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Gainsborough’s Notorious Women At SDMA

Audio

Aired 2/15/11

The paintings of Sir Thomas Gainsborough could be viewed as the 18th century version of celebrity portraiture. Gainsborough's portraits of notorious and fashionable women of the day are currently on view at the San Diego Museum of Art, along with the work of 20th century abstract painter Howard Hodgkin.

A portrait of of the famous dancer Giovanna Baccelli by Sir Thomas Gainsborough, on view at the San Diego Museum of Art.
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Above: A portrait of of the famous dancer Giovanna Baccelli by Sir Thomas Gainsborough, on view at the San Diego Museum of Art.

The paintings of Sir Thomas Gainsborough could be viewed as the 18th century version of celebrity portraiture. Gainsborough's portraits of notorious and fashionable women of the day are currently on view at the San Diego Museum of Art, along with the work of 20th century abstract painter Howard Hodgkin.

Guests:

Julia Marciari-Alexander is the deputy director for Curatorial Affairs and Education at SDMA.

John Marciari is the curator for European Art and Head of Provenance Research at SDMA.

Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman and Howard Hodgkin: "Time and Place" will be on view at SDMA through May 1st.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The works of one of the most famous British painters and one of the most modern are both on display at the San Diego museum of art. You may know Toms Gainsborough [CHECK] but it's his portraits of aristocratic, celebrated and even scandalous members of British society that are included in this exhibit. Also on display are the works of the 20th century participator, Howard Hodgkin. [CHECK] with my guests, Julia Marciari-Alexander is the deputy director for curatorial affairs for San Diego museum of art, welcome.

MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: Thank you, Maureen, I'm so happy to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: [CHECK] John, welcome.

MARCIARI: Thanks for having us.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: [CHECK] and are married to each other. But this time we won't mention it, how's that?

MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: That sounds fine. Whatever you'd like. We're happy to talk about it all.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So John, tell us more about Thomas Gainsborough. [CHECK].

MARCIARI: Of fabulous draperies.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Hadn't thought about that, that's good.

MARCIARI: He's from a small town in east of England, is sent to London to learn his craft. He showed early promise as a painter and really wanted to become a landscape painter couldn't serve -- couldn't make a living doing that in -- began to be so successful that he, in a way, out [CHECK] his clientele. He moved from his home town to the fantastic resort town of Bath, [CHECK] and became the most famous painter in town, which led to a great success, which moved him onto London as well. And really he is arguably the greatest painter from a technical standpoint, in just putting paint onto canvas in beautiful ways. He's one of the greatest painters of not only his time but I think of the western European tradition.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Julia, this is [CHECK] famous women, celebrated women, society women of the day. What do these portraits tell us about these women in eighteenth century society.

MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: Well, again at first glance, not much. But once you begin to unpeel the orange, so to speak, and look beyond the surface, we begin to realize that most of these women were not just famous, they were sort of naughty. And they each lived a life very much in the public sphere at a time when publicity was beginning to create and unmake people's reputations. So someone like Georgiana, the duchess of Devonshire, [CHECK] we see in that portrait, ostensibly, a beautiful lady in white standing in a landscape. What he woo understand is that now at the time that the participating was exhibited, people didn't see that. They saw one of the most famous women of her time who was out on the poles, poling for Wig politicians, creating male -- living a kind of male life, gambling away her family fortune, taking drugs and doing all of these scandalous things, and not really being punished for it because of her standing in one of the great Wig families in England. [CHECK].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: [CHECK].

MARCIARI: Public art criticism. And one of the things we've really tried to show in the exhibition with the exhibition texts is how you have a painter, Gainsborough, who has great talent but also great ammission. And what he does is paint women who would garner attention by them. So any painting of Georgianaa, or [CHECK] the talk of the royal academy exhibition of so by coopting their celebrity, Gainsborough furthers his own ambitions. And he's up to the of course that. So he's able to take these women [CHECK] really give us a sense of them, and then there's a third lair of the exhibition, which is how the life stories of the women then affect the criticism of the painter.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oh, that's very fascinating. Tell us -- describe for us one of paintings on display. It's the within of the portrait Anne Ford. These a musician, and she's depicted in a very particular way. John, cans would you like to --

