National Portrait Gallery

What an interesting day! It had been a while since i’d visited a London gallery, so I felt an overwhelming feeling of happiness and relief when I was confronted with these beautiful paintings again. The variety is always astonishing, and I was delighted to see some original Gauguin’s (some even before his Tahitian paintings!).

As hard as it was (as I was constantly distracted by each section), I kept a careful eye out for works that I felt connected to in my own work.

After doing a few quick sketches and noting, I came across a free exhibit called ‘Saints Alive’.

This exhibition focused on the works of Michael Landy. I was familiar with this artist as in 2001 he did a performance called ‘Break Down’ – which was a performance that involved all of Landy’s possessions (EVERYTHING) being catalogued and then destroyed.

‘Saints alive’  includes Landy’s sculptures, which were amazing to see as not only were they striking sculptures of old saints, but they were interactive, too! The sculptures seemed to be put together in a wacky, Caractacus-Potts-contraption way.

What intrigued me was their function. Some were activated by stepping onto a button, another you could put a coin through a slot, and that would activate it too. Once activated the sculptures would do something quite humorous, such as smacking themselves in the head with a crucifix,

All of the sculptures include attributes of different saints, and their stories are told behind it. Stories from violent murders, torture, beating themselves with a rock to prevent impure and sexual thoughts, Christ’s wounds and many more. The sculptures are powerful as they hold a dark, grotesque, and humorous identity. So definitely go visit if you can!

Back to the paintings – I saw a few that really stood out to me which I had to note down and share.

One in particular being Garfolo – A Pagan Sacrifice (1481 -1559)

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Underneath this painting read:  This work is an elaborated copy of a mysterious ancient rite described on a sculpture in the strange antiquarian romance ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’ (Dream of Poliphilus) which was published in Venice in 1499.

Another being one by Hieronymus Bosch, called ‘Christ Mocked’ from roughly 1500.

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Underneath this one, it read: Four torturers surround Christ, pressing towards him, while he looks out at us. Bosch’s picture emphasises the contrast between the brutality of the tormentors and the mild, suffering Christ. Its emotional intensity is achieved in a variety of ways. The half-length figures create a sense of proximity, and the lack of recession in the painting makes it appear very claustrophobic. From the centre of the picture Christ seems to appeal to us to share in his suffering.

The characterisations here are not just grotesque, but reflect specific ideas. Christ’s torturers were often referred to as savage beasts, which may explain why the man at the top right appears to wear a spiked dog collar. The figure at the lower left has a crescent moon of Islam and yellow star of the Jews on his head-dress, which mark him as an opponent of Christianity.

And last, I found a Picasso, but this painting I had never seen before of his! It is called ‘Portrait of Bibi la Purée’, from 1901.

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Here are a few notes about this painting that the National Gallery added –

“Bibi la Purée was a picturesque figure in the bohemian circles of Montmartre and the Latin Quarter. A former actor turned vagabond, he was affable and eccentric and survived by shining shoes, stealing umbrellas and drinking absinthe.”

“Picasso probably met the ragged dandy in the brasseries and seedy bars they both haunted, and would have been fascinated by his elderly, grimacing features. The portrait is brushed in broad, gestural strokes vigorously applied, which capture Bibi’s grin with uncompromising energy. This expressionistic treatment, combined with Picasso’s use of harsh colours, enhances the tramp’s grotesque energy.”

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