Galleries - October 2016

The autumn season in London gets well and truly underway this month with three exciting and revelatory exhibitions at the big public galleries. The one that excites me most has to be the ‘Abstract Expressionism’ show at the Royal Academy. In both its scale and scope, it probably represents the biggest and best exploration of this subject in London since the CIA-promoted ‘The New American Art’ touring show came to the Tate Gallery in 1958. No such sinister overtones this time, I hasten to add, just sheer exhilaration at the still unmistakable sense of energy and creative daring with which Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and the rest re-energised painting in America and Europe in the aftermath of the horrors of war. It is easy, nearly 60 years on, to take this as just another -ism in the succession of avant-garde art movements in 20th century art, but it was rather more than just that. Abstract Expressionism really changed everything profoundly and, seeing this work now, at a moment when painting is once again struggling for legitimacy among a younger generation of artists, it might just do it all over again. There is a nice symbiosis too with the National Gallery‘s autumn show, ‘Beyond Caravaggio,’ which explores the no less explosive effect Caravaggio’s intensely emotional and realist art had on the artists who flocked to Italy from all over Europe during the first half of 16th century to see for themselves – he was the ‘modern artist’ of his day. With core works from Caravaggio’s early days in Rome and latterly in Naples, the exhibition opens out on to the wider European nature of his influence on 17th century art – an absolute masterpiece from French ‘Caravaggiste’ Georges de La Tour ‘A Cheat with the Ace of Clubs’ and other stunners from Honthorst (Low Countries), Ribera (Spain) and Gentileschi among them. What emerges is the way his influence was felt by artists not so much as a question of copying his style but, much more profoundly, as the starting point for their own discoveries – and it still seems quite startlingly dynamic some five centuries on. Though enjoying considerable acclaim back in the 1950s and 60s, the great Cuban Modernist artist Wifredo Lam is nowadays largely unfamiliar to a modern audience. His first ever proper show in this country at Tate Modern should certainly go some way to changing such perceptions; Lam’s remarkable fusion of European Surrealist and Cubist ideas with dark mysticism of the Afro-Cuban religious cult of ‘santeria’, in one sense returning European Modernism to one of its crucial roots, that of African art. Now, however, in his hands, it took on an altogether more sombre, spiritual character, one that sets it well apart from anything remotely European. His painting, ‘The Jungle’ 1943, which was eventually bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is unquestionably one of the great masterpieces of 20th century art, a precursor, in microcosm, of that remarkably interesting movement away from a largely Eurocentric view of modern art to the current more global one. In that gradual merging of photography and art, fashion and design that we nowadays take more or less for granted, the pioneering German-born (1897) photographer Erwin Blumenfeld occupies an intriguing, if still comparatively little known role. His connections with both French Dada and avant-garde artists and the Parisian art world in the 1930s pushed both his public fashion photography (by 1950 he was apparently the highest paid practitioner in the world) and experimental private practice in ever more startling and influential directions. That he still is not nearly as well known as he really should be was partly down to legacy disputes following his death in 1969, all of which makes the show at Osborne Samuel , focussing largely on his astonishingly R OUND-UP 12 GALLERIES OCTOBER 2016 G oing public Art exposure