MARCIARI: Sure, I can start. So Anne Ford was scandalous because she was a professional musician at a time when women didn't make a living by performing on stage or at least not nights girls, so to speak. And this is the first portrait that Gainsborough painted when he moved to Bath. So he does this, it means everyone will [CHECK] and at first glance, to a modern artist, it seems perfectly acceptable, here's a woman with her [CHECK] well, there's much more to it, the. The fact that she's lost in thought, is a pose much more associated with male portraits than women, but also she has in her lap, an instrument, a kind of little mandolin or a lot guitar, and behind her, hanging on the wall, a viola da gamba and that is the crux of the painting. Because the viola da gamba which is a predecessor of the cello [CHECK] the idea of a woman sitting, playing this instrument between her legs.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Her leg. Oh, my.

MARCIARI: Well, it turns out that she devised this sort of side saddle method of praying the viola da gamba but it didn't matter. All people knew from the newspaper accounts was that she played the viola da gamba in public. So people who came to see this painting [CHECK].

MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: It's sort of lurking in the shadows behind her, as if it's some specter of naughties. But the other thing too is that she sits in this S curve pose, and as John is just about to say, and we're good at interrupting each other, she has her legs crossed. So it's the opposite of the open expectation. But in some senses, you know, nice ladies didn't cross their legs in public again. And they crossed their ankles just as we were all told when we were little, cross your ankles, not your legs issue but she sits very forcefully with her legs crossed, and her hand is coming up so that you see one hand dangling out, it's almost as if it's gonna start moving back and forth.

MARCIARI: And part of the one seat here is that she's not performing for us. Here's the public performer captured we the artist in a moment of private thought of she's not on the stage. And so all of the expectings are inverted, and then he's going to in a painting that is just slashes and dogs and swirls of paint. We also have in the exhibition, a number of eighteenth century dresses, including one that is virtually identically cut. [CHECK] so for those curious about how these/s and squirrels of participate actually delineate a real dress, we have an example of what that dress will look like. [CHECK].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Curator for European art at San Diego museum of art, and Julia Marciari-Alexander, director for curetory affairs [CHECK] twin exhibits, we've been talking about Thomas Gainsborough, and his women, an exhibit of portraits by the celebrated eighteenth century British artist, we're talk about to talk about the 20th century British painter, Howard Hodgkin. But I want to get in just two questions, if I can, about Gainsborough. Where would people have seen these portraits back in the eighteenth century? [[[]]

MARCIARI: Well, all of the above. Is set up in Gainsborough's painting studio, so people come to see this, but they're also in a way, he's advertising his talents by keeping it in his studio, which is a semi-public forum. Most the paintings in the show would have been at the big royal academy exhibitions in London. Which is sort of the London equivalent of the [CHECK] and after that, would have generally gone to the big, large hopes of the people portrayed in the picture.

MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: For instance, the painting of Georgianaa, was painted probably for her mother, and it went back to Spencer house where lady Diana grew up.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. I remember that, now that you mention that. That's very interesting. Let's take just a little bit about the technical virtuosity of Gainsborough, and you mention that, a little bit, John, with the whole idea of this sort of scandalous, as you delineated for us, what this picture looks like, with this brush work, this amazing way that Gainsborough had with a brush. Tell us a little bit more about that.

MARCIARI: Well, and I think here the question about where these pictures were seen is part of the story, because seen with the painting hanging ten feet up the wall of the royal academy exhibition, it's the grand gesture that's interesting. But then when it comes down, and it's in a private home, and you can approach it, [CHECK] this was radical at the time. The fashion up to Gainsborough's lifetime was really for very finely delineated, every stitch of the lace, for example. You can see that in other portraits in the eighteenth century in our permanent collection. And so these swirls and slashes of paint, stories begin to come out. People say that Gainsborough painted with his paint brush at the end of a six-foot stick. [CHECK] I don't actually believe the story, I think it's something devised at the time to explain why his pictures looked so different from anything anyone had seen up to that point.

MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: The other thing about them is [CHECK] fixed lighting you don't have any sense of the daylight, there was no artificial light at that time other than candle light, you woke up in the morning, and the painting looked one way, and as you moved through the day in these grand rooms issue the light would change, and I would encourage peep to go into the museum and kind of close their eyes, or imagine themselves in a different setting with different lighting, and they see how the paintings resolve themselves into almost three dimensional objects always look at the painting with your eyes more and more closed. [CHECK] shimmering quality that Gainsborough's brush work enables.

