Exhibition of the week
Picasso and Paper
The boundless creativity of the greatest modern artist is dazzling even when confined to a single, fragile material.
• Royal Academy, London, from 25 January to 13 April.
Darren Waterston’s decadent recreation of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room is fun but lacks real punch or depth – although it’s nice to be reminded of Whistler’s brilliance.
• V&A, London, from 25 January to 3 May.
Survey of artists from Albert Bierstadt to Diane Arbus who reveal the dark side of the American dream.
• Gagosian Britannia Street, London, until 14 March.
Romantic views of nature by the photographer better known for recording human tragedy.
• Hauser and Wirth, Bruton, Somerset, from 25 January to May 4.
An exploration of the undying legacy of Thomas More’s 1516 book about a perfect society.
• Whitworth, Manchester, from 31 January to 27 September.
Image of the week
Seminole Hard Rock hotel, Florida
This $1.5bn building, more than any other, embodies the end-of-the-world hedonism of the new roaring 20s. It is the work of the Seminole tribe, a Native American group whose population on the Florida peninsula numbered 200,000 when Spanish colonisers first arrived in the 1500s, now down to 4,000 members. In many ways, the edifice is a fitting symbol of Seminole defiance: the tribe have long boasted being the only Native Americans to refuse to sign a peace treaty with the US government. With a name deriving from the Spanish word “cimarrones”, meaning untamed ones, the Seminoles have proved a force to be reckoned with ever since.
What we learned
Masterpiece of the week
Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, circa 1869, by Puvis de Chavannes
This is one of the first of a wave of artistic, literary and musical treatments of the death of John the Baptist at the behest of Herodias and Salome that helped to seed modernism. In culturally advanced 19th-century France, the story was written about by Flaubert and Huysmans and painted by Moreau in ways that shaped a new aesthetic of sex and death. Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, written in French in homage to these pioneers, made this new-old myth both popular and controversial. When Richard Strauss turned Wilde’s Salome into an opera, modernism hit music.
Puvis de Chavannes was ahead of the pack by being behind it. This painting was done when the impressionists were emerging, but this idiosyncratic artist ignored modern life in favour of eerie frozen tableaux. Here, the majestic muscular figure of the executioner ripples his back like a Michelangelo nude. The killing is a stately ritual enacted in a dreamy twilight. It anticipates the escape into dreams and symbolism that was to make fin de siècle art so intense. Aubrey Beardsley, whose illustrations for Wilde’s Salome are masterpieces of abstract Freudian dream art, visited Puvis de Chavannes and surely knew this painting.
• National Gallery, London.
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