Tag Archive: Yale Center for British Art

  1. A Victorious Effort

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    In her essay “Chic—English, French and American,” Nancy Mitford tells a story of Queen Victoria. “When the Empress Eugénie paid a state visit to England she went with Queen Victoria to the opera. The Londoners sighed a little…the beauty in her Paris clothes, beside chubby little red-faced Victoria. Then the time came for them to take their seats. The Empress, with a graceful movement, looked round at her chair, but Queen Victoria dumped straight down, thus proving unmistakably that she was of Royal birth and upbringing.”

    Her Majesty Victoria’s subjects found something infinitely superior in her self-confidence. We feel the same way looking at Alfred Gilbert’s famous bust of Queen Victoria in the opening foyer of “Sculpture Victorious.” There she is, all jowls and severity: neither the many folds of lace nor the pearls can soften the dowdiness of the Queen. We almost overlook the bust of a young, fresh-faced woman, no older than nineteen, right in front of her.

    Then we realize that this, too, is Queen Victoria. It’s a marvelous contrast, and an elegant start to “Sculpture Victorious,” the Yale Center for British Art’s exhibition on sculpture of the Victorian era, which runs from September 11 through November 30.

    What follows is as imposing and hefty as the Queen herself. “Sculpture Victorious” is one of the YCBA’s most ambitious undertakings to date, billed as “the first exhibition, on either side of the Atlantic, to offer a thorough account of Victorian sculpture” (“Director’s Forward to the Catalogue,” Amy Meyers, Penelope Curtis). Many of the works have rarely, if ever, been shown outside of the United Kingdom, chief among these “Saher, Earl of Winchester,” which comes to us from the House of Lords, and “American Slave” by John Bell.

    Bell’s sculpture merits particular attention. It is one of the centerpieces of the exhibition, despite being a generally forgotten piece of abolitionist artwork. The curators have included “American Slave” alongside Hiram Powers’s “Greek Slave” and Harriet Hosmer’s “Zinobia in Chains.” Bell is the only Englishman among the three; Powers and Hosmer are both Americans. This circumstance would no doubt raise some eyebrows were it not for the strength of the juxtaposition. “Greek Slave” is a Venus de Milo in chains, “Zinobia” much the same. Alongside these smooth marble beauties stands Bell’s bronze “American Slave.” Intended as a critique of Powers’s idealized depiction of the slave-girl, “American Slave” is a “reminder that slavery is about real bodies, shackled and transported,” as curator Michael Hatt puts it. While “Greek Slave” is poised and ethereal, in Bell’s piece, the black woman’s eyes are downcast, her shackles metal instead of marble. It is a testament to the deeply felt moralism of the Victorian era, which coexisted with the pursuit of wealth and empire.

    The trifecta hints at the Victorians’ admiration of the Greeks, which is explored further in the rest of the exhibition. Sometimes this comes off as overdone imitation, sometimes exquisite borrowing. See for instance, the strange “Perseus and the Three Griaie”—a Greek scene painted in English style. Perseus, clad in Arthurian armor, floats above the blind women and grabs the one eye shared among the sisters. His pale and rosy complexion, the softness of his manner and the silver of his chainmail, subtly portray English gentility mixed with classical beauty.

    The curators showcase the many facades of the Victorians. These variations excite the imagination and please the eye. They start a lively political dialogue, which continues throughout the exhibition. “Even as one marvels,” Hatt says, “one has to retain a critical perspective and consider what was at stake . . . the political, imperial and social purposes” of Victorian art. From a balcony facing the YCBA’s courtyard, one can see a polychrome earthenware elephant, that most famous symbol of British-colonized India.

    The curators have taken pains to show the consumerist nature of Victorian art as well. A room entitled “Sculpture on Display” shows “Greek Slave” in its many reproduced forms—a daguerreotype, a print in a book, a miniature copy to be kept in a home or on a mantelpiece.

    These many currents attest to the curatorial richness of “Sculpture Victorious,” which brings together items from many corners of the former British Empire and from settings as diverse as churches, schools and government buildings. The exhibition has the luxury of ranging over the wide and sometimes questionable taste of the Victorian era, making it truthful, if not always dazzling. The broad sensibility of the curation allows the viewer to understand the beast we call “Victoria’s British Empire,” all the while presided over by its chubby little red-faced Queen.


