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World cities: some works of art


Monday, 17 October 2011


As chosen by gallery directors and curators from around the globe

Liverpool Quay by Moonlight, 1887 (Atkinson Grimshaw) Tate

Liverpool Quay by Moonlight, 1887 (Atkinson Grimshaw) Tate

Who doesn't love a good John Atkinson Grimshaw? Those evocative paintings of Liverpool's dark, rain-drizzled docklands in the second half of the 19th century bathed in silvery moonlight and the golden glow of gas lamps, are now owned by galleries as far afield as Tate Britain in London and the Philadelphia Museum of Art - and they're in both fashion and demand.

In October 2010 his painting of Liverpool's Salthouse Dock from 1892 fetched £185,000 at auction, and following an opening spell at the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate, the exhibition Atkinson Grimshaw: Painter of Moonlight is now at the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London (19 Sept 2011 to 15 Jan 2012).

Yorkshire-born Grimshaw was a self-taught artist who recorded the new urban experience of cities like Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow and London. Of course he's not the only artist to capture the city at an historic point in time. The most celebrated contemporary work is probably Ben Johnson's Liverpool Cityscape, commissioned for the 2008 European Capital of Culture celebrations, now hanging in the new Museum of Liverpool and part of his series of panoramas that includes Jerusalem, Zurich and Hong Kong.

Among his predecessors are: Henry Freeman James, who captured the busy river and rural Toxteth shore from Seacombe around 1820; Samuel Walters, painter of the port's steam and sail in the 1830s; Robert Dudley, famous for his 1870s view of Canada Timber Docks; and WF Preston, whose Liverpool Landing Stage of 1893 shows the Pier Head with its ferry and sailboats at early evening. All of them are in the Merseyside Maritime Museum.

There are spectacular aerial views like Ackermann's engraving of 1847, possibly done from a hot-air balloon, and the Modern Liverpool of 1907 by Walter Richards with the magnificent Mauretania moored at Princes Dock and a vacant lot between the Royal Liver and Port of Liverpool Buildings where Cunard's HQ would soon be built. Not forgetting all those lithographs from the Herdman Collection of the 1850s to 70s, and indeed 20th century photography from the Chambré-Hardman and Stewart Bale archives, too.

Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea, 1871 (James Abbott McNeill Whistler) Tate

Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea, 1871 (James Abbott McNeill Whistler) Tate

All of which got me thinking: what about other cities around the world? Which in turn led me to contact a random selection of gallery directors and curators and ask if they'd pick their own favourite paintings of the towns where they live and work. Those who replied were generous and enthusiastic, and here's what they said...

Red Morning Trouble, 1977 (Gilbert & George) Tate

Red Morning Trouble, 1977 (Gilbert & George) Tate

First up, Britain's second city. Helen Little, Assistant Curator of Modern British Art at Tate Britain, chose two depictions of London that offer "contrasting but equally resonant aspects of living and working in London." Red Morning Trouble is a 1977 mixed-media work by Gilbert & George, the eccentric double act that appear within the work next to London landmarks. Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea was painted over a century earlier by James Whistler, the American-born, British-based artist who drew parallels between painting and music and accordingly titled many of his works 'arrangements', 'harmonies' or 'nocturnes'.

"Capturing the tranquillity of the river Thames and the effect of twilight on water, Whistler's idyllic view of Chelsea never fails to enchant," said Helen, "while Gilbert & George presents the City of London as a living and breathing artwork, claustrophobic at times, but continually in flux."

Martyrdom of St Ursula in Cologne, c1400-20 © Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud

Martyrdom of St Ursula in Cologne, c1400-20 © Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud

Across to Germany next where Dr Andreas Bluhm of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, which houses fine art from the medieval period to the early 20th century, wrote: "My favourite image of Cologne is in our collection, and it's the earliest-known painting of the city. It's The Martyrdom of St Ursula in Cologne by an anonymous artist known only as the 'Meister der Kleinen Passion' [Master of the Small Passion] from the first quarter of the 15th century. It's quite wonderful that you can still recognise many of its architectural features today - the famous cathedral, left unfinished for many more centuries, dominates the scene.

