Modern Couples at the Barbican Art Gallery review ****

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde

Barbican Art Gallery, 15th November 2018

Here’s another smart bit of curating from the team at the Barbican, in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou-Metz here led by Jane Alison. Track the history of modernism in art – not just painting, but sculpture, photography, design, print, literature and architecture, with a nod to the commercial where appropriate – through the couples which created it. 

The net has been cast wide, both in terms of the number of artists involved, 46 partnerships in total, the themes that are explored, including love, sex, passion, politics, collaboration, abstraction, communication, and the nature of the relationships, straight, gay, bi, polyamorous, homoerotic, controlling, liberating, disturbing, equal, unequal, conventional, unconventional. 

With a few exceptions there isn’t a great deal of material here to map each couple but the quantity, and the clear and direct tone, display and messaging, makes up for that. The private connections are fascinating in themselves but also shed a lot of light on how art and artists have changed society since the turn of the C20.

There are a fair few relationships that you might expect to appear, the Bloomsbury Group permutations, Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz, Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson and then Barbara Hepworth, Alma Mahler and Gustav and Oskar Kokoschka (who really couldn’t let go), Jean Arp and Sophie Tauber, Lucia Moholy and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Delauneys. And then there are a few which I didn’t anticipate. The Aaltos, Gustav Klimt and designer and businesswoman Emilie Floge, Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder. 

It is hard not to be drawn into the stories of those women artists whose contributions, the exhibition argues, may not have been justly recognised in the shadow of their more “famous” partners, Camille Claudel and Rodin, Maria Martins and Duchamp and, arguably, Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington with Max Ernst. The fate of Dora Maar, Picasso’s early muse, and Unica Zurn, the “inspiration” for Hans Bellmer, will likely disturb. A lot of these fellas don’t come across well here. 

Most interesting for me. The intense friendship between Lorca and Dali. The portraits of Romaine Brooks, (her lifelong partner, and oft-subject was the writer Natalie Barney), entirely new too me, Lee Miller, during her years with Man Ray and Roland Penrose, she is a cast-iron genius though here, as elsewhere, the submission is unsettling, and, best of all the extraordinary creative partnership of constructivists Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko. Now they were the future, and looking at their work, they still are. And as far as I can see they were genuinely equal with no hint of the f*cked up sadism of the surrealist fringe. There they are above in the 1920’s looking pretty cool. 

Well worth a look. It may end up being more biography than art and it is probably fair to say, like most of the Barbican’s exhibitions, it is designed for the slighter, and maybe outre, attention span, but, let’s be honest that is sometimes what the head, and feet, requires. Don’t expect to be bowled over by amazing art, but do expect to learn something. Tie it in with something else – it’s not like there isn’t plenty going on at the Barbican. 

Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain review ****

Edward Burne Jones

Tate Britain, 11th November 2018

Turns out Burne-Jones isn’t quite as awful as I had previously thought. Don’t get me wrong. All that hippy-dippy, fey, dreamy. dusky-toned, doe-eyed, ginger-permed, long-bodied, nymph-y, mannequin-esque, briar-strewn, Arthurian, industrialisation-denying, fake-Medieval, cod-Renaissance daubing is still guaranteed to do my head in. But I will concede that he could draw. Really draw and there are details, even in the worst of the fairy-tale illustrations, that deserve a properly good look.

I can’t change my immediate reaction to art but I can try to explain it to myself. And, if I am honest, with Burne-Jones, and the rest of the original pre-Raphaelites, and their Arts and Crafts and Neo-Gothic mates, it is in part the context in which they produced their art (and design) that winds me up as much as the work itself. As with this exhibition there are elements that I can concede give me pleasure, the colour (when vamped up as in the stained glass for example), the line and form (notably in drawings, textile, church interiors, tapestries) and the belief in the power of the aesthetic. They started off with the right inspiration, the jewels, (and working practices), of the early Flemish and Italian Renaissance, (the clue is in the pre- moniker) and their vaguely humanist intention to eschew purely religious imagery is commendable. But that doesn’t excuse the lifelessness of their subjects and the utter irrelevance of their mythologies. At the end of the day Burne-Jones ended up churning out knights in armour and pretty ladies for the great and good in Victorian society; the fate of many an artist through history for sure, but these chaps ended up as the reactionaries they purported to abjure. 

