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May 2014 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

Celebrity photographer David Bailey is famed for the 1960s personalities he immortalised in black-and-white. The faces of stars like Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and - my own youthful idol! - the waif-like Jean Shrimpton with her huge, porous eyes, flow from his white backgrounds as though his lens can’t contain them.
In its new exhibition, Bailey’s Stardust, the National Portrait Gallery brings over 300 portraits, from the 1960s-70s, right up to the 21st century and, while his favoured black-and-white images are still the most effective, Bailey literally flowers into colour with his portraits of Zandra Rhodes in red glitter with a pink pageboy hairdo or a bejewelled Molly Parkin, age-defying and yet vulnerable in style and make-up.
Bold or subtle, Bailey pares down his subjects to their very essence. One room is devoted to striking fashion icons and another to his 1974 trip to Papua New Guinea, featuring huge portraits of tribesmen in feathers of the Kukuku bird. Bailey is immersed in all human life. The show continues until 1 June and is worth a visit.
The 16th-century development of chiaroscuro woodcut techniques brought Renaissance masters like Parmigianino, Raphael and Titian to wider audiences, much as photography has done in our time. The revolutionary principles used by artists to produce well-known biblical scenes essentially brought colour printing to clients using light and shadow, or chiaroscuro, to accentuate linear movement, volume, colour and depth. Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro Woodcuts from the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna, at the Royal Academy until 8 June this year, features over 150 rare prints of famous paintings, supplementing the black-line block with one or several tone blocks to produce varying grades of colour to generate light and depth. The revolutionary technique was a two-way collaboration between the artist, who drew the design, and the craftsman, who carved it in relief on the woodblock, using soft woods like cherry wood.

The technique was pioneered in Germany, where the artist Lucas Cranach went so far as to backdate two of his works to prove he had invented it. Several printmakers competed in their claims of authorship. Other German artists, like Hans Baldung Grien and Hans Wechtlin from Albrecht Dürer’s circle, developed the woodcut soon taken up by the Italians and the Dutch.
Within a few years of its invention, Ugo da Carpi made his own claim to the medium, portraying works after Raphael. But the Italian differed by cutting his own woodblocks and avoiding the black-key block, to produce a more painterly effect. The expressive quality of the wood enhanced the texture of the woodcut, while the chiaroscuro effect suggested light and shade.
Antonio da Trento and Niccolo Vicentino, Domenico Beccafumi and Andrea Andreani. experimented further. Typically of their times, the more violent themes prove the most expressive. Andreani’s Rape of a Sabine Woman, after Giambologna, is among the most beautiful in composition. The leading Dutch exponent Hendrick Goltzius’s woodcut Hercules Killing Cacus is another example of the colour and depth the medium can produce.

Gloria Tessler

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