surrounded by clouds

On Divine Bodies

Last week I took the new Relays to the Laing Art Gallery to see the Divine Bodies exhibition.

Here’s the blurb from their website:

Old Master paintings are alive with vivacious, seductive and curious figures.

Divine Bodies combines exceptional European pre-1800 paintings from the Hatton, Shipley and Laing Art Gallery collections with important loans, including many exciting contemporary artworks.

The exhibition ranges from historical pictures by Zurbarán, Wtewael and Procaccini to contemporary works by Cindy Sherman, Marina Abramovic and John Currin. They reveal intriguing links across the centuries, depicting themes such as idealisation and imperfection, allure and shame, and youth and ageing in relation to both male and female bodies.

The exhibition had been arranged over two rooms. The first featured crucifixion-themed art, and the second featured various pieces dealing with the human body and making reference to religion (with varying degrees of subtlety. There were some quite interesting pieces on display, my favourite was probably, ‘Cardiff Street Scene’ by Maciej Dakowicz:

'03:17' from the 'Cardiff After Dark' series by Maciej Dakowicz | 2010 (source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maciejdakowicz/sets/1391696/ )

’03:17′ from the ‘Cardiff After Dark’ series by Maciej Dakowicz | 2010 (source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maciejdakowicz/sets/1391696/ )

It’s an interesting piece on its own, but seeing it in the context that we did, after a room full of crucifixion scenes, it’s hard not to see similarities in composition, and to be struck by the contrasts.

'The Descent from the Cross' by Rogier van der Weyden | 1435-38

‘The Descent from the Cross’ by Rogier van der Weyden | 1435-38

However, I have to say that the rest of the exhibition didn’t particularly impress me.

Firstly, the ‘Divine Bodies’ concept didn’t really hold together very well. Other than the one example above (which was mostly accidental, I would imagine, since it doesn’t particularly seem to have been Dakowicz’s intention to draw those kinds of comparisons), the two rooms of the exhibition didn’t really seem connect to one another all that well.

Secondly, I found myself increasingly irritated by the exhibit notes beside each piece. I’m not sure who compiled them, but I felt frustrated by the way that she explained a number of the pieces – let me give you a couple of examples:

'Bathsheba' by Pieter Thys | 1650-77

‘Bathsheba’ by Pieter Thys | 1650-77

This is ‘Bathsheba’ by Pieter Thys. Regular readers will know my thoughts on the story of Bathsheba, and because of those thoughts, this painting is one of my favourite depictions. David is a tiny blurry spy in the top left corner, and Bathsheba is portrayed as vulnerable, sheltering under the fabric, but still exposed.

Unfortunately, this is what was written in the notes:

“Bathsheba (sic) magnificent figure is painted full and fleshy, and she returns the viewer’s look with a coy smile.”

Does it look like a coy smile to you? Does it look like a smile at all? That’s not what I see, but somehow, inexplicably, the Laing Gallery do. They’ve misunderstood the story, and so they’ve seen what they wanted in the picture, and that makes me a bit sad.

'Tree of Life' by Marlene Dumas | 2011 (source: http://www.frithstreetgallery.com/shows/view/marlene_dumas/tree_of_life )

‘Tree of Life’ by Marlene Dumas | 2011 (source: http://www.frithstreetgallery.com/shows/view/marlene_dumas/tree_of_life )

This is ‘Tree of Life’ by Marlene Dumas. It was one of a number of portrayals of the crucifixion, but what was striking was the way that picture was described in the notes, where the author couldn’t begin to understand why such a gruesome scene would have such a positive title.

In the end I expect that’s the problem. To someone who doesn’t believe, it must all seem pretty mental. How on earth can something so desolate and violent be good news? Needless to say, there were no pieces on the resurrection, and that shows – no happy ending, no hope, just confusion.

Thinking about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a good piece of art based on the resurrection. Any help or pointers would be greatly appreciated.

And, if you’re around Newcastle between now and the 29th September, pop along to the Laing and see if you agree with me.

In summary: not super-impressed.

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This entry was published on September 16, 2013 at 10:50 pm. It’s filed under Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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