Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery exhibition review ****

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Andreas Gursky

Hayward Gallery, 4th April 2018

Odds are you have seen one of Andreas Gursky’s giant, hypnotic, immersive photographs. He charts the relationship between man and environment, fiddling with perspective, highlighting the repetition of our own industry and locating the beautiful and the ugly, often simultaneously. His viewpoint is oftendistant but his technique and process yields intense clarity and detail. You may start this exhibition thinking “yeah, so what” but by the end you will be enthralled, perturbed and maybe a little overwhelmed.

AG was born in Leipzig in 1955 but grew up in Dusseldorf when his family escaped to the West. His parents ran a commercial photography studio and he studied photography in Essen and then in Dusseldorf under Bernd and Hilla Becher. They are the conceptual artist couple who turned work-a-day industrial buildings into monochrome beauties. His peers, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Candida Hofer and Axel Hutte, made up the so-called “Dusseldorf School”, the name as bracingly unambiguous as much of their photography. Even those of us with only a cursory interest in photography will have encountered most of these artists. He used film early on but turned digital in the early 1990s extending the scope of his experimentation, notably with perspective and scale.

His early works shows people in his native Germany engaged in leisure activities dwarfed by both the landscapes they seem lost in and by the industrial or commercial activity which crops up at the margin. A sharp contrast of rural and urban, they hark back to the Romantic landscapes paintings of the previous century. He wasn’t averse to manipulation, as are painters, Rhine II, above, has been constructed by editing out a power station. Apparently this is the most expensive photograph ever sold $4.3mn.

Indeed there is a painterly sensibility throughout the exhibition in the use of colour and form, with nods to all manner of artistic movements, and even some straight homage with a photo of three Turner landscapes. These are not “true to life”, Gursky explicitly wants to “construct reality”, which brings them much closer to paintings than photos, albeit in blazing high definition.

Pretty soon he was on to architecture, focussing on the engineering necessities, unusual perspectives, public areas, any people on show once again are tiny in comparison to the structures. There is a minimalist intent to the work even if the outcome is complicated by repetition.

He pushed printing technologies to their limits in the 1980s and 1990s to create scale which allows to look at the pictures up close, to revel in the line by line detail, as well as from further away to take in the whole. It is a lot of fun moving between the two viewpoints, especially where he has taken this to abstract extremes with carpet tiles. pyramids, ceilings and the like. It also works when he has photographed industrial landscapes or townscapes from distant characterised by rectilinear structures, the containers and apartment blocks of the port of Salerno for example, the interiors of factories and warehouses, Amazon, devoid of workers, or a 99 cent store, roof reflecting, or across the roofs of a Tokyo suburb.

This tells us a lot about how organisation and process defines so much of our built environment and maybe something about the alienation that characterises complex economic systems. The perspectives merge background and foreground which again invites close examination. This is often achieved by combining multiple images to eliminate depth of field and it gets more disorientating the longer you look. He evens creates captivating viewpoints from space by manipulating satellite imagery.

As well as engineered structures he also photographs crowds from elevated viewpoints, whether it be open outcry trading floors, the energy of mass raves or the orchestrated choreography of displays in North Korea. These often create a sense of time standing still, especially where the image has been manipulated such as the F1 Pit Stop, despite the apparent frenetic activity (there are way too many mechanics in attendance here and the two crews are at different races!). This manipulation has been taken to greater extremes in more recent work such as the picture of Iron Man and his lady friend on a tropical beach, or the four German Chancellors improbably admiring a Barnett Newman minimalist painting. I’m not sure these measure up, (literally in some cases as these works are smaller in size), to the earlier studies, but they are often witty, like the shelves in the Prada store with product digitally removed.

It was a dullish day on my visit so the newly restored Hayward Gallery top floor lightwells were not shown off to full advantage but that might have been just as well given the dizzying amount of information the eye has to take in across this extensive retrospective, some 70 works in total. Even at the best of times I find it pretty demanding to create an impression of what I have seen or heard in these primitive posts. This exhibition was especially tricky to capture. I suggest you just go and see for yourself. For what is most extraordinary is that, with all the manipulation and technical wizardry, Andreas Gursky seems to capture exactly what we think we see. The eye and brain is no camera. AG knows that and knows we are just a little bit afraid of what we can do.

 

 

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.

 

Another Kind of Life exhibition at the Barbican review ***

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Another Kind of Life: Photography at the Margins

Barbican Art Gallery, 29th March 2018

I am lucky I have the time to visit popular galleries at quieter times. For there are some which, by dint of the material they are presenting, seem to get extremely busy at certain times. There are often queues round the block, (well not quite), of pensioners for the blockbuster exhibitions at the National, and similarly at the Tates, albeit with a more varied demographic. Good to see, if not good for seeing once you’re in.

The Barbican similarly attracts a crowd but here it is much younger and hipper. To stop myself harrumphing when they get in my way, or fiddle with their phones, and to avoid the embarrassment of being stared at given my tramp-like appearance, I find it best to go early before the layabout students are up or late when they are planning their evening’s entertainment.

Seriously though the Barbican curating team seems to be doing something right. Whilst it would be impossible to match the impact of the Basquiat spectacular (Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican review **) which I swear I tried to like but couldn’t, this new collection seems to be packing them in.

