Aftermath at Tate Britain review ****

Otto Dix Skull from The War (1924) - http://www.moma.org/collect

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One

Tate Britain, 29th August 2018

Historians abhor teleology these days. It’s a tricky business identifying events that “changed the history of the world”. For us simple layfolk though the First World War must surely mark a defining shift in the human experience. The scale, (over 10 million dead and 20 million wounded worldwide), the use of technology, the commitment of capital, the ideological fallout, the death-knell of empire. Take your pick. Things really changed after that.

We are approaching the centenary of the end of that War. Time to contemplate. And, here, a time to review the interpretation that artists put on this period. Well specifically the period after the war, (the works span 1916 to 1932). A smart idea. There are innumerable works of art that document the war itself, the exhibition kicks off with many of the most striking, but exploring the aftermath allows for insights into the different ways artists responded to the war’s legacy and to the, maybe, new beginnings. It also means the curators, led by Emma Chambers, were able to extend beyond British art and into Europe, primarily Germany and France (London, Paris and Berlin to be more exact). There are some stunning works on show here, a valuable history lesson, and more diversity of message than you might expect. You’d be daft not to take a look. Particularly if you have any interest at all in this period of history. Which, inevitably, you should. Art helps us to remember and understand in a way that words something fail to convey.

Room 1 looks at the devastation wrought by the war. Many of the artists here were participants in the conflict, either as soldiers, or in an official capacity. The polity back home generally didn’t want to know, nor did the authorities want them to see, the full horror of war. The depictions of battlefields, mud, pitted with craters, shorn of vegetation other than twisted tree stumps, eloquently made the point. Before the war many artistic movements, (Futurism, Vorticism), grappled with the impact of fast changing technologies on society. This impulse found its way into their war art.

The experience of war drained their optimism. Some artists could not contain their shock and anger at what they saw and went beyond symbolic representations of death, such as the abandoned helmet, to show actual bodies. The room also contains some fascinating early footage of the devastation in Flanders, filmed from an airship, and, intriguingly, guide books to the battlefields to help those who visited to pay their respects.

The most devastating works of Paul Nash (Wire), CRW Nevinson (Paths of Glory) and, most interesting here, the long neglected and once vilified Irishman William Orpen (Zonnebeke and Blown Up), may be familiar but are still striking, as is Luc-Albert Moreau’s shocking Chemin des Dames Assault. Richard Carline’s painting of a battlefield from the air (Mine Craters At Albert Seen From An Aeroplane) is intriguing but the most prominent works are the two sculptures, Jacob Epstein’s machine man Torso in Metal and Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s The Fallen Man, maybe the most famous loaned artwork here. Lehmbruck never escaped the horror of war: he killed himself in aged 38 in 1919.

This is not an exhibition of specifically war art though and, with so much to choose from both in the Tate’s collection and down the road at the Imperial War Museum, the curators have shown admirable restraint. They make their point though.

Room 2 intelligently moves on to how the WWI has been remembered, specifically through war memorials. Cenotaphs in Paris and London, dedicated to just one of the countless unknown dead, created a focus for remembrance from their inauguration two years after the armistice to this day. No national memorial appeared in Germany until 1931 but, like Britain and France, local memorials were commissioned. These memorials combined the abstract with, often, detailed figurative representations of the men who served. We were struck by Charles Sergeant Jagger’s dramatic, realist figures and by Eric Kennington’s more cubist maquette for the Soissons Memorial. BUD, my accomplice for the afternoon, was also impressed by the monumental lines of Marcel Gromaire’s famous War portrait and I had my first dose of the master Stanley Spencer with Unveiling Cookham War Memorial.

However it is hard not to drawn to Ernst Barlach’s extraordinary angel The Floating One. Barlach’s sculptures, along with Lehmbruck’s, were largely destroyed by the Nazis, who viewed them as “degenerate” but a mould of this piece survived. There is also, in a similar “Expressionist” vein, a sketch for The Parents monument by the genius Kathe Kollwitz (the model for The Floating One we see more of her later in Room 5). Barlach initially supported the Great War: his participation changed this.

Take a good look too at another Orpen painting, To the Unknown British Soldier In France, apparently a coffin draped with a Union Jack at the entrance to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, commissioned at the time of the Treat signing. Read its history though. It didn’t start out this way. Lack of respect, censorship, class division. Decide for yourself.

