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Last Chance to See: The Best of the Summer Exhibitions

By Catriona Miller

As summer draws to a close, so too do some of this year’s big exhibitions. Rather like the British weather, the art has had mixed reviews, but still, do enjoy it while you can: there are some fabulous things to see.

The Tate: The Rossettis

 Photo: La Ghirlandata Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1873
Photo: La Ghirlandata Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1873

In London, Tate Britain is trying to persuade us that the Rossettis (note the plural) were radical as well as Romantic. It’s the sort of argument which would work better in a book than on a gallery wall, where nuance is difficult to maintain. But the show starts well with innovative sound showers of Christina Rossetti’s words and carefully curated images which show the mutual inspiration and collaboration between Elizabeth Siddal and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In the end, though, poetry is no match for painting in a gallery, and the reality that DGR’s output was larger, his career longer and his work on a bigger scale, kicks in. You can protest that the women have been pushed aside, or you can luxuriate in the rich lusciousness of his aestheticist beauties.

Dulwich Picture Gallery: Berthe Morisot and Impressionism

Photo: Summer's Day by Berthe Morisot, 1979. Painting of two women in a boat.
Photo: Summer's Day by Berthe Morisot, 1979

There’s a similar dilemma at Dulwich Picture Gallery where Impressionist grande dame Berthe Morisot gets a long-overdue retrospective. Make the journey out there complaining that she deserves a show at one of the central galleries, and walk round thinking you could do with more Morisot and fewer eighteenth-century men (the curators contextualise her within a rococo revival); or just enjoy the chance to see her work. Morisot’s art is so defiantly unpretty, so vigorously dynamic, that she makes Monet and Renoir look tame. Her largely domestic subject matter – the result of social restrictions – has led to her being pigeon-holed as a ‘portrayer of women’s experience’. But standing in front of her work reveals her as an artist primarily interested in the act, not the image. The subjects are convenient everyday ones by a woman who painted in her living room because painting was her life.

Tate Modern: Hilma Af Klint and Piet Mondrian, Forms of Life

Photo: The Ten Largest, Childhood, No. 2 by Hilma af Klint
Photo: The Ten Largest, Childhood, No. 2 by Hilma af Klint

For Hilma Af Klint painting was belief. Tate Modern’s bold pairing of the Swedish artist and iconic abstractionist Piet Mondrian views both through the lens of their spiritualism. It’s a surprising exhibition – and surely that’s a good thing – even though it might not ultimately be a successful one. Mondrian emerges as a master of colour and nature-inspired expression who seemed to get lost in his own maze of grids and squares. Af Klint, at her best, has a boldness beyond any of her male contemporaries. And theosophy is successfully spotlighted, not as embarrassing quackery, but as one of the driving forces of 1900s cultural production.

Leighton House: Evelyn de Morgan's Gold Drawings

Photo: Mercy and Truth by Evelyn de Morgan, De Morgan Collection - gold drawings
Photo: Mercy and Truth by Evelyn de Morgan, De Morgan Collection

One thing these shows have in common is, of course, women, and one of the silver linings of this cloudy summer has been the number of female artists given their place in the sun. In London, you also have time to marvel at the intricate, gleaming perfection of Evelyn de Morgan’s Pre-Raphaelite-influenced Gold Drawings at Leighton House.

The Russell Cotes: Lucy Kemp-Welch

An even less familiar name is that of Lucy Kemp-Welch, but the Russell Cotes in Bournemouth has taken the trouble to remind us that a century ago she was well-known and sought after. Kemp-Welch’s large-scale yet impressionistically loose representations of working horses are both elegiacally heroic and evocatively naturalist. So-called British Impressionism is unfashionable at present (although there is a great exhibition bucking that trend at the Laing in Newcastle): it’s a crying shame that works as good as this were sacrificed on the altar of twentieth-century modernism.

Pallant House Gallery: Gwen John's Art and Life in London and Paris

Gwen John’s calm images of contemplative, isolated women are almost over-familiar, but Pallant House’s exhibition manages to revitalise them, firstly with excellent context which takes us outside those bare rooms into the Paris art scene; secondly by highlighting John’s technique. The dry, scuffed surface of her canvases is not something you can appreciate in reproduction.

Maltings: Anne Redpath and Her Circle

At the other end of the country, the Maltings in Berwick contextualises another woman artist, Anne Redpath, among the works of her fellow Edinburgh colourists. Again their vivid, expressionist colour which often seems dead on the page, comes alive on the gallery wall. Redpath also features in the historical survey of Scottish women artists which recently opened at the Dovecot in the capital.

Falmouth Art Gallery and Hastings Contemporary: King Arthur, Soutine, and Kossoff

Photo: Le Petit Patissier by Chaïm Soutine, circa 1927
Photo: Le Petit Patissier by Chaïm Soutine, circa 1927

Finally, polar opposites on the south coast. You can revel in bright colour and intricate pattern, high romance and surface precision at the ‘Legend of King Arthur’ exhibition in Falmouth. Or you can get earthy, organic and textural at Hastings Contemporary’s exhilarating face-off between Chaïm Soutine and Leon Kossoff. Both are brilliant exhibitions for entirely different reasons. And both prove no one needs an excuse to get out there and enjoy great art.


About the Writer:

Catriona Miller is an independent art historian and writer on art based in the UK. She has taught and lectured on all aspects of art history and is currently researching women artists in British collections and issues of nationalism and identity in nineteenth-century landscape painting.

Twitter: @cmillerartlife

1 Comment

Aug 29, 2023

The Evelyn de Morgan piece is stunning!

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