Natalia Goncharova exhibition at Tate Modern review *****

Natalia Goncharova

Tate Modern, 26th August 2019

Right cards on the table. If I don’t start getting a move on I am never going to catch up in terms of documenting my cultural adventures on this blog, Which would render it even more pointless and too much of a chore. So focus Tourist. Focus.

Cards on table again. I had a vague idea who Natalia Goncharova was before I pitched up to this. But I knew she was “important”, the reviews said go and Tate membership needed justifying.

Wise call. My guess is that I had seen some of her work in the Russian Art post the Revolution at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago. Mind you as someone who never fully signed up to any art movement, in fact quite the reverse as she plundered from everywhere and everyone, I can’t be entirely sure. What I can be sure of is that NG was an artist in the very top rank in the first half of the C20. Which is a pretty crowded field.

Quick bio. She was born in 1881 into an impoverished aristocratic, but academic, family, (shades of Chekhov), with money coming from textiles, in a village 200kms south of Moscow, to which she moved with her family in 1892. Studied sculpture at Moscow Art School at the turn of the century and met life long partner, and tireless advocate, Mikhail Fedorovich Larionov. European modernism, direct from Paris was an early influence on NG, but her early work actually drew more on traditional Russian folk art, most obviously the lubok, a popular coloured print format with simple graphics. Yet the works that she contributed to the first exhibition of the radical Jack of Diamonds Group in 1911, whilst still portraying folk art subjects, offer an abstracted, fragmented perspective clearly in debt to Cubism.

In 1912 NG and Larionov did found a school dedicated to traditional Russian art formats but this was quickly followed in 1913 by their so-called rayonism which took the geometric forms of futurism and vorticism but with subjects lit by prominent rays of light. In September of that year NG held her first solo exhibition in Moscow, comprising over 800 works, in a jumble of styles that peers dubbed vschestvo or “everythingism”. You get the picture (forgive the pun).

She then moved with Larionov to Paris where she fell in with the beau monde and specifically Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes for whom she designed costumes and sets most notably for works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky. She was the go-to designer when Russian folk stories graced the bill whilst still continuing to paint, teach and illustrate books . Contributions to exhibitions in London and New York in the 1920’s and 1930’s extended her renown but commissions dried up through the 1940s and 1950s. In 1955 she and Larionov married and there was sufficient interest in their work to mount a major retrospective by the Arts Council in London in 1961. NG died in Paris in 1962.

This varied practice was fully represented in this extensive exhibition with 170 contributions from numerous private and public collections, especially her native Russia, and specifically Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery. It kicks off with early works and her own collection of objects that show, for all her affinity with up to the minute modernism, her life long connection to Russian folk art. One word people. Colour. For this is what leaps out across NG’s work. Take the electric orange she sprays around. Or the cobalt blue. Straight out of the tube with no attempt to dull then down or change the tone. Just delicious.

The second room takes pieces drawn from the collections of turn of the century Moscow industrialists, Ivan Moroznov and Sergei Shchukin, which mixed the best of post-impressionism and early modernism with traditional Russian folk art. Alongside NG’s own syntheses, seen in the work taken from the her 1913 exhibition, it is the bold colours, simple forms and flat surfaces which links everything together. The nine part (seven are brought together here) series of large scale oil paintings, Harvest, dominated by bright blues, oranges and purples, are probably the most striking examples of this synthesis but it is there across all the pieces from this period, whether prints, drawings, textiles, wallpapers or designs for theatre and clothing. It might look like a Cezanne, Gaugin, Matisse or Picasso, but the feel is recognisably NG.

This individual style wasn’t just in her art but also in her self. NG strutted around as a full-on boho, face painted, showcasing her own designs, which led to commissions from the trendiest Moscow couture houses. Remember this was still the streets of Moscow not Paris, at a time of massive social upheaval. The 1905 Revolution may have loosened things up a bit in Russia but this was still the most conservative country, give or take, in Europe. When WWI opened the couple were in Paris but had to return to Moscow in August 1914 when Larionov was called up, though it wasn’t long before he returned, wounded, from the front line and was then demobilised. NG’s response was a series of lithographs, Mystical Images of War, which combined the national symbols of the Allied Powers with images from Russian liturgical works and medieval verse. Angels wrestling biplanes, the Virgin Mary morning the fallen, Death’s Pale Horse.

