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Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Art Copyists Giving The Renaissance

The curator at the National Gallery could not contain her wonder. Calling me over to the replica of the Borgherini Chapel that has been installed as part of the gallery’s Michelangelo and Sebastiano exhibition, she pointed out a surreal detail. Not only has this reproduction of a piece of Renaissance architecture got hyperrealistic reproductions of the frescoes, marble decor and a half-domed alcove – it even has a modern plug socket sunk into the plaster.

That immaculate eye for detail is typical of the work of Factum Arte, a Madrid-based studio whose combination of digital analysis with assiduous craft is transforming the way we see art. I have been watching their work develop for nearly a decade. I am now convinced it is the most important thing happening in 21st-century art – because it can quite literally save civilisation.

The new kind of high-fidelity 3D reproduction being pioneered by Factum Arte is going to abolish the difference between past and present and make distance no obstacle to seeing any masterpiece. We are entering an age when museums can – this is no hyperbole – have their own perfect replicas of the Sistine Chapel,Titian’s Assumption in the Frari church from Venice, or Mantegna’s Camera degli Sposi from Mantua.

The Victorian creators of the cast courts in London’s V&A would be amazed – and immediately commission all the above projects. These two vast galleries at the V&A are full of plaster casts of classical, medieval and Renaissance art and architecture. Michelangelo’s David, Hadrian’s Column and Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise are among the wonders on view. Today we find this legacy of the Victorian passion for art history fascinating, yet we have the technology to go much further. A plaster cast of a Renaissance sculpture is only a pale copy compared with the hi-tech remakes pioneered by Factum Arte and a few other visionary enterprises such as the Insitute for Digital Archaeology, which put a replica of Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph in Trafalgar Square last year.

The first time I encountered this mesmerising new age of reproduction was in Milan in 2008. Factum Arte had made a facsimile of The Last Supper for an exhibition by Peter Greenaway. It was superbly convincing. Its founder Adam Lowe told me at the time about another project, in which he was remaking Veronese’s stupendously large painting The Wedding of Cana. Since then Factum Arte’s creations have got ever more impressive, from reproducing the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings to creatingPiranesi’s fantasy furniture for an exhibition at the Soane Museum.

With the immaculate and freakily convincing simulacrum ofSebastiano del Piombo’s Borgherini Chapel for the National Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition, it is clear we are on the verge of a new age for art history: a renaissance of the Renaissance.

There is a chance to rediscover the magic of Renaissance art and architecture and popularise it as never before. TheBorgherini Chapel is not even especially famous: visitors who climb the hill to the church of San Pietro in Montorio, above Rome’s river Tiber, where it can be found, usually go there to see Bramante’s compact architectural masterpiecethe Tempietto in its courtyard. Yet by putting a loving and astonishingly real-seeming replica in the National Gallery, Factum Arte revives this work of art: our fascination with the reproductive technology inspires a fresh awe at the original it so passionately recreates. Far from creating some heartless museum of fakes for the post-truth age, this new kind of replica is a key to re-enchanting us with the art of the past.

Just as the Victorian age loved Michelangelo so much that people who could not get to Florence wanted to at least see a plaster cast of David at the V&A, or remind themselves of it between pilgrimages, so today’s feeling for art can be totally transformed by the combination of digital scanning, 3D printing and traditional craft that now makes it possible to reproduce art and architecture with such uncanny perfection, plug sockets and all.

A Sistine Chapel for every city – why not? Imagine if everyone in Britain had access to the marvels of the European Renaissance. It would change the way we see art, history and perhaps ourselves. For our loss of the passion for those achievements is a modern tragedy. A Sistine Chapel in Britain might have reminded us of what Europe really is when we voted on the EU last year.

The Visionary Architects Who Shaped Japan

In a forest clearing in West Sussex, a tall wooden chimney stands propped up on timber scaffolding, a fierce jet of fire roaring from its top. All of a sudden, the flaming flue crashes to the ground with a loud thud, splitting open in a cloud of smoke to reveal a scaly blackened surface of charred planks within. “No trained architect would use this material,” says the 70-year-old Terunobu Fujimori, as he scuttles away to douse some more newspaper in a bucket of petrol. “Which is exactly why I like to use it,” he adds with a broad grin.

The mischievous architectural historian turned builder has made a name for himself in Japan by crafting beguiling little buildings that refuse to follow any of the usual rules. His hand-made structures look like the nests or cocoons of curious creatures, woven, whittled and thatched with organic, earthy materials that could have been scavenged from the forest floor. He has built a tiny teahouse for himself in Nagano, vertiginously perched at the top of two tree trunks (“because one leg is dangerous and three legs are too stable and boring”), and another – named theFlying Mud Boat – that hangs from wires like some floating seed pod. His buildings are sculpted with the fairytale allure of a child’s drawing, topped with oversized roofs and wonky chimneys, dotted with little hatches and porthole windows, as if transported from a manga animation.