Photography, for me, is a less interesting artistic medium than, say paint, but when it shines a bright light on society, as here, than I can get drawn in. The curators have pulled together the work of, I counted, 20 photographers in total, who have documented people who have chosen to live at the margins, or right outside, mainstream society, either because of, or to reinforce, their individual, or collective, identities. The exhibition is careful to explore this theme across cultures and time. I knew next to nothing about any of the artists (bar Boris Mikhailov and Diane Arbus), and can’t pretend much knowledge subsequently, but I was struck by the strength that many of the individuals whose images are captured here derive from peer groups.

Whether it be the retro, rockabilly, multi-racial Parisian gangs photographed by Philippe Chancel, the very cool Teds of Chris Steele-Perkins, Danny Lyon’s Easy Rider biker mates, Bruce Davidson’s early 1950s New York ruffians and, most strikingly for me, Igor Palmin’s Russian hippies, there is an obvious attraction in these rebels. Choose your tribe. I never quite got over being too young for the Summer of Love.

The exhibition kicks off with the legendary Diane Arbus’s portraits of circus performers, nudists, transgender people and others from the 1960s and 1970s. Hard to believe she started as a fashion photographer alongside husband Alan. These portraits border on the intrusive and sensational but there is no doubting their influence on later generations. Take a look upstairs at Katy Grannan’s intimidating portraits of those who aren’t now part of the American Dream, or Alec Soth’s documentation of US survivalists.

The best of the rooms downstairs shows the work of Daido Moriyama and follower Seiji Kurata. The former’s blurred nighttime photos of the murkier side of Tokyo, and the latter’s more polished studies of a similar milieu, are more disquieting than some of the other groups on show. Here is real confrontation. As there is in the Tulsa photos of Larry Clark; he is one of the teens shooting up here.

The most striking documents though downstairs are to be found in the vitrine full of holiday snaps taken at Casa Susanna in the early 1960s. Casa Susanna was a weekend retreat for transgender women and cross-dressing men run by Susanna Valenti and her wife Marie in New York State. Remember this was a time when being publicly transgender was still a criminal offence. The photos were taken by Andrea Susan, one of the guests, which explains their relative quality. They were eventually discovered in a flea market and published a few years ago and inspired the play Casa Valentina at Southwark Playhouse in 2015. Everyone seems to be having a good time. It’s pretty uplifting.

The photographers showcased upstairs are more focussed on individual or small group portraits. Most striking perhaps are Jim Goldberg’s stories of street teenagers, led by Dave and Echo, from California first published in 1995 entitled Raised by Wolves. His observational technique, accompanied by text, video and other material,  is pretty harrowing, and it does, like other material in the exhibition, get you to thinking about the relationship between photographer and subject and your own relationship, as you trot around the gallery in the company of an audience of observers who are firmly within the mainstream of society (even if some may think they are not), with the subjects here, who have been forced, or chosen, or some combination thereof, to be “different”. Queasy voyeurism comes with the price of the ticket here.

The intervention of the photographer is most acute in the small room devoted to Boris Mikhailov’s photographs of a staged wedding of a homeless, alcoholic couple in contemporary Russia. It is provocative but it gets its point across. I found these hardest to look at. Paz Errazuriz’s pictures of transgender women from Chile are doubly arresting, precisely because that is what would have happened to her is she had been caught taking such photographs in Pinochet’s Chile.

You will also be intrigued by the stories behind Pieter Hugo’s portraits of Nigerian men and their captive animals, hyaenas and baboons, that live on the fringes, and alarm, South African society. Mind you some of them are gang members, drug dealers and debt collectors so the fear may be justified. They are certainly imposing and, I think, the photographs which I found most aesthetically pleasing if that makes sense. Pathologist turned conceptual artist,Teresa Margolles’s pictures of transgender prostitutes set amidst the ruins of their nightclub workplaces in Mexico, pulled down by the authorities, in an attempt to move them on, have a similar artistic sensibility.

I realise as I have written this, and learnt more about the photographers involved, that I probably need didn’t try hard enough and need to revisit and relook. That’s what can happen if you have time and an open mind. Time, and open minds, is what changes attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.

 

All Too Human at Tate Britain review *****

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All Too Human: Bacon. Freud and a Century of Painting Life

Tate Britain, 15th March 2018

I love paint. I love painting. I love paintings of people. I love Britain (though I appreciate that is a loaded statement). I love London. I love paintings of London. So, surprise, surprise, I loved this exhibition.

Don’t listen to the whingeing critics ….

As usual a whole bunch of critics are moaning about what was missed out, and in some cases, what was put in. Ignore them. If your only definitional constraints are a country, (of production, not, wisely, artist’s origin), a time period and “painting from life” then you are, ahem, taking a pretty broad brush approach. What the curators, led by Elena Crippa, have done is assembled a marvellous collection of powerful paintings by top drawer artists, many of which you won’t get to see in public collections, and then carefully spelled out the links between them.

There are links of style, substance, location, outlook and subject and there is enough for the numpty like me to learn without a load of contextual guff being rammed down your throat and getting in the way of the pictures. So by all means think about who you might have added, (and maybe taken away), but not to the exclusion of the bounteous display which has been carefully set out in front of you.

The School of London

Now the backbone of the exhibition is the so-called School of London, the term that RB Kitaj coined retrospectively, to identify a group of painters who were a) defiantly figurative, b) worked and/or taught in London and c) were bloody good. At least that’s my take. So that covers RB himself, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Euan Uglow, Michael Andrews and one or two others who don’t get as much of a look in here. This starting point gives more than enough to get going on but the curators have additionally highlighted the contributions of two significant teacher/mentors to this group of painters in the late 1940s and early 1950s; firstly William Coldstream at the Slade School and secondly David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic.