Room 3 offers yet another perspective on the years following the War. In our world, for those of us lucky enough not to live amongst conflict, images of war appear commonplace but the reality of its human impact is still largely concealed. In the 1920s, in Europe, this was not so, as the plight of damaged war veterans, in economies still disordered, was visible to all. The works here are some of the most poignant, and most angry, in the exhibition. In Britain artists were employed to create a medical record of the injuries suffered by the soldiers. The pastel sketches of Henry Tonks from the Hunterian Museum were not originally intended as “art” but they create a powerful impression. In Germany the veterans were the subject of far more explicitly political paintings and drawings from the hands of Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Kathe Kollwitz.

This is the most powerful art in the exhibition, especially the prints from these artists and Georges Rouault in Room 5. Beckmann’s Hell series of lithographs from 1919, the Der Kreig etchings of Dix from 1924 and Kollwitz’s similarly titled etchings from 1922 and Rouault’s sacred Miserere et Guerre photo-etchings from 1927 demand your attention.

Whilst some of the Dadaist work in Room 4 fails to leap out at me, and the Surrealist painting from the likes of Max Ernst and Andre Masson can be safely ignored in my view, do seek out John Heartfield’s photo-montage, After Twenty Years: Fathers and Sons, and then delve into this astoundingly modern artist’s output (and life) inter- and post- war, but especially from the 1930’s.

In Room 6, “Return to Order”, the curators show how the geometric and mechanised avant-garde forms and processes which dominated Western art before the war gave way to more realism and naturalism and a return to the traditional genres of portraiture, landscape and religion through the late 1920s and early 1930s. This despite the still chaotic economic and political backdrop, Pastoralism and classicism were reborn. I am not entirely convinced by this argument but it does give an opportunity to show off another Spencer, Christ Carrying the Cross, Old Military from Franz Lenk and soothing landscapes from the Nash brothers in sharp contrast to their war paintings.

Room 7, in contrast, shows that all was not necessarily well in inter-war society linking back to the political art of the immediate post war period and highlighting the deep divisions between rich and poor. Artists unsurprisingly sided with the left in the profound idealogical arguments that characterised the period. George Grosz’s Grey Day, which contrasts, once again, a veteran with a privileged capitalist, is one of the best paintings in the exhibitions.

The final room then goes a little bit off-piste by bringing together a diverse collection of responses to the rise of the “New City”. Mind you it does make you think about just how quickly the nascent optimism on show here would be snuffed out again by an even more devastating global conflict.

Overall this is an ambitious, powerful, valuable and often still shocking survey of the artistic response to the “Great War” made especially interesting for me by the rage, fury, sorrow and despair contained in the loans from various collections in Germany, (and the George Economou Collection in Athens). There are more than enough unexpected contributions amongst the big hitters and much genuine, if occasionally, unfocussed insight into the artistic response to the impact of war. If you have any interest at all in this period or subject then I would be mightily surprised if you haven’t already gone, or intend to go. That would be the right thing to do.

America’s Cool Modernism at the Ashmolean Museum review ****

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America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keefe to Hopper

Ashmolean Museum, 26th June 2018

Those clever people at the Ashmolean in Oxford have come up with another fine exhibition to rank alongside last year’s survey of Modernism in France Creating Modernism in France at the Ashmolean Museum review ****). There are plenty of paintings, and photographs, on show here that you would be hard pressed to see without hopping over to the US, as there is b*gger all from this period in public collections here, and the theme, the “cool” in American art in the first half of the C20 is both aesthetically and intellectually interesting. An excellent counterweight to the recent surveys of Abstract Expressionism and American art in the 1930s which came to the Royal Academy as well as the Tate Modern exhibition of Black American art from the 1960s onwards.

There isn’t a great deal of pure abstraction here in contrast to what was going on, in large part, in Europe at the time. Most of the artists on show keep at least one foot, and often more, in the figurative camp. Indeed escaping the influence of those swanky French seems to be part of what many of these artists set out to achieve. There are some early experiments in abstraction in the first room but they are not really up to much. Landscapes and cityscapes predominate. This is not art rich in portraiture: indeed one of the defining features of the survey is the absence of the human figure. The artists here are generally fixated on the rise of modern, urban America: capital accumulation, the factories, the infrastructure, the cities, the technology. Lines are hard, sharp and exact, the natural light is sharp. Twilight and artificial light get a good look in. In the best of the work on there is a weird sense of alienation and stillness. A very detached eye. The rapid social and economic transformation seems to have unsettled some of these artist folk. The rural does get an outing, but this is agriculture as industry, and not the wide, open spaces of American myth. There are a fair few barns.