The kindness of strangers, well friends in this case, may also have had an effect on my viewing. We were a big party, with the SO, who inclines to the hyper-real in art, (though understanding that paint on canvas in two dimensions could hardly be more artificial), KCK who is an admirer, BUD the ever-curious and the Blonde Bombshells, who know their artistic onions. Me banging on about the preposterous narratives in the paintings, creepy friends and family who are persistently featured (after raiding the dressing-up box), the cut and pastes from Renaissance masters, the pointlessness, introversion and body fascism of this obsession with “beauty”, the upper-class, biscuit tin sentimentality, the failure to move on or develop his art, the dodgy androgynous eroticism, the all-round sameyness, would clearly have been border-line patronising. 

Particularly since I could be found avidly staring at many of the works looking for all the world like some-one who might be enjoying them. And as I discovered that Burne-Jones was not the la-di-dah toff I had assumed but working-class and self-taught. And Jimmy Page has pitched in with his Holy Grail tapestries. Which seems apposite. Led Zep were often musically at their very best (Immigrant Song, Stairway, Achilles Last Stand, No Quarter) just as lyrically they were off with the fairies. 

What was most interesting then? The early drawings, Going to the Battle, Buondelmonte’s Wedding, the stained glass from the V&A (if you ignore the pretty faces), the various pencil studies, the bodycolour nymphs enhanced with metallic paints, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, The Morning of the Resurrection, Love and the Pilgrim, the Lucien Freud-like portraits, details of the Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty and Perseus/Medusa series, The Fall of Lucifer and certain of the tapestries, like the Adoration above. Though I can’t say I “liked” these works, admired might better cover it. And much of the rest still annoyed me. 

So Burne-Jones. Sublime or ridiculous? You decide. For me he was both. Simultaneously. Conservative Victorian or symbolist visionary? Again a bit of both. Style over substance? Certainly but that is exactly what he and his peers set out to deliver I’ll warrant. I can see why people like Burne-Jones’s art. I just can’t quite see exactly what it is they like. It is, at least in the big, showy, famous works, very, very detached from any reality, yet seems to be prized by many for its verisimilitude. I have a feeling you could use Burne-Jones as the ultimate artist in one of those sociology attitude tests. All that useless beauty as Elvis (C not P) once said. 

Me? I would still rather spend a couple of hours with one van Eyck. More beauty. More skill. More reality. More meaning. More life. 

I can’t fault the curation though, Surprisingly this is the first full-scale survey in London of EBJ since 1975, amazing given his popularity, and the Tate has built handsomely on its own catalogue to give us the whole shebang. Downstairs in the tomb-like Manton St galleries. Which doesn’t suit every artist but sets EBJ’s sleepy melancholy and false colour palette off to a tee. There is a kind of cumulative surrender in seeing so many, large-scale, paintings hung together. 

And can anyone tell me who the bloke with the chiseled features and scary eyes is who keeps cropping up? 

Isle of Dogs film review ****

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Isle of Dogs, 12th April 2018

Many, many years ago, just after the London Docklands Development Corporation was set up in 1981 I had cause to visit the Isle of Dogs, the real one, as part of my academic studies. It was a desolate sh*thole then, with all due respect to the few residents still camped out there. I saw some stray dogs on my visit. I swear it.

It is much better now. Obviously. With all those towers, activity and people. Or is it? Was it better in its heyday as a docks, all misty-eyed, working class solidarity, shepherding the fruits of Empire. Or when it was first laid out built on capital from the evil of slavery, as so much of this country’s wealth was. I have no idea but it is interesting food for thought.

