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Two 'Big' London shows

High profile exhibitions at the big London galleries have become so popular in recent years as to be almost victims of their own success. Tate Britain's latest offering 'Turner, Whistler, Monet' is currently packing them in on Millbank, but it's worth braving the crowds if you are interested in the work of any of these towering figures in 19th Century Landscape painting.

Art historians have spent a lot of time over the years debating the influence Turner may or may not have had on the Impressionists (English critics tending to take a different view from French ones!). Much of Turner' s work is loosely painted and attempts, like Monet's, to capture transient effects of light and weather, but he is not a proto-Impressionist, as the exhibition shows. Monet saw Turner's work, at a time when it was not as highly regarded as it is today, when he stayed in London, fleeing the siege of Paris in 1870. Whistler was living near the Thames at Chelsea at this time and already knew Monet and his circle, being equally at home in the art worlds of Paris and London. All three painted the river, drawn to the effects of sunlight through the mist and fog, which made the buildings on its banks look ghostly and insubstantial. The exhibition reminds us that these picturesque effects were the result of chronic pollution in the world' s most crowded city.

When the old Houses of Parliament burnt down in 1834, Turner seized the opportunity to capture the effects of smoke and fire reflected in the water. The series of rapid watercolour studies he made on the spot and one of the resulting oils are on display. Like Turner, Whistler loved to observe London and sketch from a boat on the river. (Whistler's favourite boatman was actually the son of Turner's.) On display are some of the night-time Thames scenes which Whistler called Nocturnes very simple, pared-down compositions the arch of a bridge, a solitary barge, a few reflected lights. This is not Impressionism either; there are no dabs of intense colour; Whistler's Nocturnes are tonal paintings, an almost abstract arrangement of lighter and darker blues or greens.

Get close up to the canvasses that Monet painted of the Thames when he returned to London in the winters of 1899 and 1900, 'to paint the fog.' There are short strokes of thick paint vibrant colours, which from a distance blend together to give that shimmering effect that captures the play of light on the river.

All these artists visited Venice, and loved it for the same reason they loved London light and atmosphere. The exhibition also shows their very different response to the city.

'Turner, Whistler, Monet' runs until 15th May at Tate Britain, open daily 10am-5.40pm. See for further details.

Not as crowded as the Tate show, but equally worth seeing is 'International Arts and Crafts' at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Like the Art Nouveau and Art Deco exhibitions at the V&A, this one groups together work in different areas of design from the same country; starting with Britain, where Arts & Crafts began, then America, Austria, Scandinavia, Germany and Japan. By no means all the work on show is from the V&A collection, and there are some real gems.

Many of the exhibits are displayed as mocked-up room settings which is much more effective than showing furniture, carpets, light-fittings, ceramics and silverware separately. Several audio-visual displays show how these interiors were intended to integrate with the buildings that housed them. The exhibition brings home the importance of the Arts and Crafts movement in the USA the similarities and the differences between the American and British versions. American designers looked to their own heritage, the Shaker style and the native American design, and were less opposed to industrial methods of manufacture. It is particularly interesting to see a lot of early work by Frank Lloyd Wright in this regard.

That Japan had an Arts and Crafts movement was news to me. It came later in the 1920s, partly as a result of the English potter Bernard Leach living and working in Japan.

The irony of the Arts and Crafts movement is that it began as a reaction against the ills of industrial mass-production and out of a desire to restore the virtues of craftsmanship and to make well-designed, beautiful, hand-made goods available for all; but its products could only be afforded by the rich and have become precious museum pieces.

'International Arts and Crafts' runs until 24th July at the V&A, Kensington, open daily 10am-5.45pm (10pm on Wednesdays and the last Friday of the month). See for further details.

Review by Mark Beesley, May 2005.

Images and information for 'Turner, Whistler, Monet' exhibition are available on the Tate web site.

Images and information for 'International Arts and Crafts' exhibition are available on the V&A website.


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