Rolf Harris. Can You Tell What It Is Yet? Walker Gallery Liverpool. 15-06-12

When I told my cab driver that I was going to visit the Walker Gallery to see Rolf Harris’ exhibition Can You Tell What It Is Yet? he announced very firmly that Rolf was a “good bloke”. I’m quite sure that most, if not all, of my fellow visitors the following day would have agreed with him. Rolf is well loved and he has made a long career from entertaining people on television as a singer, comedian and performance artist, able to make huge expressive paintings in real time while giving a running commentary. Later he made a series of programmes Rolf on Art which brought people who might not necessarily have thought that they were interested into contact with great artists via his own efforts to paint in homage to them. As my partner remarked when I said that people obviously liked him “Well he hasn’t made a long career out of being a shit to people”. There is a lot of this side of his talent on show in the exhibition. It is a celebration of Rolf the man as well as Rolf the artist and there is a wealth of video footage and personal memorabilia on show. It is a lot of fun and visitors of a certain age were clearly engaged and delighted to wallow in nostagia, watching the footage intently as he explained how a painting developed or sang Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport yet again. All the verbiage alongside the paintings and exhibits was written by Rolf himself. It is a very personal look back at a life well lived.

But this is an Art gallery and an art exhibition, which begs the question can he actually paint? Is he really any good? He is a modest, unassuming man, serious, humble and self critical and he would be the first to admit that he is not in Rembrandt’s league, but few artists are. There is no shame in that. His work is very much like himself, lively and expressive, with a flair for colour and movement, and there is a real sympathy for people in his portraits. There is a particularly beautiful portrait of a “dear friend” Doris Monet which has real soul. I liked his street scenes a lot. They catch the immediacy of a stolen moment and people unguarded as they live their lives unaware that they are being watched. His Australian landscapes are vibrant and capture the strangeness of a landscape that he was remembering from memory when he painted them. It is art that everybody can understand and enjoy and that is no bad thing. His portrait of the queen is simple and touching and it is typical Rolf that in the video footage of its unveiling he introduces it with “Right, here we go, take a deep breath”. The work which made me wonder what he might have achieved had he concentrated solely on painting throughout his life, as he has done in recent years, is a large, understated and melancholy self portrait in the style of Rembrandt. There is a look in his eyes in that image which is a very long way from the Rolfaroo cartoon persona.

In the shop it seemed oddly appropriate that you could buy yourself a signed print by Rolf for under £1,000 and even an original oil if you had thirty odd grand to spare. He may not be Rembrandt but you can’t buy one of those after a look round the National gallery. It had been an unusual exhibition, a look at a life and a personality as well as some of the work he has produced and a well deserved opportunity for him to look back and assess what he has done now that he is in his eighties.

Dare to Wear. Diana Dias Leao. Walker Gallery Liverpool. 1-10-10

The artist and glassmaker Diana Dias Leao has used her experience of working in fashion to create a beautiful collection of glass dresses and barbed wire corsets which are on exhibition at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool. They are intended to be inspirational, and her overriding intention is to show that “even though the image is glittering it is the person inside who is priceless”. Their beauty is made from sharpness and harsh materials, and through them she is exploring issues around bulimia, anorexia and body image. Although they are not meant to be worn there is a photo in the exhibition of a model looking stunning wearing one of them and they have been modelled on a catwalk.

They are lovely to look at, shimmering and glittering, and they are beautifully made. The workmanship is detailed and delicate and they have a purity about them somehow which I liked very much. I like the fact that she has used the ideal female form unashamedly. Most of the women who look at these dresses would never fit into them, but this is part of the point. Lack of body confidence and poor self image is something which is common in women of all shapes and sizes and a woman who could fit into these dresses and look stunning might well feel just as unattractive and vulnerable as those who can’t. The outer beauty of the dresses is undercut by the fact that they would be difficult and awkward to wear. Beauty often has to follow hard work and even pain, so that a woman can achieve an outward shell which she feels able to show the world. These dresses celebrate the beauty of the female form and remind us of the price that some women pay to achieve it. It goes without saying that it is the person inside that matters far more than any outward appearance, and most people would automatically agree with that, but there is a lot of history to prove that this truth has been far from universally accepted in practice. We may talk the talk, but Diana Dias Leao is reminding us that it is about time we walked the walk too. Well done her for making exhibits so beautiful and thought provoking. As a plain woman I salute her!

