Bridget Riley and her galloping colours

Viewing the show of Bridget Riley’s latest works at the Sunley Room, the National Gallery, has been a real treat. It seems always apt that her work is shown here, at the gallery where the genuine paintings of old masters like Seurat, Mantegna and Raphael, whom she admired, are exhibited. I have always been quite interested in optic art, the way simple geometry and combination of colours can ripple one’s mind. My favourite piece from the range of works shown in the National Gallery’s exhibition is ‘Arcadia’, last seen at the Paris retrospective exhibition in 2008. The combination as well as the subtle differences in the alignment of green, blue, white, terracotta and pink curves, resemble a feast of colours and lines. The white or the blank spaces in between the chunky curves are especially engaging, as if the spaces were a glimpse of bare flesh underneath a face painted over with cosmetics.

arcadia by bridget riley

The black and white wall-length piece, ‘Composition with Circles’, resembles a million tennis balls dancing about. Some of the circles overlap with each other and some not, which seem to question us as to what we see and what we can make of the painting. What are the circles? Air bubbles? Tennis balls? Car wheels? Her work reminds me of the minimalist style of Agnes Martin, an American painter, whose lines, grids and pastel shades have an almost spiritual quality to them, and reflect an interest in Taoist philosophy (for her inspiration and original approach to art, click the following: an interview with Agnes Martin). In her nineties, she was said not to have read a newspaper for the last 50 years.

Composition with Circles
Composition with Circles

The other painting, ‘Red with Red’, strikes me as the most vivid and passionate, and it makes me smile to think what art can do to people. Celebrating her 80th birthday this year, Riley’s work is full of an unmistakable youthful glow and passion. The entire canvas is painted over with red, blue and terracotta, as if it were saying, ‘look at me, look at me.’

Red with Red
Red with Red

Riley’s highly graphic, playful and distilled works are a delight for the eyes, and fascinating to review how they have assimilated influences of post-impressionist artists like Seurat, known for his jovial dot painting ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande-Jatte’. It teases the viewer’s mind with such potency. I enjoyed them because despite the abstractness of the shapes and forms, there is such clarity in the use of primary colours and patterns, and this unspeakable, very visual sense of clarity even seems to hint at the unnecessary clutter or fuss in language, photography or realist art. If you are interested in her work, check out what she has to say about the physical experience of her art at her BBC Four’s audio interview.

Bridget Riley paintings and related works at the National Gallery, London, from now until 22 May 2011.

Frederick Cayley Robinson: Acts of Mercy

I have chanced upon the Wellcome Trust sponsored exhibition at National Gallery the other day – Frederick Cayley Robinson’s Acts of Mercy and other paintings. While his work seems calm and serene at the outset, one discovers how the subtlety and flat colours combine to express both hope and resignation. This is related to the elusiveness Laura Cumming of The Guardian talks about in her art review of Robinson’s show.

I am rather fascinated with the recurrent motif of the plain blue and white chinaware. I feel that these brightly coloured jugs and bowls play a vital role, putting into the foreground a sense of daily duty and ritual. The bright chinaware seem to evoke the spirit of humanity unaffected by fate.

In several of his paintings, including Pastoral, The Old Nurse and the Acts of Mercy murals, one can see a growing-up girl looking directly at the viewer. The girl’s look is always somewhat elusive, neither smiling nor not smiling. It is not an innocent, placid look.

Pastoral by Frederick Cayley Robinson. Courtesy of

My response to that half-knowing glance is a hint of self-reflection and interiority,the vigilance towards the external society, a curiosity about the onlooking world.

Aside from the stare, his paintings tend to focus on the daily rituals of life with a strong emphasis on precision, diligence and manual labour: the meals, the grazing of the sheep, the sewing and mending of clothes.

The play on light in his works is unforgettable. Such tranquillity and hope conveyed in the ribbon of light that ripples on the purple waters in Pastoral. The warm glow of sunset also stayed on the girl’s hair, so transient and yet comforting.

In Acts of Mercy, the glow of the lamp in the dining hall creates a sense of harmony and at the same time meek resignation — perhaps to elucidate the orphans’ resignation to their allotted fate and the sense of fraternity. In The Old Nurse, one sees the window across the street lit from the inside, hinting at a story, or stories, of other people, other lives within such proximity. In other paintings, there is often the inclusion of a handheld lantern, a small but steady source of light.

More reference, please find out more from the curator Sarah Herring at BBC’s audio slideshow

Simplicity and optimism in the work of Christian Købke

The three-month exhibition at the National Gallery featuring Christian Købke’s paintings has done a great job in raising profile of this lesser-known Danish artist who died young, reviving attention towards Købke’s interpretation of characters and colours in his artwork.

Anchored in the simplicity of folk life and customs, and with an invested faith in realism, Købke’s work draws out the pristine quality of everyday life in his hometown Copenhagen, reflecting attributes of Denmark’s Golden Age.

Købke’s work reflect a people who share affinity and a nationalistic sense of ownership. One finds in his paintings a stronger emphasis on the discipline of lines, shades of light, and the use of wide perspectives. Water reflections are often repeated, an element that succeeds in enlivening the still landscape, such as the brightness and clarity of the lake in ‘Frederiksborg Castle in the Evening Light’.

I am impressed by his fine attention to human figures in his work. The people in the celebrated masterpiece, ‘The View from Dosseringen’, illustrates his adeptness in representing the overlap between people’s personal and public lives, and his ability to juxtapose the boundaries of home and abroad. Two women are seen standing on the pier beside the national flag, waving at a departing boat, possibly saying goodbye to their family kin. By refraining from portraying emotions direct, the painter uses the canvas to conjure the fine balance between geographical distance and emotional closeness.

View from the Dosseringen near the Sortedam Lake

Købke, son of a baker in Copenhagan, produced considerable paintings despite being little known outside his home country and his poor health. His portraits are mostly that of close friends and fellow artists, instead of commissioned craft of distinguished personalities, yet these masterpieces uphold principles of harmony, integrity and structure.

Meticulous and introspective in his art, I particularly enjoy Købke’s portrait of friend and fellow painter Frederik Sødring, a painting so vested with hope, glowing with warmth and richness of colours, bringing home the romantic spirit of Denmark’s Golden Age.

The video by National Gallery sheds light on the artist’s creative philosophy.