Visiting the Royal Academy can make a person feel small. That naked Grecian sculpture? It’s massive. Those ceilings? They’re towering. The staircase? Gargantuan! And you, tiny insignificant creature, are worthy only of cowering in the corridors of this prodigious Palace of Art. You’re small and it’s big. But the bigness of the RA just got even bigger, thanks to Phyllida Barlow’s new exhibition ‘cul-de-sac’.
Big isn’t always better. Not here, anyway, because this is a show full of tiny, tiny, tiny paintings, and they are gorgeous; achingly small and stunningly intricate portraits of Elizabethan royals, courtiers and poshos by the masters of the form, Isaac Oliver and Nicholas Hilliard.
Franz West took all the stuffy, conservative formality of the art world and told everyone where to shove it. The austere reverence of the gallery, the contemplative deification of the artist: West just couldn’t be arsed with it. Instead, the anarchic Austrian artist (1947-2012) created a body of work that’s playful and ludicrous, that feels like one drink too many in a Viennese bar, the art equivalent of a hangover you somehow don’t regret.
It’s hard to think deep thoughts when you’re stood in a bucket with another bucket on your head. But that’s Austrian artist Erwin Wurm’s big trick: he gets your brain going by pushing things into the absurd. Just look at the Austin Mini in the main gallery. Wurm has plumped it up, fed it way too many burgers and left it obese. Its sides bulge, its chassis overhangs itself. It’s a ridiculous, silly thing.
Diane Arbus was the original people-watcher. Some lads larking around by the coast, a glamorous receptionist at her desk, two women shooting evils at the universe: nothing escaped her notice. The Hayward Gallery’s exhibition of photographs from the first seven years of her career (1956-1962) is sleekly arranged with each small print attached to one side of a tall white rectangle.
Nicole Farhi is into flesh origami. The concertinaed indents of a bent knee, the twisted softness of part-rotated belly fat, the puckered skin of a damn-it’s-cold areola, that kind of thing. To produce her new series of sculptures based on the bodily beauty of larger women, the artist made plaster casts directly from the physiques of two friends, then re-cast the results in bronze and Jesmonite.
On first impression, it might look like Polish conceptual art behemoth Miroslaw Balka has made a couple of massive radiators. And on second impression too. And third. That’s because he sort of has. Both spaces of White Cube’s central London gallery have been sliced in two by enormous sheets of heated corrugated iron. You can’t walk around them or see over the one-metre gaps at the top. You’re penned in. Or maybe being kept out.
A sad fact of life is that your dreams aren’t interesting to anyone but you. You think people will be fascinated by how last night you were trapped in a spider’s web, but the spider was your primary school teacher and you were naked except for a fez. But your dreams are as tedious to other people as their dreams are to you. So American artist Daria Martin has achieved the impossible by making her grandmother’s reveries into interesting art. Susi Stiassni, Martin’s gran, fled Nazi persecution in her hometown of Brno in Czechoslovakia. Throughout the 1970s, she kept dream diaries as aids to her ongoing psychoanalysis, all seemingly referring back to the trauma of her youth. Susi’s childhood home, an incredible modernist villa surrounded by lush forest, is recreated as a videogame when you enter the gallery. The video walk-through follows the player as they explore the rooms, all rendered in blank, flat grey. Objects are picked up, documents are flicked through. It’s a seriously unsettling work. Its motion is dizzying, its atmosphere ceaselessly creeping. It’s so unreal, so uncomfortable. And it’s all made more poignant by the game being made in Brno itself, now a hotbed of game-design talent. Susi’s past – the past of her family, of her home and her culture – has been obliterated, this is an attempt to grab it back. Pages from Susi’s dream diaries are hung along the bulging lines of The Curve’s walls, just out of readable sight. Tantalisingly close, but still out of reach.
There’s an episode in Matthew Weiner’s series, ‘The Romanoffs’, where descendants of Russia’s last royal family get together on a cruise ship and re-enact the glory days of grand balls and staged entertainment. Those with Romanov DNA lap it up, while two married-in relations find the entire event slightly perplexing. Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs, a new exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, has the potential to inspire a similar division of response.
