The Woodgates


"Everything is art. Everything is politics" - Ai Weiwei
This lecture will examine the provocative and often beautiful work of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in the context of dissident art in China, Europe and South America, and examine some of his sources of inspiration, including the Russian Constructivist, Vladimir Tatlin and the leading Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp. Ai Weiwei collaborated with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron in designing the Beijing National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest) for the 2008 Olympics, but the following year was arrested and beaten by police, necessitating emergency brain surgery.

While his Sunflower Seeds installation was still on display in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2011, he was arrested again and detained in prison for 81 days, during which he was subjected to mental torture. Part of the problem of course was the provocative nature of his work. Between 1995 and 2003, he produced an extensive series of photographs, each of which was called Study in Perspective, in which he made an offensive gesture in front of famous locations. Those relating to the White House and the Eiffel Tower caused no problem in China of course, but that in Tiananmen Square (on the fifth anniversary of the notorious demonstration, when hundreds of people were killed) was clearly highly contentious.

Francis Bacon - "From the gutter to the Ritz"
Until his death in 1992, Bacon was regarded by many as Britain’s greatest twentieth century artist, and his dramatic images can be exquisitely beautiful and shocking at the same time.

Beckmann, Dix and Grosz – German ‘Degenerates’
The paintings of these artists were included in Hitler’s Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Munich in 1937 and many were subsequently destroyed by the Nazis. Their works covering the First World War and the rise of Nazism were finely-painted and extremely powerful. In 1925, all three artists had exhibited in the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) exhibition, which looked back to the great German artists of the past, such as Cranach, Dürer and Holbein.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones
Following the highly successful Tate Britain show in 2018/19, the work of Ned Jones (as he was widely known until awarded a Baronetcy in 1894) has attracted considerable attention. After leaving Oxford, he intended to become a clergyman, but he decided on a future in the arts and crafts when visiting Northern French churches with his great friend William Morris. He was helped in his new career by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a founder-member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who initially allowed him to use his studio and paint his models. His friend, the art critic John Ruskin, encouraged him to visit Italy to look at the Old Masters, which greatly influenced his depictions of classical mythology and Arthurian legend. Many of his early paintings were in watercolour and gouache, which caused some confusion due to their large scale, but he later produced equally beautiful works in oil. He considered himself a craftsman as much as an artist, and designed stained glass windows and tapestries, from 1861 as a founder-member of Morris, Marshall and Faulkner. ‘The Firm’, as the company was known, began the Arts and Crafts Movement, and much of Burne-Jones’s work also anticipated Art Nouveau well before its heyday in the 1890s. Many of his works are good examples of Symbolism, evoking the atmosphere of mystical, spiritual and allegorical subjects rather than depicting real life.

As well as producing exquisitely beautiful works of art, Burne-Jones had an interesting private life. He married Georgiana Macdonald in 1860, but had affairs with some of his models, one of whom attempted suicide after he broke off their relationship.

This lecture will examine Burne-Jones’s work in the context of the development of avant-garde art in the late 19th century, showing how different it was from French Impressionism and the paintings of his rival, James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Marc Chagall’s Poetic Vision
During his long life (he died in 1985 at the age of 98), Chagall managed to combine images from his own life, including his happy marriage, with significant themes such as Judaism, Christianity and the Russian Revolution. His style had a childlike innocence about it, while incorporating elements of avant-garde movements such as Cubism and Expressionism to produce joyous and powerful images.

Dalí and the Surrealists
The most well-known of the Surrealists, Salvador Dalí, was officially a member of the movement for only 10 years. This lecture looks at his dream-like imagery, and the works of his great contemporaries, including Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte.

Dürer and Cranach – Masters of the Northern Renaissance
Wonderful artists in both graphic media and oils, these two contemporaries of Martin Luther worked during the turbulent years of the Reformation. (Available as individual lectures, or both artists in their contemporary context.)

Lucian Freud - Paintings "to astonish, disturb, seduce and convince"
From his early finely-painted, almost hyper-realist, portraits to his more recent heavily-impastoed expressionistic ones, Lucian Freud has always had the power to disturb and shock.

