Power & Pain, Love & Madness: Brett Anderson Curates The Collections of Art UK
The Quietus , May 16th, 2020 09:06
The Suede frontman curates a selection of ten paintings from the UK's public collections, in a virtual exhibition prepared exclusively for the Quietus
Long before he sung of how paint “gets you going like you wanna be got” on the early Suede track ‘Painted People, Brett Anderson had grown up surrounded by art. His mother was a painter. “Mum’s paintings were everywhere;” he wrote in Coal Black Mornings of his West Sussex upbringing, “she devoted her entire modest career to detailing the gently rolling Sussex countryside, and the walls would be full of her beautiful watercolour landscapes and intricately observed natural. Where her own work was absent she hung prints of Hendrick Avercamp, Vincent Van Gogh and Aubrey Beardsley.”
It seems fitting, then, in a way, that the Quietus should launch what we hope to be a new semi-regular series with ten paintings selected, curated, and introduced by the Suede frontman, brought together under the virtual exhibition title (selected by Anderson himself), ‘Power and Pain, Love and Madness’.
Art UK is a British charity, the result of a collaboration between 3,200 British institutions with the intention of making art available to everyone. It has created an online portal where anyone can view reproductions of works held in public collections through Britain and Northern Ireland. This week, they launch their new Curations tool, allowing members of the public to select works from that collection and present them as a timeline, slideshow or online gallery. Since all galleries are online right now, that basically puts you on level pegging with the director of the Tate. To give you a glimpse of what’s possible, the Quietus will be working with Art UK over the coming months to present selections from that database curated by some of our favourite artists. Starting, here and now, with Brett Anderson.
To see Brett's selections – and read his descriptions – please click through the accompanying gallery (below) – and don't forget to check out Art UK's Curations for yourself and come up with a virtual exhibition of your own.
Lucas Cranach – The Close of the Silver Age
Whenever I’m in town and have an hour to spare I trudge over to the National Gallery and after wandering through its hushed marbled halls often find myself standing, gazing at this painting. There’s something so startling about its charged dissonance, its odd marriage of violence and sloth. In one corner a man with a beard savagely beats another with a stick while nearby gentle, nymph-like women recline lazily on the grass with their porcine babies. In Cranach’s time artists rarely or never used female life models so they observed the bodies of young boys instead. The result is often a kind of naive sexual ambivalence, anatomically awkward but beautiful and strange. Perhaps the painting appeals to me particularly as its blend of brutality and calm is something I look for in corners of my own work, an endless search for the wonders that can be unlocked by ambiguity, of never quite knowing.
Hans Holbein – The Ambassadors
There are so many more subtle and graceful Holbiens but I chose arguably his most famous work because it’s nevertheless the most intriguing. He was the supreme portraitist of the Tudor Court and his artistry is still today both astonishing and incredibly sophisticated. I’m always fascinated looking at his representation of the human face, gazing into those long dead eyes and reading the expressions of people from another age, their faces just as real as those you would jostle past walking along Tottenham Court Road today. This painting is one that’s laden with symbolism, the puffed up ambassadors standing proudly in a jumble of trinkets strategically chosen to suggest wealth, power and scientific acumen. But the twists are of course the memento mori and specifically the stretched, distorted skull in the foreground, bold and strange and utterly shocking still. It never fails to thrill me both with its visceral menace but also when I remind myself that it predates Surrealism by nearly 400 years.
Alesso Baldovinetti – Portrait of a Lady in Yellow
This calm, serene painting has a personal resonance for me as it was one of my parents’ favourites. When I was a child I remember them buying a postcard of it during one of our rainy, half-term day trips to London and bringing it back home and my father mounting it on a small wooden block fashioned with a cheap doweling boarder. There she sat on the wall of our little Haywards Heath council house next to the mean, grey-tiled fireplace staring out over her cramped kingdom watching over the endless fraught Christmases and suffering the pipe-smoke. After my dad died and it was time to clear up his things and stuff his possessions into black bin-bags it was one of the handful of bits I really wanted to keep and now she sits again staring out at me in my writing room at home like she did all those years ago.
