London Art Week: Ways of Seeing

Written by Sara Pridgeon | 16 August 2022

One of the trainee solicitors of our sponsor Charles Russell Speechlys LLP's, Sara Pridgeon, wrote a great review of our online events and we thought we should share that with you.

London Art Week: Ways of Seeing

One of the more welcome legacies of the pandemic has been the continued prevalence of online events - physical location is no longer such a barrier to coming together and London Art Week was no exception. Though replete with in-person options from gallery tours to performances by members of the Philharmonia Orchestra, the series of virtual talks programmed by the London Art Week team were a fascinating chance to learn from leading dealers, curators, and researchers as they shared new ways of seeing even the most familiar of subjects. We discuss two of these talks below and though London Art Week has now ended, there is much to still enjoy both on its website and in the galleries with which it has partnered.

Photo by Cesare di Giglio

Reinvigorating the great Old Master Drawings tradition - Colnaghi Elliott Master Drawings

The art business may trade on aesthetics, but it is, at the end of the day, still a business - which is why it was so refreshing to hear Jorge Coll of Colnaghi and Will Elliott of Elliott Fine Art discuss Works on Paper: 1800 - 1950, an exhibition from their new venture, Colnaghi Elliott Master Drawings, which runs until 23 September 2022 at Colnaghi London.

While Will's decision to focus on 19th century drawings and other works on paper may have been a smart commercial decision, his passion for the subject matter was evident. Jorge and Will invited us to see beyond the idea of drawings as preparatory works - as emotive as these may be - but as full pieces in and of themselves, capable of all the same dynamism and technical accomplishment of other mediums. The works from the exhibition that Jorge and Will presented certainly fit this bill. António Manuel da Fonseca's unusual academic study was dynamism personified, man and sculpture intertwined, while Magda Nachman's Portrait of a Man in a Turban was so striking it was easy to see why Will had purchased it at auction knowing nothing about the artist or the sitter. The piece's artistic merits were hardly lacking, but Nachman's story - and the story behind the work - provided nuance that made it even more appealing. This proved illustrative of Will and Jorge's comments on their strategies for purchasing works as dealers and as collectors: find images that you love and invest in their stories.

Magda Nachman (St Petersburg 1889 - Bombay 1951), Portrait of a man in a turban, 1936, Pastel and watercolour on paper, 475 x 39 mm. (18 3/4 x 1 1/2 in.). Courtesy of Colnaghi Elliott Master Drawings

As the pair noted, this ability to reanimate works through the stories we tell around them is a particular strength of this period of art. For objects from the late 19th century forward we have the documentary evidence to contextualise pieces - and the artist at work - in a way that we don't for earlier periods, such as the Old Masters for which Colnaghi is so famed. Catalogues can be accompanied with photos of artists in their studios and quotes from newspapers, a wealth of information deployed to bring pieces even more fully to life. At the root of this, however, must be the works themselves - and those in Works on Paper: 1800 - 1950 do not disappoint.

Will Elliott and Jorge Coll of Colnaghi Elliott Master Drawings, 2022. Image courtesy of Colnaghi

In Conversation with Elyse Nelson: Carpeaux's Why Born Enslaved! Reconsidered, the Met

The Met's exhibition Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast - which runs until March 2023 for those of you headed across the Atlantic - was the focus of this talk with exhibition co-curator Elyse Nelson and London Art Week's Emanuela Tarizzo. Over the course of an hour, Elyse asked us to consider what she called the riddle of Carpeaux's Pourquoi naître esclave? - rendered as Why Born Enslaved! by the Met, a work of translation that prompts questions in and of itself - and, in doing so, invited us not only to consider the work itself but the place of black figures in Western art and the erasure of the real in the search for naturalism more generally. The Western imagination, as we heard, has struggled to represent black personhood without linking it to slavery and Carpeaux is a prime example, revisiting the enslaved figure twenty years after French abolition.

Many of the pieces discussed were highly naturalistic and were clearly made after an individual - some believe that various works may have even shared the same sitter. Elyse observed that the more natural something looks the more we, as viewers, want to believe that it is real - but naturalism is, of course, still a style, trading on our desire to see truth through art. And while these works may have been made from life, there is an important question to be asked as to how the individual sitting for them is represented - and whether this is how they would want to be seen. For abolitionist works of the period, this question is particularly important because, in France, at least, the sitters would have been free. This was the case for Carpeaux's sitter - but through Why Born Enslaved! she is enslaved, her likeness used to make a symbol that was itself also for sale. That commercialism was, of course, part of the point of the work - Carpeaux was able to borrow conceptually from his larger pieces and make objects that were highly reproducible and highly reproduced, both in his lifetime and after. As Elyse noted, this commercial impulse - to buy and sell an enslaved woman in the post-emancipation period - is crucial to grapple with, especially in the context of a work that is so prolific that it was even used by Beyoncé in an ad for her Ivy Park collection.

We didn't find answers, but the Met's exhibition doesn't claim to provide them. Instead, Elyse illustrated the importance of starting to ask the right questions, of interrogating the stories we tell ourselves about our artistic traditions and replace them with new ways of seeing - whether those are our own, or those deployed in contemporary mediations on the subject such as those of Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley, both included in the show. While these new stories may not capture reality any better than does naturalism, our awareness of the fiction - and the erasure - inherent in these pieces' creation and in their legacies is important in and of itself.

For those unable to attend the Met show in person, London Art Week has recorded the talk. And while Works on Paper: 1800 - 1950 is on display at Colnaghi London until the autumn (or online via its Online Viewing Room), Will and Jorge's comments serve to shed further light on an already full programme. Both discussions are available on London Art Week's YouTube page - along with many others - and are well worth the time.

Why Born Enslaved! by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux modeled 1868, carved 1873 Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, Wrightsman Fellows, and Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation Gifts, 2019. Paul Lachenauer Photography. Courtesy of the Met

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