Thursday, 7 January 2016
Ten years of the 12 Star Gallery
Andrew Logan celebrated the anniversary on 8 December 2015 with mirror portraits, watercolours and, yes, an installation of 12 gold stars, cutting the ribbon above with Head of the European Commission in London Jacqueline Minor and Fenella Fielding, just turned 88 at the time, a name which will mean most to my generation who saw her in Carry on Screaming and other camporama. One person you won't see in any of these photos - mostly taken by Jamie Smith for the Commission, I'll mark mine with a 'DN' - is spouse J, founder and doyen of the 12 Star since its inception, as he prefers to be an unseen eminence grise. He's not even mentioned in the splendid book accompanying the anniversary, and when prised from the back of the crowd during the speechifying said not much more than Albert Herring's 'Thank you....very much' (though of course he could have drummed up a splendid speech had he wanted to put himself forward).
Even so, the gallery was his idea and has hosted exhibitions not just from all the European countries but also, occasionally, further afield, one on average every fortnight. Alternate Tuesdays are fixtures for art-lovers, diplomats and others: all the world is here. My personal favourite of recent months - not, I blush to say, that I've seen them all - was Thomas Ganter and his portraits, rich on every level. First exhibitor back in December 2005 was our Sophie Sarin with a collection of smashed plates, a splendid commentary on the olde worlde wooden cabinets of the original space - actually a former entrance hall - in Storey's Gate. My invitation is rather scrumpled now, but it still sits on a home shelf.
Et voilà la reine de Djenne on the right below with the equally creative Lucy Hannah and Spectator Books Editor Clare Asquith.
No evening is complete without a minor event, and Sophie provided one for me in the pub afterwards. But since she remembers nothing about it, I'll quickly draw a veil over that entertainment and pass on to megastar Maggi Hambling, also a friend now along with her gracious partner Tory Lawrence, who exhibited back in Storey's Gate days. Maggi marked the move to Europe House in Smith Square exactly five years before the present show opened. An exact mid-point, in other words, and a link with Andrew Logan for obvious reasons.
A series of her magnificent North Sea paintings was the theme in 2010.
Alas, by the time I arrived at Europe House on 8 December, Maggi and Tory had left, but this photo opportunity was too good a one for Jamie to miss.
Another friendship we owe to the 12 Star is that of top sculptor and painter Deborah van der Beek, who appeared on the scene with her Ned Kellys and Don Quixotes we now love so much. That launched the warmest of relationships with Deborah, her husband Andrew the serpent-player/chorus master and two of their three fine children (only Bertie, gourmet pizza king of Brighton, we haven't met). J's 50th birthday party in their Lacock house and garden was one of the happiest days of our lives. We spent a very floody but delightful Christmas with them and one of their two sons, Henry, a couple of years back, and we know Theodora (T D) quite well too. Here are mother and daughter with very authentic spirto gentil and fighter for good causes Thierry Alexandre (my pic, so not so sharp, and Deborah's eyes are shut, but it'll do).
Here also, social-diary style, are Thierry with David Souden and Ross Alley (also DN),
our dear old friend Edward Mendelson, retired architect and very active artist, in front of Derek Jarman - two who were 'out' long before it became easy to be so -
Cressida Bell, on the left with art historian and editor Caroline Bugler
and Cressida's other half Paul Beecham, a work of vintage art in his own right, sharing a quiff with artist Duggie Fields.
The seasonal adornments in front of giant Maria (DN) will have gone down last (Twelfth) night
and soon to leave the building - in this case the National Gallery, possibly my favourite in the world in terms of contents - will be the astounding assemblage of portraits by Goya. Yes, it's every inch as miraculous as people say. How much you can tell both about the person and the artist's attitude to him or her, though some background knowledge is sometimes necessary. Not least is the man himself, represented here with uncomfortable frankness in Self-portrait with Dr Arrieta.
The inscription at the bottom explains all: 'Goya thankful to his friend Arrieta: for the skill and care with which he saved his life during his short and dangerous illness, endured at the end of 1819, at 73 years of age'. Goya lived on for another nine years, and one of the many wonders of this curation is that the last painting happens to be of Goya's grandson, healthy representation of faith in a future beyond his own life.
It's true to say that every portrait is of compelling, if not always supreme artistic, interest. I especially wanted to show the vital pair Bartolomé Sureda y Miserol, who coached Goya in the art of aquatint, and his wife Thérèse Louse, but they're not online. So let's settle for an aristo, the Marquis of Villefranca and Duke of Alba, holding a score of four songs composed by a 'client', Haydn, and leaning on his violin.
Goya's range of subjects and styles is extraordinary; less so in another exhibition I'd been looking forward to so much, a relatively small one devoted to Jean-Etienne Liotard at the Royal Academy. Yes, his portraits, especially in pastel, have a realistic quality at odds with so much in 18th century painting. But I tired of all those stiff nobs in well-executed silks - a feeling of satiety at the costume-parade I also got with the Moroni exhibition, where I'd have given all the noble portaits up for the final image of a humble tailor. Here, for me, the best was first - the self- and family portraits - the gap-toothed grinner of 1770 from Geneva,
the wife and eldest son in black and red chalk with watercolour washes
and the pastel of daughter Marianne holding a doll.
Among the rest, another child stands out: frail Princess Louisa Anne, short-lived daughter of Augusta and Frederick Lewis, Princess and Prince of Wales, in a dress too big for her. And then the still lives, and the virtuosity in trompe-l'oeil is somewhat. But the whole, perhaps, not quite enough.
I visited the Liotard with Edinburgh friend and artist Ruth while she was here for the 12 Star bash
and on that occasion we didn't have time for Ai Weiwei, but I'm glad I saw that show with J on the penultimate day. A price to pay: rooms absolutely jam-packed, young folk photographing everything so that one always felt in the way. But I'm glad Ai's conceptual art is so easily grasped, as the messages are essential ones about China today, using materials embedded in that country's tradition to make strong political points. Ai is a very great man, and an artist with a sometimes deadly sense of humour; that, and the good use of the huge white RA rooms filled with large-scale constructions, made this well worth seeing. The eight 'dead' trees which meet you as you go through the Royal Academy arch on Piccadilly are joined and bolted pieces of the real things brought down from the mountains of southern China and sold in the markets of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province: perhaps the most impressive so far of the many successful courtyard installations.
Among monumental shows, though, it seemed to me that the Anselm Kiefer exhibition - my absolute favourite at the RA along with the 'Citizens and Kings' portraits - had deeper things to say, at least in purely artistic terms.