Insights from this summer's biggest art exhibitons in Paris, London, and Hong Kong
Five Centuries In The Making
Hong Kong Palace Museum, Hong Kong
An unnamed gallerist with her phone screen on the ticketing page tells me that this is the newest great landmark in the artworld. A street artist I met in the queue tells me that this is the decadent but heavy arm of Chinese nationalism. Opening on the third of July, two days after the date of the official handover of Hong Kong by the British 25 years previously, the Hong Kong Palace Museum inevitably operates in a highly politicised atmosphere.
Consisting of the finest objects from the Beijing Palace Museum, a short stroll through is enough to confirm the sheer power of the collection. Of these, Han Huang’s Five Oxen (Tang dynasty, 8th century) is a particular highlight. The world’s earliest extant painting on paper, its display contests attitudes about the West and its status as an art historical benchmark. The artwork also flaunts the ink colophons of fourteen different seals. Over the centuries, important figures, such as the Qianlong emperor (r.1736-1795), stamped the artwork with their seals wishing to leave a record of their viewing upon the work. This makes Five Oxen a
palimpsest more than a millennium in the making.
However, despite even this, for me the most impressive artwork of all was not found inside the galleries.
Walking in, the architecture itself draws a collective gasp from the crowd. The ceiling for instance, made of gold, takes the form of small tidal curves and draws inspiration directly from the iconic roof tiles inside the Forbidden City. Its message is one of heritage and homogeneity, of nationalistic strength. Just like the sprawl of seals on Five Oxen is a historical feat of continuity, the museum is a stamp on the fabric of Hong Kong, a symbol of its reclamation into Chinese political and cultural history.
- Jack Chen
Surrealism Beyond Borders
Tate Modern, London
When asked about Surrealism, most people will point to recognisable symbols such as a lobster on a telephone, a train charging from a fireplace, or a fur-covered teacup. Surrealism Beyond Borders, showing at the Tate Modern from 24 February to 29 August, largely eschews these more conventional works in favour of a fresh and subversive approach. The one hundred year-old movement has proved ripe for reinterpretation, with curators rejecting the common focus on the Parisian movement of the 1920s in favour of a more diverse approach encompassing artists working over a fifty-year period from all corners of the world. Rooms are organised around 'convergence points,' or different global centres of Surrealist activity.
One standout work is 'The World in the Time of the Surrealists' (1929), an inverted world map foregrounding China, Russia, Alaska and the Pacific Islands while relinquishing world powers such as Europe and the United States to its outer edges. By quite literally turning the world on its head, the Surrealists subversively advocate for the formation of a collective, transnational identity. The effect is uncanny, chaotic, unexpected and invigorating - much like Surrealism itself.
- Eliza Browning
Allemagne / Années 1920 / Nouvelle Objectivité / August Sander
Pompidou Centre, Paris
The Pompidou Centre’s latest landmark exhibition ‘Germany / 1920’s / New objectivity / August Sander’, presents a tightly focused cultural history on the fraught Weimar years: a period of democratic decline and global economic and political crisis. In recapturing the great multidisciplinary spirit which made the museum so prominent in the 1980s, it is simultaneously introspective and deeply relevant to the current political climate.
‘New Objectivity’ was an artistic response to the expressionism and abstraction of art, its often-exaggerated naturalistic forms satirised the whirlwind of social and political change that post-war Germany underwent. Yet while this exhibition contains paintings from figureheads of the movement such as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and Kathe Kollwitz, the real intrigue lies in the contextual structuring of the artworks. August Sander’s photographs People of the Twentieth Century structures the entire exhibiton. Opening into a wide corridor it provides the focal strand of the exhibiton, with the rest of the artwork held in rooms branching off from the display of photographs. A monumental collection of portraits explore the decadence of the Weimar years, with photographs of bankers, writers, workers, bohemians, intellectuals, and artists.
However, the insistence on grouping the rest of the artworks by theme seems misjudged. For all its historical situationism the way many of the objects can appear free floating into categories like ‘alienation, rationalisation or transgressions’, is to the detriment of the viewer. Coupled together like this we often miss the vast multiplicity of forms, mediums and influences which tied together the complex anti-utopian (and utopian) critiques within Weimar culture.
- Charlie Taylor
National Gallery, London
Madonna of the palm, of divine love, of the fish; the Tempi, Ansidei or Alba. How many Madonnas could there possibly be? Ask Raphael, and he’d have a whole list at your disposal. ‘Rafael’ (sic) is to his ‘dear Madonnas’ as Dante is to ‘the dread Inferno,’ if Browning is any authority to go by. But as visually serene as these paintings are, and as impressive the collection of artwork which marks merely the painter’s early years in Rome proves to be (who could forget the fate-laden interlocking eyes of the Garvagh, or the tender and playful gestures of the dei Garofani?) Raphael is more than a Renaissance depicter of Mother and Child.
The National Gallery does an excellent job at portraying the ‘universal artist’ the biographer Vasari commended Raphael to be centuries ago. Coursing through burdened popes to the contemporary pomp of Vatican bankers, sketches of kneeling women to the intimate miniature of Valerio Belli, and the designs of cartoon-inspired tapestries to prints quoting Aeneid I, is a discovery of prodigy and development to greatness played out time and time again.
The National Gallery has assembled a rare gathering of paintings, originally housed in places as far flung from each other as the Uffizi and the Washington National Gallery. Raphael’s masterpieces are temporarily grounded in these seven rooms, purposefully placed together but never lacking in the artist’s finely human touch. Raphael’s saints and Saviours, for all their perfection, must, after all, be human, for it is the same delicate craft which sculpted the cheeks of Julius II by brush, at once swollen, dented and deflated. The hand behind the loving glances of the Tempi also created the haunting stares of the coy banker Bindo Altoviti posturing culture and the steadfast donna Velata, with only three wispy strands of hair out of place in an otherwise flawlessly golden Renaissance get-up. The poised arm of Saint Catherine can be seen in the angled touch bare-breasted Fornarina places upon her chest, her other arm marked by a band bearing Raphael’s name itself. Unique as this in loco collection of paintings is, even more uncommon is this insight into Raphael’s friends, associates, his lovers. It is a this much-needed humanity which makes the National Gallery’s Raphael exhibition one for the ages.
- Kiana Rezakhanlou
Art by Izzy Fergusson