by James Miller
The capacity of an artist to make one see things a new is one of the most potent qualities of art. Equally to make the familiar seem unfamiliar, to force you to consider whether you like or dislike something normally too well known to merit consideration. This is what these paintings do. They make us look again at London, and look through the eyes of an artist trained partly in another city with different artistic forebears rather than that of the British tradition.
Daniela Gullotta comes from Bologna, a city of arcades, bright light, deep shadow, of confined views that suddenly open to great spaces and an interplay of gothic and renaissance architecture. Her artistic mentors are largely of the ltalian late 20th Century school but hovering here are the scenographic designers of the l7th and 18th Centuries – Piranesi yes, but also Bibiena and his school. There is more than a touch of the stage about her works and here she has brought those talents to bear on carefully selected buildings which carry the weight of London’s development from the middle ages to
today. The result is an exhibition that reintroduces the familiar and, on occasions, conveys us to the unfamiliar.
She finds herself amongst a relatively small band of continental artists who have been seduced by London’s topography, each highly distinctive – Canaletto’s brilliant evocation of the city from the Thames, Monet’s smog-laden skies out of which familiar landmarks loom, or Kokoschka’s ariel perspectives from which the city almost dances with color. Gullotta, though, has taken her own approach, largely concentrating on buildings in their particular environments strangely stripped of their daily activities.
The starting point for a walk with these paintings might be the most westerly building: Battersea Power Station which,
in the 1930’s, became the largest building in that part of the city. The three views demonstrate Gullotta’s ability to see its different aspects. In the first it is seen as remote, a redundant edifice surrounded by impudent cranes; in the second as a
work–horse with the railway and water arteries running towards it as if to feed its inexhaustible appetite for power. The
last, the most colorful, shows it as a thing of transcendent beauty – its rich stone edifice, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert
Scott, a wonderful foil to the pale chimney stacks that seem to take off from its towers. The whole surrounding area, water and sky, take up the prism of its colors.
Going east we encounter the historic buildings of the nation – the palace of Westminster and its forerunner the chapter house of Westminster Abbey, and beyond Trafalgar Square. The latter gives the artist the opportunity to position the National Gallery and St. Martin’s in the Field against a wonderful jumble of shapes which derive from the architecture of the square itself – Lutyens’ circular fountains set against the verticals and horizontals of plinths, staircases and balustrades – a brilliant tour de force.
Travelling on we go inside buildings, first Sir John Soane’s Museum. In the first painting he presides over an interior where his ingenious spaces are wonderfully evoked but not at the expense of his collection which Gullotta rightly sees as part of the architectural expression. In the second, his position is taken by the Apollo Belvedere newly restored in its original space. Dropping down from Lincoln’s lnn Fields, she leads us to the strand and the Royal Courts of Justice. Here it must have been tempting to try to do justice to George street’s exterior, but instead, she conjures up the great central hall with its cut-away views through gothic arches, its lofty lancets all playfully reflected in the highly polished floor. A short walk beyond to Somerset House, the greatest of 18th century London palaces, and here it is the great courtyard which she opens up to view – not glimpsed through the entrance arch but by a coup de theatre of implied transparent walls opening outwards.
Then the city itself – St. Paul’s Cathedral with the interplay of arcaded shapes remind one of how, in this most classical of buildings, Wren managed to create a sense of drama through ambiguous views. Beyond, the commercial world: Lloyds of London. The tautness of its financial life reflected in the brilliant use of the moving stairwell which seems to force itself through the space. Nearby Leadenhall market appears as if by Panini. Sir Horace Jones’s richly painted interior fracturing into a wonderful interplay of colors. As in the Millenium Bridge which follows, Gullotta avoids the obvious, here eschewing the familiar ariel view and instead celebrating the sharpness of its piers, brilliantly set against the rotund outline of the Cathedral beyond.
Yet further east we encounter Tower Bridge standing tike a majestic sentinel to the city. This external watery view, amusingly contrasted with Bazalgette’s and driver’s magnificent Albion Mills pumping station. Here its curious platforms that sit amongst the foul waters are fair game for Gullotta’s style. Above the pristine neo-renaissance galleries stare across the space illuminated by a semitransparent roof. Here her vantage point is from the upper gallery space whereas the extraordinary troglodyte lair of Crystal Palace subway with its rich polychrome roof is seen straight on, as one might have encountered it as a prelude to the rebuilt Great Exhibition Halls on Sydenham Hill – surrounded by stone dinosaurs (what a curious place London is!). This journey ends with two places that demonstrate London’s continuing flux as a city. First the new canary wharf underground station, designed by Sir Norman Foster in 1990. This huge cavernous space little hinted at by the - low glass coverings on ground level, below the great arcs intersect with the roofline, soaring up giving a daunting sense of space. Gullotta here takes full advantage of the rail tracks giving a wonderful sense of implied momentum to her picture. This approach also emerges in the mysterious rail tunnels, part of the unseen underground system that bores it way beneath London’s pavements. Whilst Canary Wharf almost resonates with the sound of trains, these mail tunnels seem unnaturally quiet, one strains one’s ear for a faint rumbling sound. There is an absence of people in her paintings although the buildings speak of human endeavor. It is a powerful absence reminding the viewer that these great feats of architecture from the Westminster Chapter House of 1250 to the Millenium Bridge of 2000 are symbols of our civilization that we leave to posterity. Never is this more felt than the most evocative of her works, the three paintings of the Millenium Mills. This vast building standing on the south side of the Royal Victorian Docks near the Thames Barrier, was built in 1905 to mill corn coming in from the empire into flour.
Since its closure in 1981, its fate has been in the balance – destruction or resuscitation. As it waits, its huge industrial halls still bristling with machinery seem to be haunted by times past and of thoughts of what is to come. Man is absent but it will be him to decide its fate. Meanwhile these cavernous interiors have been brilliantly caught by the artist’s brush. Strangely here, we seem to catch implied sounds as we wish for the entrance of commerce to start up once more. The coda to our walk is a surprise, though anyone driving into London on the M40 may know this building well although at a distance. Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower is enlivened by the beautiful patchwork of its inhabitants’ paraphanalia which lifts this lofty brutalist building into a thing of beauty against the night sky. These paintings acquaint us with a London we thought we l(new well but here transformed by Gullotta’s artistry which renders their forms but also gives them an almost spiritual character.