Anyway, f*ck all to do with Wes Anderson’s latest near masterpiece, unless of course old Wes was secretly slumming it with some creative chums in Limehouse at the time. I have enjoyed what I have seen of Mr Anderson’s films, namely The Royal Tenenbaums and Grand Budapest Hotel, admired them even more, but all that artifice, activity, trickery, and well, off-kilter-ness, makes it hard to connect emotionally. That is true to an extent here though the surface simplicity of the tale and the stop-motion makes it less arch than these predecessors. And that comes from someone who is not a dog person. Or a cat person. Or a goldfish person. Or a budgie person. Come to think of it I am not even a person person really.

Wes has collaborated here with literally hundreds of other creatives, (I stayed behind to watch all the credits roll up just to see, not my best ever idea), to deliver his spectacular stop-motion animation. Apparently a fair number of said creatives are based in Three Mills Studios, a short, (and very fine), walk down the River Lea and Limehouse Cut to the Isle of Dogs. One of the Three Mills is the House Mill which is reputedly the largest tidal mill in the world. I was fortunate enough to be shown around said mill, now maintained by a Trust and open on a Sunday, whilst out on a walk a couple of years ago. Once you get your head round how it works you see just how marvellous in is in its simplicity. Geeky I know but fascinating.

Back to Isle of Dogs (film). In addition to an army of artists, Mr Anderson has chucked the kitchen sink of plot devices at his story and employed some of Hollywood’s most discernible voices: Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johanssen, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinson, Harvey Keitel and, most memorably, Bryan Cranston as Chief. An orphan, an evil uncle, banishment, disenfranchisement, ecological collapse, plague, technology harnessed for dastardly purposes, rescue, trial by ordeal, redemption, there is a soupcon of everything, mixed together and gently simmered though still digestible for all ages.

There is some gentle homage to the great directors of Japanese cinema, straight and animated, (apparently Kurosawa make a film set on a rubbish heap), and the setting and collaboration is avowedly Japanese. The screenplay comes from Mr Anderson, Roman Coppola (again), Jason Schwartzman (again) and Kunichi Nomura, (who also voices Mayor Kobayashi). The dog’s barks are voiced in English, the Japanese language is only sporadically sub-titled.

I gather a whole load of guff has been written about the apparently dark forces of cultural appropriation here, given Mr Anderson’s range of Japanese stylisations . I see the argument but would not know where to start with marking out the cultural borders that would make such transgressions logical or credible. Who sets these boundaries, how and when? If this offends you will have a awful lot of shared cultural history to unravel and I, for one, would need to know how this separation was to be policed. This sort of thinking worries me.

As for the simple story of a boy and his dog, I loved it. The distancing effect which tarnishes Mr Anderson’s other films is disarmed making it much easier to root for the characters. The craft is admirable. It is a completely realised world but still doesn’t hide its cartoon roots. The score brings new definition to the word eclectic, extending well beyond the expected taiko drum rolls. It is visually funny but never tries too hard. Whilst I may not have laughed out loud at exactly the same time of the little’uns in the audience, the fact is we both laughed, ad that takes some skill. And the draughtsman in Mr Anderson can be given full rein, as his, and his collaborators’s, imaginations, range across background and foreground, to create striking scene after scene.

There is a lot here. However it works for you though, it will work for you. Don’t miss it.

 

 

Hope to Nope exhibition at the Design Museum review ****

Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-2018

The Design Museum, 2nd April 2018

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I have banged on before about how satisfying a trip to the Design Museum can be, for the building, (specifically that beautiful roof), the permanent collection and the exhibitions. Not cheap, though make yourself a child, student, pensioner or, better still, since some of these options may defy the laws of physics as we currently understand them, an Art Fund member, to get the cost down. This is the one place in London where I guarantee the “hard of concentration” will not moan and may even forego phones for a few minutes.

