The Lockdown through Painting

Covid-19 has created a very strange world, the kind that we will look back on with the younger generation and say, “ah, 2020, I remember it well…”

Many of us are stuck at home, most of us have either no work or are feeling completely overwhelmed, physical and mental health has become especially important as we learn to live with lockdown, and a lot of the places we enjoy going to – restaurants, cinemas, galleries, and museums – are closed for the foreseeable future.

I love a good trip to an art gallery. History of art is one of my favourite ways to look at the past, but as I was searching for inspiration for my next blog post, I thought it might also be a novel way to look at the present.
Thus I present to you my Art of Lockdown! Each painting has been chosen because it reminded me somehow of our very odd situation at the moment, and they are all in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts on London’s Piccadilly.

The Royal Academy has trained artists, exhibited artists, and been run by artists for over 250 years. They were founded in 1768 and have had a home on Piccadilly since 1867. Apparently they managed to wrangle an annual rent of £1 for 999 years!!
Since 1769, they’ve hosted the annual Summer Exhibition: the largest open-submission art exhibition in the world. Amazingly it has actually taken place every year, including during both World Wars. Never fear, you can calm your anxious heart, the “Summer” Exhibition will still take place this year, but it will be in the autumn instead.

Wonderfully, once they’ve reopened, a large part of the collection at the Royal Academy is also free of charge! Below is just a taster.

© Royal Academy of Arts

Week 1 of lockdown
When you’re super-productive, going to learn one million (and one) new skills, and raring to go with all this downtime you have now.
Home-schooling is gonna be a doddle (it’s a learning opportunity for everyone!), you’ve always wanted the time to become Leonardo da Vinci, and there’s a backlog of old emails to sort and delete (yeah, let’s face it, you probably won’t get round to that one).
Cut to Week 34 –>

Design, 1778-80
Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807)

Angelica Kauffman was a notable and accomplished artist in a time when women weren’t normally associated with the profession. She was also one of two female founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768 (the other was Mary Moser).

Being a woman also limited her artistic training. She was allowed to begin as all other artists, drawing casts of classical and Renaissance masterpieces, but she was not allowed to move on to the next stage, drawing from nude life models, as this was considered unseemly for those of the fairer sex. This is interesting when we consider that in relation to the painting here. While the image of a woman drawing, in itself, wasn’t unusual, because women were often used in art to represent allegorical themes, if we look at the artwork in the context of the artist also being a woman, then the scene becomes more significant. A female artist in working clothes, and a female artist engaged in the uncommon practice of drawing a male body (even if it’s just an inanimate, antique section of a man). It’s also interesting to consider that in traditional iconography, Design (or in Italian, Disegno) was normally represented by a young man.

Design is one of four paintings, representing the “Elements of Art” commissioned for the Royal Academy’s Council Room in Somerset House. The other three were Invention, Composition, and Colour.

© Royal Academy of Arts

Week 34 of lockdown
You’ve been living on your own or with the exact same people for more days than you can count. You miss your friends and the world beyond your street corner. After becoming a pro-artist, fluent in Spanish, Mandarin, and Klingon, and a piano aficionado to top it all off, you realise you have nothing else to do but hug yourself, rock gently back and forth, and hope that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t just a hyper-realistic mural you’ve painted on the wall.

The Demoniac, c.1811
George Dawe (1781 – 1829)

George Dawe was predominantly a portraitist. He made his name as an artist painting classical and biblical scenes, as we see here, but swapped to portraiture for more money and status. The most notable commission of his lifetime was from Tsar Alexander I: a collection of 329 portraits of Russian generals who’d fought against Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812.

He was born in London and baptised at St. James’ Church on Piccadilly in 1781, not far from where the Royal Academy of Arts would eventually end up in Burlington House from 1868.

