I stopped reviewing exhibitions a while back as I felt I wasn’t doing a good enough job of it but I haven’t stopped going to them. Bob Dylan at the National Portrait Gallery was disappointing, Michael Landy’s Saints Alive at the National Gallery was great fun, reminiscent of the ICA’s Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition back in the 60s. Bruce Munroe’s light sculptures at Waddesdon House, particularly the Christmas collection, have been wonderful and the Beastly Hall exhibition of modern art at Hall Place was intriguing. However, the one unmissable exhibition this year is Heaven in a Hell of War: Stanley Spencer’s war paintings loaned from Sandham Memorial Chapel while the chapel is being renovated. Somehow, his pictures of the mundanity of war, scrubbing floors and making beds rather than fighting, makes it even more moving. It continues until January 26th and it is free, so there is no excuse not to visit if you are in London, especially as this year marks the centenary of the Great War.
This small, free exhibition is fascinating. The portraits by George Catlin are not always very good technically: the ornaments, headdresses and facial decorations are often painted better than the people wearing them. Their importance lies in looking at his attempts in the 1830s onwards to chronicle people who he rightly believed were being wiped out. Seeing this fraction of his work documenting so many destroyed cultures is highly thought-provoking. The exhibition continues until 23 June so there’s plenty of time to see it.
Tucked in the shadow of its big sister, the National Portrait Gallery is easy to overlook but there is some terrific stuff there, not just conventional portraits but important modern work such as Sam Taylor-Wood’s video portrait of David Beckham and Marc Quinn’s cast of his own head made with his own blood.