These are tremendous, and served to broaden NG’s reach, but they are surpassed by the selection from the Evangelists series in room 6. These large scale, powerfully direct images were based on the tradition of icon paintings but proved too much for the Russian authorities who had them removed from the 1912 exhibition. and again in 1913, this was not just because NG was a woman co-opting an exclusively male artistic tradition but also because of their astonishing modernity. (This wasn’t the first time the Russian “taste” police took offence: her 1910 painting The Deity of Fertility was confiscated and she was charged with some “corrupting the public morals” bollocks). The label “Neo-Primitive” is sometimes applied to NG’s work, including these, but, like the term Flemish Primitive to describe the early Northern Renaissance, it is misleading. Lines may be simple, forms resolutely modernist, colours flat, but these induced a similar reaction in the Tourist to the jewels of the early C15.

All her ideas are also reflected in the collection of book illustrations, catalogues and other promotional material that NG produced in the 1910s and 1920s when she was at the centre of artistic life in Moscow and then Paris. Following this are works from NG and Larionov’s response to cubism and futurism and specifically their rayonist manifesto. Now the subjects are machines and urban, not rural, life and movement and energy are the forces she seeks to capture. Landscapes, plants and people still appear but NG quickly veers to abstraction. Remember this was still 1913, pre WWI, making NG, in her prolific abundance, one of the first major artists of the time to embrace specifically non figurative art. Mind you the years just before the outbreak of WWI might just have been the most fertile in the history of Western art and ideas circulated so quickly it is tricky to know who influenced who. Anyway the point is that NG and ML were right in there.

Now in some ways, given all this outpouring of beauty, that NG got somewhat hijacked by the commissions for fashion, costume and interior designs that flooded in as her work became widely known across Europe and into the US. Teaching also took up her time. The 1920s and 1930s revealed a fascination with Spanish culture and the iconic Spanish Woman is featured in much of her non-theatre work in those years. The final room is devoted to the set and costume designs for the Ballet Russes and others, accompanied by early film performance footage and music. The “exotic” vision of the East has been a staple of C19 and C20 Western performance art, and NG’s physical representations, for the likes of works such as Le Coq d’or, the unperformed Liturgy, Les Noces, Sadko and L’Oiseau de feu are as much a part of the aesthetic, if not more so, than the music of Rimsky-Korsakov or Stravinsky.

There isn’t much other work from the 1940 and 1950’s as NG turned to a more neo-classical style, maybe harking back a bit too much to her younger self, and rheumatoid arthritis took its toll. NG may be one of the most “valuable” woman artists in the auction room but I can’t help feeling her career, after the massive creative outpouring at the beginning, and even allowing for the beauty of the theatrical design, got pushed towards design and away from “fine” art. The world is catching up with the brilliance and diversity of women artists at work prior to the second half of the C20, though it has taken long enough, but, I would contend, NG stands somewhere near the forefront, for who she was as well as what she created. Modern and traditional and overflowing with life. Apparently she once punched a bloke for calling her “Mrs Larionov”. And not just because she was by far the more famous, and talented, artist.

As it happens this is only the second exhibition dedicated solely to her work outside of Russia. Mind you although she left all her work to her native country it didn’t appear in state museums until glasnost and even then it was only in 2013 that the collection was presented en masse in Moscow.

Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries review ****

Faith Ringgold

Serpentine Galleries, 22nd August 2019

Once again it has taken the Tourist way too long to gather his thoughts on something he has seen. Which means this snappy retrospective of the work of Africa- American artist has now finished. Sorry. It was Very Good. I guess that doesn’t help.

I first encountered Ms Ringgold’s work at the Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern in 2017. Thematic anthologies are always a dream for an art numpty like the Tourist, giving an opportunity to discover all manner of ideas and artists, but this exhibition was especially fertile. Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Charles White, (especially) David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Barkley Hendricks and Melvin Edwards. All blokes. Which made Betye Saar and especially Faith Ringgold stand out, because not only does their art tackle issues of race, African-American identity and history, it also powerfully explores gender inequality.

Given Ms Ringgold’s engagement with the civil rights and feminist movements in the US over her five decade career it is perhaps surprising to learn that this the first exhibition devoted solely to her work in Europe let alone the UK. Through paintings, posters, books, sculpture, performance and her fascinating quilts she makes acute political points whose relevance has certainly not declined with time. Through her teaching and through the National Black Feminist Organisation which she founded in 1973 with her artist daughter Michelle Wallace, Ms Ringgold has been as much activist and influencer, (with real purpose, not like today’s self-obsessed “model/icons”), as artist.

She was born (1930) in Harlem where she grew up immersed in jazz culture and the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, majored in art education and started her career teaching. She began painting in the 1950s and 1960s influenced by African art, Impressionism and Cubism and inspired by writers such as James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka. She turned to art full time in 1973.