The paint colours are “cool”, washed out, not vibrant in the way that European art was preoccupied with at that time. Forms are precisely rendered. There is a fair bit of “flatness” on show. The influence of the exact, “abstract” and architectural photography of the likes of Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott and, a new name for me, Imogen Cunningham is exemplified. There are a lot of buildings.

The core of the exhibition is the “precisionist’ art of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler but the curators have also succeeded in drawing a line back to the more naive, and near abstraction, of Arthur Dove, Helen Torr and early Georgia O’Keefe (Black Abstraction from 1927 is the stand out), which catch the eye in the first room, as well as forward to the uneasy genius of Edward Hopper. The exhibition ends with three blockbusters from said Mr Hopper, which, for me, are the best things here by far, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the ride up to this specific thrill.

So what were the biggest surprises beyond those artists I had some familiarity with? The three eerie townscapes from George Ault, New York Night No 2, View From Brooklyn and Hoboken Factory. It seems Ault trained in London, good man, saw three of his four siblings commit suicide, fell out wth his precisionist chums and was an alcoholic. Perhaps this explains his penchant for the twilight world.

His work is certainly a lot darker that Demuth. He is the one who liked text in his paintings of cities, indeed his must famous work is the iconic I Saw The Figure 5 In Gold which title about sums up the subject. Sheeler, who was an amazing draughtsman and nearly as good a photographer as he was painter, is probably the epitome of the “cool” aesthetic that the curators have tried, and succeeded, in showcasing. I was most taken with Demuth’s Welcome to Our City which I assume depicts his native Lancaster, Pennyslvania to whence he returned from New York due to ill health, and away from the circle of artists around Alfred Steiglitz. Sheeler’s Bucks County Barn (shown above) is almost hyper-real in its detail, barely distinguishable from his photographs of the same subjects on first glance, but as you look more closely a triumph of oil on canvas.

The two paintings from a precisionist follower, Canadian Ralston Crawford, Buffalo Grain Elevators, and Smith Silo Exton, take the inspiration of Sheeler’s rural buildings but lend it a more abstracted geometric construction. Great stuff.

There are also a pair of oil paintings from Joseph Stella, Telegraph Poles with Buildings and Metropolitan Port which show his association with the precisionists but also his early exposure to the Italian futurists. The handling of the paint here is a lot freer, there is almost a “smoky” quality, which I was much taken with.

Outside of these paintings I was also drawn to the carefully chosen lithographs on display. Louis Lozowick presents dynamic perspectives in drawings of Minneapolis and New York, there is a superior looking barn from the extravagantly named Benton Murdoch Spruance as well as a couple of fine examples from Sheeler again. Now I am not sure Grant Wood could reasonably be seen as central to the concerns of many of the other artists on show here. A regionalist, focussed on the rural, master of the “American Scene”, I don’t think he was big into for city or industrial subjects. He certainly has the air of detachment that others exhibit here though, albeit with a much heftier dose of irony and/or nostalgia, you are never quite sure. Anyway there are three of his tremendous lithographs in the exhibition, one of haystacks covered in snow, another of MidWest fields, and one of a barn and American Gothic style house. There are Durer-like in their detail and execution.

There is also Martin Lewis’s iconic drawing Which Way? with a car seemingly lost in a snowstorm. Lewis was born in Australia and came to the US to work as a commercial illustrator, a profession that  many of the greats of US art in the C20 took up to keep the wolf from the door, and which underpins the American take on modernism when compared to their rather more esoteric European peers. He found great success in drypoints, a technique he mastered on a visit to Japan, but his fame quickly faded. I think I have seen this image before but I can’t for the life of me remember where. I guessed it might have been used in connection with David Hare’s adaptation of George Simenon’s The Red Barn at the National Theatre directed by Robert Icke (a qualified success), but that image was actually another drypoint image of a barn in the snow by an artist I can’t identify. It seems that the  barn, in whatever weather, is the greatest staple of American art since the founding of the nation. There must be tons of academic papers on this.

Anyway Lewis’s drawing is not a barn but it is a perfectly wrought rendition of artificial light, here the car headlights against the snow, against the dark night. And it is probably a metaphor for the country itself, given this created in 1932, just as the US was emerging from the very worst of the Great Depression.

Now it turns out Lewis was a mate of Ed Hopper. who also has four etchings on show here, all of which show that his mastery of line. shadow and viewpoint wasn’t confined to painting. They would be worth the entry fee alone but, as I said above, there are also three oils to savour, which I think are on show in the UK for the first time. It is hard to believe that his big breakthrough didn’t come until the early 1930’s, and especially after the retrospective at MOMA in 1933, when he was already 50. Prior to that he too had to support himself as an illustrator.

