make me proud.

Millais’ painting (above) is almost the opposite in handling. It’s smaller (though by no means small), and the handling is remarkable at any distance. You can get so close that you’re about to leave noseprints on the glass and still the piece is tightly handled and gorgeous. All the foliage that is indicated in a few masterful strokes by Waterhouse is painstakingly rendered in Millais’ work, but not in a way that it detracts or draws attention to itself at all. I read somewhere that Millais spent 4 months working on the head and hands here, floating his model in a warmed bath while studies were made and then the final work. Given that I often have all of three days to do a full painting, it makes me sigh. The colors are jewel-like and more vibrant overall. The question remains unanswered in my mind. I went in thinking Shalott but I can't say now. One advantage Waterhouse's work has, at any size, is that his value structure holds up better at a distance, with the white dress clearly making the image readable. Had Millais' Ophelia worn a similarly bright dress, it may have sealed the deal, but her dress gets a little muddled at a distance.

One piece in particular was quite the gem. I’d never seen it nor heard of the artist before but Herbert James Draper’s Lament for Icarus was a stunner.

Why had I never heard of this artist before, but Blue Dog is everywhere?

The Tate Modern has opened up elsewhere and I hoped that this meant that the half of what is now Tate Britain that once housed the modern collection would have moved, leaving room for more of the excellent work that is in their warehouse. No such luck, unfortunately, although Lucian Freud’s work is always interesting to see.