This survey opens with 7 paintings from her American People series from 1963 to 1967 which examines social inequality and racial tensions at the height of the Civil Rights movement from a woman’s perspective. These works formed the core of her inaugural exhibition at the Spectrum Gallery in 1967. The large scale US Postage Stamp Commemorating The Advent Of Black Power about sums it up. Oversizing a stamp, Pop Art style, depicting 100 sets of eyes and noses, in a grid, with 10 black faces across the diagonal, (symbolising the 10% of the population that was African American in 1967), the worlds BLACK POWER are spelled out across the other diagonal, but with WHITE POWER not so subtly encrypted horizontally. As with her quilts later on you are presented with an arresting overall image, here using flat, bright paint, which demands further detailed inspection, even after the message has made its mark. At the time FR said she did not have a clear idea of what Black Power represented but she did feel the need to ask the question about how women would fit into the struggle. And, if you ever wondered where the inspiration for the iconic Obama Hope poster campaign came from look no further.

In the 1970’s she led protests against the representation of women and Black artists in galleries, designed posters to support her politics and organised The People’s Flag Show in 1973 where she was arrested for “desecrating” the American flag. Her paintings darkened in tone, drawing from African art and, away from traditional oils. She began to explore the potential in fabric after being stirred by the C14 and C15 Tibetan tanka paintings that she saw in the Rijksmuseum on a visit to Europe in 1972.

Less convincingly to my eyes were the abstract works from the Windows of the World series made with her fashion designer mother Willi Posey. This diverse practice was represented in Room 2 but. based on the punters when I visited, one work in particular reels you in. The United States of Attica dates from 1971/72, prompted by the Attica NY prison riots where 43 people died, and depicts a map of the US in green, red and black, the colours of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist flag, recording the details of genocides that have occurred in the US from the colonial era.

In the 1980s FR first turned to the story quilts for which she is best known and which form the heart of this exhibition. These incorporate images and text to present the inter-generational stories of African American women from slavery through to the present, often painful and poignant, but also powerful and uplifting. FR’s great-great grandmother Susie Shannon, born into slavery, was compelled to sew quilts for plantation owners.

I was particularly struck by the triptych of quilts extracted from the Slave Rape series which show naked women modelled on FR’s daughters fleeing through stylised undergrowth. The colours and lines reflect the rich textiles of Central Africa, the images are made more alarming by the absence of the pursuers. Then there is Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemina? from 1983 which reimagines the racist stereotype from interwar minstrel shows used in the pancake mix brand as a determined matriarch who runs her own restaurant chain. The embroidering is exquisite, the characters sparkle, the text demands to be read. Rare sight to see people. after the regulation snap on their phones then standing still to follow the story across four generations. The other highlight was the personal Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt from 1986.

Later on in the 1980s FR moved away from narrative quilts to something closer to her earlier oil paintings and, for me at least, some of the classic art of the Harlem Renaissance, most obviously in Jazz Stories . Though the powerful political messages remain. In fact maybe even more so. Even without the text these dense complex works, as in the earlier pieces, need time to fully take in. We Came to America from 1997, part of the American Collection, shows a dreadlocked Statue of Liberty with black baby in one hand and torch in the other, astride an Atlantic Ocean, filled with writhing black bodies. The ship in the background is based on JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship. FR created a fictional artist creator for the series who dreams of walking back across the sea to Africa arm in arm with her brothers and sisters.

The Tar Beach quilt from 1988 is more autobiographical recalling childhood summers spent on the hot roof of her apartment building in Harlem with parents, friends and siblings. This formed the basis for FR’s acclaimed books for children. Subway Graffiti from 1987 shows friends and neighbours crammed on a subways platform with names and tags filling the panels which surround them.

But just in case we get too comfortable this collection ends with something more trenchant in the form of 1997’s The Flag is Bleeding again from the American Collection. We see a black women bleeding from her heart protecting her two small children all against the backdrop of the Stars and Stripes. The title is the same as that used in the American People series which opened the exhibition though that picture shows a black man armed with a knife, a white woman, and a white armed man peering through the bleeding flag.

The exhibition, and this is no criticism, did not include any of FR’s mixed media masks and costumes which she created in 1973, notably the Witch Mask series and the Family of Woman Mask series. Or any of her life-sized soft sculptures, which, like the masks, take inspiration from African art. The masks and costumes, together with music and dance, formed the basis of FR’s performance in the 1970s and 1980s which often retold the stories in her quilts.

Even without these elements this exhibition gave a very clear overview of FR’s practice. This is art with a clear message on behalf of those marginalised by race or gender, aware of its origins and its history. Nothing ambiguous or simplistic here. It elevates materials and making over theory and process, anger over aesthetic, and invites the viewer to take time to reflect on its meaning.

Above all else FR is a story teller. I like stories. And, I’ll bet, you do to. It’s just a shame that some of these stories still have to be told.