There’s very little information about The Demoniac itself.
Presumably the painting is based on the New Testament story of the ‘Exorcism of the Gerasene Demoniac’, an exorcism performed by Jesus as recounted in the Gospels. In the story, the possessed man is found in a cave and, in Luke’s version of the story, was naked, as in the painting. He was apparently so strong that whenever people attempted to bind him, he would break free of his chains, and if you look to the bottom right of the painting it looks like Dawe has included broken manacles. There is also a bone and what look’s like an animal skull. Now, I’m no biologist, but after a cursory internet search, this may be a pig’s skull and a reference to the end of the story when Jesus transfers the demon into a herd of pigs, thus saving the man (although you’ve gotta feel for those unsuspecting pigs).

Detail © Royal Academy of Arts

In his obituary from 1829 in The Gentleman’s Magazine, it says this painting was on display in the Council Room of the Royal Academy, which means that Kauffman’s Design and The Demoniac would have been located in the same room at this time – a lovely little detail which I didn’t realise when I first put these paintings together!

***

© Royal Academy of Arts

When you have nothing better to do than spy on your neighbours.
How many times have they been out today? Ooh, what’s in the delivery? Is that a visitor??
You’re not that person, you don’t want to dob in your neighbour, but at the end of the day, it’s a relief to have something new to talk about at dinner.

Cheeky Little Astronomer, 2013
Yinka Shonibare (b.1962)

Cheeky Little Astronomer was originally commissioned for Flamsteed House, part of the Royal Observatory Greenwich, which makes sense considering the work’s name as well as the presence of the telescope and the celestial globe head.
So it’s clear it’s about astronomy, but there are other layers to it too. The pose and the “Cheeky Little” energy of the name lends itself more to youth and the childlike excitement of exploring the universe and the starts. The original location of the piece in Flamsteed House was the Astronomer Royal’s personal apartments, the sphere of the family and daily life, which would have taken place alongside this complex astronomical equipment.

The Royal Observatory was also tightly tied in with global exploration: British maritime trade, Greenwich Mean Time, and the development of marine chronometers (which helped determine longitude at sea and therefore facilitated easier maritime travel) all have a home in Greenwich. Europe’s global expansion also inevitably links with colonialism and empire, a major theme in Shonibare’s work.
The globe head reflects this sense of a world wide view. It’s an image which appears consistently in his work: Shonibare uses globes for his figures because it suggests cultural exchange but also, it removes any indication of race. Despite underlying themes of colonialism and imperialism, Shonibare wants his art to unite and to be relatable to all.

Yinka Shonibare is one of my favourite artists. I loved his Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, produced for the Trafalgar Square fourth plinth in 2009 (which is now on permanent display round the back of the National Maritime Museum), but I first became more aware of his name after seeing Trumpet Boy (2010) in the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury. I instantly made the connection between the two and it encouraged me to find out more.

Shonibare was born in London but moved to Nigeria, aged 3, where he lived until he was 17 when returned to London to study Fine Art.

Through his work, Shonibare seeks to infiltrate and subvert the mainstream Western and, predominantly white, narrative of art history, to make art more accessible to people of different backgrounds and to demonstrate how much of the art and symbolism we’re familiar with nowadays is a result of elitism and empire.

‘My work deconstructs the grand narratives rooted in the history of power and empire. I aim to look at those traditional icons and dismantle that power.’

Yinka Shonibare, Art UK, 2019

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© Royal Academy of Arts

Reminiscing about rush hour.
Armpits in your face, people standing on the left side of the escalator, severe delays on the Central Line – surely travelling at peak times couldn’t have been that bad?
Nowadays, getting your face smushed against a Tube window by the rucksack of a complete stranger sounds like a dream.

Station Approach, 1962
L.S. Lowry (1887 – 1976)

Set in front of Manchester’s Exchange Station (demolished 1969), Lowry’s characteristic stick figures (often referred to as “matchstick men”) stream in an inexorable flow into the station. The stick silhouettes, from our raised vantage point, make the people seem like ants, energetic, but more of a mindless mass working for the good of the colony (not to get too communist), than individual people.

This is one of two versions of the painting, the other (1960) sold for £2.3 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2014. He actually painted the version featured here to commemorate being made a Royal Academician (reserved for the top artists) at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1962, aged 75.

