Wednesday 24 November 2010

Looking back, and around

One of the shows I really regret not seeing over the past couple of years is Julian Dashper's 'To the Unknown New Zealander' at Christchurch Art Gallery, where Dashper installed his own works throughout the Gallery's permanent collection hang.

I'm fascinated by artists' relationships with the art that came before them. In a current show at the British National Gallery, Bridget Riley has placed works from the collection (including three works by Seurat and Raphael's Saint Catherine of Alexandria) with her own recent works.

Riley has been a frequent visitor to the National Gallery throughout her career, learning about colour and line: she describes galleries as "the book in which we learn to read". The current show includes one of her earliest works, a copy of Jan van Eyck's Portrait of a Man (Self portrait?) from the National Gallery's collection.

Laura Cumming's review in the Guardian does a better job of selling the show that the National Gallery's own website*:

Indeed the curious effect of this tremendous show, in which Riley's paintings are displayed alongside permanent works from the collection, is that it makes you see past art anew. Look at her suave ripples and you suddenly realise how Mantegna makes his frieze of figures appear to move continuously in both directions. Look at Riley and you may better appreciate the abstract qualities of Raphael.

These old-new pairings soon give way to what is effectively a miniature retrospective – early op-art, 80s stripes, the recent parallel curves and steeply flaring diagonals, cross-cut by verticals. The main gallery is all Riley, and dominated by an immense mural composed of interlinking circles, approximately one metre across, in blazing black on white. Tightly plotted, yet open-ended, it sends the eye round and around in every direction, following the tracery, drawn by particular rhythms, distracted by sparking intersections; a movement as unpredictable as mercury.

The means are simple and perspicuous, but the effect is indefinable.
The Guardian also has a slideshow of paintings from the exhibition, which makes me wish I were there.


Nicolas Poussin, The Triumph of Pan, circa 1636. National Gallery collection.
Bridget Riley, Arcadia 1 (Wall Painting 1), 2007.

*I'm all for the reduction of boosterism, but I think the National Gallery could have sounded a little more excited.

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