Van Gogh and Britain at Tate Britain review ****

Van Gogh and Britain

Tate Modern, 30th July 2019

Took me way ages to find the time to see this. And even longer to comment on it. Really what is the point.

Especially as even late afternoon on a weekday it was a bun fight with bugger all chance to stand, look and see. So not sure what to say. It’s van Gogh so of course there are paintings which, even when they shout out their familiarity, still stop you dead in their tracks. And wall upon wall of exquisite drawings. But no real opportunity to revel given the crowds.

VvG spent three years in London from 1873 to 1876, with trips back to the continent. I always get a thrill from the idea that he pitched up in Isleworth where he worked as a Sunday school teacher and then preacher. Look at the blue plaque opposite Isleworth Rec from atop the 267. Of course his time in Brixton (bit hipper I guess) is better known, working in central London. But this was in his early 20’s, in the art gallery Goupil, before he started painting. But he did draw. And maybe he did soak up the influence of these early years. Not in the same way as he did with Impressionists in Paris or from the Japanese prints he adored. At least that’s the theory here.

Cue a string of pearls in the form of self portraits, the NG’s Sunflowers, Starry Night over the Rhone (from the D’Orsay), Shoes, Hospital at St Remy, and other maybe lesser known works not drawn from the VG Museum in Amsterdam, like the extraordinary, and chilling, Prisoners Exercising (Moscow Pushkin) from 1890 and depicting Newgate Prison. There are a few half hearted attempts to show the London influences such as a Whistler Nocturne, but most of the interest for the Tourist came from the drawings. Never been to the Kroller-Muller collection in Otterlo, from which many of these drawings were, er, drawn, as well as a few paintings, but it is now a priority (if I can trick the SO into driving me there somehow).

The influence of French engraver/printmaker Gustav Dore is also plain to see in the copious copies VvG made of his illustrations which reveal the darker side of Victorian London. And the peasant landscapes that VvG painted in his early years owe a debt to the prints that he will have seen in English magazines from the 1870s. Apparently VvG read Dickens avidly, (and, exhibiting more taste, George Eliot), and his chair paintings might just have been inspired by a memory of an English print memorial after Charlie’s death entitled An Empty Chair.

At the end of the exhibition there are even a bunch of flower and portrait paintings, some actually quite pleasing, from the likes of Harold Gilman, Spencer Gore, Ben Nicholson and even Jacob Epstein, some just awful. There is even a Bacon triptych tribute to VvG, and a Bomberg self portrait. But it is the VvG flora, trees, wheat, flowers, blossoms, and people, which leap out here, almost literally, putting everything else into the shade. You can see the paint, every brushstroke, and you can feel the light, however coloured, but you can also know the subject, animal, vegetable or mineral, which is what makes VvG’s paintings so appealing to, well, everyone. Judging by this exhibition and by the Tourist’s most recent expeditions to Amsterdam.

Which is what made this exhibition just about worthwhile. For although this grumpy, old f*cker can get wound up by all these people milling around, only concerned with the image that they capture on their phones and not what is actually in front of them, it is still an immense rush to watch the joy transfer from canvas to viewer.

Dead at 37. What a waste.

William Kentridge retrospective at the Eye Film Museum Amsterdam review *****

William Kentridge – Ten Drawings for Projections, O Sentimental Machine

Eye Film Museum, 20th June 2019

The Tourist can’t really be doing with blockbuster art exhibitions in London any more. Too lazy to take the early morning members’ option and too impatient to put up with the crowds of selfie takers who clutter up the galleries and have no interest in seeing the art. Better to focus on permanent collections here, and in Europe, away from the hordes.

So it was a joy to spend a few hours in the company of William Kentridge in the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam. A wonderful building with some diverting displays and a ever-changing roster of films old and new from around the world across its four state of the art screens. And a beautiful view of the IJ from the caff. It pains me to say but it probably has the edge on the BFI. And then there are the exhibition spaces currently devoted to this, a display of WK’s breakthrough animation works created between 1989 and 2011 which he donated to the Museum in 2015. The 10 short films are set alongside a selection of the silhouette and map tapestries which WK has designed (some of which I think I have seen before in the Smoke, Ashes, Fable exhibition in Bruges) which similarly address the history of his native South Africa and the film installation from 2015 O Sentimental Machine which is centred on archive footage of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

For those familiar with WK’s work, which frankly should be all of you, there is nothing too surprising here in terms of his Expressionistic method and technique. The animations are comprised of the charcoal sketches which WK draws, redraws, erases and reshapes, which he then films with gaps of between a quarter of a second to a couple of seconds, to create moving, in all senses, images. The act of drawing and erasing leaves traces of the past to remain in the present in metaphor for the evolution of South African society, the cycle of remembering and forgetting. The animations allude to but do not always address key events in South Africa’s modern history both pre and post Apartheid, such as the Sharpeville massacre, the release of Mandela, the passing of abolition and the Truth and Reconciliation hearings.