This woodland charring factory is part of Fujimori’s preparations for an exhibition at the Barbican on the Japanese house since 1945. He is building a teahouse in the gallery, using his trademark burnt wooden cladding. Entering the space through a low doorway, visitors will follow a winding path through grassy mounds to reach his black cabin, characteristically raised up on legs and accessed through a small opening at the top of a ladder. “The teahouse should always be slightly awkward to enter,” he explains. “The architecture should make you crouch, or crawl, so you show some respect for the tea ceremony.”

The Barbican’s gnarled concrete walls will provide a pleasing contrast with the crackled black crocodile skin of Fujimori’s charred boards. The ancient Japanese practice of yakisugi was used for hundreds of years to seal wood against rot and rain, before weatherproof paint was invented. And it is just the kind of primitive technique that captures Fujimori’s imagination, coming from outside the traditional architectural canon.

“The history of architecture is much older than the history of architects,” he says, explaining how his training as a historian led him to try to shed any influence of what had gone before. “I made a rule that my work shouldn’t reference anything else in the history of architecture.”

Delighting in his role as a professional amateur, Fujimori builds his structures with the help of an enthusiastic band of friends known as the Jomon Company, taking their name from the Neolithic period of Japanese history. A motley group of volunteers that includes a novelist, painter, sake brewer, publisher and priest, they use basic tools to give buildings a warm, roughly hewn feel, their sideways approach leading to such eccentric details as leeks planted on rooftops and knobbly lumps of charcoal pressed into plaster ceilings.

Fujimori, who got his first commission at the age of 44, is just one of more than 40 architects whose works will feature in this ambitious exhibition. Featuring more than 200 works, it reveals the Japanese house to be a site of unparalleled architectural invention over the past seven decades. It will show the products of postwar optimism and the promise of mass production in a country rebuilding itself from the ground up; the reaction against this brave new world and the longing for craft and tradition; the eco-experiments of the 1970s, followed by the lavish dreams of the 80s bubble economy; and, more recently, the ethereal urge to float away in whiter-than-white houses.

The private house in Japan has been a fertile laboratory for new ideas because there has always been such high demand for new dwellings. Never mind the fact that much of the urban fabric was obliterated by bombing in the second world war, or that the country suffers from frequent earthquakes – the house itself is seen as a temporary asset, lasting 30 years on average before a new one takes its place. It keeps the country in a perpetual building boom, and a continual churn of innovation.

“It might seem a strange idea in the west, but in Japan the house is a disposable thing,” says Barbican curator Florence Ostende. “Because of inheritance tax, people are much more likely to demolish their parents’ home and rebuild their own, and there isn’t the same attitude to preservation and heritage. Many of the houses in the exhibition are no longer standing.”

With virtually no market for “pre-owned” homes – one of the reasons that Japan has the most architects per capita in the world – the house is a vehicle for personal expression. The exhibition is full of crepuscular concrete bunkers and diaphanous light-filled lanterns, homes that turn their back on the city and others that try to bring the city into the house, opening up the theatre of domestic life for all to see.

In the 1970s, cosmological enthusiast Kiko Mozuna conceived his home as a “nested universe”, composing a series of different sized cubes with triangular openings to form what he called the “Anti-Dwelling Box”. When creating a dwelling for a graphic designer, meanwhile, po-mo prankster Kazumasa Yamashita played on the idea of a facade by arranging its windows and light shaft into a Face House.

An Artist Who Tore Down The Old to Build The New

For years, I would encounter Gustav Metzger in public talks and at galleries, often away from the beaten track. He was always there, always watching and listening. At first I found him a bit intimidating. More recently, I would see him, looking slightly frail and small and in a certain disarray, struggling with bags of documents and other papers, as he went to and from where he lived in London’s East End.

His activities included the accumulation of thousands of newspapers and other ephemera, and he could appear a little eccentric and vulnerable. But impressions can be deceptive. Everything Metzger did had purpose, even his inveterate walks in the city he had known since the second world war.

From the 90s onward, appearances in large exhibitions – where Metzger showed, on one occasion, the congealed liquid slides he had once used for light shows with Cream and the Who in the 60s – located him among younger artists who regarded him as a sort of errant father figure.

For Metzger, who arrived in England on the Kindertransport in 1939, it was David Bomberg (whose background was also Polish-Jewish) who was a kind of father figure. Metzger studied with the painter for years at Borough Polytechnic – working in his influential life class alongside Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff – before choosing a different path.

A few years ago, he showed the sad wreckage of his early life drawings and paintings, the tattered remnants of his early paintings. They had the status of evidence. However, he continued to believe in the power and importance of art to a degree that might seem idealistic. Persuaded by the curators to take part in an exhibition Art Into Society, Society Into Art at London’s ICA in 1974, he produced a manifesto calling on artists to stop producing art between 1977 and 1980, in the first art strike.

Metzger was a paradox. He could, he thought, have been successful had he not been so political – he once gave a lecture on Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, a work he found beautiful, while at the same time complaining about the lack of ethics in the art world.

A small, intense and somewhat prickly man with twinkling eyes, his cantankerousness was at once political and personal. He had numerous arguments and fallings-out, not only with Bomberg but also with Lord Goodman(who supported him for a number of years), with Joseph Beuys and with John Latham. The disputes were ideological and artistic. Essentially a warm, kindly man, he could be recalcitrant, and would follow ideas to what seemed extreme conclusions.

