03 February 2020

Coming up in February

Arik Levy: Independence. It would be hard to come up with a more apposite exhibition title than this! Arik Levy is truly an independent man. Independent of the clichés marketing tries to bracket creatives in, Arik is an artist, a designer (one of the most talented of his generation), filmmaker and writer. The Espace Muraille gallery in Geneva is showing a series of his sculptures until 9th March 2020, in which apparently precariously balanced blocks of materials conjure up primaeval thoughts about the origin of forms. The upcoming Salone del Mobile in Milan will show how these principles have been harnessed in the field of design (for Desalto, Vibia, Danese, Kaldewei and Emu, amongst others).

“And there was light!”. The exhibition Georges de la Tour: l‘Europa della Luce is on at Milan’s Palazzo Reale until 7th June 2020. Curated by Francesca Cappelletti, this is a rare and extraordinary show. Georges de la Tour (1593-1652), now recognised as one of the greatest artists of the 17th century, was rediscovered only in the early 1900s, but there has never been an opportunity to come face to face with his work in Italy until now. Some thirty works have been brought together from places as far-flung as Washington, Los Angeles and New York and closer ones such as Nantes, Dijon, Bergues and Epinal. Leaving aside his crudely realistic “daytime” pictures, his “nocturnal” ones are truly unforgettable. The absolute star of the show is candlelight, which allows the figures to emerge from the shadows and confers a dramatic three-dimensionality to the painting. A visit is obligatory for all those involved with lighting design!

Thonet: yet again! Michael Thonet (1796-1871) should be regarded as the patron saint of design historians and critics. In fact the answer to any slightly mischievous design question from assorted curious people (“When did design start?”, “Can you quote me a masterpiece?”, “Is design democratic?” etc. etc.) is “Michael Thonet!” and that’s it! Everyone knows that Thonet invented a way of using steam to bend solid beech, which then led him to design and built extremely robust chairs that were far less expensive than their predecessors. Timeless chairs, millions of which flew off the shelves at the time, unleashing the only really successful revolution of the 19th century, the only one that really levelled out the nobility and the petit bourgeoisie. Still original, but much more expensive these days, they continue to populate our world, providing an ongoing on-site lesson in design. All those keen to clap eyes on the complete range should make for the MAK in Vienna, where the exhibition Bentwood and Beyond, containing no fewer than 240 Thonet models, is on until 13th April 2020.

What a Wonderful World: la Lunga Storia dell’Ornamento tra Arte e Natura. An exhibition at Reggio Emilia’s Palazzo Magnani and Chiostri di San Pietro until 8th March 2020, curated by Claudio Franzoni and Pierluca Nardoni, is a chance to immerse oneself in the often misunderstood realm of decoration. Starting with anthropology, which postulates the existence of totally naked primitive populations, although bodily decorations were never in short supply, the show then moves onto botany and zoology, in which decoration becomes a weapon of seduction geared to reproduction, and then on to art, architecture and fashion. 200 sequential pieces suggest that it is now time to reassess Adolf Loos’s famous anathema, Ornament and Crime. From sumptuous holy vestments to aniconic Arab decorations, the multicoloured plumage of male birds in William Morris’s tapestries and primitive tattoos, to the layers of calligraphy superimposed onto people’s bodies by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. There may be a risk attached: should everything be seen as decoration? Undoubtedly! This exhibition (and its catalogue) contain a clarification.

Jan van Eyck in Ghent. “If everyone looks like Putin, you’re probably looking at a painting by Jan van Eyck!” This witticism currently doing the rounds on Facebook is testament to just how recognisable van Eyck’s work has become. The Arnolfini Wedding (1434), in particular, is one of the best-known and most loved paintings in the global history of art (Putin-related ironies apart). The exhibition Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution, at the Msk in Ghent in Belgium until 30th April 2020, contains no less than 10 of the 20 works so far attributed to the Belgian master. Not The Arnolfini Marriage, alas, which is conserved in the National Gallery in London, but the enigmatic and huge (3.75 x 2.58 metres) polyptych altarpiece Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the outermost panels of which show the provocatively naked (and long-censored) Adam and Eve. Confiscated by Hitler in 1942 and hidden in a mine, the polyptych was not retrieved until after the end of the war (see George Clooney’s film Monuments Men).

Who would you still like to have breakfast with? With Audrey (Hepburn), no question, but not necessarily at Tiffany’s! Even a column like this, which usually reports on very serious exhibitions of art and architecture, cannot but flag up Intimate Audrey. Curated by her son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, the exhibition at La Spezia’s Fondazione Carispezia until 1st March contains unforgettable and sometimes hitherto unknown portraits, reminding us that we were all in love with her really!

Cecilia Alemani breaks through the glass ceiling. Cecilia Alemani has been appointed artistic director for the 59th edition of the Venice Art Bienniale. This will be the first time an Italian woman has held the position. Nominated by Paolo Baratta, whose long and glorious career with the festival has come to an end with this announcement, Cecilia Alemani, born in 1977, will curate the 2021 edition. Personally, I have to say that we’d have appointed her “on the spot” (“Canonise Cecilia Now!”) when she curated one of the best Italian pavilions in living memory in 2017 (only 3 works presented, of which 2 – by Roberto Cuoghi and Giorgio Andreatta Calò – were absolutely outstanding). Alemani’s undoubted ability, highlighted not just in Venice, but especially in her official role as Chief Curator of New York’s High Line artistic programme, not to conduct lazy and all-embracing censuses, but to make strong, even bold decisions, taking stock of contemporary debate, already suggest that her Biennial will be quite extraordinary.

Italian divisionism: an eternal controversy. Gaetano Previati, Emilio Longoni, Giovanni Sottocornola, Angelo Morbelli, Giovanni Segantini and Pellizza da Volpedo (the latter two only in part) are largely forgotten artists active between the 1880s and 1890s, who gave their name to the Divisionist movement, about which critics are still divided. This makes the opportunity to visit the exhibition Divisionism. La Rivoluzione della Luce, curated by Annie-Paul Quinsac at Novara’s Castello Visconteo Sforzesco, until 5th April 2020 even more pressing. Bookended by the Renaissance poetics of the Scapigliatura movement and Pellizza da Volpedo’s Fourth Estate, the Divisionists left behind them a body of work in which all too often iconographic and content analysis overshadows the technical and scientific prowess of these painters’ radical approach to light.

Farewell Perry (the) King! The extraordinary partnership that has bound Perry King and Santiago Miranda together for over 40 years might well have been the invention of a rather jokey filmmaker. Incompatible yet inseparable: Perry, tall, thin, fair-haired with an English accent that never dulled and a smile never far from his lips, and Santiago, shorter, rounder, brown-haired, with a shrill voice and the attitude of a bullfighter. They met at Olivetti where Perry had been working with Ettore Sottsass since 1964 (he co-designed an absolute icon, the Valentine portable typewriter). They set up their own studio in 1976 and since then have designed dozens and dozens of furnishings, lamps, products, providing a serious and silent alternative to the loud design of the 1980s and 1990s. Their masterpieces undoubtedly include the Jill floor and table lamp, designed for Arteluce in 1977, which rapidly became a “must have!” King and Miranda deserve a lifetime, as yet unassigned, Golden Compass Award for their (rare) ability to maintain their friendship and creative partnership, and as a final salute to Perry.

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