The films set these events against the life stories of two fictional characters, the dreamy philosophiser, Felix Teitlebaum, who is most obviously the alter ego of WK himself and Soho Eckstein, an amoral industrialist who, through time, begins to see the human suffering his business empire has wrought and seeks redemption. Felix’s history is more focussed on his interior and love lives and on his questions about the world around him. Given their physical similarities though it seems clear that Eckstein represents a darker side of WK’s own nature and, over the course of the series, the identities of the two characters begin to merge.. At least that was what I saw. As WK says, in this series he is interested in “a political art, that is to say, an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings”.

Each film is accompanied by music either composed by WK’s regular collaborators or an appropriate classical piece. Even without the reflections on the evils and crimes inflicted by the apartheid regime on the South African people it is easy to become transfixed by the stories of Felix and Eckstein. Put the allusion and metaphor on top and the fascination of their construction, so simple yet so powerful, and it is impossible not to sit through every one. Which makes for a very satisfying couple of hours.

  • Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989)
  • Monument (1990)
  • Mine (1991)
  • Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991)
  • Felix in Exile (1994)
  • History of the Main Complaint (1996)
  • Weighing and Wanting (1997)
  • Stereoscope (1999)
  • Tide Table (2003)
  • Other Face (2011)

O Sentimental Machine is a little less immediate in its impact. it is made up of five screen projections, and various objects, to recreate the office of Leon Trotsky. The archive film of a Trotsky speech on the future of Communism, which is, give or take, overwritten with cut up subtitles, is drawn from the Eye’s own archives. WK and his collaborators provide additional footage involving various machines and routines with plenty of the trademark megaphones. WK parodies Trotsky whose secretary Evgenia Shelepina has to deal with his ever expanding writing. Apparently Trotsky was in exile in Turkey when he wrote the speech. He also said that “humans are sentimental but programmable machines” which became unreliable if they fell in love, thus providing the inspiration for the installation. Many layers then though the prime message I guess is the idea that technological progress and grand ideas may not necessarily be unalloyed goods and doesn’t necessarily help

WK was born in Johannesburg in 1955 the son of two prominent, ethnically Jewish, anti-apartheid lawyers. He went on to study Politics and then Fine Art, followed by mime and theatre at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. Which perhaps explains why his art is so committed, how it manages to successfully spans various media and why he has also been successful as a theatre and opera director.

The exhibition runs through to September. Of course you could go and hang out in a brown cafe of the red light district with all the other tourists ravaging Amsterdam. Or you could come here. You decide.

Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain review ****

Don McCullin

Tate Britain, 1st May 2019

The main event first. The astonishing work of Don McCullin, the renowned “war” photographer, though this epithet doesn’t get close to covering the depth of the work revealed in this retrospective at the Tate, (now finished, sorry). McCullin, now 83, left art college at 15, worked on the railways and then did his National Service, where he worked as a photographer’s assistant having failed the theory paper which would have let him take pictures. In 1959, back in Britain, his mates persuaded him to submit his portrait of gang members, The Guvnors, to the Observer. It was printed and the rest is history.

His work in Berlin, as the Wall went up, and in Cyprus on partition, catapulted him to the top of his profession, he has been lauded with awards throughout his career. From 1966 to 1984 he was a photo-journalist for the Sunday Times Magazine producing iconic work in Vietnam, Biafra, Northern Ireland, the Congo, Bangladesh, Palestine, Beirut, Uganda, Chad, Cambodia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He also documented the plight of the poor, homeless and marginalised across Britain. His later work includes landscapes, ancient architectural treasures, notably Palmyra, and even some still lifes.

The exhibition includes work from across his career, as well as original examples of his work for newspapers and magazines and some helpful biographical details. He cites Alfred Stieglitz, the father of art photography in the US and husband of Georgia O’Keefe, as an influence despite their different genre focus. McCullin’s sharp, monochrome images are remarkable, even to this numpty, for their composition and mastery of light, though DM only staged one image in the exhibition, and for their visceral emotional power. Unusually he has printed very image in the exhibition himself which means he has to constantly return to these powerful images.

He clearly had to be very brave to take these pictures. He was wounded in Cambodia, imprisoned in Uganda and kicked out of Vietnam. His camera got in the way of a bullet intended for him. That camera is here in this exhibition. His has been hospitalised on numerous occasions. The UK Government pretended the ship was full and refused him a pass to cover the Falklands War. He hasn’t let up, travelling in 2015 to Kurdistan to document the struggle between Kurds, ISIS, Syria and Turkey.