    Contact Andrew Koenig at 

    andrew.koenig@yale.edu .

  2. The British Isles in Black and White

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    In my mind, the images of the British Isles in the ’60s are musical. I envision rock and roll bands with color-coordinated suits, meticulously messy hair and electric guitars descending on London and transforming Western culture. I imagine the Rolling Stones playing at Hyde Park to the youthful masses, and The Who stuttering their way through generational anthems. I do not imagine the barren landscapes of northwestern Ireland or thousands of middle-aged, middle-class families vacationing on the English Channel. The Yale Center for British Art’s new exhibition “Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro: Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland,” then, came as something of a revelation.

    The exhibition combines the black-and-white photographs, produced by hand in darkrooms, of the two American photographers, both of whom worked throughout the British Isles in the 1960s. Caponigro’s landscapes, taken with funding from a Guggenheim Fellowship, focus on the megalithic monuments and cairns that dot the hills of Ulster and Connaught; Davidson, sponsored by The Queen magazine, instead turned his camera on the un-glamorous aspects of middle-class and working-class life. Moving from Caponigro’s works to Davidson’s is to move from the unknowable mysticism of the ancients and the early Christians to stark portraits of mass culture in the waning days of traditionalism, before the great Sixties cultural revolution.

    Caponigro’s photographs, essentially, are of stones. Only in a few do humans appear. These stones come as cairns, as churches, as megaliths and tombs. The two photographs of Kilclooney Dolmen in County Donegal on the far northwestern fringes of Ireland are his most effective. Some of its compelling nature derives from the oddity of the subject — one massive moss-covered stone balances horizontally on top of four others. The near-silhouette against the ubiquitous grey sky makes the points of contact seem unfathomably small. Nothing but desolate hillside and windswept grass surround the dolmen. One cannot help but marvel at the ingenuity of the ancient tribes. That is the effect of most of Caponigro’s photographs — sheer astonishment that peoples so primitive in building techniques constructed monuments that have lasted for five millennia.

    Davidson’s works are especially brutal in their undisguised realism. This is Britain — unromantic, bleak and often depressing. From that realism derives the effectiveness of the Davidson half. I find Caponigro’s photographs more beautiful, but I spent far longer with Davidson’s dozen photographs of South Wales coal mining communities. In one, a soot-faced miner stands in the Spartan doorway of his house holding his infant child. In another, a group of five men, their filthy clothes ripped and torn, walk along a dirt path, their mine visible far behind them. In a third — this the most memorable photograph — a miner stands on a treeless hillside, his arms crossed defiantly over his white shirt. Two others, their forms dark and indistinct against the grey sky, stand by a cart in the background. With them are two horses. These are the most poignant photographs in the exhibit; hanging over each of them is the heavy, inescapable burden of history. Partly, this derives from my own knowledge — that Brighton and Blackpool are no longer quite so popular, that the South Wales coal mines all  shuttered under Thatcher. It’s like staring straight into the eyes of something about to end after a thousand years and seeing it stare right back. The effect is profoundly haunting and the photographs return far more easily to my mind than does the remainder of Davidson’s half of the exhibit, much of which I found forgettable.

    In the end “Two American Photographers” forces us to consider uncomfortable, penetrating questions. Caponigro’s collection presents the monuments of a far-bygone age: These monuments, pagan and Christian alike, essentially consist of no more than stacked stones, yet have lasted for millennia in harsh, unforgiving terrains. Still we have little idea of what exactly all those stones mean, and Caponigro’s portrayal makes them seem even more unknowable. Davidson, meanwhile, presents modern life, but a sense of twilight permeates throughout his work. We are left with a lingering question, conveyed through the sullen eyes of the coal miners and their children: What will remain? Caponigro has shown us what the ancient Irish left behind, but what will remain from our era? It is an uncomfortable question, and Davidson offers little help in answering it — after all, his photographs show the sort of pre-1960s mass culture that has largely failed to survive even the last 50 years. Permanence and ephemerality coexist in this moving exhibit, and the thought that nearly all of what we have built will one day vanish is indeed a frightening one.

  3. The Grand Tour You Haven’t Heard About

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    “Art in Focus: Wales,” the Yale Center for British Art’s most recent exhibition, has been entirely curated by students within just eight months. Though it may be smaller than the museum’s usual showings, the Wales exhibition has the flow and sense of a sonatina, traveling from theme to theme with few hiccups.

