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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

Art attack

The weather may be poor but what better excuse to lose yourself in a nice warm gallery at an art exhibition? Three that I have enjoyed recently continue into next year, so I’m summarising them in this post as a guide (why not a separate post on each, you say? It’s a long story but one I’ll reveal shortly…)

The British Museum is showing Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything in its prints and drawings room. Perched high over the rear range of the museum well away from the crowds, this lovely timber-lined space was especially designed c.1990 to show items from the museum’s collection and features the brilliant idea of comfortable leaning shelves in front of the showcases. Currently these house over 100 A5-size pen and ink drawings by the great Japanese illustrator Katsushika Hokusai, best known for his iconic print ‘The Great Wave’. Made in the 1830s, they should have been destroyed after being pasted face down on a wooden block and carved away to form a master printing plate for the book of the exhibition title, intended as a general encyclopaedia. But the book was never started and so they survived. Utterly superb, they are intricate, charming and sometimes dynamic pictures of birds, animals, people and much more. Coloured examples of the type of woodblock prints they were intended to facilitate, made by taking the first few prints and using them to make other blocks for the different colours, are delicate and reminiscent of Western comic books in look and feel.

Continues until 30 January 2022

To the Royal Academy now for Late Constable. Small but absorbing, this shows some of the artist’s last works after the success of his sensational ‘Six-footers’. Still based on the area where he was brought up around Dedham in Suffolk but also encompassing Hampstead and Brighton, where he lived for some years to help his wife’s illness, the real surprise here is the sheer variety of technique, style and materials. There are examples of expressive proto-Impressionist work, ultra-detailed oils (a magpie is caught flying low above a pond, its reflection also visible in the water) and magical cloud studies. He often revisited works at different times and for different markets, repurposing a sketch to make a painting or altering the latter by adding motifs or even entire scenes; in such cases he would physically extend the original canvas. The exhibition is also very good at showing how Constable developed works, from a drawing, through a colour sketch to the final finished painting and contains more than one instance of all three stages. Touchingly after his wife died his work featured images of death yet also rainbows.

Continues until 13 February 2022

Official war artists receive much less exposure than those who worked only in peace despite the enormity of the events they portrayed, despite providing wholly new perspectives that television and colour photography fail to capture. At the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon I was transfixed by the In Air and Fire exhibition which illustrates the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Covering aircraft, civilians, the damage caused and even just the sky, for me it was worth attending just to discover the exquisite watercolours of Raymond McGrath. I was well aware of his architecture, which includes the extravagant inter-war Modernist villa of St Ann's Court, and his design work at Broadcasting House and the startlingly eclectic Cambridge don’s house 'Finella' but not his life as an artist. During the war he visited aircraft factories and this yielded some precise, beautiful and captivating watercolours. Combining elements of technical drawing, landscape painting and even Japanese art of the sort Hokusai would recognise – the careful positioning, cropping and flat colours – they are absolutely superb. A web search found a few more.

Continues until 27 February 2022

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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