Given the often appalling suffering, war, starvation and disease, which his photos captured it isn’t a great surprise that DM wrestled with the ethics of what he was doing. There are a couple of quotes below from Wiki which get to the heart of his dilemmas. Ultimately the urge to show the world the horrifying stories behind what he saw rightly trumped any sense of voyeurism. The most affecting works are the close up portraits especially those where the subject is often staring direct into camera. Even in a crowded Tate exhibition these are impossible to pass by. We live in a world saturated with images. It is hard therefore to understand just how much impact DM’s photos and the stories that accompanied them had on our society and discourse, especially in the pre-digital 1960s and 1970s. You will probably already know some of these images such is their importance.

An excellent exhibition if somewhat overwhelming. There is some relief in the early, nostalgic, photos of the British working class but, when it gets difficult, the Tourist opted to focus on a few works to try to take in the documented subjects and events. Not entirely successful. With this many people milling around and with so much history and suffering to contemplate it was hard to avoid being numbed or simply failing to see. Just occasionally though I think I saw the truth which DM wanted to captured. It was pretty scary.

“I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practise religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: “I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.” That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.”

“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

I Am Ashurbanipal exhibition at the British Museum review ****

I Am Ashurbanipal King of the World, King of Assyria 

British Museum, 15th February 2019

Crikey. Those Assyrians had a way with reliefs carved in gypsum/alabaster. Even if it was primarily all in the service of terrifying aggrandisement. The King hunting, the King and his soldiers slaying his enemies, the King relaxing with the ladies. It is all about the big man. Seeing these panels adorning the main rooms of the Empire’s palaces, painted in bright pigments, you certainly would have known who was the boss.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire took in most of modern day Iraq, Syria and Iran from 911 BCE to 612 BCE and Ashurbanipal was in the hot seat at its zenith from 668 BCE to 627 BCE. One way or another the Assyrians had been a big noise in the region for the previous 1500 years or so but it is only when the factions came together, and decisively defeated their neighbours, that the Empire was able to take in Cyprus, the Eastern Mediterranean, Eastern Turkey, Egypt and the Persian Gulf. The Neo-Assyrian Empire kicked off with Adad-nirari II but it was Ashburanipal’s daddy, Esarhaddon, the son of a “palace-woman” not the Queen, who did the blood-thirsty groundwork for his favourite son. Even so little Ashurbanipal had to initially share with big brother Shamash-shum-ukin who ruled the rebuilt Babylon.

Whilst Ashurbanipal’s geographical inheritance was vast it needed looking after. First he had to take on the various Empires in Egypt including the Nubians. Then he had to decisively crush the Assyrians’ arch-enemies, the Elamites, and finally he had to take on his own older brother when Babylon rebelled. There is plenty of pictorial and written evidence to show just how cruel Ashurbanipal could be when it came to waging war but, as all you students of ancient history know, you can’t build an empire on brain-dashing alone. You needs brains that stay in heads as well. And this is where the exhibition steps in showing just how learned the great king was, (he had been trained to rule, and to spy and intrigue, from an early age), as he amassed his great Library, oversaw an unrivalled system of communication across the Empire, negotiated treaties and vassalships too hold together his various, proud peoples and turned Nineveh into the greatest city on Earth. He wasn’t troubled by modesty mind as the translations show. It all went to sh*te when he died, isn’t that always the way, but what is on show graphically reveals just how magnificent, (assuming you were on the right side, and ideally you weren’t a lion), it all was at its peak.

Now the British Museum has the lion’s share (haha) of the world’s Assyrian artefacts so curating this exhibition wasn’t too much of a struggle, I imagine. Even so much of this material is not on permanent display, there are plenty of astonishing loans on show and the way the story is told, as is usual at the BM, is superb. Most Assyrian art was lifted in the mid C19, (the Victorians went mad for it), having previous been ignored by scholars in Europe and the US. You can argue about the ethics of such an enterprise, but then again you might also want to consider the centuries before when the exquisite calcite alabaster palace reliefs, lamassu and large scale statuary went walkabout, and you also need to think about the wholesale destruction of what remained in situ by ISIS especially around Mosul. At the end of the exhibition this part of the story is highlighted including the work of the BM in supporting and training local archaeologists to examine and conserve what is left.

