Certain things beg repeating. Take a quick glance at your itunes library and you might be surprised at the number of times a particular song found its way into your earbuds. Books are read and then reread again until the evidence of your affections can be seen on their tired covers. Today on the occasion of my 100th blog post I decided to spend some time with an old friend. I’ve never met this person but feel as though we’ve grown close over the years. I visit with her at least once a year, sometimes only for a brief moment and on other occasions I can spend the entire day spellbound and enraptured by her stories; I’m referring to Sister Wendy Beckett.
Tapped by the BBC in 1991 to give a personalized tour of London’s National Gallery; Sister Wendy became one of the most unlikely television stars to find their way into our living rooms. When the original show was pitched by an enthusiastic admirer of her writing; the idea fell on deaf ears. At first, at least on paper, it was a hard sell. The BBC executives figured no one wanted to tune in to listen to a nun talk about art. A screen test was reluctantly agreed upon and when the lights were finally switched on; everyone was in awe. The camera loved her and she took to it like a fish to water.
Sister Wendy (who turned 83 this year) has lived a solitary life of meditation and prayer. Before the BBC came calling, she lived in a one room caravan (she has since upgraded to a two room trailer) surrounded by very few possessions with the exception of a collection of art books. She spent countless hours becoming acquainted with the artists and works within the pages of her volumes. It wasn’t until she was in front of the camera that she got the opportunity to finally see these works she was so intimate with in the flesh.
One of the most disarming things that came to light was Sister Wendy’s fearless approach to the subject of sex. Art history is awash with tales of carnal knowledge and artists have been representing the nude and the naked since the first days of the garden. Sister Wendy never breaks a blush. What she does better than anyone is to shed light on the stories and myths that act as the artistic inspiration for countless museum pieces.
Sister Wendy has a wonderful way of telling a story. Her observations and insights are always spot on as well as her choice of works she chooses to talk about. The artworks range from the very familiar to hidden gems. Her Story of Painting traces the evolution of painting from the caves of Lascaux to Warhol’s Marilyns. She next travels to the major art capitols of Europe in her Grand Tour. These two programs along with a few others can be found on Sister Wendy’s Complete Collection. She is the ultimate tour guide and well worth a look. I couldn’t think of another person I’d rather spend my 100th post with.
Van Gogh and Picasso are two of the most recognizable names on the planet. Countless books and millions of words have been devoted to their lives and work. Their art changed the way people see the world around them. This fact is no small feet and these men were 2 in 107,602,707,791. There weren’t billions of people waiting in line for Picasso Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris in Toronto or for Van Gogh: Up Close in Ottawa but at times it felt like there was. The big names bring the big crowds. For me this is a mixed blessing. I love the fact that people are going en masse to experience art and taking the time to truly look at things but it can make viewing the art troublesome. This summer has been a spoils of riches for the art going public, with two blockbuster shows just four hours away from one another. So, this past week I made my pilgrimadge to spend time with two of the icons of western art.
The first exhibit I attended was Picasso at the AGO. The show highlighted over 150 works from the Paris Museum (which is currently being renovated). This collection comes from the artist’s personal holdings. They were the one’s he kept for himself. I have been to the Picasso museum in Barcelona but never to the one in Paris. I was familiar with the majority of the works in the show through books and my old art history lectures. The collection contains many seminal works that cover all the major phases of his career. The two major impressions you are left with are: Picasso is endlessly inventive and all Picasso’s are about Picasso.
Even when Picasso is channeling Matisse in L’Atelier de la Californie it is still about Picasso. This would have to be one of the highlights of the show for me. Painted two years after Matisse’s death, the homage is both spot-on and sublime. Picasso leaves a patch of blank canvas in the center to mimic the loss and accentuate the process of painting.
It is the process of painting that is front and center in Van Gogh: Up Close at the National Gallery. This exhibition is comprised of 40 works that focus on Van Gogh’s relationship with nature. No major works are present but even a minor Van Gogh can hold you under its spell. For a man who only painted for 10 years of his life, completing roughly 900 paintings, he accomplished an incredible body of work. His style is unmistakable; bold colour, thick paint, post-impressionist brush strokes and a window onto the world that is both embracing and slightly leery at the same time.
Van Gogh invented a style, perfected it over a short period of time and then put it too rest. In his work you can see the influence of Japanese block prints along with the work of the Impressionists.Van Gogh added expressionism to the list; breathing vitality into every brushstroke. No other artist can attempt to do what he did; they will all be compared to him and eventually come up short.You can’t help but be overcome with a sense of joy with a hint of tragedy when you stand in front of a Van Gogh.
So, which one is better Picasso or Van Gogh?
Two men couldn’t be further from one another personality wise. Van Gogh was socially awkward, insecure, whose idea of romance was loping off part of his ear to impress a girl and started out life wanting to be a priest. Picasso had no such aspirations. Picasso suffered for nothing. He was incredibly confident and successful. Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime where Picasso had people lined up around the block clamoring for his work. He could trade paintings for houses. Both men were consumed by art, creating it constantly and rapidly. Paintings would be completed in a day or in the case of Picasso (late in his career); he’d do a painting in the morning, have lunch and then do another one in the afternoon. Picasso outlived Van Gogh by 55 years but what Vincent accomplished in his short career is astounding. They are both giants of the art world and both worth seeing.
Of the two exhibitions: Van Gogh is the better painter but Picasso has the better paintings.