Who at some point has not felt like Jacob wrestling with the angel? The Bible tells of a mortal struggling with the Divine, holding fast to the angel all through the night and refusing to let go until, at dawn, he prevails and receives a blessing – an answer to his prayers.
Unsurprisingly, artists since the Renaissance have found in this tale a potent source of inspiration and a metaphor for the creative struggle. Rembrandt depicted it as a tender embrace, while Epstein controversially carved it as a more sexual one.
Gauguin’s celebrated painting of the subject is perhaps the most unusual and shows the scene as ‘existing only in the imagination of the people at prayer… in a mental space,’ says Martin Gayford in his discussion of Tate Modern's major survey of the artist (RA Magazine Autumn 2010).
Donato Creti, 'Studies of Jacob Wrestling with the Angel', c.1720. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
Donato Creti (1671-1749) seems to imagine the scene as a dance in this exquisite drawing (above) from the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. His swirling arabesque lines suggest the angel struggling to fly free of Jacob’s grasp. This eighteenth-century Bolognese artist is virtually unknown today, but ‘Treasures from Budapest’ brings his remarkable work to light.
We owe this drawing to the passion – some would say mania – of Nicholas II Esterházy (1765-1833), who profited from the political tumult at the end of the eighteenth century to amass an enormous art collection that nearly bankrupted his legendary family. Most of the collection is now in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts and the old master drawings are the jewel in its crown. In addition to presenting masterpieces such as a Raphael Madonna and Leonardo drawings, ‘Treasures from Budapest’ offers unexpected pleasures, including Goya’s ravishing Water-carrier.
Ian McKeever RA’s personal exploration of his artistic practice in the RA’s new ‘Artists’ Laboratory’ series of shows offers another unexpected pleasure. This intimate exhibition gives us a glimpse into his private studio world and explores the relationship between his painting and photography.
Art and artists often venture off the beaten path. As broadcaster Andrew Marr writes of his beloved Glasgow Boys, ‘In art history, we sometimes focus too intently on the single main thrust of a story and lose sight of other stories which at the time seemed almost as important’. These painters were the YBAs of their generation, boldly challenging the Victorian art establishment. Yet as we look at their paintings of ducks and geese, cows and cabbage girls, we may well ask what made them so radical. This exhibition aims to answer that question.
The Glasgow Boys saw themselves as provocateurs. And in some sense, so is the artist Michael Landy RA, whose ‘Art Bin’ at the South London Gallery earlier this year attracted record crowds by inviting people to dump ‘failed art works’ in a giant bin, which became a work of art. Now the gallery, like all state-funded arts organisations, is threatened with draconian 25% cuts, and Director Margot Heller worries that it could have devasting effects on what is already a shoestring operation. ‘It is unrealistic to call for American-style philanthropy when we don’t have American-style tax breaks for individuals,’ she says.
With the help of state funding, the arts have become one of Britain’s greatest success stories over the past decade, drawing huge new audiences, attracting tourists and enabling this island to punch well above its weight on the international scene. What other British brand is as famous as its culture? As Heller and her peers prepare to fight for what they believe in this autumn, let us hope that, like Jacob, they prevail.
Highlights from the Autumn 2010 issue of RA Magazine will be online soon