A Trip to the Ashmolean…

The other day, daughter and I went to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to catch the last day of the Michelangelo drawings, and the first week of the new “America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keeffe to Hopper” exhibitions, using our new Art Fund cards to get half price entry.

Michelangelo Drawings

A single room full of drawings, most by Michelangelo, a few by contemporaries. These drawings were mostly studies for other work, drawn typically in red chalk. What is striking up close is the definition he was able to achieve from delicate eyelashes to muscle contours. I was amazed that we were allowed to take photos. I particularly liked the curled up dragon on the right below – an unusual subject compared with all the others which were either figures or architectural details.

America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keeffe to Hopper

The names O’Keeffe and Hopper in the title of this exhibition, are naturally a big draw, but don’t go expecting to see familiar works from these megastars. The clue is in the title – Modernism, and we’re talking about the period from mid 1920s through into the 1940s and architectural forms predominate the mix of paintings, photographs, drawings and etchings.

The exhibition starts off by looking at how some of the artists use abstraction of normal objects, which then applied to architectural forms produces geometrical paintings, sometimes at odd angles. I particularly liked Ralston Crawford’s Buffalo Grain Elevators, 1937, Smithsonian, (see right, and much brighter than my photo from the book in real life). The Brooklyn Bridge and New York’s skyscrapers feature large in the exhibition, with many views at odd angles through the cables, and details of skyscraper sections. Georgia O’Keeffe’s East River from the Shelton Hotel, 1928 (see below) – a view from a high vantage point looking towards the river over all the rooftops with their boxy structure and chimneys was alluring in its pale blues of a sunny day. She also painted a host of paintings of skyscrapers looking upwards from street level too, but these aren’t in the exhibition.

The body of the exhibition features many works by Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler who were in the vanguard of this movement and painted with precision. In my view, however, they saved the best for last.  I’m a huge Hopper fan, the Tate Modern exhibition of 2004 was marvellous. Here we had three atypical Hopper paintings: atypical in that they feature no people, but utterly typical in his painting style – views across train tracks – just old buildings and structures. What was lovely to see though were four etchings by him – each around 10×12 inches, all featuring figures, but not in full face.  Night Shadows (1921, left, from the Terra Foundation, Chicago), like most of his work, speaks volumes.

35 of these paintings have never been seen in the UK before. If you’re in Oxford, the exhibition is on until 22nd July (book here), it’s well worth it. I just wish they’d produced a larger set of postcards (which I collect). However I consoled myself with the book (with its Hopper detail on the cover) which includes the full catalogue of the exhibition, plus several essays exploring the themes at length, referencing many other works.

4 thoughts on “A Trip to the Ashmolean…

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I used to mount them all onto black card and write the details of where they were from and when I saw them – but filled up two big lever arch files, and since, I’ve amassed a big shoebox full! I tell myself they’ll be useful for my daughter for her art…

  1. A Life in Books says:

    Thanks for whetting my appetite for this one, Annabel. Very much looking forward to seeing it next month. I went to both the last O’Keeffe at the Tate and the one about 20something years ago, and loved both.

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