Exhibitions

The woman who revolutionised British fashion: Barbara Hulanicki interviewed

‘I was one of your original customers in Kensington Church Street,’ I tell the founder of Biba when we meet. ‘Are you coming to complain?’ she shoots back. At 87 and fresh off a flight from Miami, Barbara Hulanicki is as sharp as a tack. The designer was in London for the opening of The Biba Story, the Fashion and Textile Museum’s celebration of the revolution she accomplished in 1960s street fashion. Believe me, it was a revolution – I was there and yes, I remember. In fact I can summon a mental inventory of all the items of clothing I bought from Biba over its short life, from the

The brilliance of Beryl Cook

Nobody claims Beryl Cook was an artistic genius, least of all the artist herself. ‘I think my work lies somewhere between Donald McGill [the saucy postcard artist that George Orwell wrote so lyrically about] and Stanley Spencer,’ she once told me. ‘But I’m sorry to say I’m probably nearer McGill.’ She was, as ever, being modest. I actually think she’s nearer Spencer – and Hogarth, come to that. Cook’s paintings make us laugh but that doesn’t stop them from being art. (Few would say Shakespeare’s comedies are as profound as his tragedies, but they’re brilliant creations, nevertheless.) Though Victoria Wood dubbed her work ‘Rubens with jokes’, there aren’t actually any

Fascinating insight into the mind of Michelangelo

You’re pushing 60 and an important patron asks you to repeat an artistic feat you accomplished in your thirties. There’s nothing more daunting than having to compete with your younger self, but the patron is the Pope. How can you say no? Besides, it’s an excuse to get away from Florence, where your work for the republicans who expelled the Medici has become an embarrassment since their return. So you tell Pope Clement VII that, yes, you will move to Rome and paint a Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Bladder stones, colic, backache, gout – Michelangelo had them all and moaned about them in letters

It’s time to free art from being ‘interactive’ and ‘immersive’

The American artist and critic Brad Troemel once pointed out that art galleries have all turned into a kind of adult daycare, and ever since then I haven’t been able to visit a gallery without noticing it. Nearly two decades ago, Carsten Höller installed a set of big aluminium slides in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, and they were undeniably good fun because going down slides is fun. It’s also fun, although maybe for a different type of person, to ask if going down slides counts as art. These days, though, you can hardly move for this stuff. The world is already interactive. You walk around in it. You

Kandinsky is the star of Tate’s expressionist show

‘We invented the name Blaue Reiter whilst sitting around a coffee table in Marc’s garden at Sindelsdorf… we both loved blue, Marc liked horses and I liked riders, so the name came of its own accord.’ Christened so casually by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc in 1911, the Blue Rider was always more of an idea than an art society, but the Tate Modern’s new exhibition – the first in the UK since 1960 – makes it sound more contemporary by describing it as a transnational collective. In practice, as Kandinsky’s partner Gabriele Münter remembered, it was ‘only a group of friends who shared a common passion for painting as

The latest Venice Biennale is ideologically and aesthetically bankrupt 

Last week’s opening of the 60th edition of the Venice Biennale marks a watershed for the art world. In much of the festival’s gigantic central exhibition, curated by the Brazilian museum director Adriano Pedrosa, as well as in many of the dozens of independently organised national pavilions and countless collateral events, it more obviously than ever before didn’t so much matter what was on show, but why. The politics of visibility and representation has been eating away at the arts for at least a decade, most recently under the banner of ‘decolonisation’. The now nearly complete abdication of aesthetic criteria in favour of a decolonial organising principle is here finally

How flabby our ideas of draughtsmanship have become

The term drawing is a broad umbrella, so in an exhibition of 120 works it helps to outline some distinctions. A good place to start is to ask what drawings are for, and that is what Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum has done with its current show of sketches by Flemish masters – staged in collaboration with Antwerp’s Museum Plantin-Moretus – dividing them into studies, designs and stand-alone finished works. Van Dyck’s teenage studies are a measure of how flabby our ideas of draughtsmanship have become If you’ve ever had the chance to visit it, you’ll know what a special place the Plantin-Moretus is. Still occupying the original premises in which it

