‘National Gallery, London’, by Jean-François Rauzier (2018)

I keep on thinking about a remarkable work I saw as part of Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage at the Modern last week, which I didn’t include in my review. The work was made in 2018 by Jean-Francois Rauzier (b.1952) and is called National Gallery, London.

At this stage I will admit that I may have been predisposed to think favourably of the piece. I worked at National Gallery for around four years, and the bonds I form with places dear to me don’t tend to fade away casually. This work recreates some of the place’s grandeur, its abundance, then mashes it up and reimagines it in the most striking way.

Familiar architecture, reimagined

The composition is made up of thousands of different photos of the National Gallery, with around 3000 works from the collection digitally stitched together (hence being part of the ‘Cut and Paste’ narrative). The National Gallery’s architecture has been futuristically transposed, its famous long vistas and arches lined up across the base of the work, while the broad white borders that cut horizontally across the centre give the impression of a multi-storey building, packed to the rafters with paintings in a dizzying salon hang.

National Gallery, London is one of Rauzier’s “Hyperphotos”, which he began creating in 2002 and which combine the feeling of a panorama with microscopic detail. While it may not be evident from my own photographs of the work, snapped during an exhibition visit, each painting is reproduced with pinpoint accuracy, astounding detail and clarity. Getting up close to the work, the viewer can pick out any number of famous, recognisable and well-loved paintings. For me, finding some of my old favourites was like searching for the faces of long lost friends in a crowd.

I found George Stubbs’ Whistlejacket (1762), a painting I loved as a child, taking pride of place in the centre.

One of the special things about the National Gallery is that in the action of walking through its rooms, the visitor goes on a pretty comprehensive journey through the history of Western European painting from c.1250-c.1930. Within that broad narrative, each painting tells an individual story, and captures something of its own historical moment. With the help of wall texts, written by curators and educators, we as viewers use clues to decipher that story, such as the subject matter, the style in which it is painted, the life of the artist, or through the artwork’s history as an object itself (who it was painted for, who has owned it throughout the centuries).

Even though I am lucky enough to be familiar with some of the works photographed by Rauzier, I felt as though I needed hours, if not days, to look properly at this artwork and the paintings contained within it, just as when you visit an art gallery you know it won’t be possible to absorb everything before what a friend of mine calls “museum back” kicks in and you need to sit down in the cafe.

A wall of paintings by Titian (1490-1576). What’s not to love?

There is so much life packed into every single artwork, and the more you learn about the history of art, the more remarkable it is that here, Rauzier has piled a major chunk of that sumptuous and fascinating history into one single work, exercising his own curatorial and architectural choices along the way. He tells the story in way that would almost be legible in one glance, were it not for the sheer weight of all that’s packed into it.

As individuals, we create and take our own meanings from artworks, and our experience of art is informed by our own stories, which is certainly one of the reasons why I found this work by Rauzier so fascinating, and why I know I’ll keep finding things to say about it even after I’ve hit the ‘publish’ button for this blog post. Whether or not you are interested in art history, it is impossible to deny that Rauzier’s futuristic retelling of it is a visual feast, albeit an overwhelming one that is impossible to finish in one sitting.

Ivon Hitchens, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

I’ve been meaning for a while now to write about a lovely, focused exhibition I saw at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester last week. I’d never been to the gallery before, and unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to explore its permanent collection, which is based around modern and contemporary British art – I’m looking forward to exploring that the next time I go.

So many important creative people of the twentieth century, including members of the Bloomsbury Group, the poet Edward Thomas and visual artists like Eric Ravilious, seem to have been drawn to spend time in Sussex at some point in their lives, so it makes sense that this Sussex gallery represents some of the most important artistic developments of the last century. While Ivon Hitchens (who I hadn’t heard of before seeing the show) isn’t someone who rewrote the rulebook of modern art, his work shows a talent for noticing and capturing the remarkable detail within the big picture, the abstract patterns he experimented with in his early career continuing playing a major part in the landscapes he is primarily known for today.

The Celadon Bowl (1936)

Some of my favourite of his works were early ones like The Celadon Bowl (1936), in the way that it delicately treads the line between abstraction and figuration, the scrubby brushstrokes of the teal and khaki squares in the backdrop adding texture to the plain white canvas. In a sketchbook annotation, he wrote “don’t try to find a picture. Find a place you like and discover the picture in that”, which is true of every setting he painted, interior and exterior.