"The subject is the local legend of St Ursula, here in the process of being killed by the Huns - the real ones, haha - along with 11,000 virgins. The number is a blatant exaggeration, based on a reading error of an old document, and in the Middle Ages the citizens of Cologne found a Roman graveyard and interpreted this as the mass grave. A lucrative business in relics evolved from this.

"Incidentally it's interesting that you mention Atkinson Grimshaw's paintings with regard to Liverpool. He's a marvellous painter. I included a view of Liverpool harbour in a show that I curated on the history of light at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2000."

Victory Avenue on a Rainy Day, 1918 (N Darascu) © National Gallery, National Museum of Art of Romania

Victory Avenue on a Rainy Day, 1918 (N Darascu) © National Gallery, National Museum of Art of Romania

Monica Enache, Curator of Modern Art at the National Museum of Art of Romania, chose an oil painting of the capital Bucharest by Nicolae Darascu, a Post-Impressionist who'd studied in Paris and Venice. Entitled Victory Avenue on a Rainy Day, it was painted in 1918 when Darascu returned from active duty with the Romanian army on the Russian border during the First World War.

"It shows the view towards the Royal Palace where our gallery is now located, from the old National Theatre which would later be destroyed by German bombardments in 1944," explained Monica. "Darascu's dark, sad palette is dominated by shades of black and grey - an expression of his direct contact with the war - but he's still an Impressionist and very much absorbed in catching the atmosphere of the moment with all its specific details and effects of light."

Philadelphia, 1917 (Hugh Henry Breckenridge) courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Philadelphia, 1917 (Hugh Henry Breckenridge) courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

On now to an artist who's been called a Neo-Impressionist. In Philadelphia, Anna Marley is Curator of Historical American Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which was founded in 1805 and boasts a museum renowned for its collections of 19th and 20th century American paintings and sculptures. She wrote: "My favourite image of our fair city of brotherly love is a painting of City Hall by Hugh Henry Breckenridge, who was a local Philadelphia and PAFA-trained artist." Breckenridge, who has been described as 'the jewel of Philadelphia's art circle and an influence to thousands of his students', produced this richly-coloured oil-on-canvas in 1917.

A Fête Day in Zurich: Early Morning, 1845 (JMW Turner) © 2011 Kunsthaus Zürich

A Fête Day in Zurich: Early Morning, 1845 (JMW Turner) © 2011 Kunsthaus Zürich

Like a lot of people, when I think of Joseph Mallord William Turner it's all tempestuous seas and raging elements - not so much subtleties of light and colour in central Europe. But he made several trips to the Continent and his 1845 pencil-and-watercolour of the city of Zurich is a favourite of Bernhard von Waldkirch, Curator of Prints & Drawings at the Kunsthaus Zurich, the Swiss city's foremost gallery.

It's called A Fête Day in Zurich: Early Morning, and Bernhard said: "When Turner travelled up the Rhine to Switzerland in the summer months of 1841 and 1842 and visited Zurich, his fame in the English art world was based chiefly on his book illustrations and topographical studies. The Fête Day is the second of the two Zurich panoramas that he produced in the 1840s from on-the-spot sketches, both depicting the local populace in the foreground drawn as if by magic to the lake and light. It was painted for the English collector WG Windus and has been in the possession of the Kunsthaus since 1976."

The balcony 2 / Sydney by night, 1975 (B Whiteley) © Wendy Whiteley

The balcony 2 / Sydney by night, 1975 (B Whiteley) © Wendy Whiteley

For Edmund Capon, retiring Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, it's all about the colours in the late Brett Whiteley's 1975 oil painting of Sydney entitled The balcony 2. Whiteley, who died in 1992, painted the view from his house at Lavender Bay on Sydney Harbour's north shore. He once said: "Windsor & Newton Deep Ultramarine oil colour has an obsessive, ecstasy-like effect upon my nervous system quite unlike any other colour." Capon, himself hailed as the most successful gallery director in Australia, loves the painting's "sensuality of colour...evoking the sumptuousness of the harbour's liquid presence."