    The show, featuring English depictions of the rugged Welsh landscape in the 1700s and 1800s, breaks down along several subtopics. According to Art in Focus Coordinator Rebecca Levinsky ’15 and student guide Katharine Spooner ’16, these are meant both to help communicate historical context and make the exhibition accessible to viewers.

    One such thematic grouping is Travel and Tourism. Sketching tours became something of a fad among 18th- and 19th-century Englishmen either bored with a passé Grand Tour or else scared off by the political unrest in Europe at the time. Diverted to Wales, they found plenty of material for their pens, brushes, pencils and aquatint plates. Wales turned out to be a convenient touchstone, since its towering landscape — all grays, hills and crags — embodied the Romantic mindset of the artists on display, satisfying their zest for the exotic while allowing them to travel within a reasonable distance.

    This exhibition is the tale of several interweaving histories: the development of the Welsh mythology, most memorably distilled in the figure of the Bard; the migration of English artists to a Wales once considered barbaric; the transformation of innocent Nature into a teeming source of artistic imagination, a symbol of darkness, imperialism and sublimity, softened here and there by more familiar, domestic scenes — a house, a mill, a lake.

    The curators explicitly make mention of this balancing act, one of their themes being Burke’s idea of the “sublime” versus that of the picturesque. This focus is very much in keeping with the spirit of the Center for British Art, which gives us Constable’s shepherds and watermills alongside Turner’s sprawling vaporous masterpieces. The latter in fact turns up in “Art in Focus” — one of its finest selections is a waterscape by Turner, “Harlech Castle, from Tygwyn Ferry, Summer’s Evening Twilight.” Though one of the lesser known Turners in the YCBA’s holdings (as one guide quipped, “The YCBA is the one place where you can find Turners in a storage facility”), the painting’s soft undertones and glimmering surfaces demand a second look.

    The Student Guides have done hard work in curating the exhibit, and it shows. The subject poses several challenges, all nimbly navigated: foremost, it goes beyond the scope of what a student exhibition might normally take on, pursuing for its topic not just a single artist or brief moment in art-historical time, but rather a history that spans across multiple disciplines — the fine arts, poetry, travel writing.

    The preeminence of travel writing and the artists’ sketchbooks as mediums of choice means that much of the material related to this annal of art history is contained in books. The advantage of these sketchbooks is their spontaneity; the limitation is that the pages can’t be turned. The curators have judiciously chosen a few texts from the Beinecke as well as the Center’s Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts to testify to the importance of the sketchbook. So that these are not dwarfed by the large oil paintings, the curators spotlight a number of “off-the-cuff, en plein air sketches” and watercolors, as Levinsky puts it. One such work is “Capel Curig,” an understated watercolor by David Cox. The painting contains only a few forms, all in varying shades of gray — mountains, lake, clouds and cliffs — and a little white form that almost escapes notice; this is the chapel. Scattered across the watercolor are small indentations, perhaps caused by actual precipitation, as Levinsky conjectures. It’s in works like these that we see an artistic and migrational movement very far from vacation painting: these works capture the essence of Wales, and very well may include droplets of it.

    “Art in Focus: Wales” opens this afternoon at the Yale Center for British Art. The Student Guides and Coordinator who curated the exhibition will give an introductory talk at 4:00 p.m. on the second floor where the exhibition is, and a reception will follow in the Library Court at 5 o’clock.

  4. Roman Ruins and Human Drama

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    European landscape fans: it’s time to get your fix. An impressive collection of Richard Wilson’s 18th century paintings and drawings is currently on display at the Yale Center for British Art. It’s the first major exhibit devoted to Wilson’s work in 30 years, triumphantly timed with his 300th birthday. Until June 1, you can take 20 minutes or two hours to swap out views of Harkness and SSS for Wilson’s rolling hills and Roman ruins.

    The exhibit demonstrates Wilson’s role as “the father of British landscape,” discussing not only Wilson’s inspirations, but also his own contributions to the European landscape art tradition. To accomplish this, Wilson’s work is displayed in a context of European masterpieces. Tucked into one of the exhibit’s back corners, Wilson’s “Meleager and Atalanta,” a 1770 oil painting, captures several men spearing a boar before a gnarly tree and cliff face. Turn around, and you’re face-to-face with Francesco Zuccarelli’s “A Landscape with the Story of Cadmus Killing the Dragon” (1756), in which a man, posed in a heroic stance, lances a formidable dragon straight down his throat. Thorough information panels explain that both scenes are drawn from stories in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” It’s impossible to miss the influence of Zuccarelli on Wilson’s own masterpiece. This comprehensive presentation is welcoming for visitors like me who had never heard of Wilson before, but also offers exciting parallels for long-time Wilson aficionados.