His art made connections – in one work, between Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Paul Klee’s watercolour The Angel of History, and Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann. He made works using archive newspaper articles on mad cow disease (prefiguring Roger Hiorns’ work on the BSE crisis) and, like Eric Hobsbawm andWG Sebald, worked against forgetting what had led to, and happened, in the Holocaust.

Art for Metzger could be painting or a drop of water sizzling on a hot plate; a piece of metal floating on the Thames, a display of 10,000 newspapers, a stack of refrigerators or 120 cars, or a group of inverted dead trees, their roots aloft. His lectures, manifestos and films all attested to his beliefs. It turned out he was right on many points. I shall miss his constant, agitating, difficult presence.

His auto-destructive art was an anti-capitalist gesture against global corporate power and domination, rather than simply a formal gambit. Metzger didn’t want to destroy art. Artists, he believed, had a responsibility to help society and to prevent future wars. “Can art do it instead of just politics?” he asked. “Art can do it. Art must do it. And I must be one of the artists who do it.”

Painter Howard Hodgkin dies aged 84

Sir Howard Hodgkin, one of Britain’s greatest contemporary artists, known for his explosively coloured paintings of what he once described as “emotional situations”, has died aged 84.

The artist, a central figure in contemporary art for more than 50 years, died peacefully in hospital in London, only a few weeks after returning to the UK from India.

He was known for paintings, always on wood rather than canvas, full of vividly coloured, emotion-packed splodges, swirls, loops and smears. It may not have been obvious to the viewer but the works always had a subject and they were not abstract – he said that he had never painted an abstract picture in his life, that he was a “a figurative painter of emotional situations”.

The director of the Tate galleries, Sir Nicholas Serota, who curated Hodgkin’s first museum exhibition in 1976, led the tributes, calling Hodgkin “one of the great artists and colourists of his generation”.

He added: “His sensuous, intense paintings were infused with his love and understanding of late 19th-century French painting, especially Degas, Vuillard and Bonnard, and by his feeling for the heat and colours of India, which he visited on many occasions.

“Over the past 30 years Howard’s international standing has continued to grow with major exhibitions in Europe and America. His characteristic subject, the memory of a meeting or a conversation with a friend, resulted in paintings that radiate the emotions of life: love, anger, vanity, beauty and companionship.”

Hodgkin, although he had been increasingly frail, had been busy working up until his death with two important exhibitions due to open in 2017.

One is later this month at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), where the curator Paul Moorhouse was told the news of his death 3o minutes before they began hanging the works on Thursday. “You can’t imagine how that was.” he said. “It is a personal loss and it is a great loss to the art world.”

Moorhouse recalled Hodgkin’s enthusiasm for what is the first exhibition devoted to his portraits – his first reaction was “at last!”.

“He is one of those truly distinctive artists who redefined the way you look at the world. He also changed how artists represent their experiences … He understood that we don’t just interact with the world visually, we interact in terms of emotions and memory and he brought those into the language of painting.”

Moorhouse said Hodgkin was the opposite of an abstract artist. “He never painted a picture which did not have a subject, he couldn’t paint a picture if it wasn’t about something. It was the language he used, this complex language of visual experience, emotion and memory which, yes, was unfamiliar … People have to get on his wavelength and when you do you realise how rich it is.

“We want the exhibition to be a celebration of his achievements. If any artist was about life, Howard was. His paintings are a celebration of life.”

The NPG’s director, Nicholas Cullinan, said Hodgkin was one of our greatest artists. “Howard’s painting has always resisted classification and easy explanation. His work often appears entirely abstract, yet over the course of 65 years a principle concern of his art has been to evoke a human presence, making a significant contribution to our understanding of what a portrait can be.”

The other Hodgkin show opens at the Hepworth Wakefield in June, exploring the influence of India on Hodgkin’s work.

The gallery’s director, Simon Wallis, said they were devastated because the gallery was looking forward to Hodgkin being there and seeing the show.

“He had been incredibly generous and the last six works in the show are the last six paintings he had made in India.”

Wallis said Hodgkin was “one of the most important artists of our time … His love of colour and gesture and the relationship to the spirit of place and the spirit of people that he was associated with just seemed to radiate from the paintings.”

Hodgkin was born in London in 1932 and evacuated during the second world war to the US where, fortunately for a precocious child who had decided he was to be an artist, he was repeatedly taken to the Museum of Modern Art. Back in the UK he studied at Camberwell School of Art, followed by the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, Wiltshire.

He was part of a generation of artists who came to prominence in the late 1950s and early 60s, including David Hockney, Peter Blake and Patrick Caulfield, but success came far later to Hodgkin.

When he appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1994 he said the road to recognition in the UK had been hard as it was “enemy territory” for painters.

An important breakthrough was the Serota-curated retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford in 1976. Wider fame arrived after he represented Britain at the 1984 Venice Biennale and in 1985 he became the second artist to win the Turner prize.