LONDON, United Kingdom — When the fall art season gets going in London it doesn't piddle about. This month the British capital, even more than usual, is the center of the art world. From new blockbuster exhibitions, to two big art fairs to the usual trade happening in galleries, it's a pretty picture for people who like to look and think.
It's also a weird picture, a strange picture, a "what on earth was the artist thinking about" picture — more on that later.
The twin pillars of this autumn season are the exhibits "Treasures from Budapest: European Masterpieces from Leonardo to Schiele" at the Royal Academy of Arts and "Gauguin: Maker of Myth" at the Tate Modern. The pair offer two different approaches to blockbuster traveling art shows. The former is like a massive all-you-can-eat buffet of impossibly rich food. The latter is a retrospective of a single artist that is like reading an illuminating biography.
"Gauguin" is simply one of the great exhibitions of the last decade. It completely changes one's view of the painter. Think Paul Gauguin and two things go through your head: naked Tahitian women and Vincent Van Gogh. What this retrospective does is remind you from the get-go that the banker-turned-artist was one of those people who invented the future.
You walk into the exhibition and immediately to the left you see a man's face, a face that could stare at you today from any cafe, from Berlin to a Starbucks in a midwestern university town: narrow wire-rimmed spectacles and a goatee. The look is frank, the shape of the face is not stylized. It is a fairly straightforward, naturalist self-portrait, the first in a series of six. The others show more characteristic modern touches but the first one catches your eye. Gauguin is definitely of our time as well as his own.
There is of course a painting of a Tahitian girl in the room as well, the famous "Manao tupapau, "but only because the painting is glimpsed in the background of another self-portrait.
But what made me gasp were two paintings of Gauguin's young children. He is mythologized as the artist as bastard, in thrall to his vision, selfishly destroying all who come close to him: Vincent Van Gogh, his wife, his various mistresses. Then you see these pictures, painted with such love and tenderness that it upends everything you ever thought about the man. Later when you read how he left them behind and both pre-deceased him you get a sense of the tremendous psychological price he must have paid to follow his muse to the South Seas.
A further series of paintings from his time in Brittany — sparkling skies in summer, lowering, relentless northern European skies in winter — show him discovering colors that Picasso would cannibalize for his own use. The series further cements Gauguin's connection to the modern.
Inevitably there are plenty of Polynesian paintings but as they are pulled together in this great exhibition (heading for Washington's National Gallery next year) they seem much less exotic than as they are usually seen: one or two at a time in a general collection. Looking at them is like looking at the photo insert for an anthropology text book. The setting accentuates the women's sadness, not their sensuality.
On the other side of the Thames from the fortress of Tate Modern is something altogether different. The Royal Academy has imported the greatest hits from Budapest's Museum of Fine Arts. Some of these hits are very great indeed. The Hungarians may have been the junior partners in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but families like the Esterhazy's were cultured and cashed up and collected avidly over the centuries. They even gave their name to one of the highlights of the show, the "Esterhazy Madonna" by Raphael, a serene portrait of the Virgin, infant Jesus and not quite toddling age John the Baptist. The figures exude a sense of contented calm, heedless of the stormy life that they must live out.
Budapest is not that far from London but it doesn't quite have the visitor traffic of Paris or Rome and Florence, so some of the masterpieces are completely new to an art lover's eyes. El Greco's "Mary Magdalene" is startling and not just because the diaphanous shift she is wearing reveals more of her breast than was usually seen in 1580 when it was painted. She is depicted in some icy mountain hermitage, wild-eyed with religious vision or perhaps memory of the corporeal Jesus. The colors are sharp and there is an almost cubist feel to the way the mountains are depicted. The Greek painted in 1580 in a style that would have been considered avant-garde in Gauguin's time.
Sketches of two warriors' heads in Leonardo Da Vinci's "Battle of Anghiari," a painting now lost, are so violently realistic they stand alone as works of art. The fresco must have been overwhelming to the few people who saw it before it was lost.
One other picture, "Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon," painted in 1907 by Hungarian painter Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka, reminds a viewer that in the early part of the 20th century the Austro-Hungarian capitals, Vienna and Budapest, rivaled Paris as Europe's center of culture. Two world wars and 45 years of communism in Hungary broke that connection, but the exhibition still showcases some astonishingly interesting work by Hungarian artists, such as surrealism being done in Budapest the country's leaders dragged it to the wrong side of history.
Beyond the blockbusters, London has a lively gallery scene this season. The most interesting show at the moment is "Life So Far" a series of paintings by Josephine King at the Riflemaker Gallery. King suffers from severe bi-polar disorder and her work deals with its terrors — including her suicide attempts — in a very direct way. Despite the subject matter, the paintings have been selling well.
Then come the art markets. Unemployment in the British capital may be nudging 10 percent (under-employment statistics aren't published) but there is still a bit of money around, especially in London's financial services industry where the banking crisis is long forgotten — by bailed-out bankers anyway. Last week an auction of art at Christie's from defunct merchant bank Lehman raised about 1.6 million pounds ($2.6 million).
This past weekend 70 galleries exhibited work for sale in Art London. According to their promotional literature there is something for every pocket book in the fair from a few hundred pounds "to six figure sums."
This will be followed by the Frieze Art Fair in Regent's Park from Oct. 14 to 17. Hipper and trendier, it is expected to pull in 60,000 visitors.