When I went to this exhibition, I was passing (sort of) and decided to risk the Easter rush, it was full, though not uncomfortably so, with exactly the sort of audience the curators will have hoped to collect. The exhibition looks at the way graphic design has impacted the politics of protest other the last decade. No ancient history here kids. The important issues of the day are sprightly showcased in the bijou downstairs space. Everywhere you turn is an image and idea that will maybe make you angry, sometimes make you anxious, probably make you smile and certainly make you think.

Obviously for an old-skool, pretentious, Guardian reading, hand-wringing. metropolitan elite, liberal like the Tourist, with only two typing fingers immersed in the rush of digital communication, a lot of what is here feels a bit lightweight. If the late capitalist, neo-liberal machine that has crushed all intellectual opposition is to be tamed, (not overthrown, that doesn’t work), then it is going to require a more rigorous intellectual framework than a few hashtags.. On the other hand Generation Z is unlikely to be sign up for an Althusserian re-appraisal of state and ideology. So this then is the new look of protest. It has got its work cut out. The acceleration of alienation and helplessness is as dehumanising for the powerful, (who still think they can tame it), as the powerless, (whose stake in humanity is shrinking).

In some cases though, the look is persuasive despite, or because of, its brevity. An arresting image has always been a valuable tool for those who seek to persuade. I am reminded of the recent exhibition of Soviet poster art at the V&A (Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern review ****) or the Nazi posters LD guided me through at the Deutsches Historisches Museum on our recent visit. These were tools of the state however. The revolution in the communication of information we have seen in the last four decades or so, for good or bad, leaves everyone with a stake in the battle of ideas. Interesting, but especially new, times.

The exhibition is organised around three themes, Power, Protest and Personality, though definitions are understandably loose. The exhibition kicks off with the famous Hope poster designed for Mr Obama’s first campaign which has spawned a thousand meme imitations. Western democracies split in half, wild oscillations of political supremacy, the expansion of institutional authority beyond the state, expanding autocracies, inequality fuelled by capital expansion, none of this is new, the problem is whether the fictions of nation-state and credit are still up to the task of accommodating the billions of people now with a stake in the outcomes. When the pendulum swings back away from authoritarianism and populism, as it will, these dilemmas will remain. Now everyone has a view though.

See what few posters showing the shift from Hope To Nope in a decade can do to me. Maybe time to revise my view that all these new modes of communication has no impact on me. The first room also displays material from Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Remain campaign in the Brexit Referendum which marks a sharp contrast to the output of those “Russian troll farms” and far-right US websites. Appeal to reason or confirmation of prejudice. The Sun’s pastiche of the Bayeux tapestry was new to me: it is pretty funny I admit. Elsewhere my eye was caught by the North Korean anti US propaganda with its mix of revolutionary poster zeal and 60’s pop art, some striking infographics and the spoof VW activism poster from Barnbrook. Overall this space makes a pretty good case of showing that what is sauce for the “levers of power” goose is also sauce for the “critical re-appropriation” gander. Design creates and undermines ideas, identities, governments, nations and corporations. Designers can be apolitical guns for hire or active critical agents.

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In the Protest space, I was particularly fascinated by the poster designed by Derek Kim, mostly because it is rich in detailed information of the events leading to the financial crisis of 2008. This was not the first, nor will it be the last, but vast buckets of your capital, as in all the hundreds, maybe thousands, of previous financial crises, have been used to steady the ship. I was similarly taken with the Information is Beautiful infogram.

There is a wealth of material drawn from the various Occupy protests and from recent mass protests and marches. Humour, whether satirical, parodic, ironic, sardonic or epigrammatic, has always been, and remains, a vital weapon for getting up the noses of the powerful, or for bursting the bubble of the priggish. They are usually a pretty humourless bunch. Look around at the leaders of the world if you don’t believe. There are some good examples here. Lucille Clerc’s illustrations showing the power of the pen, the Sour Brexit drinks, Oddly Head’s posters about the futility of posters, Sagmeister & Walsh’s pins. Whilst little of the fabric of protest has changed, the speed of dissemination has.