Highlights? The small-scale lion hunts, (though I reckon, based on the casual manner in which Ashurbanipal is despatching the beasts, that these reliefs may incorporate a little poetic licence even if they are anatomically perfect) . The Garden Party in the palace of Nimrud. (Let us hope Queen Liz doesn’t take up the custom of decorating the Buck Palace gardens with enemy heads). The wall of cuneiform on clay tablets, a summation of the Knowledge of the day, (a word to the wise – if you want your library to resist a fire, use clay). The copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first ever work of literature. The battle scenes illuminated with modern technology. The “painted” relief similarly enhanced. The lamassu, the human headed bull/lions with wings that stand guard. (How do you move these things? With great care I should imagine and without enlisting the services of the congenitally weak and clumsy like the Tourist). The sphinx of his arch-enemy. Taharqa. The imported Nimrud ivories. The decorated bronze helmet.The tiles. The obelisks. The statue of the big fella himself, alongside his bro. The Elamite art, pedestrian when compared to its Assyrian overlords.

The thing with the reliefs is that not only are they historically and aesthetically pleasing and interesting but they also tell an immediate story. It is this clear, (well, with a bit of help from the curators comments), narrative which makes this art and this exhibition special even if you aren’t normally one for the “dusty” as LD terms most History. Obviously some of the content, the pre-flaying, tongue-ripping, the bone-grinding, the beheading, appeals to our voyeuristic cravings, (don’t worry it isn’t TOO realistic), but it is the muscle, the movement, the energy, the vivid impression of something happening (even if the perspectives are that odd mix of profile and frontal/three-quarter that characterised pre-Grecian art), that makes it special.

And a lesson to all would-be tyrannical despots. If you are going balls-out to subjugate your people, do show an interest in reflecting your “glory” in art. Otherwise no-one will remember you.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library review *****

Anglo-Saxon Kingsdoms: Art, Word, War

British Library, 30th December 2018

I mean it isn’t all books. There are charters and letters as well. And pottery, coins, art and jewels. But there are a lot of books. Oh my word though, what beautiful books. If you are at all interested in this period of history and the formation of our country, and you like, as Tubbs would say, precious things, (which haven’t been burnt, or otherwise destroyed, notably by the dispersal of monastic libraries in the 1530s), then this is unmissable. The British Library has wheeled out some of its finest treasures from the period, Beowulf, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the St Cuthbert Gospel and Bede’s works, but it doesn’t stop there, with some extraordinary loans from the British Museum, Cathedrals (Canterbury, Durham, Exeter, Lichfield and Rochester), Oxbridge colleges (notably the Parker Library at Corpus Christi Cambridge) and generous institutions around the world (notably France, the Netherlands, Sweden and, maybe best of all, Italy).

The exhibition begins with the first Anglo-Saxons coming to Britain in the 5th century, takes us through the kingdoms that emerged, Kent, East Anglia, Northumberland, Mercia and Wessex, before England was created, as well as the continuing influence of the Danes, and, finally the Normans. We see how the history, art and literature of these Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms developed, and we see the emergence of the English language, (though don’t expect, unless you are an expert in these things, to be able to read the manuscripts. but do listen to the spoken originals and modern translations provided).

The earliest evidence of the language is contained in some cynic inscriptions and a Kentish law code in the first room, Origins. My first highlight though was the unique Spong Man urn lid from the 5th century, he looks so crestfallen, but then again so might you if you were sat atop someone’s ashes. The St Augustine Gospels from the late 6th century are something special, but the Moore Bede from the mid 8th century, copied out soon after the Venerable’s death at his own monastery Wearmouth-Jarrow, is a jaw-dropper. This is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the page on show tracing the journey of St Augustine, in letters. The script is pretty dense but this is basically the beginning of our written history.

The second room, Kingdoms and Conversions, has some exquisite jewellery from, amongst others, Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, but once again I was drawn to the scripts. The fragment of a letter from St Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, possibly from the late 4th century, brought here by Abbot Hadrian, various charters, letters and rules from the 7th and 8th centuries, the beginnings of our systems of law, and the Book of Durrow from c. 700 with its various decorative influences. These are trumped though by the beautifully preserved Echternach Gospels, maybe from Ireland, maybe Northumbria, maybe Echternach itself in Luxembourg, the even more spectacular Lindisfarne Gospels also c. 700, and, drum roll please, the Codex Amiatinus.

OMG. Now even if your are some bored teen being dragged around by your pillock of a Dad I defy you not to be impressed by this. First off, it is bloody enormous, 1030 leaves in total. Secondly the page it is open to, a full page illumination of a scribe at work, is just so vibrant and, finally, the history of the Bible itself is just so fascinating. One of three made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early years of the 8th century it was taken in 716 by Abbot Ceolfrith and chums to Rome. AC, poor chap, died on the way but in the 1300 years until now it has been cared for in Italy, latterly at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence. Welcome home then Codex Amiatinus, if only for a short visit. It is the oldest complete Latin Vulgate version of the Bible; only the fragmentary Leon palimpsest is older. It was assumed to be Italian, from the 6th century, until some top-drawer research revealed that it was actually created during Northumbria’s Golden Age.

