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.”

Some quick notes on exhibitions visited so far in 2019

The Tourist has been shockingly remiss so far this year in documenting his adventures in the visual and plastic arts. Some plagiarised comments on the I Am Ashurbanipal survey of Assyrian art at the British Museum aside, I have failed to document any other exhibition visits. So, for the sake of completeness, here are some brief comments lest I forget. Sorry reader. This is for me not you.

Figure, Totem, Beast: Sculpture in Britain in the 1950s – Tate Britain – 4th January, 2019 – ****

One of my favourite periods. At the intersection of figuration and abstraction. The curators showing the anxieties that plagued society and Western art in the aftermath of the horror of WWII and with the Cold War hanging over it. New materials and processes combined to create sculpture both brutal and beautiful. Some real heavyweights here. Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein, Elizabeth Frink, Eduardo Paolozzi, Reg Butler, William Turnbull. alongside lesser known names for me such as Kenneth Armitage, Bernard Meadows, FE McWilliam, Geoffrey Clarke, Louise Hutchinson and Luciano Minguzzi. And a reminder that Lynn Chadwick was a genius. And how influential this generation was across the world.

Lorenzo Lotto Portraits – National Gallery – 10th January, 2019 – ****

Lotto (1480-1556/7) may have have been lumped in with the Venetians but he got about a bit depending on who commissioned and paid him (Treviso, Marches, Rome, Bergamo, Ancona, Loreto). High Renaissance, never Mannerist but his portraiture evolved through time. Influenced by Giovanni Bellini, early portraits followed the classicism of Giorgione, then the psychological insight comparable with Antonello de Messina, later on more dramatic like Corregio. Forgotten then rediscovered at the end of the C19. Portraits are intense and self aware and often contain clues and insights into the position and status of the subjects. Not a happy chap based on his correspondence. Pointless addition of old stuff similar to items in the portraits for no discernible reason other than padding out the 30 paintings.

Anni Albers – Tate Modern – 17th January 2019 – ****

Anni Albers combined the craft of hand-weaving with minimalist abstraction. Student at Bauhaus school but discouraged from “fine art” classes so took up weaving. Influenced by Paul Klee and husband Josef Albers. Both educators. Forced out of Nazi Germany. Ended up at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Influence on Op Art and Abstract Expressionists. Small scale pictorial weavings, large wall hangings, textiles, prints drawings. Studied and inspired by ancient art and technique and folk weaving. “On Weaving” 1965. Different materials, textures, weaves, threads, colours, geometries.

John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing – Two Temple Place – 13th February 2019 – ***

Artist, art critic, educator, social thinker. (1819-1900). In conjunction with Museums of Sheffield which Ruskin created for the people. 190 paintings, drawings, daguerreotypes, metal work, and plaster casts to illustrate how Ruskin’s attitude to aesthetic beauty shaped his radical views on culture and society. Last 25 years retreated into mental illness. Medieval Gothic as inspiration for communal enterprise, makers, guilds, not capitalist production. Detailed, precise drawings and watercolours of nature. Venetian architecture. Landscapes. Collections of objects. Contrast with his religious faith. Influence on Neo-Gothic, architecture, pre-Raphaelites, Arts and Crafts.

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory – Tate Modern – 14th March 2019 – ***

1867 to 1947. Bold use of colour though thin not vibrant. Member of Post-impressionist group Les Nabis. Early work influenced by Gaugin and Japanese prints. Shift into modernism. Landscapes, townscapes, portraits, domestic scenes. Popster designs, lithographs and illustrations. Odd angles, cropping and viewpoints. Martha de Meligny was model who became his wife. Always distinct use of colour, small marks, not from life, used photos and note in studio. Intimate, transient subjects. Overworked and sometimes twee or dull.

Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light – National Gallery – 28th March, 2019 – ****

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923). First UK exhibition of Spain’s leading Impressionist in over a century. Known as the ‘master of light’ for his iridescent canvases. 58 works. Seascapes, garden views, beach bather scenes, portraits, landscapes and genre scenes of Spanish life. Very popular in his day, native of Valencia. Child prodigy, worked quickly, excellent draughtsman. Very striking and lovely paint but no real substance and same techniques and effects across the works. Period when he did examine social issues and contemporary cause celebres (Another Marguerite!) however but these are more moral instruction akin to Dickens in paint. Scenes of rural Spain commission for NYC Hispanic Society. Influence of Singer Sargent and back to Goya and Velasquez. The paint equivalent of a very sweet tooth. Lovely but you can have too much in one sitting. The sunlight is exquisite though. Beach scenes, Sewing the Sail and Raisin Factory stood out. Spanish Art moved up and on with Picasso and Dali but Sorolla still very popular in Spain.

Right I feel better for making those notes. A smidgen of understanding for all those poor youngsters about to take exams and revising like billy-o. Just like LD is right now.