The means to an end can be just as striking:
Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ Study of a Head.
Hyde Collection, through Jan. 23
It was just a coincidence, but it was a happy one. The day
after I’d seen the enchanting film Finding Neverland,
about Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie and his muses, the
exhibition Victorian Visions plunged me back into that
innocent time of faeries and medieval knights, a world conjured
up in the late 19th century by a group of painters calling
themselves the Pre-Raphaelites.
As represented in this traveling show from the collection
of the National Museums & Galleries of Wales, British
artists of the Victorian era were on a magical journey of
their own, back to a time before the Renaissance (and Rafaello)
when art was a direct response to nature and a pure expression
of spiritual feeling.
Fortunately, though this vain conceit would be washed away
by the tidal wave of modernism that was already building,
there were a few painters among the group and its followers
with sufficient skill to leave something of value, Dante Gabriel
Rossetti, Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris among
them. These three and a grab bag of others are included in
the selection at the Hyde Collection, which has also been
to the Frick Art and Historical Center, Pittsburgh; the Dixon
Gallery & Gardens, Memphis; and the Fort Wayne Museum
of Art in Fort Wayne, Ind., and will travel next (and last)
to the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, S.C.
Though this is not a show that will knock your socks off,
it has a quiet seductiveness about it that will draw viewers
in gradually. Organized in groups under the headings Drawings
for Drawing’s Sake, Studies for Paintings, Studies for Commissions,
Designs, and Finished Watercolors, the selection lacks any
of the large-scale finished works that this group is known
and loved for. Rather, there are numerous drawings and watercolors,
a few of them sufficiently complete to stand as works of art
on their own while the majority range from highly polished
studies to working drawings to mere sketches.
For lovers of drawing itself and of the artistic process that
often relies on it at the earlier stages (and I am one), this
show offers many pleasures. The Pre-Raphaelites are known
for ravishing painting technique, and many of the drawings
here display its sublime foundation. Depending on your taste,
you may find the sketchier energy of the Rossettis or Alfred
Stevens’ vigorous lines most enjoyable—but for me the ethereal
and confident Burne-Joneses simply steal the show. And, luckily,
there are a lot of them.
In one trio of drawings, Burne-Jones applies black and white
chalk to buff-brown paper in a careful study of plump songbirds.
Each 8-by-12-inch sheet depicts several birds in various positions
of flight or repose, capturing their skittish energy in deft
Another set of three drawings shows the head of a female model,
individually twice and in two poses on one page, each drawn
in very delicate, smooth pencil, so pale as to nearly disappear
into the paper. The girl appears two times with eyes closed,
and in one drawing with head thrown back as if in a swoon;
the others show her striking profile, which Burne-Jones emphasizes
with slightly darker lines, and in one drawing she’s opened
her mouth to cry out. Though made in preparation for a painting,
these three studies are so lifelike, and at the same time
ghostly, as to be worthy of consideration on their own—in
fact, I think they’re the best pieces in the exhibition.
Among the finished watercolors are many fine pieces, including
a robust male-nude study by the great American painter John
Singer Sargent that is out of place in this group but nevertheless
wonderful to see. There are also a highly detailed still life
of fruit by William Henry Hunt, a strong portrait of a black
actor by John Anster Fitzgerald and several fetching landscapes.
One of the outstanding watercolor landscapes is a Turneresque
view of a port at night, all in blue and gold, by Albert Goodwin.
The section on commissions features the work of just one artist,
Sir Edward Poynter, and is the least fascinating part of the
show due to Poynter’s workmanlike style. His drawings, though
skilled, lack passion (perhaps a direct result of having been
commissioned). The catalog statement that Poynter “was regarded
as one of the best academic draughtsmen of his time” is telling;
though he probably made a good living, Poynter—as represented
here—was a forgettable artist.
Then again, commercial art when applied to other uses often
retains its vigor, as is the case in spades with Morris, whose
endless creativity reinvigorated the arts and crafts of England
and established a decorative style much remembered and used
today (in the form of wallpapers and fabrics). Here he is
represented by a design for a stained-glass window and by
a really beautiful watercolor and pencil design for a printed
fabric that was said to have been Morris’ favorite of the
period, called snakehead.
Another beautiful example from the design section of the show
is titled Five Designs for an Inlay, Cardiff Castle by
Thomas John. Though intended to be carved in wood, and hence
monochromatic, John exercised a lot of playful color in his
tall, curvaceous arrangements of plant and vase forms. Appropriately,
this delightful set of studies was pulled out by the Hyde
to be the introductory piece at the start of the show.
The exhibition is accompanied by a nicely produced catalog
that reproduces all the works and helpfully adds pictures
of some of the paintings and other final pieces for which
the studies were made.
Arts Center of the Capital Region, through Feb.
Arts Center curator Gina Oc chiogrosso has put
together a fairly diverse group of eight artists
who “study, capture and comment on the real world.”
Not surprisingly, photography is a significant
presence, but painting dominates this selection.
In usual ACCR fashion, there is a combination
of artists from near and far (including Chicago
and Los Angeles)—and, as usual, the hometown team
more than holds its own. Hudson Valley painters
Deborah Zlotsky (Delmar), James Dustin (Coxsackie)
and Phyllis Palmer (Tivoli) each apply sound thinking
and consummate technique to their respective series
of a child’s drawings; architectural space and
light; and back-view portraits. All three are
first-rate bodies of work.
Also in usual ACCR fashion, there are pedantic
exhibit notes written by the curator that attempt
to instruct the viewer in how to interpret the
art. I suspect I am not the only one to find this
practice particularly annoying.
Yet another fine local painter, Dave Austin, is
represented in a sidebar solo exhibition in the
President’s Gallery as 2003’s selected Fence
Show artist. Austin’s prodigious 2004 output
shows he’s growing into an intriguing and skilled
interpreter of paranoia and alienation in contemporary
America. Definitely one to watch.