Responsibility for running our home is shared. For years, I have taken the lead on repairs, building works and heavy gardening, while Rohan’s domain has been outings and matters cultural and social. 

This blog is about two art exhibitions Rohan arranged for us to visit, one was a small collection of paintings by Milton Avery, an American artist unknown to us both; the other, the work of the French painter – Paul Cezanne.

Within days of our return from our summer holidays, Rohan had reviewed the exhibitions in London and we decided immediately that we should see Cezanne’s work at the Tate Modern. Our second choice was the exhibition of paintings by Avery at the Royal Academy of Arts. Viewing his work was a ‘must’ once Rohan discovered that he was a ‘colourist’, a style that has been a favourite of ours for years.

While Rohan and I shared many feelings about the two exhibitions, this blog deals only with my views. In this respect, how I or anyone else sees a painting is very subjective and, just as beauty is in the ‘eye’ of the beholder, so too are opinions!

We visited the two exhibitions a week apart, and by chance it was Avery’s that we saw first. Avery was born in 1885 into a poor working class family living in New York State. At sixteen he left school and spent the next fifteen years doing menial jobs to help support his family. 

His interest in art developed by happenstance. After seeing an advertisement offering good wages for doing commercial lettering, he enrolled on a lettering course at night school. His teacher, who was an accomplished painter, saw something special in Avery and suggested he transfer to life drawing classes, which he did. From then on, Avery never stopped – first fitting in painting around work; later painting full time. 

Although his early work was interesting, even good enough to win prizes, it was not until the 1940s when he was in his mid fifties, that his paintings became special.

About two thirds of the paintings at the Royal Academy were from that post-1940 period and they were extraordinary, indeed so captivating that I went back to see them again a few days later! Importantly, the exhibition itself felt very welcoming with the walls in each room painted in different, carefully chosen light colours that complemented, even enhanced, Avery’s pictures. (See the yellow-ochre-painted wall in the illustration).

The pictures look simple but the ingenious way he counterposes subtle and soft colours and shapes to depict people, for example (see illustration), was mesmerising. Moreover, each new painting had immediate appeal with no analysis needed. Each one was quite distinct and I repeatedly wondered how an artist could produce work for 25 years that was so lively, so contemporary, so joyous and often so amusing (he painted right up to his death in 1965 when he was eighty).

Interestingly, his work has never been identified with a particular movement. For the exhibition, however, he is associated with the colourists, but that seems to be no more than a flag of convenience!

Now to Cezanne, a celebrated ‘post-impressionist’ painter who was born in 1839 and died in 1906. His work has been known to me for years, not just because of the way he uses colour but because his approach influenced generations of artist to come. 

Yes, the pictures at the exhibition were interesting, some  – especially the landscapes – actually beautiful, but as I went round I was not moved, not stimulated and not inspired. Moreover, from the way this exhibition was mounted – the wall colours were drab, the lighting dark and the commentary heavy – I was made to feel I was visiting a museum of art rather than a celebratory display – how very different from my uplifting Avery visit! In keeping, by the ninth room, and there were eleven in all, I was walking past paintings, occasionally glancing but more bent on heading out for a coffee. 

Comparisons between Avery and Cezanne also had a tangential dimension probably more important to me than to others. Avery’s work came out of years of hardship, struggle and poverty, with no early artistic or intellectual nurturing to count on. Cezanne, however, was from a well-to-do and financially supportive banking family which afforded him a traditional and privileged ‘classical’ education. It was at this school that he met Emile Zola who became a close friend and confident. Later, he spent a short time at an art college, but soon changed to study law (like Matisse) at his father’s insistence. Learning their different backgrounds endeared me to Avery and his work even more!

In this blog, my standpoint is that anyone can have an opinion. I have no training in art nor has painting been one of my hobbies, but when I go to galleries I soon know if the paintings appeal. Clearly, Milton Avery’s did!

The illustration is a photo of ‘Poetry Reading’ mounted on yellow ochre wall on display at the Royal Academy of Arts’exhibition ‘Milton Avery – American Colourist’. It was painted in 1957.

For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Sarah, Julian, Terry, Rohan and Vivien.

16 thoughts on “In the Eye of the Beholder

    1. Dear Merrily, Thank you for your comment. I am sure his pictures are best seen at a gallery, but one certainly gets the idea from those on the web. Love, Joe


  1. Dear Joe,
    I had never heard of Avery but was very moved by your description of his life and works- how lovely that the gallery took such care with showing his work. I had a similar experience when I saw a quite comprehensive showing of Pisarro’s work in San Francisco- with a careful review of his care for the poor and how he was treated in his final days.
    Love Robin


    1. Dear Robin, I had never before realised how key is the environnement in which paintings are displayed. Love, Joe


  2. Dear Joe completely agree with you about juxtaposition between Milton Avery and Cezanne. I had very similar experience. Avery was mesmerising and his use of colour breathtaking, emotional. Whereas Cezanne’s paintings were more like scientific experiments, one or two did shimmer but over all left me cold. I left the Avery show exhilarated and enhanced.
    Thank you


    1. Dear Elona, It was wonderful to read your comment. When I wrote the piece I worried that I might be seen as rather harsh on the Cezanne exhibition. Reading that you, someone whose views I see as very authoritative, and I are of one voice is very reassuring. Love, Joe


  3. Another most interesting blog, Joe. I agree-it definitely makes a vast difference how, and where, a painting is hung. I am a huge Renaissance Art fan, and with this genre, the light and situation is clearly crucial. The way an artist like Caravaggio transposes huge shafts of light with truly iridescent black shadows can only be correctly admired in their appropriate surroundings, and I am sure that this is the same for other works. The Italians are, (and not surprisingly) the absolute masters at this; I don’t think I have ever been to a gallery in Italy where I could say that the display was poor.


  4. What a lovely Avery picture, and equally a very lovely blog… I agree with you, and I think the ochre wall is perfect.


    1. Dear Carolyn, Thank you for your comments. If you would like to see more of his work there are plenty of his paintings that can be seen on the web. Love, Joe


  5. Hi Joe
    Rohan (my Rohan) and I read with relish all your posts and although we might not reply too often I hope you forgive us. Love from Australia, with the translucent blue of the jacarandas silhouetted against the dazzling light blue of the sky.


    1. Dear Mark, It was good to hear that you read and enjoy the blog. Not so good that you make me envious of the lovely weather and light in Australia! Love to you and (your) Rohan, Joe


  6. Sad to see the Milton Avery exhibition has closed – I would have enjoyed visiting after reading your pleasure at his work Joe.


  7. What a coincidence to meet you on a train and being inspired by your enthusiasm to go to see Milton Avery’s exhibition. I loved his work and his joyous use of colour. Thank you. Arlette (Peach’s mum)


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