The final space dealing with Personality is a little thinner in terms of ideas and content and the least surprising. You’ll be drawn to the infamous Trump fortune-telling machine and perhaps the Anonymous material with its eye-catching Guy Fawkes mask drawn from a graphic novel and film

I am always wary of people that want you to believe that this time is “different”, “unprecedented”, “grave threats”, “more dangerous”, “massive change”, or any other such hyperbole. We humans, being what we are, are prone to exceptionalism, by identity, geography, or time, and a cursory reading of history will tell you that everyone, ever, has lived in exceptional times. Technology which changes the direction of society isn’t new, to whit the printing press, but this exhibition is an interesting take on the idea that the massive technological leap forward seen in my lifetime has altered the nature of political discourse, and the way graphic design fits into that narrative.

And a lot of cool things to look at and Instagram.

 

Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern review ****

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Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-55

Tate Modern, 19th January 2018

I have always coveted a collection. I mean a proper collection. I have a fair few CDs, (I have bought maybe 6 or 7 download only albums in my life – not having a physical copy brings me out in a cold sweat), a bit of vinyl, rather too many books, (the SO and I no longer know where to put them), programmes and exhibition catalogues and some 1960s pottery. But none of this counts. What I really want is a full-on, take over your life, obsessive, world’s leading authority, type of collection.

Mind you I have no idea where the people that do end up doing this find the time, money or space. But I am very glad this people exist. An entirely digital, thingless world where punters consume  everything on screen unsettles me. Aa it happens one such collector was graphic designer David King, and his chosen subject were prints, posters, journals and photos which document the history of Russia and the Soviet Union in the first half of the C20. Unfortunately Mr King did not live to see this remarkable exhibition largely drawn from his collection, but we should thank him for his legacy/.

Now 2017 was the centenary of the Russian Revolution and one of the first posts on this blog recorded my visit to the excellent Royal Academy survey of Soviet Art at the beginning of the year (Russian Art at the Royal Academy review ****). Since then I have been immersed in Chekhov, (a couple more Cherry Orchards, and the early plays), more Shostakovich than is good for my nerves, sundry reading and exhibitions, the Death of Stalin film and, most recently, a play from current Russian dramatist Mikhail Durnenkov. So the way in which art has explored the relationship between people and State in Russia pre and post Revolution and beyond has been a particular source of interest this last year.

What is most striking about this exhibition, at first glance, is the ubiquity of many of the images. In the early years of the USSR many avant-garde, modernist artists saw art and architecture as tools for social change. This vision was propelled by the Constructivists/Productivists, (though there are signs that Suprematism, Futurism and Neo-Primitivism also had a hand in shaping poster art). Room 2 draws together work by artist couples El Lissitzky and Sophie Lissitzky-Kippers, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova and Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina, who embodied these ideals. Forms are simplified, colours are bold and abstraction applied to human endeavour.

Red and black predominate, sharp angles, exhortations to embrace the future and beware the enemy in sans serif type, heroic poses. Even as Stalin’s regime became suspicious, or worse, of modernist art, and the visual language drifted towards the cliches of Soviet Realism, the messages remained unchanged.

Even if you don’t actually know any of these images you will think you do. But even as you marvel at the terrific wall of posters in the first room proper, and before you get to the rooms of smaller images and objects, notably rare photographs, it becomes clear that something else is going on here. For the overriding impression beyond the familiar vocabulary, is of the manipulation and avoidance of truth. Reconstructions of significant events, caricatures of Party enemies, early “photoshopping”. This is most acute in the fascinating photographs where the faces of individuals executed and murdered by the regime are cut or crossed out, or cropped in official publications, notably Trotsky. The vitrine display of photographs of victims of Stalin’s Great Purge is very moving. The execution of military leader Mikhail Tukhachevsky and suicides of renowned poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and Stalin’s own wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva are explored in detail.