    More thrilling is the human force in Wilson’s compositions. Take his 1754 painting “Rome and the Ponte Molle,” one in a series of ethereal Roman landscapes. Nearly faded out at the end of a snaking river is the city of Rome itself, a firm skyline scraping the base of the cloudy sky. On the road running along the front of the painting, two cloaked figures lean in on walking sticks, conferring as though in fear that they might be overheard. They’ve hiked out to this quiet point on the outskirts of the city to talk, and Wilson’s not telling why.

    I’m more unsettled by Wilson’s “Ceyx and Alcyone” (1768). Most of the piece is consumed by swelling gray-blue clouds, breaking for just enough sun to hit the castle ruins on the cliff overhead. On the rocky shore foreground, two figures fight the wind and waves to support a woman reaching back toward the sea. Her male companion is also dragged ashore, limp, naked and dead. The human drama is stomach-twisting, the sort that you might not expect to find in an 18th-century landscape painting. Wilson, in his portrayals of Europe, not only makes you want to taste seawater or plunge your hands into the grass, but also offers the hint of some human yearning, mystery and joy.

    The Richard Wilson exhibit is thoughtful and accessible for enthusiasts old and new, a successful acknowledgement of his contribution to the European landscape tradition. Go, not only to unwind while soaking in Wilson’s rural roads, decaying cities and churning seas, but also to appreciate Wilson’s gripping human focus. And if the artistic allure of his work doesn’t already have you heading for the Chapel Street gallery, then go just because the exhibit is a pleasant place to be. Warm lighting, squashy-soft chairs and soothing natural scenes on every wall — after I finished touring the exhibit, I simply didn’t want to leave. And so I curled up in a quiet corner, wrote my Daily Themes assignment, and daydreamed.

  5. Between Real and Make-Believe

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    Currently at the Yale Center for British Art, the animal and human creations of British sculptor Nicola Hicks exist in an oxymoronic space. The exhibit’s program describes her life-sized creatures as both “realistic and mythical by turn.” The sculptures, which consist of either plaster, straw and plaster, or bronze, look so messy that, at first glance, they no more resemble real beings than hazy pencil sketches. The bits of straw left uncovered by plaster and the bumps on the bronze render these figures unfamiliar, even while we recognize their shapes. Yet this strangeness lends more realism to the sculptures’ textures — more so, even, than if they had been as smooth as the Greco-Roman busts that also populate the museum.

    The exhibition contains seven works, the most compelling among them being those that portray animals with uncannily human expressions; still, the two busts of people are well-crafted, too. The exhibit includes: “Aesop” (2011, plaster), an earthy-toned bust of the animal skin-clad ancient Greek storyteller; “Limbic Champion” (2003, bronze), another bust of a glowering minotaur (evoking images of the Daedulus labyrinth that caged the man-bull hybrid); and “Black” (2012, plaster and straw), a full body sculpture of a bear whose stance suggests both strength and wariness. Most of the collection is fantastic — its only weak element is “Foal” (2009-2010, painted bronze), a creature with a horse’s head and a man’s torso. Here, Hick’s disordered approach to sculpting loses its control and finesse, so the resulting product lacks the detail and emotional presence of her other pieces.

    The most affecting piece is “Who was I Kidding” (2011, plaster and straw), which depicts the donkey from Aesop’s fable “The Donkey in the Lion’s Skin.” The sculpture represents the animal’s state after his lion guise is discovered and he is exposed as a donkey. His head droops, his body slackens and the lion’s skin hangs pathetically from his back. Fittingly, the eyes are not as visible as they are on the other sculptures. The addition of weepy eyes would have Disney-fied this already-anthropomorphized creature. Hicks displays the emotions and the magic of her animals without resorting to cartoonish sentimentality.