CAVANAUGH: That's what I was gonna say of that's what you see. That's the dimensional quality of it, when the light changes issue the brush work and what stands out and what doesn't. I want to move on to Howard Hodge bin because if there is a similarity between these two painters, aside from the fact that they're both from Britain, it is the brush work. Tell us a lot about the about that, if you would, Julia.

MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: Well, that's one of the reasons that we've done this rather odd but exciting thing. We wanted people to understand that painting is a tradition in the writtish art spectrum in the way that it isn't in some other countries of the 47 content up until expressionism, was really into what they called the licked surface, which was the smooth surface, the finished surface. But in England, the [CHECK] painting is really something that masters to artists. [CHECK] with their generation. Howard is competing with the artists like Gainsborough, John constable, J. P. W. Turner, who are the masters of paint, not only in the British tradition, but in the great tradition of western art, so the opportunity to bring Howard's work [CHECK] some of which is still wet, and smells like oil painting. And work from 200 years ago which has inspired Howard by his time spent in museums across the world, was something we were so excited to do, and we hope that visitors can look -- maybe that come in for Gainsborough, which seems to be more accessible. But actually, a lot of our visitors migrate over into Hodgkin or begin in Hodge cane and then they look the other way, and then they understand [CHECK].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Still smell like paint because he keeps revising them 92 sometimes. Some of them are -- a lot of them have dates that are from 2000 to 2008, or 2000 to 2005.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see.

MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: But many of them are -- he will keep revising the paintings. [CHECK] the only Hodgkin in town, so far, and on that painting is in the catalog raisin a, and it looks completely different from how it looks now. Because Howard kept it and kept reworking it, and kept reworking it, and finally dated it on the back, two this happened 1, 2002, but if you hook on the cat lag, mirror mirror [CHECK] so I would encourage people to go out into the permanent collection and zoo this fantastic Hodgkin from a period of almost 20 years.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating. I heard that Hodgkin once -- likes the idea of painting memories and feelings. So he will leave an experience that he has with friends and family and go home and try to paint that -- what that experience feels like to him.

MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: He said -- he was here for two years, and he said as we stood on -- he sat in his wheel chair on the balcony in a home in La Jolla. And he looked out and he said, I need to go home now, this is going to be a painting. And it was just one of the most magical moments. And you end up as something who follows Howard, looking at all of his work, and thinking, was I there?

MARCIARI: And of course he never tells you.

MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: But like Gainsborough, he is a figurative painter. He's painting memories, these are not abstractions.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's an interesting distinction. Okay.

MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: These are figurative works of nonrepresentational situations. So in that sense, nay have as much subject matter as the portraitors of the women. It's just that the subjects don't look the same.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about his framing, the way he paints right onto the frames.

MARCIARI: Well, one of the interesting things with Hodgkins' work is this play between abstract painting and representational painting, and the tradition conceit of the [CHECK] now, these are representational paintings but not so much of things, and in that game of whether they're abstract or representational is the painting a two-dimensional object of colors and shapes, or is it a three kimentional view onto a world, the frame traditionally, philosophically, plays into that. And so this idea of Howard praying with the [CHECK] framing lines within the frame, almost as a way of signaling that he's playing that game. Often too, he'll take an old frame and he'll turn it around back with regards, and so you see from the side that this is a gold leaf, rather ornate frame, but he's actually painted on a panel, and you're looking from the work. Soap you're wondering, are you inside that world that's being painted in this interior emotional world looking out of the picture. Whether Howard would agree to this or not remains an open question. He does like to dictate what's going on in the painting. He's very much about the way viewers respond to all of these games, be that the framing game, color, text, non-finished aspects of the paintings. He likes the viewer response to be unmitigated to pay point. He always gives these illusive titles. Of.

MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: That's a [CHECK] five years ago, he told the story, which was unusual for him that he had gone to Los Angeles with a friend, and he had picked up a frame at a flea market, and he had gone back, they had gone to lunch and seen this beautiful, sunny, Los Angeles day. And they had experienced this whole day together. Andly went home, and he participated a work called déjà vu, déjà blue, which is not in the exhibit job, but this is indicative of his work. So he told the story that this was buying the frame, the experience, the memory, the colors evoked the space, and the guy he had been with was in the audience, and he leaned over to me and said oh! That's what it's about! I thought it was lurch! And that's okay with Howard because it is for his friend equally evocative of that moment. But it could also be you going into the exhibition and establishing a relationship with the painting. And that's what Howard wants you to do. He wants you to to have a relationship with his paint. And with him.

CAVANAUGH: And in this exhibit, in these dual exhibits, you can go back and forth and see the relationship these paintings have one another, which is, I think one of the fascinating points of this exhibit.

MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: John, since we only have a new minutes left, I do want to talk about what may seem like old news to you, but it's still very exiting news, okay? You made a discovery last year, really quite something, you discovered a previously unknown work by the 17th [CHECK] the painter's painter. Some people revere vaccasc ez as the greatest painter. Walk us through what happened with this discovery.

MARCIARI: Well, it does seem a bit like old news, but it's also a story that doesn't go away. [CHECK] and it really begins almost seven years ago, now. When I was a curator at the Yale university art gallery, and we were in the middle of a building renovation, and the curators were asked to go through the collection, and the collection in storage, which had been transferred to a new modern storage facility, and just see what works might be brought out in a new installation. I was new at the gallery at this point. And this one painting just wouldn't really leave me alone. I kept going back to it. And the first time I saw it, I can't say I knew it was Velasquez. I thought it was a great painting. And I thought it was a painting that had a -- it was so characteristic, I eventually figure out who did it. And it was some months later when literally the light bulk went on, [CHECK] the woman and the eggs, it looks like the paintings in London. And that was, as I say, almost seven years ago, and it was a very long period of research before I finally published the painting this summer. And it is not without controversy, of course. One of the funny quirks of art history is that you generally don't have a document, of that convenient spoken gun. So you have on one side some of the foremost experts in Spain coming out very publicly in favor of the painting, and then on the other side, other critics, particularly one in America who doesn't even it's even close to the artist. And this is something that will play out over time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are that's questions ever resolved to a general acceptance of a painting being by a particular master?

MARCIARI: To a point, I think they are. But there are still -- there are, let's say, roughly a hundred paintings attributed to Velasquez these days of there are probably about ten or a dozen about which there are some dissenting opinions today. This is at the end of the day the proof is just in how you see the painting in many cases. You can do technical analysis that proves it was made in seville in the first quarter of the century, but that doesn't mean it was by Velasquez.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

MARCIARI: I'd like to think as we go forward, and in is seen in exhibitions, and as it goes through further preservation, membership of the questions will be answered for those who are in a dissenting position right now. But I know it won't ever convince everyone.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, are you doing any of that same kind of detective work here at the San Diego museum of art 1234.

MARCIARI: Well, fortunately I can assure everyone there is no [CHECK].

MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: We've all looked.

MARCIARI: But much of what I do and Boschinging on this catalog of the old master paintings in the museum, much of what I do is to ask the same kinds of questions. Is this really by this artist? If it's by this artist, when was it done? [CHECK] what are the implications for that if are the other paintings,a tributed to the artist? If he's doing this in 56, then he can't be doing X other painting. So the questions and that kind of work, it's detective work in a way, are very much part of what I today to day. Of that's the good part of my job.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both, this has been really, really great having you both here. Julia Marciari Alexander, and John Marciari, thank you so much for being here today and talking about this.

MARCIARI-ALEXANDER: Thank you for having us, and we look forward to seeing everyone at the museum.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right [CHECK] are up at the museum of art and will remain there through? Through May 1st. And there is also a symposium on Gainsborough and his naughty ladies. On Saturday. Thank you both so much. If you would like to comment KPBS.org/These Days. Now, coming up, a different museum in Balboa park with a new exhibit, this one about race. That's as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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Avatar for user 'kmeyer'

kmeyer | February 16, 2011 at 8:20 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

Howard Hodgkin: Small Prints - Abstractions in Color, hand-colored etchings exhibited at Meyer Fine Art, Inc. (2400 Kettner Blvd, Suite 104, Little Italy, SD, 92101, 619.358.9512) until Feb 26, 2011. www.plmeyerfineart.com

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