All that was then needed was a stab at exploring some precedent influences, which is what we see in the first room, some contemporary figurative painters, and voila, the exhibition is complete. All makes sense to me so I am not really sure why some critics are blubbing.

Spencer, Bomberg, Sickert, Soutine

So to the first room which showcases Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg, Walter Richard Sickert and Chain Soutine. Let me just say that again. Spencer, Bomberg, Sickert and Soutine. You could have just stopped there and I would have been happy. All offering up subjects which the School of London generation would explore and all painters of immense confidence when it came to capturing life whether in portrait or landscape.

I reckon David Bomberg is the best British painter of the C20. If it hadn’t been for a certain Joseph Mallord William Turner that would make him the greatest British painter ever. If you don’t believe me, and you are anywhere near Newcastle, you can go see for yourself at the Laing Gallery which is now showing the 60 year anniversary retrospective that kicked off at Pallant House (Bomberg at Pallant House Gallery review *****). Here we get to see a dandyish self-portrait with echoes of van Gogh and a pair of landscapes, one of Toledo and one of Ronda, which act as the expressionist bridge into the abstract Cornish landscapes of his latter years. This is a very long way from the modernism and vorticism of his early years and the inter-war scenes of London Jewish life. It is also a step on from the more restrained Palestinian landscapes. This is Bomberg grappling towards his idea of spirit in the mass. It is easy to see the traces of Sickert, who taught him early on, and even easier to see his influence in turn on Kossoff, Auerbach and Dorothy Mead who attended his classes at Borough Polytechnic.

The two Spencer portraits date from 1933 and 1935 and are both of Patricia Preece. Now if you want the definition of a f*cked up relationship you need look no further than Stan and Pat. As is plainly portrayed in these two pictures. The paintings are here because this is the well from which Lucian Freud drank deeply. If you are going to take a cold, hard, honest and realistic look at the person you know well sat in front of you, and you have no fear of what the outcome might say about the relationship between you and the sitter, then these paintings, and those in the Freud room later on, are what you might end up with. Assuming you can draw. Really draw. Our Stanley did end up churning out a fair bit of landscape junk for money towards the end, and he was a bona-fide fruitcake, but how he ever became viewed as an artistic embarrassment is a mystery. Just shows how far the rejection of figurativism went. Anyway his reputation is restored now. I had a very fine day out in Wakefield at the Hepworth seeing the last major Spencer retrospective in 2016, Of Angels and Dirt, and if you ever need a Sir Stanley fix then head out to Cookham. Or the Tate which is loaded with Spencers. Or the Fitzwilliam ditto. BTW if any budding theatre directors are reading this please could you revive Pam Gems’s play Stanley. I would love to see it.

Now Sickert is the grandaddy of British figurative art in the C20, Another oddball, who cared deeply about how the paint was applied to the canvas, he didn’t really paint too much from life, preferring drawings and latterly photos. His imprint is all over the later artists in the exhibition. The everyday subjects, the detached gaze, the oddish angles, the materiality of the paint, (for a man who professed to hate thick paint he wasn’t shy of slapping it on). Here we get two of his disconcerting surveilled nudes and a music hall number.

Now including Chaim Soutine in this room might be seen as a bit of a stretch. He is usually viewed as the fulcrum between the European masters of the past, Rembrandt, Chardin and the like, and Expressionism toppling into Abstraction. But he did get involved in some London shows, and the detached eye, the desire to capture what was in front of him and the everyday subjects are all present and correct in the later rooms. Let’s face it, if you want a direct painting link to Francis Bacon,  Chaim is your man, along with Picasso, Velazquez, Goya and Titian. If you want a bit of meaty, carcasse action though, look no further than Soutine’s butchery studies, here represented by the Butcher Stall from 1919 as well as a landscape and a portrait from the period when Soutine was holed up in Ceret. And if there was ever an artist who liked to mess up his subject’s facial features then it was Soutine. So no wonder Bacon liked his work.

Francis Bacon I

So job done we can move on to room 2 and a room full of Bacons. And, curiously a Giacometti sculpture, a Woman of Venice from 1956. I can see why Giacometti is here though. His way of capturing the essence of his subjects chimed with these British artists. Working and reworking to capture his subjective interpretation of the objective reality in front of him. The horror that was unleashed by WWII. Art critic David Sylvester linked Bacon and Giacometti, and the way they captured the individual’s messy experience of the world, with the existentialist philosophies that were intellectually prominent in post war years. Bacon backed this up in his captivating interviews. Not sure you would get all that from just the one Giacometti though, and maybe a couple of Giacometti’s own ghostly portrait paintings might have better made the link with Bacon. Still musn’t grumble.

Especially when you have seven early(ish) Bacons to get to grips with, the earliest being Figure in a Landscape from 1945, the year after the revolutionary Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, (just along the corridor in the permanent Tate collection). I defy anyway not to have an immediate and extreme reaction to the work of Bacon. Raw, frightening, thrilling, they stop you dead in your tracks. I find it very difficult to tear myself away from them. There is a Study after Velaquez with screaming mouth and “trapped” in a “cage” of red blinds. The foreground seems to me to be rushing towards us, the cross-legged pose the normality behind which lies this terrible angst. You might have seen Dog before. It always brings to my mind Dill the Dog from the children’s TV series The Herbs (for those old enough to remember). Daft huh? The demented cur, running round and round in circles, against the background of, absurdly, the Monte Carlo sea front. Study of a Baboon, from the MoMA collection, is an absolutely extraordinary painting. Here Bacon shows another primate, screaming, which they do, and somehow equates this to our own existence. What is going on in this fella’s head? The Study or Portrait II is another Tate regular and is based on the life mask of William Blake, which Bacon had photographed and even cast. The pink, mauve and white marks build up to create an amalgam of flesh and wax, It might just be the best picture in the exhibition.