The quiet brilliance of street photographer Saul Leiter

This is the second exhibition of mid-century New York street photography at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. The first, in 2022, surveyed the work of Vivian Maier, who at her death left behind a vast quantity of prints and negatives: evidence of a hidden life unsuspected even by those in whose household she lived and worked for four decades. There are continuities between Maier and the subject of the current show, Saul Leiter. They were contemporaries, loners who lived into their eighties (Leiter died four years after Maier, in 2013), prolific but uninterested in recognition, their reputations largely posthumous. Leiter was born in 1923 in Pittsburgh, like Andy Warhol

Impressionism is 150 years old – this is the anniversary show to see

The time that elapsed between the fall of the Paris Commune and the opening of the first proper impressionist exhibition amounted to less than three years. Over the course of that period, the city had witnessed the collapse of the Second Empire, suffered a siege at the hands of the Prussian army and seen vicious house-to-house fighting between the troops of the Versailles government and thescrappy citizen-army of Paris proper. All Parisians would recall the rivers of blood running down the city’s ritziest shopping streets, zoo animals being butchered for restaurant fodder, and the mass slaughter of rebel prisoners across the public squares of the city’s eastern faubourgs. Given that

The ghostly charcoals of Frank Auerbach

‘In some curious way, the practice of art and the awareness of the imminence of death are connected,’ Frank Auerbach said in 2012. ‘Otherwise, we would not find it necessary to do the work art finally does – to pin something down and take it out of time.’ There’s no sense of the imminence of death in Auerbach’s postwar landscapes of London building sites stirring with new life, but there is in his contemporary charcoal portraits, as scarred and sooty as the Blitzed city in which they were made. Auerbach started making large charcoal drawings from life as a student in David Bomberg’s evening classes at Borough Polytechnic, and carried

Why art biennales are (mostly) rubbish

Should you visit Malta this spring, you may notice something decidedly weird is afoot. Across the public squares of its capital, Valletta, performance artists are blocking busy thoroughfares and causing havoc on packed café terraces. The Hospitaller and British military forts that dominate the capital’s famous harbour, meanwhile, are full of dysfunctional installation work, while the curio-filled vitrines of local museums are forced to compete with video art. Even the Grandmaster’s Palace – for centuries the country’s seat of power – has accommodated several dozen mini-exhibitions on the theme of ‘the Matri-archive of the Mediterranean’. As more than one artist showing work in these places told me, the venues were

Insipid show of a weak painter: Angelica Kauffman, at the Royal Academy, reviewed

Angelica Kauffman’s funeral in Rome in 1807 was designed by her friend Canova on the model of Raphael’s. The corpse of ‘the great Woman, the always illustrious holy and most pious… was accompanied to the Church by two very numerous Brotherhoods… followed by the rest of the Academicians & Virtuosi who carried in triumph two of her Pictures’. At the Royal Academy in London, the account of her obsequies was read out at the general assembly and entered in the minutes; as a founding member of the institution – one of only two women so honoured, with Mary Moser – Kauffman was gone, but not forgotten. Kauffman was a decorative

Winning: When Forms Come Alive, at the Hayward, reviewed

In case you didn’t know, we live in a ‘post-minimalist’ age, sculpturally speaking. Not a maximalist age, though some of the works in the Hayward’s new sculpture show are huge – an age of revolution against neatness. Who’s to blame for this call to disorder? Women. The two prime movers of this movement, if you can call it that, could not be more different, but both rebelled against minimalist geometry. As a student at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s, Ruth Asawa travelled to Toluca, Mexico, and saw villagers looping wire to make baskets for eggs. It struck her as a way of drawing in three dimensions and later,

I was dreading this show – how wrong could I be: Entangled Pasts, at the Royal Academy, reviewed