Paolo Uccello – The Battle of San Romano
This is another piece that reminds me of my childhood and which I feel similarly drawn to. Bizarrely we used to have a biscuit tin at home printed with its image and I have a very early memory of developing a fascination with the central mounted figure and wondering why he alone wore what appeared to be a tea-cosy on his head. The painting itself is an early masterpiece of foreshortening and perspective, the jostling, warring figures so real you can almost hear the clash of steel and the fraught tangle of battle. Today I always make a point of showing it to my own son whenever we visit, telling him about the old family biscuit tin and watching his little face light up with wonder and fascination, safe in the sly knowledge that small boys of all eras are drawn to the same sort of things and enjoying being part of some sort of generational link, something bigger than myself.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard – The Swing
I must admit I chose this piece as much for the location as for the painting. The Wallace Collection is one of London’s best kept secrets – an oasis of elegance and culture a world away from the braying crowds of tourists that populate the blockbuster shows. It’s almost always if not empty then pleasantly calm and afternoon tea in its sunny atrium sitting amongst the wealthy widows nibbling their Battenberg can be a bizarre and often charming experience. Nevertheless when you see beyond the painting’s chintzy, Rococo silliness you can glimpse a narrative that delves in to murky themes of sexual jealousy and carnal obsession, the lightness and frippery of the perfumed female character masking a cruel, primitive goading. Or at least that’s how I read it.
Pieter de Hooch – Courtyard of a House in Delft
This seemingly unspectacular painting is nevertheless an oddly moving and in many ways quietly revolutionary piece. It’s an anthem to understatement, a celebration of the everyday. When the convention was for painters to represent the wealthy and the powerful de Hooch has chosen to eulogise the unseen, depicting the servant classes hurrying about their work in a part of a house usually avoided by visitors. When at last your eye settles and sees beyond the jumble of mops and broken wood in the scruffy courtyard it’s rewarded with the depiction of a lovely, truly touching moment, the tender gesture between mother and daughter as powerful as any histrionic Caravaggio. I’ve always loved art and music that has the bravery to invert those conventions and depict things like poverty and failure and inertia. Without the motor of drama such art can be hard to get right but when it succeeds it can be wonderfully resonant and surprisingly beautiful.
Edouard Manet – Execution of Emperor Maximilian
Manet is my favourite painter so I had to include some of his work although to be honest most of my best loved pieces of his are housed in Paris. For me he manages to capture the human form with such supreme eloquence and once interestingly developed a technique of painting on a background of black which often makes his work sing in a way that’s different from his contemporaries. Regardless of Manet’s elegant draughtsmanship I was always fascinated by this painting simply because it was so damaged. Although the way in which it’s presented was probably never intended by the artist it somehow lends the work a danger and modern resonance that otherwise it might not possess. The story of its mutilation is easy to uncover by going to Wikipedia but the jaggedness that it lends the painting somehow imbues it with an extra sense of violence perfectly in keeping with its dark and bloody story.
Edvard Munch – The Sick Child
This is a beautifully understated study by the master of Expressionism, seemingly inconsistent with the anthems to angst for which he is famous. But the apparent calm of the touching scene belies a tortured narrative when you dig a little deeper and find out that it depicts the death from tuberculosis of the artist’s own sister. It was a theme to which Munch would obsessively return time and again in his career, executing numerous versions possibly as a way to deal with the despair he felt over his loss. The pathos and pain that this seemingly benign scene captures will resonate powerfully with every fretful parent who has kept vigil at the bedside of their poorly child, struggling within their own quiet hell. Munch’s genius was his ability to be able to use his pain and turn it into beauty, an act of alchemy that is the essence of all great art.
Francis Bacon – Head VI
Bacon has always felt to me to be the heir to Munch’s paeans to pain, taking his Expressionist language into raw and nightmarish places. His series of ‘Screaming Popes’ come from his studies of a painting by Diego Velazquez of Pope Innocent X, an image with which he became somewhat obsessed. The way he interprets the expression of power however is completely his own, turning the inherent sense of brooding control within Velazquez’s original into one of tortured anguish steeped in it’s own torment and misery. Bacon’s quote of defining the artist’s job as being one that must “deepen the mystery” is an aphorism which I find myself often reflecting on and quoting.
Lucian Freud – Girl with a Kitten
I bookend this with another painting to which I often find myself inexorably drawn. I love Freud’s work, it manages to be itchy and uncomfortable but somehow still elegant. People always talk about his bleak depictions of nakedness but it’s his more decorous work like this piece which I find myself coming back to. There’s something perverse and fascinating about this image, the blithe insouciance with which the girl holds the cat cruelly by its neck, the implicit threat contained within the act, the cat’s relative calm, the girl’s almond eyes. All these elements suggests a question which the artist never quite answers and like all unresolved narratives it deepens the sense of fascination. Towards the end of his life I would often meet my dad at the Tate and after a dutiful hour of wandering its halls we would find ourselves in the bustling cafe downstairs hunched over our little metal pots of stewing tea. Without fail my father would always probe me with his inevitable ‘If you could take just one painting home’ question and I would always chose the Girl With a Kitten as my answer.
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For all your discussions about Brett's solo career.
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