FN Souza

I know nothing about Francis Newton Souza who came to London from his native Goa in 1949. I gather his work has become increasingly regarded in recent years but I can’t say I was bowled over though his ideas are interesting. I can see the energy in the graphic brush strokes and the coruscating critique of religion and commerce in his subject matter, as well as the eroticism, but I had no definite aesthetic reaction. The curators make a case for linking his portraits back to the early Renaissance and to the fears and anxieties of the post war era, (though these works are a little later in vintage), and thus to Bacon, but it isn’t that convincing. I was actually more interested in the pair of smaller, Expressionistic, almost Chagall-like, landscapes. Anyway see what you think.

The influence of William Coldstream

The next room highlights the work and philosophy of William Coldstream, who taught Euan Uglow and Michael Andrews at the Slade School in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and influenced, and gave a job to, the young Lucian Freud. Coldstream was all about recording the reality of the subject through exact measurement, intense scrutiny and spending lots of time with the model. Now I am not sure that this technical obsessiveness was married with existential insight in the nudes and still-life on show here from Coldstream himself, but it leaps off the canvas with the Uglow paintings, the Still lIfe with a Delft Vase (hello Chardin) and, especially, his portrait of Georgia Georgallas from 1973. Apparently he had her hair cut, chose the exact colour of the tights she wore, chose the fabric for the sofa she reclines on and dressed her in a football shirt, (don’t know which club mind you). You can see the measurement marks on the canvas, the passage of time in creating the picture is palpable. It is still pretty disturbing though.

Lucian Freud I

As are the Lucien Freud figures in this room, Girl With a Kitten from 1947 and Girl with A White Dog from 1951, both depicting his first wide Kitty Garman. Freud would stare intently at his subject for hours, a form of “visual aggression” which created the tension visible in the paintings. He even scared the cat. These delicate, chalky,, hyper-real portraits always take me back to the Northern Renaissance and, specifically, Memling’s portraits, but with a few centuries of “progress” chucked into the mix. Freud abandoned the delicate sable brush strokes in the later, fleshier works, (in Room 7), but this also meant forfeiting the uneerie “otherness’ of these early works. Now I gather LF was a bit of a misogynist control freak and he famously came from a family unhealthily preoccupied with matters sexual . It shows.

Bomberg and the Borough Polytechnic

The next room, which tracks the influence of David Bomberg during his time teaching at the Borough Polytechnic, (the antithesis of the art establishment represented by the Slade), explores a very different way of looking at the world. Bomberg was critical of traditional observational methods in painting, the “hand and eye disease”, preferring to highlight the visual experience of objects and their mass, so as to get to the structure underpinning the observed; “the spirit of the mass” as he termed it. Drawing from life was fundamental to his process. The influence on students Auerbach and Kossoff is unmistakeable. Neither were members of the Borough Group which was formed in Bomberg’s wake but both were inspired, like Dorothy Mead, by his methods as they went on to more formal training. Bomberg had painted London cityscapes, notably St Paul’s Cathedral, during the war, (we see one here) but his prime interest in his later years, alongside portraiture, was elemental landscape. The near abstract renderings of Cornwall painted in his last years, whilst not represented here, seem to me to bear the most similarity to the dense, detailed London cityscapes that Auerbach and Kossoff went on to paint, although they both use a lot more paint (!).

Auerbach and Kossoff’s London

The cityscapes from both which appear in the following room, with a couple of portraits, are easier to read that their earlier works in the prior room, as is evident from the image of Kossoff;s near monochrome Christ Church, Spitalfields above. Yet, in some ways, the thrill of all that thick impasto on the canvas, Kossoff Early Morning Willesden or Auerbach’s Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, is hard to beat. This is where the over-painting which characterises many of the paintings on show across the exhibition reaches its apogee. Whilst the geographic range of, particularly Auerbach, may be narrow, the expressive sweep is endless. Forgive the aside but there is a song by Madness off the much under-rated The Liberty of Norton Folgate album, We Are London, which popped into my head. Same emotional territory. Camden boys as well.

Lucien Freud II

Back to the body with a bang in Room 7 with wall-to-wall “classic” Freuds. There is a lot of painted flesh on show, rendered in the style LF first adopted in the early 1960’s and which he carried through to his death in 2011. He had picked up a hog-brush and moved back from the sitter by now, painting standing up, leading to a higher viewpoint and more elongated foregrounding. These portraits are set predominately in the familiarity of his studio. There are more full figures and more full nudes. There is real weight to the bodies, and more psychological depth, and less intimidation than in his earlier works. The call back to Sickert’s nudes struck me. The room is a bit overwhelming at first so I opted to focus on a handful of paintings: the Baby on a Green Sofa from 1961, (his daughter Bella), the portrait of Frank Auerbach from 1976 and the portraits of Leigh Bowery from 1991 an Sue Tilley from 1996. (The latter two are asleep: no great surprise given how slowly LF painted). These paintings emphasise how LF used lead white paint to build the contours of the flesh and create that astounding impression of sculpted volume on the canvas. Of course it only works with pale, white people, as it did for Stanley Spencer, but it is, even if you know these paintings, jarring to see unflattering depictions of naked bodies in the context of an art canon that does the exact opposite and a culture that only permits airbrushed “perfection”. Like them or not, this is what paint can do.

