London has an incredible collection of art galleries.
We’ve had the National Gallery since 1824 and, long before that, an annual Summer Exhibition since 1769, but more recently, street art has been moving our galleries outdoors.
I love street art, and I’ve started to love it even more since training as a Blue Badge guide. I’ve learnt so much more about the thought and skill that goes into each piece and it’s exciting when you start to recognise the styles of individual artists. A lot of the time there doesn’t seem to be much between art on the street and a painting in a gallery (except four walls) (– although actually, to get even more meta than that, both need walls, it’s just that one group paints them on the outside and the other paints them on the inside).
But despite this, street art seems to struggle to lose the stigma that it’s just graffiti. I wouldn’t presume to say that street artists want to be the same as Van Gogh or Da Vinci – they often have very different motivations – but I do think they deserve to be considered on the same level, and today I want to show that not as much separates them as we think.
If we take a look at artist George Stubbs (1724 – 1806) and his ultra-realistic horses. You may know him as the artist who painted this magnificent beast in the National Gallery:
Stubbs was born in Liverpool and expressed a combined love of painting and anatomy from a young age. Incredibly, he was an almost completely self-taught artist. He spent a lot of time drawing and studying at home and for a time was employed in the studio of a local artist. He wasn’t, however, satisfied there and in 1745 went to York Hospital to study (human) anatomy, where he performed dissections and made detailed drawings of his observations. He kept up his interest in equine anatomy and drawing as well, and at some point made the decision to focus on becoming a painter of horses. Before Stubbs, horses in art were more of an impression of what they should be. They were normally just the supporting characters in a work of art, so it wasn’t as important to capture their absolute likeness. Like the horses in this fifteenth-century piece by Uccello, for example:
They’re all pretty generic and there’s something not quite right about their proportions, but at the end of the day, you can still appreciate that you’re looking at some horses and not an armadillo.
By the mid-1700s, however, horse breeding and racing were all the rage and animal husbandry was becoming increasingly popular as a way to produce the ultimate steed. Patrons, therefore, started to care a lot more that the horses in their paintings were the real deal, identifiable as the offspring of Fastest Ever and Made of Money (they’ve all got funny names…). He published Anatomy of a Horse in 1766 after spending an impressive eighteen months dissecting horses and collecting specimens in a farmhouse in a remote Lincolnshire village.
Although when you put it like that it does sound a bit serial-killer-y… but the point is that his dedication to capturing the horse from its skin down to its skeleton, from different angles and in different positions, paid off, and the book was used by vets as well as artists for decades afterwards. He even had requests to branch out to other animals.
The anatomical precision that Stubbs put into his work was unparalleled, but have you ever considered that street art should be considered in the same category?
Belgian-born artist, ROA, has put a similar amount of detail into his art (although I don’t know which old farmhouse near Ghent he used for his requisite eighteen months of animal dissection…
I’m kidding, by the way. I don’t think ROA was hiding away in a barn slicing up bunnies for a year and a half).
I really love his work. It’s some of my favourite London street art and I’ve spotted his stuff in Berlin too. You can find him all over Europe, as well as the US and Australia. They’re very distinctive: often black and white and on a massive scale, so the level of detail is even more impressive. Due to their size, each piece apparently takes about four to eight hours to complete and so ROA often has the permission of the buildings owners before he starts. It’d be difficult to secretly churn out an eight hour painting without anyone noticing.
ROA has that same anatomical precision as Stubbs – he sometimes even shows us what’s underneath the surface and incorporates the skeletons, muscular structure and internal organs into his finished pieces. It’s similar to how you can imagine the muscles just under the skin of Stubbs’ horses – you can see the strain and understand the interplay of the muscles just by the shape of the skin.
ROA often incorporates a moral message into his work as well: about our treatment of animals, the meat industry and the impact of our rapid urban expansion. He often relates the animals he paints to the environment: sometimes in relation to the actual building he’s painting on, but normally just a reference to the native animals you would find in that particular city landscape. ROA is drawn to urban environments, mostly abandoned or with an industrial past, and often focusses on places that are beginning to be reclaimed by nature. He details “animal species in their lost habitats all over the world”, often the smallest, forgotten, creatures who are here made massive by his art, just like the rats I found in Berlin (featured higher up).