I can’t believe that there is anyone who couldn’t get something valuable out of seeing Hopper’s paintings. The stillness, the light, the murkyish palettes, the shadows, the melancholy, the introversion, the uneasy suggestion. The SO, who doesn’t care for much art, adores his work reproductions of which are plastered on the walls around me as I sit writing this. Mind you, dare I say it, puritanical realism is her bag. Anyway suffice to say we love Hopper.

From Williamsburg Bridge (1928), shows the top floors of a handful of late C19 buildings seen from the eponymous bridge, with a woman perched on the ledge of one open window in the afternoon sun. Dawn in Pennsylvania (1942), is a view of a train departing, and the buildings opposite, framed by the platform. Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928) is a wider perspective of the railtrack and a cityscape.  All are wonderful.

So soak up what is on offer in this fine exhibition, see if you accept the curator’s argument, I do, and then take as long as you like with this Hoppers. It is worth it.

Many of the works on show are drawn from the Terra Collection for American Art and the Met. So thanks chaps. Just goes to show that there are some things that have come over from the States in recent weeks that aren’t, to borrow the language of astute political commentator Danny Dyer, twattish.

 

Sea Wall at the Old Vic Theatre review

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Sea Wall

Old Vic Theatre, 23rd June 2018

I might have told this story before. My memory is failing. A few years ago the SO, BD and LD went to see Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. Terrific film and terrific musical. Made more terrific by the presence of Ben Wishaw and Andrew Scott in the audience just in front of us. Topping that LD got a pic of herself with them at the interval thanks to the SO’s no-nonsense lack of star-struckedness. Made our days though I was too scared to talk to them. If I had it might have gone … “I hope your Hamlet Mr Scott is as good as yours Mr Wishaw” or some equally bone-headed guff.

Anyway it turns out that Mr Scott’s Hamlet at the Almeida was even better than Mr Wishaw’s. Some achievement that. Don’t listen to those who say his style was too “conversational” or that he dumb-downed the verse for the hoi-polloi, (aided and abetted by some suspiciously “European auteur” style direction from Robert Icke). Those are the sort of snobs who would keep you all from the exquisite joy that is Shakespeare and have you all bored rigid for four hours with men in doublets and tights at the Globe.

Sea Wall was written especially for Mr Scott by Simon Stephens, who, on his day, is as fine a dramatist as any alive today. It is apparently the favourite of his play. It was commissioned by Josie Rourke in 2008 when she was AD at the Bush and has subsequently popped up in Edinburgh, Dublin and at the NT under the auspices of Paines Plough and the director here, George Perrin. It is only 30 minutes long, that was the brief, and Mr Stephens had only 3 weeks to write it. This left no time for fannying about so, after catching a glimpse of an incident whilst on holiday in France which forms the denouement of the monologue, he just got on with it. Which explains its immediacy and power I suspect.

At first there is just a hint that Mr Scott is showboating here as he breaks down the barrier between actor, character and text. Given the prices some of the audience will have paid, (not this skinflint), and the hype surrounding the play and his performance, there was a faint air of “so what” for the first few minutes. Then somewhere in the story the spell is cast so that by the end Mr Scott had, forgive the cliche, the entire packed Old Vic crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. The monologue, when perfectly realised as here, can be the most perfect form of theatre. It is just story telling after all and in this simple family tragedy Simon Stephens is able to squeeze in all of his favourite themes, science, faith, mortality, twists of fate, compassion, exploration, fatherhood, Chekhov, grief, the possibility of redemption, all in one perfectly tight bundle. Delivered by a man who, for all the world, looks like he is watching the story unfold alongside us, as observer and observed. Other actors have performed the part of Alex but at the end of the day this is Scott’s voice in the text.

There is a short film version and hopefully he will get to play it again. Meanwhile this family at least awaits his next move, TV, film or stage, with bated breath.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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

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

Tate Modern, 19th January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Natural Selection exhibition at the Former Newington Library review *****

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Andy Holden and Peter Holden: Natural Selection

Artangel at the Former Newington Library, 24th November 2017

This might just be the best exhibition I have seen this year. The Former Newington Library was new to me I confess, and reeks of institutional instruction, which matched the tone of this “installation” to a tee. Apparently it used to contained the natural history collection of a father and son, Richard and Henry Cumming. Well done to Artangel for sniffing out the space and to video artist/cartoonist/animator Andy Holden, (who i See has his own band, the Grubby Mitts), and his ornithologist Dad, Peter, for creating this marvel.