Francis Bacon II

Room 8 shows how Francis Bacon used the photographs of buddy John Deakin, notably those with unnatural poses and double-exposed, as the starting point for a number of his paintings. And the paintings here need to be savoured as you won’t see some of them every day of the week, in particular the Study for Portrait of Lucien Freud, with its sickly mint green sofa, incandescent light bulb and stuff coming out of LF’s head, and the Triptych completed in 1977, showing three images of FB’s lover George Dyer who committed suicide in 1971, on a beach referencing Degas and Picasso, the very definition of alienation. The former hasn’t been seen in public since 1965, the latter sits in a private collection since it last sale in 2008.

By the 1970s FB had given up on painting from life and the motifs, popes, besuited captains of industry, screams, cages and screens, had been replaced by the grotesque, but inordinately powerful, portraits of his mates, at least those that could keep up with him. These violently distorted chunks of people may look like they bear no resemblance to their subjects but see Deakin’s photos and you get exactly what FB was driving at. The way in which FB showed the life of his subject bursting out beyond the confines of the body reaches a peak in the Three Figures and Portrait from 1975. A death-mask like portrait is pinned to the back wall, a memory seeming to watch over the the two dynamic human figures and a bird like creature, with snarling human mouth, on a cube twisting and writhing in the foreground. The head on the left hand figure is George Dyer once again, his spine pushing out of his back. Scary stuff.

Michael Andrews and RB Kitaj

The next room, luckily, offers a bit of respite from FB’s assault on the senses. Michael Andrews and RB Kitaj aped Bacon by drawing on photographs as sources for their portraits, as well as their own imaginations. Andrews shared the existentialist outlook of some of his peers but was more interested in the interaction between people, friends, families, groups, than with the individual. Here we see one of MA’s oils depicting the Colony Room, Soho haunt of Bacon, Freud, Deakin and assorted bohemian hangers-on, and the Deer Park which impossibly brings together a intellectuals and celebs. But the most wonderful painting here is the much later Melanie and Me Swimming showing him tenderly teaching his 6 year old daughter to swim in a rock-pool. By this time MA had switched to quick drying acrylic paint sprayed on to the canvas. This gives a smooth, unbroken fluidity to the paint, and, as here, creates some captivating effects, the splashing, the refraction of the water, the contrast between skin colour in face and body. If you like this picture, and I am sure you will, then you need to search out more of Michael’s Andrew’s works in acrylic, especially the landscapes, the “hot air balloon series” and the fish paintings. You are in for a treat. The extensive retrospective at the Gagosian a couple of years ago was one of the finest I have seen (Michael Andrews and Richard Serra at the Gagosian Galleries London review *****). Unfortunately the Tate collection only holds one depiction of Uluru (Ayers Rock) which rarely gets an outing.

RB Kitaj, born in America but working in London from the early 1960s after studying at Oxford,  also examines relationships but his was a more critical eye with a discernible message. His subjects were friends, especially artistic, as in The Wedding here, and family, especially the history of his family as part of the Jewish diaspora. Now he may have been the architect of the exhibition, The Human Clay in 1976, which proposed The School of London, but, for me, he is the least interesting painter.

Paula Rego

That cannot be said of Paula Rego whose works using live models dominate Room 10. Now you might legitimately ask yourself what Portugal’s greatest living, scrub that, greatest ever, artist is doing in this company. Well she studied under William Coldstream at the Slade School, alongside Michael Andrews, Euan Uglow and her future husband Victor Willing, in the mid 1950s. With that link established we are permitted to see some of her finest, and most intriguing paintings, from the 1990s. There is no better story teller, specifically women’s stories, in paint. These are no simple stories though, presenting multiple viewpoints and multiple insights. Take a look at The Family from 1988. At first glance it might appear a disturbing scenario . Take a closer look. This is a family undressing the helpless invalided father, a very personal exploration of Paula Rego’s own life, and that of their daughters, caring for Vic Willing.

Contemporary women figurative artists

On the day I went this room and the following room, the last room in the exhibition, got a bit piled up with punters so I wasn’t able to devote enough time to really looking at these works. No matter. I’ll be back and will cunningly start at the end. I got a bit beaten up by all that male existential angst in the preceding rooms. Whilst the artists in this final room, Celia Paul, Cecily Brown, Jenny Saville and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye are concerned with the human form, they do not, (with the exception of Celia Paul), necessarily paint directly from life and the identities they explore are a long way from the ferocity of, say, Francis Bacon. Celia Paul may have been a contemporary, (and lover), of Lucian Freud but her portraits of women, in supportive groups or individually, seem more concerned with internal vitality than external authority. Jenny Saville’s striking and frank close-up self portrait Reverse harks back to the meaty flesh of Soutine, as well as Freud. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye paints black characters from her imagination, with enigmatic titles, who seem caught up in their thoughts.

Off you trot

So a marvellous exhibition bringing together some of the best figurative artists who have worked in this country over the last few decades. Forget about agonising over what might have been included, or what should have been excluded. There is more than enough here to savour and the connections the curators have made are both valid and interesting. Above all the exhibition shows that painting in Britain never went away and that there is nothing quite as thrilling as looking at ourselves in paint.