The Melbourne Panels, 2003 (J Cattapan) commissioned through the NGV Foundation by The Hugh DT Williamson Foundation

The Melbourne Panels, 2003 (J Cattapan) commissioned through the NGV Foundation by The Hugh DT Williamson Foundation

Southwest to Melbourne where David Hurlston, Acting Senior Curator of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Victoria, chose a 2003 oil-on-canvas triptych by Jon Cattapan called The Melbourne Panels. "For anyone who has flown into Melbourne at night this painting captures the ethereal nature of that experience," said David.

"Recognisable landmarks appear suspended within a glittering network of brushstrokes that light the nocturnal sky. Data-like markings, light trails and melting traffic lead the viewer around the painting. This, however, is not an accurate or actual view of our metropolis - it is more a 'panoptic' view, a psychological mapping of an urban environment."

Birdseye View of Port Nicholson, 1839 (Charles Heaphy) Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

Birdseye View of Port Nicholson, 1839 (Charles Heaphy) Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

Across the Tasman Sea now to New Zealand where Paul Thompson, Experience Manager at the Museum of Wellington City and Sea, picked a chromolithograph by the Victorian artist-surveyor Charles Heaphy called Birdseye View of Port Nicholson (the original name for Wellington Harbour). "What seems amazing to me is the imagination involved to create such a remarkably accurate topographical image when in 1839 there was no way to obtain an elevated view on such a vast scale," said Paul.

"It's even more remarkable that this was done before the region was properly surveyed and charted. It's a picture made for propaganda purposes and displays a rugged Arcadia ripe for 'development' - so it's imaginary and real at the same time." London-born Heaphy, incidentally, became New Zealand's first holder of the Victoria Cross, for tending a wounded soldier under intense fire during military action against the Maori.

View of Houston, c1846 (J Kick) from The Bayou Bend Collection, gift of Meredith J Long

View of Houston, c1846 (J Kick) from The Bayou Bend Collection, gift of Meredith J Long

There's a similar story behind the image of Houston, Texas, selected by Emily Ballew Neff, Curator of American Painting & Sculpture at the city's Museum of Fine Arts. "It's a small watercolour showing Houston as a European mountain village around 1846, and I call it 'fodder for fun'," said Emily.

"Houston as a city was only about ten years old at the time and the state of Texas had just been annexed to the US. Not only is the image geologically impossible, it is also architecturally impossible and was made by an artist who never visited Houston or felt free to romanticise its appearance to lure settlers to the region. The city was founded by speculators who never came here and simply found a spot on the map that seemed probable. So Houston was basically born on paper."

Madrid, 1981 (Jesus Rafael Soto) courtesy Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Madrid, 1981 (Jesus Rafael Soto) courtesy Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Finally Madrid, and I would've been a bit disappointed if the Spanish choice hadn't been unconventional. Paula Ramírez Jimeno, General Coordinator of Collections at the city's Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, obliged with a serigraph or silkscreen print by the Venezuelan artist Jesus Rafael Soto (1923-2005), simply entitled Madrid. Paula said: "It was a hard choice to make since our collection has many works with Madrid as its main subject that could each be a favourite: heartbreaking paintings by Goya; famous views by Antonio Lopez; war images by Robert Capa; sculptures by Juan Munoz.

"But after scrutinising them all I went for this abstract piece by Soto from 1981, which is actually on loan to our Ministry of Culture. Soto was interested in kinetic and optical effects and here he uses them to reflect the dynamic, bubbling spirit of Madrid with its contrasts between the grey shadows of everyday life and high tones of the city's more extravagant side."


'Who doesn't love a good John Atkinson Grimshaw? Those evocative paintings of Liverpool's dark, rain-drizzled docklands in the second half of the 19th century bathed in silvery moonlight and the golden glow of gas lamps, are now owned by galleries as far afield as Tate Britain in London and the Philadelphia Museum of Art - and they're in both fashion and demand'


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