Yet even in the early years, after the Revolution, the scale of the effort by the Bolsheviks to win hearts and minds across this vast. largely illiterate, population is laid bare. Many of the messages are multilingual to reflect the diversity of the Soviet Union. Agitprop trains took the message of proletariat emancipation across the land. Monuments were erected. In the 1930’s the imagery of Socialist Realism was exported, as the room devoted to the utopian murals of  Aleksandr Deinaka which were exhibited in Paris in 1937, graphically illustrates.

So we have some absolutely fascinating and striking material, very directly and compactly curated without gimmickry, which maps out the way in which hope turned to despair over the space of a few decades. It gets you thinking long and hard about the way in which art and visual media are used to create and record history, both in the Soviet Union, and dare I say, today.

 

Designs of the Year 2017 at the Design Museum review ****

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Beazley Designs of the Year 2017

The Design Museum, 8th November 2017

If you have any interest in design you are probably on to this but, if not, you should be. This is the tenth year of the exhibition, now held in the basement of the Design Museum’s plush new Holland Park home. I have been in the previous three years and, as before, there is plenty to fascinate and wow the imagination of the layman.

The exhibition comprises 62 projects divided into six categories: architecture, digital, fashion, graphics, product and transport. These are contained within a grotto like structure made up of some sort of curious paper mache like material. Very playful. There’s even some Lego to keep the kids occupied; one of the products is some natty “sticky strips” that might allow your Lego creations to defy gravity. I divined a more interventionist vibe than in prior years with a very definite focus on recycled materials and on minimising ecological impact. Sexy brand stuff was thin on the ground. The designers on show plainly what to make good things happen. Hats off to them.

Now I have to confess that I find the architecture, product and transport categories more interesting than the digital, fashion and graphics categories but there is literally nothing here that doesn’t get the brain cells working in some way. The Smithsonian National Museum of African_American History and Culture in Washington, Zaha Hadid’s last building, at the Antwerp Port Authority (I’ve seen it – it’s bloody awesome) and the  controversial Benetton store in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice, stood out in the architecture section. My favourite though was the Croft Lodge Studio fashioned out of a derelict C18 cottage. I want one. In transport the standout surely was the Scewo mobility chair which can climb stairs. I also fell for the self-driving, electric tram system from China which is guided by a double-dashed strip on the street! As for products I was drawn to the search and rescue drone designed to help migrants in the Mediterranean, the Gita robot personal helper (though it could get very annoying) and, especially, the Sufferhead Original Stout beer concept, a powerful idea.

Anyhow I am sure you will find something to draw you in. Now it is a pretty small space, so this won’t take up too much of your time, maybe an hour or so. Which means, if you aren’t to feel a little bit miffed by the 13 quid admission, (get an Art Fund Card to halve the price – all you cultural flaneurs should invest in one), you need to leave time to cruise the permanent exhibits in the DM. Up on the top floor is a compact overview of design history, piled up with some absolute classic products, which should equally please the nostalgic old and digital young. There is little that will surprise but much that will delight.

Best of all is the beautiful interior of the DM space carved out of the old Commonwealth Institute which has rescued, and restored, its truly stunning, though very problematic, hyperbolic, paraboloid (!) copper roof. The original building, completed in 1962, designed by Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall & Partners, is the finest modernist building in London IMHO, ahead of the Royal Festival Hall. After the CI itself was canned there was a real chance the building might be toast as well but fortunately pragmatism reigned, and architect John Pawson was finally wheeled in to oversee the salvation of the interior. Some whinged about the price to be paid to make this all happen, namely the development of luxury flats in the square in front of the new DM. Ignore them. These too are stunners, an understated design from Dutch wunderkind-architect Rem Koolhass’s OMA.

So pop on your smartest black designer togs and channel your inner Arne Jacobsen, Dieter Rams or Jonathan Ive.