In the wake of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s exhibition Black Atlantic about its founder’s ties to the slave trade comes the Royal Academy’s Entangled Pasts, less of a mea culpa than an examination of conscience by an institution which, although hailed by its first president Sir Joshua Reynolds as an ‘ornament’ of Empire, was innocent of direct links to slavery. The exhibition is less of a mea culpa than an examination of conscience I confess that I was rather dreading this show, which sounded from the pre-publicity like a hollow exercise in Britannia-Rules-the-Waves breast-beating, but from the moment I stepped into the courtyard and saw the posturing Sir Joshua on his

The spare, graceful, revelatory sculptures of Kim Lim

In 1989, the sculptor Lorna Green circulated a questionnaire among 320 of her female peers about their experiences as women in a male-dominated field; three years ago she sent a follow-up survey. The work of 29 respondents to both is currently on show in an instructive exhibition, If Not Now, When? Generations of Women in Sculpture in Britain 1960-2023 at the Saatchi Gallery (until 22 January). They include Kim Lim (1936-97), who is the subject of an overdue retrospective at the Hepworth Wakefield.  Lim’s stone carvings were a revelation to me when I first saw them at Camden Arts Centre in 1999, but it’s only now, with this first full

Masterclass of an exhibition: Impressionists on Paper, at the RA, reviewed

Viewers have different relationships with small pictures, or perhaps it’s the other way round: small pictures have different relationships with them. A big picture clamours for attention; a small picture you have to lean in to hear. No picture is more intimate than a drawing, and none brings you closer to the artist’s hand. A drawing can’t lie; it wears its facture on its sleeve. If you look closely, you can work out how it was made and even track the artist’s changes of direction. You can see, for instance, how Van Gogh launched into ‘The Fortifications of Paris with Houses’ (1887) in watercolour, then fortified the fortifications with gouache

‘You cannot begin by calling me France’s most famous living artist!’: Sophie Calle interviewed

‘You cannot begin by calling me France’s most famous living artist!’ Thus Sophie Calle objected to the first line of the obituary I wrote for her, commissioned for the enormous exhibition, À toi de faire, ma mignonne (‘Over to you, sweetie’), that currently occupies the whole Musée National Picasso-Paris. But modesty aside, it is a fact that no other French artist alive today is so celebrated, loved, debated, denounced and, indeed, imitated, around the world as Calle. Having long mined her own life for her work, Calle now happily mines her death This year is the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death and that his most important museum should officially mark

The importance of lesbianism to British modernism: Double Weave, at Ditchling Museum, reviewed

The name of Ditchling used to be synonymous with Eric Gill, but since he was outed as an abuser of his own daughters the association has become an embarrassment. Obliged to quietly drop its most famous name, Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft has been exploring less controversial connections. Its latest show, about Bourne and Allen, is a tribute to a forgotten creative partnership that casts a fascinating sidelight on the contribution of women’s traditional crafts – and lesbianism – to British modernism. After the Festival Hall put them on the map, they were approached to weave the fabrics for Ben-Hur Hilary Bourne was a Ditchling girl. Sent from India

How the Georgians invented nightlife

Modern nightlife was invented in London around 1700. So argued the historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch, who traced this revolution in city life to its origins in court culture. Medieval and Renaissance courts held their festivities while it was still light outside, but by the late 17th century, aristocrats preferred to party after dark. The trend was rapidly commercialised: a new kind of conspicuous consumer descended on pleasure gardens like Vauxhall and Ranelagh, to eat, drink, stroll and listen to music by the many-coloured light of thousands of oil lamps. Before the 1700s, night was a fearful all-consuming presence, and the main challenge was to get through it Or you can give

Proof that Rubens really was a champion of the female sex: Rubens & Women, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery reviewed

‘She is a princess endowed with all the virtues of sex; long experience has taught her how to govern these people… I think that if Her Highness could govern in her own way, everything would turn out very happily.’ The ‘princess’ in question was Isabel Clara Eugenia, Infanta of Spain and regent of the Spanish Netherlands; ‘these people’ were the pesky, ungovernable Flemings and the author of the glowing testimonial was Peter Paul Rubens who, since the death of Isabel’s husband the Archduke Albert in 1621, had become her trusted diplomatic adviser. It was quite a step up for a mere court painter, especially one with a skeleton in the