It all apparently started when Andy, who could have stepped straight out of a 1970s Open University TV programme, saw a blackbird building a nest in Dad’s garden. Cravatted Peter Holden, who could in turn have stepped straight off Blue Peter, (in fact he was did), is an avian guru and, when Andy returned home after art school, their shared passion was rekindled. This then, even before we get to the bird and other stuff, is a poignant study of a father and son relationship. (It even begins with Andy in the pram wrestling with a book on birds).

After a series of joint lectures Andy started to gather material for the first part of the exhibition on bird’s nests. Upstairs there are some marvellous examples of nests contained in a vitrine in an “old style” museum format, another collection of feathers, a smattering of bark, a giant recreation of a bowerbird’s bower and some other bits and pieces. Not all is what is seems: this turned wooden objects are created from sonograms of bird song and some of the nests were created by Andy and mixed in with the real thing. Art and nature start to intertwine.

A quick perusal and then you sit down for the video with father and son taking it in turns to explain and illuminate, whilst a central screen shows footage from their own field trips, as well as various documentaries and the like. They look like old style nature documentaries but as father and son range through types of nests, nest sites and nest materials, some fascinating themes emerge. Peter Holden focusses on the “scientific” explanations of nesting behaviour, Andy gets you thinking about the bird as creator, even “artist”. The “practical” and the “beautiful” are explored.

How do those birds who build these elaborate structures “know” what to do? Do they have a picture in their “minds” of what they want the nest to look like? Why does the bowerbird go to so much effort in creating his bower, and the extraordinary display of themed objects he gathers? How does this relate to the Holdens’ own collections? Can it really just be a process of “sexual selection”? How do partners, families and communities collaborate (various bird species of course but also here father and son)?

Downstairs we first encounter a rook character in a cartoon strip that Andy created which has his father Peter as a “Mr Holden” charged with keeping the rook in line. The father/son relationship mined further. 

We also have another “collection”, How the Artist was Lead to a Study of Nature, which recreates the hoard of 7,130 eggs police discovered at a “collector’s house in 2006. These eggs are laid out on the floor in cardboard and plastic boxes, as they were on discovery, which also emphasises their fragility and increases the level of temptation for us the audience as these are undeniably beautiful objects. As a kid I was fascinated by birds, and the opportunities the world of ornithology gave to a boy who craved the pleasure of classification. Observing, ordering, listing, collecting. This never extended to eggs, that was already forbidden, but I could see the attraction. This, fortunately, never developed into a full blown, twitching habit, I have seen the impact this can have first hand, but I understand the obsession.

Next door is a video installation, The Opposite of Time, narrated this time by Andy Holden alone, in the form of an animated crow who first appeared in Peter’s RSPB magazine contributions. The crow passes through real habitats, notably when charting the battle between egg “collectors’ and the RSPB and volunteers over the first ospreys to return to Scotland in the 1960s. However the crow, who ages, also flies across multiple paintings, representing the best of the British landscape artistic tradition (Constable, Turner, Nash, Ravilious, Hockney). There is a further screen showing photos and some film which documents the history of egg collecting in the UK, from aristocratic pursuit by “gentlemen of science”, through to the 1954 Act which criminalised it and finally on to the “working-class” undercover activity of more recent decades.

This becomes an insightful analysis of the psychology of collecting, and how the public and scientific consensus on the morality of the “hobby” has changed through time. What makes the desire to possess so powerful that “collectors’ are prepared to destroy the very thing they purport to love? How can we enjoy such aesthetically exquisite objects, knowing their history? What gives humans the right to collect from nature? Why were toffs feted for their “scientific advances”, whilst the dispossessed collectors of today are banged up?

There are multiple parallels through the exhibition with “human” artists. The materials used by sculptors (Andy Goldsworthy), the landscape artists (Richard Long’s mud), the forms we encounter (Barbara Hepworth eggs), the collections and classifications of conceptualists (Susan Hiller), the ready mades and found objects tradition (from Duchamp on), the Pollock like lines on many of the eggs, the watercolour like pastels. Play your own game with this.

So there you have it. A natural history programme. An introduction to aesthetics. A history of landscape art. A lecture on class. Science and art. Father and son. Nature and nurture. Passion and obsession. Nerdiness. Eccentricity. Nostalgia. Some very pretty things. All in a couple of ramshackle rooms in SE17. The exhibition was extended but I think is now over. I do hope it gets another outing. I really, really need to see it again.