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

Impressionists in London at Tate Britain review ***

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The EY Exhibition: Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile 1870-1914

Tate Modern, 30th November 2017

Would I pay £17.70, the full adult price to see this. Hmm. Maybe. Different story if you are a member, (as you should be if you can afford it), but, if not, I’d say you would be much better spending your corn on the Rachel Whiteread retrospective upstairs. Given the fact that it was pretty busy on the Thursday afternoon when I waltzed in, I think I can safely say that the verdict of the public is less circumspect than mine (unless they were all members of course).

The big draw are the paintings of the Thames by Monet in the penultimate room which come from 1899 to 1901 when he took up residence each winter in the Savoy. In total Monet painted over a hundred views in the series, 37 of which appeared in a famous exhibition in 1904 in Paris. Drawn from various collections and with his famous view of the Houses of Parliament predominating, you don’t need me to tell you how marvellous they are. Any Monet series seen together is a thing of wonder, and these in particular are dear to my heart since I know the vantage point a few floors up in St Thomas’s rather better than I would like to. Is that enough though?

Well it all kicks off pretty well. The curators begin with a fascinating insight into the artistic response to the “terrible year” of 1871 which saw Paris devastated following the loss to Prussia in the war, the fall of the Second Empire, the three month siege and the brutal suppression by the French army of the Paris Commune. There is a Corot painting of Paris on fire with an Angel of Death departing high overhead and some powerful, and familiar, Manet drawings. The rest of the art here certainly shows what the artists who crossed the channel were escaping from. This was a time when the Brits welcomed foreigners with open arms. (catch a boat down the river and see a fine play, Young Marx, about another person who pitched up here and then enriched world culture). In fact London has been pretty much doing that throughout its existence so I doubt a bunch of ignorant pensioners in the shires will stop it.

Anyway a network was created when dealer Paul Durand-Ruel set up shop, and he embraced the young Monet, who spent a year here, (before his return at the end of the century), on the advice of Charles-Francois Daubigny (who isn’t a bad artist as it happens). Mind you I am not sure Mrs Monet enjoyed London judging by the face on display in her portrait. The slightly older Camille Pissarro popped up in Sarf London and Alfred Sisley joined the crew in Kensington, (proving that the French have always opted for the smartest bits of London). As we all know Pissarro and Sisley could paint, so Room 2 is a delight, though most of the works are familiar from permanent London collections. Anyway so far so good.

And then we get “James” Tissot. Now he may have been taking the p*ss out of genteel High Victorian Britain but, even if he was, it doesn’t make the paintings any more interesting. Stagey, bright and long on frocks I just can’t get on with them and there are an awful lot of them. Even so they make sense in the context of the story that its being told, so they certainly add to the exhibition, and, mockery or homage, they say a lot about the upper class Brits when they ruled the world. His friendship with the editor of Vanity Fair, Thomas Gibson Bowles provided the introduction to Society, (Tissot produced caricatures for the magazine), and Tissot ended up shacked up with his lover in St John’s Wood, which seems a posh thing to do.

What follows, rooms devoted to Alphonse Legros, who mixed with that rum pre-Raphaelite posse, Jules Dalou, Edouard Lanteri and worst of all Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, is just not my cup of tea at all. These fellows were French emigres for sure, and part of the London artistic community, and very highly regarded by all accounts, but their painting and sculpture just looks like sentimental Victorian, faux-classical kitsch to me. It pads out the exhibition for sure, and there were plenty of punters who seemed to be lapping it up, and ignoring my admittedly inaudible snorts of derision. I admit I am an almighty cultural snob but it just didn’t seem to me that these chaps fitted the Impressionist billing, at least as I understand it.

We then had a mixed return to form centred on the Impressionists take on peculiar British sports and the outdoor places where they played them and took the air. Cricket and rowing understandably fascinated our Gallic chums. Again though it is Sisley and especially Pissarro who do the business with Tissot lagging behind. Especially admirable was Pissarro’s stout refusal to paint any part of Hampton Court Palace when he lived round the corner, even as he documented all the spaces around it. Given its majesty this took a pigheaded commitment to the “everyday life” tenets of Impressionism.

