A year's artistic highlights

The first was a renewed love of fresco. I was on holiday in Sansepolcro in June where you are present to one of this form's greatest masterpieces: The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca.

It is in the Museo Civico and so arranged that even when the museum is closed you can see it (at times) through a wide, glassed in, archway. I love the humanity of the sleep drenched guards and the one to the left who appears to be hiding his face from the dazzling truth of resurrection rather than simply sleeping through it. A subtle order of difference in our inabilities to comprehend!

But it was not only in its masterpieces that fresco seduces. In the same museum, virtually hidden up narrow stairs, were beautiful if humbler examples, akin to this one of St Catherine of Alexandra.

Here she patiently waits the construction of the implements of her death, resistant to tyranny, assured in grace. I love the (now) muted yet vibrant colours, the simplicity of the narratives yet so skilfully executed and the persistant humanity of hope they convey.

The second highlight was a continuing, deepening love of what I want to call imaginal art. The term was coined by the great Islamic scholar, Henri Corbin, to describe the world between 'sense' and 'intellect' that embodies the meaning of both in living symbolism, that reveals to us the true nature of the world as a sacred unfolding drama. It is the world through which fresco moves but in the twentieth century became the more individualised preserve of particular artists, many of whom in the West had been influenced by but passed beyond surrealism. They may or may not have participated in a living religious tradition, most did not, but they had drunk from its wells, and had learnt much from especially its more esoterically inclined practitioners.

For me, this year, this meant three artists in particular, the English painters, Cecil Collins and Leonora Carrington and her friend, the Spanish painter, Remedios Varo. The first is readily accessible to an English based viewer, the latter two are more of a challenge if you want to see their works at first hand for having been both Mexico based, and still mostly privately held. But two trips to Mexico this year held the prospect of following up on 2011's wonderful exhibition hosted in England, and did, in great measure, including a visit to the studio of the sadly, recently deceased, Leonora Carrington.

All three painters created private worlds of vision - or more accurately perhaps saw their visions through the lens of privately constructed languages - but all three speak nonetheless of magicked possibilities and the reality of the imaginal.

Remedios Varo occupies an especial place in my affection - I think it is the vein of humour that is so resonant - her figures are often vulnerable and comical as they set about their tasks of what appears of the utmost seriousness (the two are not incompatible)  - as here the witch like figure with her net gathering into her cage a glimmering feather of the bird of truth, beloved of more than one tradition of fairy tale, and is illumined by her discovery. Who has captured whom?

Thirdly and finally was the exhibition of the year (or several) which was that of Edward Burra at the Pallant Gallery in Chichester. After decades of neglect, this most extraordinary artist was afforded (partially) the recognition that he deserves. The one shadow cast was a singular curatorial obsession with Burra's apparent fascination with the 'dark'. It is certainly there - with the sinister, the dowdy and the macabre - but streaking through all is a fascinated, engaged celebration of life in all its dimensions, and with the marginalised, compassionate celebration. He is possibly the first major English painter to have painted black people with no trace of condescension or distancing but whether in a French harbour or Harlem with freedom and delight. That went too for prostitutes, transvestites, gays, cabaret performers - they are all simply, gloriously people.

And the revelation of the exhibition, his late landscape paintings:

These achieved a wonderful simplicity of form, witness and celebration, as here with a Northumberland valley and river, painted in 1972.

Burra was himself an 'outsider' - gay, crippled in pain for much of his life, an observer yet through his eye and craft (and great talent for friendship) a full participant in life's many dimensions - and a witness to what art can do, deepen sensibility and love for the world - for broken but vibrant humanity, for a damaged yet renewing natural order.  A good place to be on the cusp of a new year.


  1. Damn, it is such a pity I missed that exhibition of Edward Burra in Chichester...

    1. Yes, and given this country's neglect of him, we may have to wait another twenty five years for the next one:-(


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