All Too Human runs until 27th August 2018 so there is absolutely no reason at all not to see it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

and ===Bacon rarities – Lucien Freud study – Peter Lacy = beach trip

Modigliani at Tate Modern review ***

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Modigliani

Tate Modern, 5th March 2018

One Modigliani nude or one Modigliani portrait is a thing of not inconsiderable beauty. Less so, one hundred, or what feels like hundreds. The elongated bodies, the mask-like faces, the blank, almond-shaped eyes. Look beyond the USP’s though and the influences, from which Modigliani never really escaped in his short life, are clear. Cezanne, Kees van Dongen, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Braque, his mates Soutine and Brancusi, the art of Africa, the Khmer art of Cambodia. If you mix with the best there is a chance your own work might fall a little short though.

Mind you this has proved a pretty popular exhibition I think. I postponed on a couple of visits to the TM, put off by the queues. If there’s a queue to get in, I reckon, you ain’t going to get to see much. This may reflect the virtual reality recreation of AM’s last studio space in Montparnasse which forms part of the entertainment. No surprise that I can’t be doing with that sort of thing. It probably also reflects his bad boy reputation. He managed to hold out until he was 35, eventually succumbing to the TB which he carried through his life, but was permanently poorly and penniless,not helped by knocking back the absinthe and smoking prodigious quantities of hash, in part to hide the TB symptoms. He dressed like a dandy, when he wasn’t getting his kit off in public, never missed a party, and wasn’t picky in his choice of lady friends. He was a very good-looking chap. He read all sorts of dodgy literature to prepare himself for the life of bohemian excess, Nietzsche was a favourite, as well as immersing himself in all that Antiquity and the Renaissance had to offer in his native Italy, and, when in his cups, he reportedly worked like a dervish.

Barely sold a canvas in his lifetime and destroyed a lot of his early stuff. Relied on mates and dealers for studio space and materials. Moved to Paris in 1906 and lived in Montmartre and Montparnasse, natch. Eventually his dealer Leopold Zborowski sorted out a public exhibition for him in 1917 in Paris to showcase his nudes, but this got “closed” on its opening day by the coppers because it was too dirty, what with loads of lady fluff being on show. Dumped his muse, poet and art critic Beatrice Hastings, to take up with young toff dauber, Jeanne Hebuterne, with whom he had a daughter. Wants to marry her, but Mum and Dad unsurprisingly think their daughter can do better than a penurious, drug addled artist, raddled with TB, and say no. He dies, she, eight months pregnant, chucks herself out of a window.

And if all that were not the epitome of artistic excess, he goes and gets himself buried in Pere Lachaise. So AM had, and has, a reputation to keep up. Which has been fuelled by avid collection of his many works (and plenty of fakes) through the last century. The first work in the exhibition is a self-portrait from 1915 where AM sees himself as Pierrot, the sad clown, the trusting fool, one eye obscured, which sets the scene for AM’s invention of himself as the ultimate bohemian artist.

Is the art any good though? Well there is a salacious thrill in the room of nudes but, engage your brain and it soon passes. His models wear expressions of complete indifference. The transactional nature of the nude painting has rarely been more apparent. Cliched soft-porn? Don’t ask me, there’s some worse stuff from the High Renaissance, but it’s pretty sleazy. The portraits show more variation if you ask me, with posture, expression, colour, there is much to ponder and, I admit, enjoy. There is much biographical significance given his wide circle of mates in the heady atmosphere of Paris in the 1910’s (and the 1890’s, 1900’s and 10920’s mark you). Cocteau, Picasso, Gris, Rivera, amongst some lesser lights.

There still seems to me to be a hefty distance between artist and subject, and not just because he painted masks. Not quite the distance that Cezanne employed to allow him to concentrate entirely on what he saw in his portraits. (Cezanne Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery review *****). Modigliani does not, alchemically, turn people into brush strokes even though his portraits echo those of Cezanne. Nor is this the confrontational distance that his mate Chain Soutine conjured up in his portraits of hotel folk, the f*ck you stance of his bell boys for example, (Soutine’s Portraits at the Courtauld Gallery review ****). No this is a distance, a lack of connection, which seems to me to be closer to neo-classical portraiture. Filtered through the lessons of cubism, Modigliani can then focus on what, I think, he mastered, to wit, the line. It is not the colour, the brush stroke, the paint, which excites, but the first marks, the lines that create the structure. The shape the faces, the curve of the thighs. One of AM’s nudes is even explicitly posed to ape Ingres’s Grande Odalisque.

Which maybe why I found the room of sculptures the most interesting. Modigliani didn’t persist with sculpture beyond a year or so in 1912: the work was tiring given his ill-health and the materials expensive. The limestone busts on display here are thrilling. The elongated faces, almond eyes, swan necks would all be exhausted in two dimensions but the debt to antiquity is here more vivid. The volume which is absent from the paintings brings a new, literally, dimension. The room prior to the head vitrines shows some of AM’s preparations and sketches for more substantive public sculpture where, again, the artistic precedents are writ large.

AM left Paris in 1917, at the behest of his dealer, (artistic not drugs), and headed to the French Riviera with Jeanne Hebuterne. Other artists did the same. There is a distinct shift in the intensity of his work, reflecting the light maybe, but maybe the poor fellow eased up a bit on the sauce. There is even a tiny landscape. It’s not much kop though. Still everything here seems a bit less of a struggle, less of a show than the wall to wall nudes of the prior room, mostly from 1917, with a few later, softer examples.

Gaugin, van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Picasso, Modigliani. These are the biggest brands from the years when Western art was ruptured. I take a bit of persuading on Gaugin, but it’s not tricky to work out what’s special about the next four. But Amedeo Modigliani. Hm, on the basis of this exhibition I am not so sure. Definitely worth seeing this uncluttered, expansive, extensive and expensive collection, this is big bucks art after all, and there are a fair few paintings here secured from private collections, but not a patch on the Cezanne portraits which were, until recently, gracing the walls of the NPG (and where, mystifyingly, there were no queues on the occasions I visited).

