Galleries - January 2016

Despite the fact that a number of excellent London public gallery shows closed just before Christmas and the New Year there are some very good exhibitions running through the holidays to catch before they close, as well as other attractive openings greeting 2016. In the first category there is ‘Jean-Etienne Liotard’ at the Royal Academy ( ends 31 January). Until this show, he was an 18th C. Swiss artist (1702- 1789) not really on anyone but a period specialist or collector’s ‘hit list’. However the work has turned out, in the event, to be something of a revelation, Liotard’s distinctive portraits of Enlightenment Europe providing a wonderfully idiosyncratic overview of this remarkably dynamic society. He was hugely celebrated in his time, above all for his delicate mastery of the pastel medium, and worked and travelled all over Europe, including working for a period in Istanbul, where he developed a highly appealing proto-Orientalist genre. He was also in several royal courts and most of the major European capitals, including London on two occasions. If it still sounds too specialist, don’t be put off as Liotard’s work has a real freshness and quirkiness of vision which places him not so very far away from Chardin. There couldn’t be more of a contrast if you tried between this and Tate Britain’s major show of Frank Auerbach. Plenty of figure and portrait studies perhaps but all painted in a ferociously expressive post Bomberg-ian manner that brooks no argument – great slashing swathes of thick, impasto paint setting down the monumental London streetscapes, claustrophobic interiors and single seated figures that form the core of his subject matter. In the earliest works, from the 1950s particularly, this creates an often majestically dense and hugely atmospheric sense of a time and a place but, for me at least, the essentially unchanging approach takes on an increasingly stylised and unrewarding character as the decades go by. In feeling this, I recognise that I am very much on my own critically speaking, (among whom he is regarded as close to God), but talk to many painters and reservations soon start to surface. Go and take a look for yourself and make your own mind up! With Peter Lanyon’s great aerial abstracts just across the river at the Courtauld Instutute (see this month’s Coda ), the Alexander Calder show at Tate Modern places themes of air and flight very much to the fore and, yet again, provides a terrific contrast to the earth bound weightiness of the Auerbachs. Calder was obsessed with flying – he even did designs to cover two Branff Airways planes which launched shortly before he died – and his work is filled with an intuitive and intensely playful (and Surrealist) sense of giving form to the formlessness of air. This major show, his first in London since the Royal Academy in 2005, rightly places its emphasis on the mobiles that were at the centre of his practice (though he did a great deal else besides them eg the stabiles). What tends to be forgotten in all this lightness and wit is the sheer originality of what he was doing; an engineer by training, he arrived in Paris in the 1920s and by 1931 had made his first mobile, the term itself being coined by Marcel Duchamp. A show dedicated to two great American mid-century innovators, the husband and wife design team of Charles and Ray Eames, is currently at the Barbican Art Gallery . Hugely influential, their work ranged from architecture and interior design to film, furniture and graphics, effectively the first great 20th C. design studio. Nicholas Usherwood P UBLICview from left: J ean-Etienne Liotard, 1702-1789. ‘Archduchess Marie-Antoinette of Austria’, 1762, black and red chalk, graphite pencil, watercolour and watercolour glaze on paper, Royal Academy Alexander Calder 1898-1976. ‘Vertical Foliage’ 1941, sheet metal, wire, paint, © 2015 Calder Foundation, NY. Tate Modern Frank Auerbach EOW., ‘Half-length Nude’, 1958 oil paint on board, private collection courtesy Eykyn Maclean, LP, © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, Tate Britain London riches 10 GALLERIES JANUARY 2016