    The exhibit not only showcases Hicks’ work, but also places it in conversation with the YCBA’s more traditional human and animal paintings. The animals in the artwork, with emotions in their eyes ranging from humility to affection, are appropriately touching. But viewed alongside Hicks’ at once realistic and otherworldly sculptures, the gallery’s human portraits appear almost unremarkable. Then again, it is perhaps more striking to see human emotion depicted in animals than in humans themselves.

    What works as a better accompaniment for Hicks’ sculptures are the various landscape paintings that inhabit the same space. Their beautiful, almost fantastical imagery successfully places her beings into a mystical yet natural space. But in truth, Hicks’ works at the YCBA do well on their own — any additional artistic support or context is simply an adornment for the vivid world she has created.

  6. Roping in the New and Old at the YCBA

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    It’s an open secret that the Yale Center for British Art doesn’t get as much love or publicity as its better-known sibling, the Yale University Art Gallery. While YUAG draws many with its famous Van Goghs and Louis Kahn’s spare architecture, the YCBA sometimes stands across the street, lonely and half-deserted. The grand reopening of YUAG certainly hasn’t remedied this inequitable state of affairs. But the scruffy, scraggly little brother of the YUAG still has plenty of gems for the museum junkie who goes looking for them. Among these is the YCBA’s most recent exhibit, “Reflections on Constable’s Cloud Studies: Paintings by Mark Leonard.” This exhibition juxtaposes paintings by the revered English landscapist with modern, geometrical interpretations by the living curator, restorer and artist Mark Leonard, who painted this series just last year.

    John Constable’s charm is very much like the YCBA’s. He is a painter of warmth and finesse whose understated artwork does not cry out for attention but nevertheless merits it. Although the exhibition focuses largely on Constable’s near-abstract cloud studies, the artist is largely known as a painter of pastoral scenes set in an idyllic English countryside. Landscapes such as “Stratford Mill,” on display in the exhibit, attest to Constable’s love of pastoral scenes, depicting a picturesque rural life. Yet the exhibit highlights Constable’s preoccupation not just with shepherds and scythes, but also with gray, ominous skies. “Extensive Landscape with Grey Clouds,” a canvas which might be better called a cloudscape, features a meager green strip of land overwhelmed by cloudy Suffolk skies and bears the stamp of Constable’s holistic vision of landscape painting.

    Enter Mark Leonard, who has the unique opportunity to paint a series of “reflections” on Constable’s work. Unlike Constable’s paintings, these are clearly of an abstract nature, relying heavily on basic geometric shapes. These paintings create an intriguing conversation between a more traditional artist of the past and modern abstract artist. Leonard strikes a tenuous balance between interpretation and independent painting in these works. This balance seems to align perfectly with his career, which consists of curating, restoring artworks and painting, though not necessarily in that order.

    Like Leonard’s career, his series is a mélange of interpretation and innovation. On first glance, Leonard’s paintings, such as “Constable Study VII,” seem a far cry from John Constable’s own paintings. Where is the puffiness, the airiness and gloominess of Constable’s clouds? Instead of providing us with reiterations of Constable’s paintings, Leonard tries to extract the marrow — color, shape and composition. Throughout Leonard’s paintings loom lunar circles of gray, pink and yellow. The other unifying feature of his work is a rope of color that runs through each of his paintings. The ropes are a clever invention — the viewer runs his eye along them, and the result is a hypnotizing effect of images that are both shallow and deep. This effect is taken to an even greater extreme in “Constable Study IX,” in which a black and a white circle interlock to create a strange combination of flatness and fullness. It is through this method that Leonard seeks to replicate the infinite complexity of Constable’s finely wrought clouds. Rather than quoting directly from Constable’s profusion of feathery clouds, he reproduces Constable’s depth and near-abstraction through the use of geometrical trompes-d’oeil. Constable’s grayish-pinkish plumes of paint are reduced to the geometrical motifs of circles and ropes. If you squint a little bit at the Constable originals, it seems like there does exist a geometric essence that Leonard has successfully extracted.

    This exhibition sheds light on two aspects of Constable’s painting that are often overlooked — their careful composition and shape. Upon seeing these paintings, it’s easy to take the pieces for nothing other than pretty swirls of color. Leonard corrects this misconception by both distilling the essence of Constable’s painting and adding his own voice to the dialogue. Though its sibling across the street has the perks of a makeover, the YCBA has still got it. Through the juxtaposition of the modern and tradition in exhibitions like this one, the YCBA brings its collection to life.