Saturday 2 October 2021

Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty

 Yesterday I went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery – always a pleasure in itself: what a building, what a collection! – to see the exhibition of Helen Frankenthaler's woodcuts. This was a real eye-opener, and a portal to the kind of aesthetic bliss that doesn't come along too often.
  I've long had a soft spot for Helen Frankenthaler – an underrated woman artist in the overwhelmingly male milieu of Abstract Expressionism – and have written about her before. Until this exhibition came along, I did not know that she worked in woodcut as well as painting on canvas – but these are woodcuts like no others I've ever seen; indeed at first glance (and second and third) they look very like paintings, and quite large paintings at that. I still have no very clear idea about how they were made – the information given wasn't basic enough for me – but I gather they involved innovative techniques, including the use of a jigsaw and much work with paper pulp and even, in one case, mulberry juice. The exhibition shows some of the prints at various stages, working towards the final version, and it is fascinating to see the fully realised picture emerging from a succession of proofs – but just how it happens I really don't know. 

   The finished prints certainly live up to Frankenthaler's central credo – that a picture must look as if it happened 'all at once' (which in fact could hardly be further from the truth with prints like these). All of them are fascinating and compel close attention, and some of them are quite – there is no other word for it – sublime. The impact, especially of the larger ones (like the late, unreproducible 'Madame Butterfly'), is stunning – but this is a classic case of an exhibition that has to be seen: reproduction gives little idea of what you see before you when you look at the finished print. I'd urge anyone who loves sheer painterly beauty (albeit in a highly unlikely medium) to visit Dulwich while the Frankenthalers are still there – you've got until April next year.

I do have one complaint: an unfortunate combination of lighting and over-reflective glass means that when you stand and look at some of these pictures you are obliged to look through a ghostly image of yourself and whatever is around and behind you. Something could surely be done about that, couldn't it? Also, as hinted above, some more technical and contextual information would have been helpful. But Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty is still one of the most beautiful exhibitions I've seen in a long while. 

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