The Expressive Power of Bronze – the Sculpture of Elisabeth Frink
This lecture examines the work of one of the outstanding figures of 20th-century sculpture, an artist who achieved an international reputation for her monumental works depicting the human figure, birds and other animals. Sadly she died in her early 60s but, from the first small sculpture acquired by the Tate Gallery (when she was a student of 21) until her death, she produced an astonishing body of work. Her bronzes varied in scale and feeling, from small, threatening birds to the life-size, tranquil Walking Madonna in Salisbury Cathedral Close. Frink’s work will be examined in the context of great British and European predecessors such as Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin and Alberto Giacometti, as well as her contemporaries, including Reg Butler, Jean Fautrier and Germaine Richier.

"A kind of magick" – the art of Thomas Gainsborough
Sir Joshua Reynolds said that the “chaos” of Gainsborough’s paintings “by a kind of magick, at a certain distance, assumes form” and this is certainly true.

Paul Gauguin - Maker of Myth
A successful stockbroker who abandoned his career and family at the age of 35 to become an artist, Gauguin is one of the most famous and best-loved artists of the late 19th and early 20th century. His beautiful Brittany landscapes and sensuous, colourful images of women in Tahiti are some of the most popular images in modern art.

Disturbing Constructions in Space - the Sculpture of Alberto Giacometti
Initially trained by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, a classical sculptor who had worked with Rodin, Giacometti abandoned precise naturalism in 1925 and worked on bronzes influenced by Cubism. Around five years later he moved on to a Surrealist style, producing imaginative and often disturbing works.

After World War 2, in a period described by Herbert Read as ‘The Geometry of Fear’, he began to sculpt the elongated, emaciated and isolated figures for which he is now famous. These were greatly admired by French Existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre as they seemed to typify the concept of man alone in a godless universe.

In this lecture we will examine Giacometti’s varied sculptural styles in the context of twentieth century European avant-garde art, as well as looking at his equally interesting paintings.

Divine Beauty - the Sacred and Secular Art of Eric Gill
Eric Gill (1882-1940) was one of the finest British artists and craftsmen of the 20th century, although his personal life made him something of a paradox. He was the second of thirteen children of an Assistant Minister in a chapel and a former professional singer, and at the age of 30 converted to Catholicism. Despite being very devout, he had extremely unconventional views about sexual licence. It is said that even Augustus John, who had nine children in a ménage à trois and possibly more by other women, was shocked by Gill’s succession of mistresses.

His best-known sculptures are the Broadcasting House Prospero and Ariel (shown above) and the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral, which owe something to those of Giotto in the Arena Chapel, Padua. He was a highly skilled draughtsman, producing exquisite drawings and woodcuts, an imaginative typographer and a prolific writer.

This lecture will examine Gill’s sculpture, both free-standing and reliefs, his graphic works and typeface designs. Despite his unconventional life, he was favoured by the Establishment, carrying out commissions for the British Government, the Royal Mint and the London Underground, as well as the BBC.

Revealing the beauty of nature: The landscape art of Andy Goldsworthy
Andy Goldsworthy is one of the most interesting and innovative landscape artists working in Britain today. He mostly works in the open air, using natural materials such as leaves, ice, stones or trees to make exquisitely beautiful but usually ephemeral images in the great Romantic landscape tradition. Fortunately, although most of his works eventually disintegrate, melt away or fall over, they are all carefully photographed and included in extremely desirable and lavish ‘coffee-table’ books.

Exploring the Body - Antony Gormley and the New Face of Tradition
Antony Gormley makes fascinating and challenging sculptures based on his own and other people’s bodies. Many of his works are life-size and made of lead or other metal, and can often be found in unusual locations such as the Australian desert, in the sea off the Liverpool coast or on the rooftops of London.

Works other than these very personal portraits range from the enormous Angel of the North, which is 65 feet (20 metres) high and can be seen at a great distance from the A1 at Gateshead, to his various Fields of tens of thousands of small clay figures made under his guidance by ordinary members of the public. At both ends of the scale, his work is astonishing and thought-provoking, and sheds a new light on the tradition of sculpture involving the human body.

A new take on tradition - Damien Hirst, stretching the boundaries
Damien Hirst’s work provokes admiration and outrage in equal measure. As one of the ‘YBAs’ (now not so Young British Artists) he became notorious in 1991 for his 15-foot shark suspended in formaldehyde, entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which was bought by Charles Saatchi and subsequently sold to an American collector. Despite the fact that many people have not actually seen his art, he has become a household name because of the extensive press coverage of his extraordinary works.

In this lecture, we will examine Hirst’s work in the context of earlier artists, including Harman Steenwyck, Landseer, van Gogh and Marcel Duchamp. We will also consider Hirst’s ability to curate thought-provoking exhibitions and, not least, to make himself a well-known public figure and a millionaire.

