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.

Van Gogh and Japan exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum review ****

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Van Gogh and Japan

Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam, 18th May 2018

There is an episode of the recent excellent BBC series Civilisations, on the history of art, where the presenter Simon Schama explores Japanese woodblock prints from the C!8 and C19 and shows their impact on the Western art canon. We often assume that the revolution in figurative art that came with Impression, Neo-Impressionism and Post Impressionism was born from the societies in which it flourished especially France, (VvG came to Paris in 1886), with some link back to greats  from the past, Turner, Delacroix and Courbet. Subjects changed, colour and and the depiction of light intensified, artist got out a bit more. You don’t normally hear about how the flood of art from Japan influenced the way these chaps, (mostly chaps as always), saw their world.

This exhibition seeks to show the link between Van Gogh specifically, (it being the Van Gogh museum), and Japanese art but it does rather ram home the connection. Van Gogh collected Japanese prints like they were going out of fashion, which they so weren’t Japonisme being all the rage, so you get to see plenty of his 600 strong own collection, augmented with other jewels from the likes of Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi, contrasted with van Gogh’s own landscapes and other work. There’s even some fascinating direct copies by VvG of Japanese subjects, a bridge and, you guessed it, some blossom on a plum tree. And the exquisite van Gogh shown above is topped by its near neighbour in the exhibition, a bull finch hanging upside down on cherry tree branches by Hokusai. It is breathtakingly beautiful. You can get it as an I-Phone case. Not quite the same.

Oil paint might substitute for woodcut print ink but the same notion of perspective and dynamic, panoramic landscape leaps out. The thoughtful look in portraiture. The attempts to capture the detail of nature. Bold colours, uncluttered composition, clear lines, cropping. Your response might not be quite the same, reflecting the cultural history imposed upon you, but the ideas and impulses that underpin Impressionism, and the reasons why we can’t get enough of it, are uncannily similar. Van Gogh may not be as pretty-pretty as the generation that proceeded him but we punters can still intuitively grasp what he was about even when he had a bad day, which was most days poor fella.

The famous Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear which we lucky Londoners can normally see in the Courtauld Gallery has a Torakiyo print of Mount Fuji on the wall. Van Gogh wasn’t alone. There is a Manet portrait of Zola with a sumo picture lurking in the background and Whistler brought the craze to London and copied it in his nocturnes.

Yet the differences are also striking. Oil paint adds texture. The woodcuts are flat. Van Gogh’s world is filled with unease, the Japanese masters exude calm (or am I just lazily stereotyping). Style contrasts with substance. Japanese art is steeped in the collective, in reverence for history and nature. Van Gogh peers at the individual and confronts head on the past and the world around him. Van Gogh is utterly devoid of irony or humour. He was, as we know, a serious fellow. The Japanese work was made to sell, (especially to us gullible gaijin), without his brother VvG would have been f*cked economically and artistically. That is why he is tortured genius personified. That, and the mental illness, a source of prurient audience fascination even as his descendants stewarded his work.

So the exhibition succeeds in showing the historical link between the two artistic cultures and the part Japan played in changing the direction of Western art. The questions art poses are universal even if the answers can vary through time and place. That is why VvG was taken with the idea of bringing his fellow artists together in some sort of Zennish brotherhood collective. The Occident and the Orient has been patronising each other for many hundreds of years. It also shows both the socio-economic and historical differences between the two worlds.

What it doesn’t do is show the actual art of either Van Gogh or the Japanese masters to best effect. Van Gogh, perhaps more than any other canonic Western artist, jumps off the canvas and wrestles the viewer to the ground. Old boot, chair, field, self, man, woman, flowers, vase. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, you cannot not stare. Of course you can whizz through like so many punters were doing in the main collection as it filled up. (I got in the queue on the opening – they have slot times now – and bounded up – well took the lift actually – to the top floor which I had moreorless to myself for twenty minutes or so). Even the cultural tickers and phone clickers though get pulled up by something from van Gogh.

In contrast the Japanese prints need a bit of proper looking. That takes time. When some hulking VvG landscape is lurking nearby they get pummelled. No matter. There are just so many astounding things to see in this exhibition that it doesn’t really matter if you accept or reject the message of cultural globalisation. Just enjoy.

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.

 

The American Dream at the British Museum review ****

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The American Dream: pop to the present

British Museum, 31st March 2017

So where can you see a stunning survey of pretty much all the major artists, across all the major movements of modern and contemporary art, in the US over the last seven or so decades. The British Museum that’s where. I realise the element of surprise in my rhetoric may have been somewhat diluted by the titles above but you get the idea. This exhibition is focussed solely on printmaking, but given that has proved a vital medium for so many key artists over this period, and given that The British Museum has a few gems in this medium tucked away and begged gems from elsewhere, it means they can mount a humdinger.

It takes in the pop of Andy Warhol, Clas Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein, through the gods that are Jasper Johns, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, then iconic Ed Ruscha works, a bit of Bruce Nauman, some key Abstract Impressionists (not so much my cup of tea), marvellous pure Abstraction and Minimalism (Josef Albers, Donald Judd, Sol LeWit, Richard Serra), a dose of the photorealism of Chuck Close, Richard Estes and Alex Katz and then more contemporary works (many new to me with Kiki Smith the absolute stand-out).

Clearly as there is no paint or sculpture involved you only get a part of the story but prints are so immediately accessible and so easy to comprehend that you won’t feel the absence. There are maybe more straight lines here than with a survey through paint. But for me that is no bad thing as I like straight lines and it stops those loudmouthed later abstract impressionists taking over the whole shebang. Moreover the curators have smartly brought to the fore the key studios and collaborators who made the screen-printed works possible. Showing the techniques involved in the making of this art was, for this learner at least, a masterstroke.

If I had to single out just a few things for you attention, and to highlight why you should go along, then it would be Jasper Johns’s flags, alphabets and targets – just keep staring – Rauschenberg’s Stoned Moon series, 1969 and 1970 literally there in front of you, Jim Dine’s everyday curiosities, Ed Ruscha’s gas stations (you’ve seen the images before trust me) and his “droplet” prints (which I have wanted to see), Donald Judd’s squares and Sol LeWit’s lines and, as I say above, all of Kiki Smith’s works. I know I should try to be more critical but it’s tough to do so with something that has been as well put together as this exhibition.

There’s a lovely catalogue, a bargain at £15, if you wave your Art Pass you get in half-price, and remember the BM opens late on a Friday, so no jostling with bored students.

The British Museum boffins are on a roll. The South Africa exhibition prior to this was another smart piece of curating, Sicily last year was outstanding (my favourite exhibition of the year – and fortuitous preparation for an expedition to Palermo, Cefalu and Monreale en famille) and the Celts in 2015 put up a good fight too. Less enamoured of the Sunken Cities exhibition but still worth seeing.