In 1855, Roger Fenton arrived in the Crimea on a commission from publisher Thomas Agnew & Sons to photograph scenes and figures from the ongoing Crimean War. After he returned to London, the images were exhibited at four venues in the capital and… that was it. There hasn’t been a London show of Fenton’s creations since 1856.
Anxiety, despair, dread, depression, fear, misery, alienation: a pretty standard Friday night, but an unusual recipe for a kids’ comic strip. ‘Peanuts’ is special, though. Over his tens of thousands of strips – syndicated the world over and read by millions of adoring fans – Charles M Schulz combined simple line drawings and emotional non-sequiturs into little bundles of pure, heart-wrenching modern truth.
American artist Jenny Holzer’s work is decades’ worth of statements, aphorisms, quotes and poetry. She takes words and sentences and plasters them over the streets, prints them on cups and condoms, engraves them into marble, and sends them stuttering at lightspeed along LED columns.
‘I dreamt my daughter had become a fried egg…’ explains one of the interviewees in ‘Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs’, a new film by British artist Beatrice Gibson. The dream-recounting segment is typical of a work that, like a half-remembered scene snatched from the land of nod, both makes sense and doesn’t make sense. Or rather, it makes sense but mainly in the way that a feeling ‘makes sense’.
Pop quiz: who’s the national painter of Norway? The guy who painted ‘The Scream’, right? Wrong, the actual owner of that title is Harald Sohlberg. But if that’s art historical news to you, don’t feel ashamed. This retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery is the first major show of the artist’s paintings and drawings ever in the UK.
You are inches from Tracey Emin’s face. You’re right there on the pillow next to her, watching her desperately wait for sleep to finally come. Emin suffers from insomnia, and takes selfies as she helplessly wrestles with it. She’s printed them two metres high and pasted them across the walls here. On the one hand, they’re terrifying, ridiculous, even a little stupid. But on the other, they’re… really good.
Robert Burton’s ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ was first published in 1621. The extensive handbook to misery was an unlikely seventeenth-century bestseller and has continued to provide inspiration to gloriously gloomy souls ever since, including Nick Cave, the crown prince of melancholia. This small exhibition at the Museum of the Mind is made up of paintings relating to Burton’s six categories.
Some paintings seem to shimmer with light, but Pierre Bonnard’s breath-taking images of landscapes, domestic scenes, crowds and bathing women absolutely shake with it. And not just light. They hum with sexuality, vibrate with tension, pulsate with melancholy and almost strobe with colour, colour, colour.
‘The Oscar Wilde Temple’ by McDermott & McGough is one of those artworks that’s difficult to ‘review’. Not because it isn’t beautiful, wonderfully detailed, clever in its use of art history or politically poignant. It is all of those things. But because this entirely immersive installation isn’t really intended to just be art.
Back in the 1950s, the Whitechapel put on a collaborative artists-and-architects exhibition called ‘This Is Tomorrow’. It introduced the world to the very first inklings of pop art and brought names like Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and Alison and Peter Smithson smack dab into the public eye. It was seriously groundbreaking, and genuinely seminal. So much so that the Whitechapel has now decided to see, almost 70 years later, if it can repeat the trick.
Heads up: this is a difficult show. Over his career, Don McCullin has photographed things most people don’t want to think about, never mind see. Bloody, foul, repellent conflicts in The Congo, Cyprus, Cambodia, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Vietnam and Beirut. Many of his images are iconic: his ‘Shell-shocked US Marine, Battle of Hué’ (1968) is a defining image of twentieth-century warfare, not just of Vietnam.
When we imagine the impending robo-apocalypse, the day when the machines finally rise up to enslave the human race, we largely think of violence, nuclear wastelands and those big towers that shoot blue lightning bolts. But inside the Lisson Gallery, humanity is being tossed aside in a much more pleasant way.
Mud, glorious mud. The dank, sodden environment of the trenches is so instilled into public memories of WWI you’d be forgiven for imagining the only colour a 1914-18 war artist needed in their paintbox was brown. But Alfred Munnings’s oil paintings from the final year of the war make use of the entire rainbow and then some.
I like the Pre-Raphaelites the same way I like pumpkin spice lattes despite 85% of people telling me they’re repulsive. Because these medieval-loving Victorians are the pumpkin spice lattes of British art. They’re syrupy sweet gloop often tinted a strange orange colour and always topped with unnecessary frothy swirls.
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