"Blondes have more fun" - the Art of David Hockney
David Hockney has become a ‘national treasure’. Although a fine draughtsman, he first came to fame in the early 1960s for his graffiti-like paintings The late 1960s and early ’70s saw him painting in a number of different styles, from the precise naturalism of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy to extremely unnaturalistic works paying homage to his great hero, Pablo Picasso. With all his media and style changes, Hockney continues to delight and enchant people from all walks of life.

Gwen and Augustus John – two great opposites
Tate Britain’s exhibition at the end of 2004 compared and contrasted the works of these two famous siblings. Augustus said after Gwen’s death in 1939 that in 50 years he would be remembered as her brother, rather than as a great artist in his own right. That exhibition and this lecture enable viewers to make up their own minds.

Frida Kahlo – a life on canvas
After a terrible accident as a child, Frida Kahlo was seldom without pain, and she charted her life, including her two marriages to the same man, Diego Rivera, through a series of fascinating and self-revelatory self-portraits and other Surrealist-inspired works, as seen in the Tate Modern exhibition in 2005.

Craftsmanship and Sensuality - Gustav Klimt and the Vienna Secession
Trained in decorative as well as fine arts, Klimt sought to break free from the traditional distinctions between the two. His fascination with Egyptian and Byzantine art enabled him to produce sumptuous art incorporating gold leaf and mosaics in works which were frequently highly erotic and beautiful, and occasionally disturbing. He was particularly interested in the female form, showing women as alluring, but often dangerous, as the femme fatale.

He was a founder member and first President of the Vienna Secession, a progressive exhibiting organisation set up to challenge the more conservative academic practice towards the end of the 19th century.

Matisse and Picasso – Half a century of friendly rivalry
They met in Paris in 1906 and, for almost half a century, each was the only artist considered by the other to be even remotely his equal.

A Flawed Genius? The life and art of Amadeo Modigliani
Opinions are divided about what would have become of Amadeo Modigliani, had he not died of tuberculosis (and excess) at the age of only 35. Some critics claim that he would have gone on to be a modern master, while many feel that he had already produced his greatest and most powerful works of both painting and sculpture before his untimely death.

From an Italian/Jewish background (he was born in Livorno in 1884), he settled in Paris in 1906 and, while outside the prevailing movements (Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism), was friendly with other artists such as Picasso and absorbed influences from such varied sources as Botticelli and African tribal carving.

A provocative beauty - the art of Grayson Perry
Grayson Perry, who won the Turner Prize in 2003, is close to becoming a ‘National Treasure’. His beautiful, finely-crafted pottery, which frequently has a sting in the tail, and his colourful, imaginative and often amusing tapestries are enormously popular in the fine art world. Initially considered as something of a rebel, he is now an acknowledged member of the Establishment. He has exhibited in the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, was appointed a Royal Academician and delivered the Reith lectures for the BBC in 2013.

In this lecture, we will look at his work in some detail, as well as considering his cross-dressing alter ego, Claire, and his fondness for his childhood teddy bear, Alan Measles.

Jungles in Paris - The Extraordinary Art of Douanier Rousseau
Henri Rousseau was known as ‘Le Douanier’ (the Customs Officer) because he spent most of his life as a clerk in the Octroi (the service which imposed duty on goods entering and leaving Paris). He became a painter in his early forties (with no formal training) and later captured the attention and the affection of the Paris avant-garde, albeit sometimes as a figure of fun to the talented artists, such as Picasso, who befriended him. The way in which he ignored conventional perspective gave his paintings an innocent and naïve charm which still has an appeal today. His paintings of exotic jungle scenes, populated by wild and colourful creatures, might make one think that he had travelled widely, but the ideas for them came from his frequent visits to the Paris natural History Museum and the Jardin des Plantes, the combined botanical and zoological gardens.

John Singer Sargent - Much more than a modern van Dyck
Sargent was the great society portraitist of the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, but he was much more than that. His art was extremely varied and the breadth of his work can still surprise people. As well as his wonderful portraits, the lecture includes examples of his landscape paintings, inspired by the Impressionists, his work as an official War Artist in World War I and his extremely beautiful and delicate watercolours.

Other Lectures on Individual Artists
Lectures on other British artists of the past and most modern artists can be prepared, given sufficient notice, to coincide with special exhibitions, anniversaries etc.