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‘Notably important’ exhibits worth seeing, and seeing again

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Warwick Academy students Aleia Mascarehas (left) and Lily Ross view art by Rana Begum in Simplicity of Form: Unfolding Abstraction (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

The Bermuda National Gallery has recently opened two new exhibitions – one in the Watlington Room, the other is spread through the Humann Gallery, the Young Gallery and in the Upper Mezzanine.

The exhibit in the Watlington Room consists of a selection of Renaissance paintings from the Watlington Collection. The exhibition title is Masterpieces of the Renaissance: Selections from the National Collection. The curator for this exhibition is the BNG curatorial team.

The exhibition in the main galleries showcase aspects of modern and postmodern abstraction from the Green family collection. Its title is Simplicity of Form: Unfolding Abstraction.

We, the Bermuda public, are hugely indebted to the Green family for their generosity, especially for their loan of this magnificent exhibition. It was curated by Eve Godet Thomas.

I see in these two exhibitions a synergetic energy, meaning their overall effect together is greater than if they were completely separate exhibitions. These two exhibitions seemingly interact with one another.

Modernism, as I see it, is the result of an unfolding, an ongoing expansion in human knowledge that began with the Renaissance. It has even been said that modernism is unthinkable without the Renaissance. Indeed, the Renaissance has sometimes been called “the early modern period”.

There are ten paintings in the Renaissance show; six are Italian, most being from the High Renaissance. All six are by what we would consider minor masters, still, in most there is some indication of an awareness of Renaissance achievements; for example, developments in linear perspective and a greater understanding of human anatomy.

Of the four remaining works, three are from the northern Renaissance, meaning in this case, Flanders and the Netherlands. Portrait of a Lady by Cornelis de Vos stands out. Although not as well known as his contemporary, Peter Paul Rubens, in his day de Vos was known especially as a portraitist.

Representing the Spanish Baroque, a style of painting that developed in Spain throughout the 17th century, is a Study for The Prodigal Son by Bartolome Esteban Murillo. He was best known for his religious paintings.

The word Renaissance means rebirth and suggests a looking back, in this case to the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome.

During the 15th and 16th centuries Italian visual artists, architects and writers sought to revive their heritage from the classical past, but at the same time there was a growing interest in describing as accurately as possible the surrounding visual world.

Historians suggest that this interest in the natural world was initially stimulated by the preaching and teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi and that this interest was first artistically manifested in the paintings of the 14th century artist, Giotto di Bondone.

Whatever the case, the past begot the future and through the work of architect Filippo Brunelleschi and others, the development of a systematic, mathematically precise linear perspective, plus the study of human anatomy by means of dissection as executed by such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, we detect the beginnings of the scientific revolution as well as an impetus to artistically depict their particular environment.

If you trace the development of western art from the 15th century through to the 20th century and beyond, considering also the technical developments in optics (microscopes, telescopes, camera obscura, photography etc) and theoretical underpinnings, we eventually come to a world beyond what we normally see. I think of the subatomic and cellular world, plus explorations of the cosmos.

All this leads us to the “abstracts” currently on show at the BNG from the Green family collection.

There are 21 works in this exhibition.

The word “abstract” comes from the Latin abstractus, meaning to draw away, remove, etc. This suggests a deriving from whatever, but in a simplified or summery form. In that sense most art, historically, is a derivative from something apart from the actual painting and is therefore referential and, in varying degrees, abstract.

With such artists as say, Mondrian and his mature style, I detect something completely new; “abstract” as a verb is hardly applicable. This kind of art is totally non-referential.

Mondrian’s artistic style developed incrementally. Beginning as a realist, his art then became increasingly more abstract until eventually he moved away from abstracting what he saw in nature to painting that which was totally non-referential

In the words of Paul Klee, the renowned Swiss German artist of the early 20th century, “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible.”

Vassily Kandinsky saw in abstract art something akin to the abstract qualities in music, which he sought to emulate visually.

Interestingly, Kandinsky’s Russian compatriots Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner issued in 1920, the Realistic Manifesto. In this document, the word “realistic” refers to a new Platonic reality more absolute than any imitation of nature. Realistic herein means the reality of the actual physical work of art itself.