 

 

 

 

 

William Kentridge: Smoke, Ashes, Fable at Sint-Janshospitaal review ****

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William Kentridge: Smoke, Ashes, Fable

Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges, 20th February 2018

Off to Bruges and Brussels for a couple of days. Main purpose. To soak up the best paintings that the Northern Renaissance has to offer. Now you all know that it doesn’t get much prettier than Bruges, (though Ghent may just top it). Which also means that it should be avoided like the plague during the high season. And it should never be insulted with just a day trip. Do not miss the Chapel of St Basil, the Gothic Hall in the Stadhuis, with its “Medieval” murals telling the story of the City from C19 artist Albrecht de Vriendt, and Frank Brangwyn’s drawings and etchings in the Arenthuis. Ooh and don’t be sniffy about taking a boat trip.

The main reason for going though is the art. Specifically the first two rooms of the Groeningmuseum. Go in February. Get there early and you might just have the rooms to yourself. Room 1 has the extraordinary diptych from Gerard David, The Judgement of Cambyses, a warning to dodgy politicians everywhere, and a Bosch Last Judgement. Room 2 though will take your breath away. Impossible to know which way  to look. Hans Memling, Petrus Christus, more David. Further on Adriaen Isenbrandt, Hugo van der Goes and Jan Provoost. And works of astounding beauty from unidentified masters.

Topping it all is Jan van Eyck’s, Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele. His greatest ever painting? I think so. Thus making it the greatest work of Western art ever. Swing your head round and you see his portrait of his missus Margareta. This must be the single best concentration of art in the world.

Of course you may hate this stuff what with all that religious mumbo-jumbo, preponderance of shiny things and “realism” that is anything but. You’d be a mug though.

In which case the Memlings in the ground floor of the Sint-Janshospitaal are also not going to do much for you. Shame. There are five astonishing works capped by the St John Altarpiece and Shrine of St Ursula. Take your magnifying glass. And see the fascinating videos which show Memling’s underdrawings and his immense skill as a draughtsman.

Or move on. For help is at hand. In the form of William Kentridge. Now I didn’t go specifically to see this carefully constructed collection of Kentridge’s recent work by curator Margaret Koerner. But it was fortuitous timing nonetheless. South African William Kentridge is one of the most renowned of the, how shall I put this, older generation of contemporary living artists. His work covers drawings, prints and sculpture, but he is probably best known for his animated films and for the installations that contextualise them. He makes charcoal drawings, which he then erases and changes, filming the results to create his glorious Expressionistic animations. His subjects are numerous, though history, language and justice are common themes, specifically in his native South Africa, from his perspective as a white Jew whose parents defended the victims of apartheid.

I saw the production of Berg’s Lulu at the ENO in 2016 which he directed and which bore his distinctive visual stamp. I can’t say I was enthralled by the results but that is largely because Alban Berg’s music, and specifically this opera, are works-in-progress for me. There are a number of great artistic statements that may confound or confuse me at first but which I know I should keep working at.. Lulu is one of them. It looked amazing though thanks to WK and the video crew.

I also saw the exhibition of Kentridge’s work at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2016 entitled Thick Time. Now, as in this exhibition, I can’t pretend I was persuaded by everything that Mr Kentridge creates. Yet even in the drawings and videos whose meanings are elusive to me, and there were a few here, there is something compelling which draws you in.

In Thick Time he created six installations the highlight of which, by far, was The Refusal of Time, a meditation on time and fate in which composer Philip Miller provided a hypnotic score to accompany WK’s videos and a “ready-made’ Leonardo-ish “breathing” machine. In Right Into Her Arms WK creates a sort of mini-theatre with a dance drama centred on the disappointment of desire I think. Seven Fragments for George Melies, Day for Night and Journey to the Moon imagined an artist embarking on a series of adventures and was the most obviously Expressionistic of the works with its allusions to early silent cinema.

Here in Smoke, Ashes, Fable the highlight undoubtedly is More Sweetly Play the Dance from 2015. First off it is set in the amazing upstairs room in the Hospital, a cathedral in wood. The works here have all been chosen to reflect the location, but this is the piece which is most evocative. It is based on a medieval Dance of Death. This is a medieval hospital. Across eight massive white panels WK’s charcoal drawing animations see a not quite monochrome processional emerge, drawn from the silhouette of his collaborators. A brass band plays a repetitive tune against this. It is both sombre and celebratory. This Dance of Death though will be more familiar to you from African funeral processions but the characters here seem very different. You literally cannot take your eyes off it and have to sit mesmerised watching at least one, (in my case three), revolutions of the procession. Most everyone there when I visited was drawn in and grinning from ear to ear. For, although this may portray the fragility of human existence, there is something immensely celebratory about the work. Marvellous.

Next door are a set of large scale tapestries which show the silhouettes of African figures, carrying day-today objects, set in maps from the C19. Lives literally carried on their shoulders, a comment on migration perhaps. Downstairs the exhibition opens with drawings and extracts from the monumental 600m long frieze Triumphs and Laments which WK created alongside the Tiber to tell the history of Rome in 2016. I really, really need to see that before it eventually fades away. The installation which titles the exhibition is a little more introspective but still intriguing.