Take your time surrounded by these gems. There are more treasures to come but this room, for me, was the pinnacle. The next room, Mercia and Its Neighbours, details the rise of that kingdom, through military power and political skill, and the creation of a third archdiocese at Lichfield alongside York and Canterbury. Once again the Gospels (Barberini, St Chad, Harley Golden) will draw your eye, as will the Lichfield Angel if you have not see it before, but I was particularly interested in the various charters, from King Aethebald dated 736 and from King Offa dated 783, and the evidence of links with Charlemagne in mainland Europe. It made me reflect again on how the powerful choose leaders primarily to validate their own appropriation of land and capital, and spend an awful lot of time arguing with each other to secure leaders more amenable to their ambitions.

The Favourite, Richard II, C18 British history, Brexit newsflow, this exhibition. All entertainments and/or learnings on the Tourist’s plate in the last couple of weeks, all variations in part on this theme. Similarly the next room, The Rise of the West Saxons, which charts the ascendancy of King Alfred and his successors and the idea of an England. Now the Tourist cheerfully confesses that he is addicted to The Last Kingdom, the TV series now in its third season, based on Bernard Cornwall’s The Saxon Stories novels. Now it is a bit daft at times, and cheesy, and the main protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and his mates, do, implausibly, get about a bit. He may be fictional but many of the other players on show were for real and, in David Dawson playing Alfred, it has a top-notch actor showing his class. Like I always say, take your education wherever you can.

By 880 Alfred had made peace with the Danes, who were increasingly “naturalising”, and promoted a cultural leap forward, with the development especially of the English language. This legacy continued through grandson Aelthelstan, the first King of England from 927 to 939, who claimed control of Northumbria and submission from the Scots, Welsh and remaining Britons. Aethelstan centralised government, expanded the reach of the law, founded places of religion, (his personal psalter, a pocket gospels, is on display), and got stuck into European politics. So there you are little Englanders. Even when little England first became a reality we were tied to that pesky Europe. It will never go away whatever you may think. BTW, in my final, I promise, “look at me” moment in this post, I walked past the very spot where Aethelstan was crowned not a few hours ago. Outside the police station in Kingston-upon-Thames. I kid you not.

So no surprise that I took a long look at the Council of Kingston document in the exhibition which dates from 838 and confirms the alliance between Ecgberht, Alfred’s grandad, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The beautiful Stockholm Codex Aureus, on loan from, er, Stockholm, will also detain you but it is the famous historical documents, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser’s Life of King Alfred, the treaty between Alfred and Guthrum the Dane, a translation from Alfred himself and the Foothill Letter from the early 10th century, the oldest letter in the English language, that require careful examination. History. Boring. Think again.

Highlights of the next room, the self-explanatory Language, Learning and Literature, include the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, the greatest Anglo-Saxon literary relic, the Junius Manuscript, 1000 lines of Old English verse, the Old English Hexateuch, the first six books of the Bible and the Old English translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. If your interest extends to natural sciences, medicine and mathematics then you will be fascinated by this section.

The next room, Kingdom and Church, is focussed on the elevation of the Church under King Edgar, Alfred’s great-grandson. The highlight here comes at the end with the display of the Utrecht (825), Harley (first half 11th century) and Eadwin (c. 1150), Psalters displayed side by side. Seeing how one was copied into another into another is just amazing. Prior to this though the room is stuffed full of dainties, notably the Benedictional of Aethelwold from the 970s, the Vespasian Psalter from the second quarter of the eighth century, (the earliest Biblical text in the English language), the Boulogne and, especially, Trinity Gospels and the Winchester Troper.

The final room, Conquests and Landscapes, looks at the return of the Danes under Cnut and then the Norman Conquest, culminating with the BL’s Domesday Book and a short video.

I could go on and on but no purpose would be served in this. I have my catalogue accompanying the exhibition and can safely say, as one who regularly purchases such items, (and doesn’t always look at them immediately), that this is one of the most informative, involving and attractive I have ever seen. Even the short exhibition guide is a mine of information and the notes to the exhibits themselves could not be clearer.

All in all, and given the potential bone-dry bear-trap of a subject, early English history, and exhibits, in a word books, (though there is, as I said, plenty of other material on show here), this is a triumph. Maybe not enough to persuade those for whom history and manuscripts are anathema but if you have any interest at all, from any angle, don’t hesitate. No need, as ever with these things, to dutifully read every note or take in every exhibit. But if you can’t find at least a few items that command your attention I would be amazed.

It is on until 19th February. Usual rules apply. First thing in the morning. Sunday afternoon or the later slots on Tuesday when this opens until 8pm. And avoid the last week.