Artists Ahead of Their Times, Centuries Apart
At first glance, there is nothing tying together the two, centuries-apart shows at Yale Center for British Art (YCBA), Thomas Lawrence: Regency, Power and Brilliance and "into the light of things": Rebecca Salter, works 1981-2010, except that they are both retrospectives of British artists.
But upon closer examination, one realizes that what Lawrence and Salter do have in common is that both are visionary, experimental artists who both, in their own eras, pushed the envelope and took their art forms to the next level.
The Thomas Lawrence exhibit showcases paintings and drawings by one of Europe's most admired and innovative portraitists of the late 18th-and early 19th centuries. "into the light of things" showcases the multi-layered, two-dimensional works of British abstract artist Rebecca Salter, who has been described as a "border walker" transiting between different cultures, genres, and media.
"Both shows reflect the artists' incredible commitment to their art...and make an interesting contrast for viewers," says Gillian Forrester, curator of "into the light of things," as well as prints and drawings at YCBA.
Reexamining the Art of the Portrait
A child protégé who began doing professional portraits at the age of 11, Thomas Lawrence was greatly influenced by the pre-Victorian Regency period in which he lived-a time rife with intense political turmoil and changes.
Featured in the exhibit-co-organized by YCBA and the Royal Academy of Arts, London-are more than 40 of Lawrence's greatest portraits of men, women, and children, as well as some of his lesser-known history paintings and drawings.
Cassandra Albinson, YCBA's associate curator of paintings and sculpture, notes that even in Lawrence's earliest paintings, such as Elizabeth Farren, Later Countess of Derby (ca. 1790), one can observe "his bold use of bright white and wonderful blues, his innovative poses that really draw your eye in; he's distinguished, even at this point, by his loose brushwork."
Two of the most important group portraits Lawrence produced, observes Peter Funnell of the Royal Academy of Arts, are included in the exhibit.
The first, Frances Hawkins and Her Son, John James Hamilton (1805-06), shows how unconventional Lawrence was, depicting his mistress and his son together in a portrait painted in "a remarkable circular composition."
"He had an unusual love life and it was a highly publicized relationship," Funnell says. "It's about exuberance and about love."
The second group portrait, Sir Francis Baring, 1st Baronet, John Baring, and Charles Wall (1806-7), was one of a series of three commissioned by John Baring, brother of the famous merchant banker Sir Francis Baring.
"It's a painting of businessmen, which was an unusual subject" at that time, Funnell explains. "It's about commerce and a modern type of masculinity and tells us about changes in social class in Britain."
Lucy Pelts of the National Portrait Gallery notes that Lawrence was fascinated by the boundary between portraiture and epic history paintings, as evident in the last and most resolved of his portraits, John Philip Kemble as Cato (1757-1823). Kemble was Britain's leading tragic actor during the Regency period and, in the portrait, Cato is performing a soliloquy related to Plato's Book on the Immortality of the Soul.
The work challenges the idea of portraits' being no more than moments frozen in time.
"He explores the narrative and offers the viewer a sense of before and after," Pelt says. "He captures the moment Cato decided to commit suicide [versus] succumbing to Napoleon. The resigned sense in his pose tells a story; the glinting dagger on the table is a glimpse of what is to come."
"into the light of things" examines the depth and breadth of Rebecca Salter's work over the past 30 years. Periods spanned include the influential six years she spent in Kyoto, Japan, making woodblock prints and drawings using Japanese papers to create a body of work that combined Western and Eastern art-making. The exhibit also covers the period after Salter returned from England, during which she developed a new process of making drawings that she painstaking cut up and reorganized and then mounted on a backing sheet. And "into the light of things" also incorporates paintings in which Salter builds up images in layers, applies pigment, and then "strips back" the surface to reapply more pigment.
Untitled JI, 1994, mixed media on canvas, exemplifies Salter's extraordinary "cut-up" artworks.
"It's an incredible work-one of the last ones before she stopped doing them," Forrester agrees. "It's very laborious, but [it's] what she does as an artist. Clearly Zen is important-the activity of making the work. She thinks of herself as an artist and an artisan and one of the things she loved about living in Japan is how highly prized craftsmanship is there.
"It's a triptych as well," Forrester adds, "as if the three parts are in conversation with each other; it adds a kind of movement and vitality to the work."
Salter created a number of the paintings in the exhibit in 2003, during a three-month residency at the Josef & Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany. Outside of her travels and years in Japan, Salter found this period to be one of the most transformative for her practice.
"They have wonderful studios, but not for painting-they're not that large," Forrester explains, "and so she decided to focus on drawing. Bethany is in the woods and she lives in the city. She liked being out in nature, having time to work in a very uninterrupted way. Bethany Squares [mixed media mounted on aluminum], which we bought for our collection, can read as a narrative of her time there. It records, in an abstract way, the changing of seasons."
Another section of the exhibit highlights Salter's collaboration on the reception area of London's St. George's Hospital in 2008, demonstrating her connection with Japanese concepts of space and her deeply held belief in the therapeutic value of art.
Forrester is delighted to have Salter's first museum retrospective at YCBA.
"I've admired her work for years and feel quite evangelical about bringing it to the wider public," she says. "The response to it has exceeded my expectations. The work is very beautiful and also makes you think about making art and forces us to sit still and really contemplate it. It's an amazing achievement, really, motivated by all of those things."
A companion exhibition, Rebecca Salter and Japan: Layered Time and Space Examined, is on view at the Yale University Art Gallery. It highlights two recent key works by Salter in dialogue with 13 works by Japanese and American artists.
Thomas Lawrence: Regency, Power and Brilliance is on display at Yale Center for British Art (YCBA), 1080 Chapel Street, New Haven, through June 5. "into the light of things" is also on view at YCBA, through May 1. For a complete list of related events, gallery hours, and lectures (including one by Madison resident Rosalyn Cama), visit www.yale.edu/ycba.