Now I am not saying you should make a special trip to Bruges to see this exhibition, If only for the very good reason that it is now over. But if his work does find a home near you then you must find a way to see it. If you are anywhere near the Reina Sofia in Madrid right now you have just that opportunity in an exhibition centred on his excursions into opera. And later this year he has something cooking in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. There will be other stuff I am sure. Go.

 

 

 

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at Tate Modern review ****

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Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Tate Modern, 19th January 2018

I know it is not easy to make out but take a good peer at the image above. This is an installation created in 1985 by Russian conceptual artist, Ilya Kabakov. The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment. he created it in his studio and it was his first full room, “total” installation. It tells the story of a man living in a communal apartment in Russia who hatches a plan to escape from his oppressive, mundane reality. A suspended catapult chair, a hole in the roof, remnants of the construction, propaganda posters, carefully orchestrated lighting. There are workings from the imagined escape and the testimonies of neighbours. It is both very funny and very sad. Tragi-comic, absurdist biting satire. One man pursuing the Soviet dream of conquering space. Or escaping his miserable reality. Which is the well from which so much art of the C19 and C20, (and into the C21), has drawn from in Russia.

I found the installations of the Kabakovs, (Ilya was joined by wife Emilia in his 60s), absolutely compelling. I left nothing like enough time to fully absorb them, which is really bloody annoying. I blame the complementary Red Star Over Russia exhibition also on at Tate Modern, which was much more interesting than I had bargained for (Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern review ****), as well as my own woeful lack of planning. And now this exhibition is about to end, (once again this numbnut waited until near the end of the run to see it), and I won’t have time to return. You’d think I would learn.

Anyway what I have learnt about is a pair of brilliantly inventive artists to add to the list, and yet more perspectives on the relationship between art and society in Russia, and indeed beyond. Ilya Kabakov was an unofficial artist which meant his work was not exhibited, was made largely in secret, and often required him to create pseudonyms. He made money from being a children’s book illustrator. Only close friends saw his early work.

A lot of installation art suffers from what I term the “I can’t be bothered” trope. The concept or idea is all, the making subsidiary. A few “found” objects, a bit of cardboard, some wire and some gaffer tape, and, hey presto, an installation, accompanied by some pretentious guff that make no sense even after three or for readings. I am fully aware how Daily Mail, philistine twat this makes me sound. Trust me that isn’t true. The more conceptual and contemporary art installations I see the more I think I understand and the more I am drawn in. But I still want to see that some thought and effort has been put in. The Kabakovs could never be accused of slapdashery. The ideas are clearly expressed, the detail is rich, the craft breathtaking. They tell intricate stories that pull you up, make you smirk and make you think.

The exhibition kicks off with Ilya’s early conceptual works, across an array of artistic styles and, given his status, utilising whatever materials he could lay his hands on. The ideas are sharp from the off and, using fictional characters, parody Soviet achievement. I was particularly struck by Holiday, where banal images have been revisited by their purported artist, and covered with flowers which are in reality sweet wrappers.  Room 2 shows the way in which Illya Kabakov mocked the cliches of Socialist Realism, most effectively in Tested! which purports to be a work by a forgotten artist from the 1930s showing a “celebration” of a woman having her Party membership card returned. It took me a bit of time to realise the blindingly obvious that this, obviously, would never have happened.

Following on from the early installations, including Incident in the Corridor Near the Kitchen with its flying  pans, are works that play with perspective and scale and incorporate tiny, cardboard cut out figures, which, to me, again suggest the struggle of individuals to find meaning and recognition in a social world. The next room has a rather less satisfactory installation where we are invited to look at “nocturnal” paintings through monoculars trained on apertures. The little white figures pop up again. For Ilya this work contrasts the contrast between the experienced and learnt knowledge which is the subject of epistemology, and the mystical revelations which cannot be explained. Hmmm.

The large installation which doubles up as the title of the exhibition, Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future, from 2001, imagines a train leaving a platform, carrying art and artists selected to be part of the future, and leaving behind discarded canvases that represent the work of the forgotten, unpalatable or banned. So a meditation on the history of art, but again, with a distinctive swipe at the Soviet Union. This investigation continues in Room 7 which contains a collection of paintings showing seems from Russian and Soviet history conjoined or layered over each other, or with areas whited out. Interesting but not as memorable as the installations. The model which pretends that apartments have been created out of public toilets was especially cutting however.

Next door is a fascinating installation, Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album), from 1990, which documents the everyday struggle of his mother, Bertha Urievna Solodukhina, to survive and to raise Ilya. A dimly lit, grubby, winding corridor is lined with photographs taken by his uncle alongside disturbing memoirs from his clearly remarkable mother. Revolution, famine, repression, hate, homelessness, all are revealed. At its centre is a recording of Ilya singing songs from his childhood. Whilst this clearly explores the questions raised elsewhere in the work of the Kabanovs the impact is greater because it is so personal and devastating. I didn’t have enough time to read much of the testimony which was a great shame.

Room 9 takes us back to the intimate and hidden, with Ten Characters, a series of narrative drawings, displayed in a room reminiscent of classroom, which documents the lives of solitary, lonely artists in a totalitarian state. It was first exhibited in 1988 after the Kabakovs had themselves emigrated to New York where they now work. Finally there are a series of works which explore the idea of flight or escape with angels as the recurring motif. Angels, obviously, are about as commonplace as it comes in the history of art but here represent a life free from the grind of bureaucracy and routine. As with everything on display here the narratives are enthralling, the ideas provocative and the commentary acerbic.

These works take the personal and specific, artists working in secret under the Soviet regime, and turn them into something universal. And that despite missing, as I am sure I did, the majority of the meaning displayed her.