Lowry knew Manchester well. He was born there in 1887 and lived and worked in and around Manchester for most of his life. Throughout his artistic career, Lowry focused on industrial scenes, urban life, and the the reality, the hustle and bustle, of the everyday.

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© Royal Academy of Arts
Detail © Royal Academy of Arts

When you feel like you must be the only one listening to the government advice.
You’ve seen the busy pictures of the Tube at rush hour and you’re pretty sure you spied your friend meeting up with two other people on Instagram the other day. It can sometimes feel like you’re single-handedly trying to save the world, I know.
You aren’t on your own though, there are lots of other people listening to instructions – you just can’t see them because, you know, they’re all indoors too…
(Let’s just forget about the people protesting lockdown in Hyde Park… I mean, it’s hard to escape the logic of a “fake pandemic” caused by 5G, but, despite that, I’m gonna wait it out inside until the government’s ready to chip, inject, and brainwash me.)

The Way to the Temple, 1882
Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912)

In actual fact, this painting depicts a priestess selling statuettes with a joyous celebration taking place in the background: we can just about spy the procession outside, celebrating Dionysus, Greek god of wine. The priestess seems to be sitting just behind a goat skin, an animal commonly associated with Dionysus. The revellers are wearing wreaths of vine leaves, as is the priestess in the foreground, and the young man brandishing the spear aloft even has what looks like a bunch of grapes tied at his waist. You can almost imagine the sound of their tambourines as they skip down the corridor.

Alma-Tadema was one of the wealthiest and most popular artists of the nineteenth century. He was a perfectionist and a skilled businessman and apparently a considerable fan of practical jokes and mischief. He was celebrated for his depiction of textures and materials, particularly marble.

He mostly painted everyday scenes from Greek and Roman life and conducted meticulous research into ancient life so that he could portray them faithfully: visiting excavations in Pompeii, collecting a huge number of photos of classical sites from across Italy, and studying artefacts in the British Museum. He was Dutch-born but moved to London in 1870, where he met and befriended most of the major Pre-Raphaelite artists who, in turn, influenced his work and brightened his palette. The Pre-Raphaelite style dominated the nineteenth century and looked to the art of about 400 years earlier (literally pre-Raphael): clear and detailed scenes, emphasising realism, often quite brightly coloured with objects almost outlined so that they stood out.

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© Royal Academy of Arts
Detail © Royal Academy of Arts
Detail © Royal Academy of Arts

Meeting up, but, you know, not meeting up – you just happened to be fixing the roof of your best friend.
One of you’s inside, the other’s outside, you’re 2m apart, and last I checked thatching is difficult to do from home, so technically you’re not breaking any rules.

Cottagers, 1814
William Redmore Bigg (1755 – 1828)

Bigg was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy, and showed his work there annually for 47 years (1780 – 1827), right up to the year before his death. He made a name for himself painting conversation pieces (informal middle and upper class group portraits) and genre paintings (scenes of everyday life, normally featuring labourers and peasants).

Quite patronisingly, this painting was particularly popular because wealthier patrons enjoyed a romanticised view of peasant life. For many centuries there was a strong stigma against the idea of the “idle poor” – that there were many people who were poor just because they were lazy and who therefore didn’t deserve the help and charity of those who’d worked hard for their money. Here, however, these peasants are pleasingly hard-working and industrious. We can see the evidence of their hard work: the woman is darning or embroidering an item of clothing, they take pride in their home (the man has the time to attach roses to the outside of the house), there are the collected eggs and cabbages just underneath him, and the pots to the left are spotless. They are the “virtuous poor”.

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I hope this has given you a sense of the breadth of art at the Royal Academy.

Do you have a piece of art which you feels sums up your lockdown experience?? If you don’t, maybe you could find one. Most art galleries have excellent online collections.
I’d love to hear.

All of the images come from the Royal Academy website, and the only editing I have done is to crop and enlarge some details for the sake of clarity.


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