Colors Shimmer as Bridget Riley Confronts Old Masters: Review

"Arrest 3" (1965) by Bridget Riley from the collection of the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow. Source: National Gallery via Bloomberg

Bridget Riley’s “Arrest 3” (1965) isn’t recommended viewing for anyone who suffers from motion sickness. When you look at it, the flat surface of the picture seems to heave and ripple before your eyes. After a while, the whole world may start to shift like the deck of a ship at sea.

This is a celebrated example of that fashionable idiom of the 1960s, Op Art. It might not seem to have much in common with works by Mantegna and Raphael. Yet a succinct and intriguing exhibition at the National Gallery in London, “Bridget Riley: Paintings and Related Works,” aims to show just how it has.

Putting the work of living artists in Old Master museums is a high-risk maneuver, the danger being that the contemporary work is outclassed. In this case, it’s justified because it helps us understand what Riley’s art is really intended to do and in the process throws light on Raphael, Mantegna and Seurat as well.

Riley, 79, has chosen works by those three artists of the past to hang in company with a selection of her own paintings and prints from the past five decades. Among these are a few murals executed directly on the gallery walls and a brand-new painting.

The first of her works in the show is a copy of Van Eyck’s “Man With a Red Turban,” a treasure of the National Gallery, that she copied as a teenager in 1947. That makes a useful point. Living painters keep the work of their predecessors in mind, even though the connections can be hard to see. That’s true of Hockney, Freud, Auerbach and even Damien Hirst.

Strange Procession

The old masters in this exhibition suggest just what Riley has found in the great art of the past. Mantegna’s “Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome” (1505-6) is a strange painting that imitates a stone sculpture in relief. It shows a procession of carved figures against a background of colored marble slabs.

In this, as explained in the catalog, Riley sees not so much a recreation of a Roman ceremony as a visual rhythm in a shallow space. That’s exactly what her “Arrest 3” creates too. If you have enough sea legs to contemplate it without feeling queasy, you’ll remark that out of a series of flat black and gray-blue lines, she has conjured movement. Space seems to exist between the crests and the troughs of the waves on her Op Art sea.

That, more or less, is what she always does in different ways: make shapes and colors pulse and sway in space. Some of her pictures move fast, some slowly. The vertical bands of color that make up “Saraband” (1985) won’t stay still. Some come forward, some retreat. So it constantly shimmers, not unlike the colored dots of a painting by Seurat.

Abstract Raphael

Riley’s pictures of the past decade or so are milder in color and design, suggesting leaves fluttering in the wind or dancers. These curving, dancing forms -- she points out -- are much like the red, green, blue and green draperies of Raphael’s “St. Catherine of Alexandria” (c. 1507).

Those form a complicated arrangement interlocking undulating folds and contrasting hues, as the saint leans elegantly against the wheel on which, as it turned out, she wasn’t martyred after all (it broke miraculously, so her executioners beheaded her instead). In a way, Raphael was an abstract artist too, which is an interesting conclusion.

“Bridget Riley: Paintings and Related Works” is at the National Gallery, London, through May 22, 2011. Information: The exhibition is sponsored by Bloomberg LP, parent company of Bloomberg News.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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