Picasso brought together within cubism various qualities he saw – for example in the work of Cezanne or African tribal art. Most surprisingly were aspects of simultaneity that he learnt from Einstein’s theory of relativity, which was published in 1905, the same year that Picasso was seeking new ways of seeing the world by means of what we now know as cubism.

There are a number of stories regarding the impact that Einstein’s work had on Picasso, but obviously, someone in the know described to Picasso in ways he could understand how it could impact his view of the world. The upshot for Picasso was the use of multiple viewpoints within a single work of art.

Of great importance is the fact that some modernists began to highlight the fundamentals of art – basic elements such as line, form, colour, space etc – as the primary subject in their art as seen in the work of such artists as Malevich, Mondrian or Josef Albers. These are examples of those that made these basic elements the “raison d’être” of art itself.

The BNG abstract exhibition brings to the Bermuda public some of the stars of the modern period. In centre stage, directly across from the BNG entrance is British artist Bridget Riley’s Entice I. This is a prime example of optical art or, as Time magazine dubbed it, “Op Art” – obviously pairing it with Pop art. There are also two other examples of Riley’s work in the exhibit.

There is also another artist with three works in the show, this time American artist Frank Stella. Note especially his lithograph called Quathlamba I, from the V series of 1968. His work is in the “minimalist” camp.

Anni Albers, renowned German artist and Bauhaus professor, also wife of Josef Albers, another Bauhaus educator, has on exhibit an intriguing screen print called Letter; intriguing in that the title suggests either a letter, as in an epistle, or as a letter, like in the alphabet. Or could it be both?

Notable is the re-creation of a Mondrian by Tom Sachs. It is called New York City I, and is made entirely with different coloured duct tape on plywood.

Alexander Liberman was what Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) would have called a “uomo universale”, meaning he was accomplished in an impressive number of skills. He was an author, magazine editor, photographer, painter film-maker and sculptor. His education at the Sorbonne was in philosophy and mathematics. He also studied painting in Paris with Andre Lhote and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and architecture at the Ecole Speciale d’Architecture.

Liberman is represented in this abstract exhibition by a large, round painting called O Yellow. I am uncertain as to the reason for the O, but since the painting is largely in yellow ochre, I assume the O is for ochre. Besides it being mostly a big yellow ochre painting, there are three vertical, slightly curved lines in what appears to be charcoal.

O Yellow, by Alexander Liberman, is on display in Simplicity of Form: Unfolding Abstraction at the Bermuda National Gallery (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Alexander Calder’s Balloons Rising, is a gouache (opaque watercolour) from 1968. In this particular work it appears the artist poured the four colours of gouache (red, yellow, blue and black) onto white paper so that they formed circular puddles of paint. He then allowed the respective colours of each puddle to run down the paper in lines, so that the “balloons” appear be tied to strings and are seemingly rising.

For those not in the know, Alexander Calder was a third generation sculptor and the originator of the mobile. This is art that moves.

The earliest of the modernists in this show is Matisse. Indeed, he is considered the forefather of modernism. He has on exhibit, a lithograph of the head of a woman. However this print was made very late in his career, in1972.

Another early abstractionist is Burgoyne Diller whose untitled painting was created in1934. In this work the artist plays with our perception of colour, or in the words of Josef Albers, the interaction of colour – in this case, the complimentary colours of blue and yellow.

Kenneth Noland’s Blue Zones is on display in Simplicity of Form: Unfolding Abstraction, now on display at the Bermuda National Gallery (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Other notables in the abstract exhibition are: Kenneth Noland, David Hockney, Eduardo Paolozzi RA, Andy Warhol and Victor Vasarely.

I frequently write that such and such an exhibition is a must-see show, but the two exhibitions reviewed in this article, are notably important and therefore very highly recommended. In order to fully appreciate what’s on offer, however, it will take time. You might want to see it several times.

Masterpieces of the Renaissance ends April 15. Simplicity of Form: Unfolding Abstraction continues through to the end of September. Admission is free.

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Published March 04, 2023 at 7:58 am (Updated March 03, 2023 at 10:12 pm)

‘Notably important’ exhibits worth seeing, and seeing again

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