Woman playing the piano, c.(1942)

He left London during the war, and lived in a caravan called Greenleaves with his wife and their baby, set in a forest clearing. Living in the heart of the countryside clearly gave Hitchens more than enough subject matter for his art, and he set about painting the landscape, not focusing on grand vistas, but on his favourite spots that he visited repeatedly, capturing the view in different seasons and at times of day.

I love the Sussex countryside and have enjoyed walking on the South Downs, in the woods and by the rivers that Hitchens lived alongside, and so I may be biased, but I found his landscapes very evocative and able to capture the magic of the place. Perhaps there’s something in the water that makes it special.

Winter Walk, no.3 (1948)

Winter Walk no.3 (1948), really captured me. The earthy brown and scratchy red tones, mixed with the evergreen of the avenue of pine trees towards the right of the picture perfectly sum up the colours of winter which are beautiful too, in their muted way.

The theme of the exhibition, how artists use their works as an exploration of their surroundings and of place more generally, was underpinned by the audio element of Simon Roberts’ Inscapes exhibition, which were dotted throughout Hitchens show. Roberts is an artist-photographer whose work focuses on identity and people’s connections with the landscape around them, and as part of the exhibition was invited to revisit the settings that so fascinated Hitchens. His soundscapes of the countryside (cattle lowing, brooks babbling, branches creaking in the wind) brought Hitchens’ landscapes to life in new ways, and the pairing of the two artists’ work brought out the best in both of them.

The Long Look, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

The Long Look at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a small but focused show that turns portraiture on its head in a conceptually intriguing and visually satisfying way. The exhibition is the result of a two-year project in which Norman McBeath (photographer, printmaker) sat for painter Audrey Grant as she created two portraits of him in charcoal.

The portraits of McBeath do feature, but they are really only a side story to this show. The main body of work is by McBeath: his photographic impressions of Grant’s studio, documenting her presence by the trails of creative detritus she leaves in her wake. These ‘portraits’ show the traces of Grant everywhere: fingerprints in the paint that has dried on the back on her easel; highly detailed close-ups of her charcoal-blackened apron that seem transformed into vast monochrome sand dunes; the bars of soap on the counter, misshapen by the hands they help to clean after every session.

Hands series, a sequence of close up and super-high-definition photographs is at the centre of the display. Each minute detail is made more striking by the charcoal dust embedded in the creases of Grant’s skin. We rarely get much of a glimpse of the artist in standard portraiture, a genre that can feel fairly prosaic and transactional. Here, the photographs by McBeath document her creative space, the studio, and present its contents as a lens through which we ‘see’ the artist.

Imperial Leather by Norman McBeath

It seems that the sense of fascination with the artist’s studio now seems more prevalent than ever. The most unique and (the more I reflect on it) bizarre example I encountered was at Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane. There, in the centre of the gallery, is Francis Bacon’s studio. Its contents – even the dust – painstakingly reassembled having been documented and meticulously transferred from London to Dublin in 1998. Though it is undeniably a fascinating sight, and totally worth visiting, there is something voyeuristic about the practice of preserving and reassembling the artist’s studio within the Gallery space (closer to home, Paolozzi’s studio is on display at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until next year). These kind of displays continue to assert the narratives of the ‘artist genius’, elevating and shrouding his or her workplace in magic and mystique, ways of thinking that contemporary art history has sought to move away from.

The Long Look, though it has elements of this tendency to give the artist’s studio too much auratic power (including the unnecessary inclusion of the chair that McBeath sat in while his portrait was created) for the most part manages to circumvent these more troubling tendencies of artist/studio worship. Particularly when presented in the context of a national collection of portraiture, where wall labels normally the list the sitter’s name and details of their life far more prominently than the artist’s, this reversal of the gaze subverts the traditions of portraiture in a refreshing way.

Hands series by Norman McBeath

For me, the examination of the psychological intensity of two people observing one another over time, and the resulting sense of intimacy between McBeath and Grant was one of the other most successful outcomes of the show. For this reason, I would argue that the inclusion of two portraits of Val McDermind were a kind of ‘third wheel’, an unnecessary curatorial appendage to an otherwise tightly-focused exhibition.

Through the simple switch between observer/observed, The Long Look empowers the usually passive sitter with the gift of re-observation, and extends this to the observer in a way that offers a fresh perspective. When encountering subsequent portraits, we might ask ourselves: how did it look from the other side?