The animals who manage to survive despite everything thrown at them by us. He uses the apparent juxtaposition between nature and city life to highlight that they actually overlap much more than we think. It’s that emotional connection to animals and urban wildlife that ROA wants to encourage.
Similarly, one of the reasons Stubbs was so popular was because he loved the animals that he painted and tried to capture their individual personalities. An extreme example is Horse Frightened by a Lion in Tate Britain (exhibited 1763). Stubbs painted eighteen versions of this story in various media, covering the entire narrative from ‘horse smells lion’ to [spoiler alert] ‘lion enjoys juicy horse dinner’ (I may have titled them myself).
This is full-on Romanticism here: the intense emotion and energy that emerged in Western Art from the end of the eighteenth century, in retaliation to the cool logic and reason of Neo-Classicism (another one of those waves of classical-style art and architecture). But beyond simply putting Stubbs in a Romanticist box and attributing his composition to just the style of the day, I think there’s more to it than that. Studying something that intensely for so long, you’re bound to become attached and more attuned to the nuances of different animals, and Stubbs’ paintings go some way to capturing the physical, and importantly, emotional responses that animals have to their environment. His pieces make you stop and think about what the animal may have been experiencing; they’re not just a prop in the background, a similar reaction I sometimes have when I see ROA’s work as well. Stubbs didn’t just stop at horses either. Some of the other pieces have the same effect, like the adorable Leopards at Play (1780, also owned by the Tate but not on display) and A Rough Dog (1790, Royal Collection), who is lying in the sun and seemingly exhausted after a long day’s work. I showed A Rough Dog to my friend and her gut reaction was a heart-melting ‘aw’, and an immediate assessment that he looked just like an old man in dog form. We’ve now named him Arthur and given him a whole life story. Case in point.
Doesn’t he look like such a good boy??
And the piece next to it by ROA, Pig/Pork, also triggers an emotional response by exploring the strange relationship we have sometimes with meat. The animal is the same whether or not we change the name, but suddenly when a pig becomes pork, it goes from animal to meat. Is that our way of disassociating from what’s going on or “dehumanising” the animal in question? It’s an interesting discussion.
Funnily enough, I know I’m talking about ROA in the context of street art, but you may have noticed that several of the examples I’m using are actually gallery pieces (from the amazing Pure Evil Gallery in Shoreditch) rather than pieces of street art. This is for a couple of reasons:
1) It shows that street artists are hugely versatile and can’t just be tucked away in one neatly packaged and tied up ‘street art box’. And it just shows that simply labelling street art as ‘graffiti’ isn’t quite the black and white distinction it may at first appear to be.
And 2) For much more practical reasons, a lot of the pieces I wanted to feature from the streets have since been removed or painted over so I had to seek inspiration elsewhere!
But back to the discussion at hand, I hope I’ve shown that there’s really not that much between the skill of ROA and Stubbs. Their styles and motivations are, of course, very different – we can’t forget that there are about 250 years separating them. Stubbs had no desire to paint on exterior walls – I have no experience with oil paints but I’d imagine that would be pretty challenging. And, in his own words, ROA enjoys street art as “one of the most free art expressions of the world”. Not to put words in his mouth, but I can’t imagine he’d be particularly happy on permanent display in Room 34 of the National Gallery. Obviously there are galleries that can provide a welcoming home for street art, such as Stolen Space and Pure Evil Gallery in East London which I’ve already mentioned, but at the same time, his work is so much about the environment it’s painted in that it feels like something is missing without that urban / industrial influence.
Just like ROA’s depiction of wildlife against their urban habitat, I compare the two artists, not because they’re the same, but because if you look beyond the seemingly juxtaposed nature of them both, they overlap more than we give them credit for. It’s telling though that one of these artists is hoarded in the collections of the National Gallery, the Tate, and the Royal Collection (not even mentioning international collections), and the other almost had his work painted over by the council in 2009 for illegally painting a rabbit (I’ll let you work out for yourselves which one’s which).