Toulouse Lautrec. High Kicks and Low Life. Walker Gallery. 17-06-10

The Walker Art Gallery’s Toulouse Lautrec Exhibition, High Kicks and Low Life is a delight. It manages to show the essence of his work, even in a small scale show containing only his graphic work. The show may be small scale but there is nothing small scale about his theatrical prints which fill the first section of the show, Public Passions. I love the ambition of his work when it is transferred onto a huge poster. He is showing you a whole world, not just giving you a quick peep round an open door. There is a real joy about his stage portraits, they are full of atmosphere and vitality. The line of the drawing is perfect and he uses the stage lighting to make performance images that almost seem to move and speak. He obviously loved theatre and must have relished every moment of making them. You could be sitting there among the audiences, or right next to the band, who are often silhouetted in the foreground. He gives you a front row seat to the Paris of the 1890’s. They must have been irresistible to the potential audiences who saw them on the street, advertising shows, and both the proprietors and the stars knew it. His work could put bums on seats. This made him needed, and very much part of bohemian Paris and he used that to his advantage. He needed one, as he had a lot to overcome.

The second section of the show, Private Passions, is quite different. As well as his commercial work and his large scale depictions of public café life he drew and painted tender intimate studies of café life behind closed doors, showing prostitutes and their clients, and these form a large part of the exhibition. This aspect of his work is quite beautiful. Graphically his drawings have the same clarity of line that you see in his posters, but there is a real innocence and warmth to them, maybe because of his severe health problems he was an un-threatening presence and the women felt able to allow him access to their world. There is a particularly beautiful drawing of a young prostitute in bed who has just been brought a drink by what is probably her mother. She is looking out, straight at the artist- at us- with a quiet amusement while her mother’s face is tense and closed off as she carries away the tray. It has the immediacy of a photograph. You really feel that you are there alongside him in a moment from over a hundred years ago. All of the drawings from the series Elle are like that, there is no voyeurism or judgment involved. These are real, warm, breathing people who deserve our sympathy, made by someone who understood and empathised with them. Henri knew all about a need for sympathy. His health problems meant that he was often ridiculed, one factor which may well have led to his dependence on alcohol, and it must have been a great solace to him to find acceptance and friendship where he could. He died at the age of 36 from complications due to alcoholism and syphilis. A sad end, but looking at these prints made me thankful that he had his talent and was able to find a place where he could express it.

A Minton Peacock.

Minton made twelve of these peacocks in the 1870’s and only nine are known to survive. This example has been roosting in the Walker gallery in Liverpool since 1891. (One of the other survivors is very lucky still to be here, as it survived the shipwreck of the Loch Ard on its way to an exhibition in Sydney. It was washed up on the Australian coast almost undamaged in its crate a few days later.)  It is made from earthenware majolica and it was modelled in 1873 by Paul Comolera, a French sculptor who worked at Minton from 1873-76 after originally working in bronze. It was fired all in one piece, which makes it a major technical achievement as well as an artistic one, given that  it is about four feet tall. The lead glaze was painted directly onto the fine buff earthenware body, giving bright clear transparent colours. Majolica is the perfect medium to showcase a bird who is a strutting, glamorous show off and the thick coloured glossy glazes buzz with colour. This is a bravura piece, so far over the top that it has come down the other side and become something marvelous, a fine example of  the skill and ingenuity of Victorian craftsmen, and a perfect example of high Victorian taste. Never knowingly understated, the Victorians loved majolica. Much of it is rather too in your face for us today, but when they picked the right subject and let their best artists and craftsmen loose they were able to use it to amazing effect. What else could describe a peacock better, if you don’t have the real thing to hand? Naturally it is very valuable. One of its relatives sold for £102,000 at Bonhams back in 2002. It was made as a conservatory ornament and it would look wonderful sitting among some lush greenery with the sun coming through the glass windows and lighting up the glaze. It dominates the small gallery space that it is in, looking down disdainfully, effortlessly rendering all the other art work hanging on the walls around it invisible. You simply can’t look anywhere else when you are in its presence.