My eye in this room though was drawn to the best picture in the exhibition, Monet’s Leicester Square at Midnight from 1903, normally housed at the Musee Granet in Aix-en-Provence. Hello. If some-one told you this was painted decades later you would have believed them. I know the weather in London is, and was sh*te, compared to the South of France, but there was no need for Monet to depict this quite so graphically. Like the first and second generation Camden Town painters this is murk, night, light, rain and fog but also pure, beautiful and very colourful paint. More Expressionist than Impressionist?

This leads into a room full of fine paintings, of fog, the Thames and Westminster, as a starter before the Monet entree, with works from our friend Pissarro and three of Whistler’s nocturnes. The latter are undeniably atmospheric, with a definite thematic and stylistic link to his French contemporaries, but again you can see these any day of the week upstairs. After the Monet room, the curators have somewhat bizarrely tacked on some of Derain’s Fauvist views of London, specifically Charing Cross Bridge. I have never been entirely convinced by his paintings but they are arresting, he was French, he was inspired by Monet. Yet obviously they are not Impressionistic, nor was he in exile.

So there it is. Influences, precedents and antecedents of course matter in an overview of this sort. The sub-title of the exhibition indicates that it covers French artists in exile from 1870 to 1914. Which is exactly what it is. There is a clear, if somewhat cliched, insight into Victorian London. And there are some truly stunning paintings. But there is also some frightful, in my opinion, padding, and this detracts from the whole. If you like Monet though …..

Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain review *****

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Rachel Whiteread

Tate Britain, 25th September 2017

If you take even a passing interest in contemporary British art you are probably aware of Rachel Whiteread, and you may well have seen some of her work. Even if you are not interested, or are firmly in the nihilistic, hater camp that thinks this is all bollocks (a diminishing minority I am pleased to say), you will have heard of her. In the early 1990’s the “popular” press got it another one of their pathetic lathers about her work House, in East London, which helped her win the Turner Prize. The “controversy” was then comically ratcheted up as Tower Hamlets council proceeded to knock it down, thereby getting us arty-farty, liberal types in a tizz. Thus proving the whole point of public art – engagement.

You might also remember her project Monument for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, a resin cast of the very plinth on which it is set. A perfect transparent mirror image. I seem to recall it was one of the more loved of the commissions in this most public of locations, but that might just be me.

You are also likely then to be aware of her making process which generally involves complex casting in a wealth of materials at a range of scales. Her chosen subjects are normally mundane, sinks, bog rolls, windows, doors, even rooms and buildings, but what she achieves is mesmerising.

For me this exhibition is a must see. It encompasses some her earliest work from the years following the Slade through to the exhilarating resin casts of doors and windows from the last few years. I gather she started as a painter but shifted to sculpture thanks to Richard Wilson. Thank goodness for that. Mr Wilson is concerned with with the nature of architectural space, and with creating striking ways of seeing this space, and it is pretty straightforward to read the thread through to Ms Whiteread. If you ever get a chance go see 20:50, Richard Wilson’s installation of sump oil. It will take your breath away. Or if you turn up early for some gig or other entertainment at the 02 walk east along the river until you see a bit of ship otherwise know as Slice of Reality. Or look out for Square the Block at the bottom of Kingsway or stop for a moment to admire the giant “wing”, Slipstream, before you enter the purgatory of Heathrow’s Terminal 2.

Sorry back to RW. I think Closet is the earliest work in the room (the gallery has been opened up to encompass all the works in the exhibition). This is a plaster cast of the interior of a wardrobe encased in felt. No immediate aesthetic attraction for me but it opens up the possibilities that RW has subsequently mined from the idea of “negative space”. That is the space around and, more importantly, inside the subject. Often explored in two dimensional images through the Modern age but less so in sculpture (though Bruce Naumann and other US minimalists/conceptualists had kicked off the exploration). Obviously casting is a fundamental part of the sculptural process but as a means to an end not usually the end. And this is what makes RW so important and interesting, especially when compared to other British artists of her generation who are a little more “shouty” and a little less insightful than RW in more opinion.

Next door to Closet is a plaster cast of a dressing table which is more interesting, as not only does the material itself have more appeal to me, the stimulus to eyes and brain as you try to unravel the “reversal” of the space gives far more pleasure. This carries through to the rest of the early works” sinks, baths, beds and furniture. They both are, and are not, what they purport to be.

Around the corner is a vitrine of 9 hot water bottles (and similarly shaped objects like enema bags!), another common subject for RW, and here we see the dimension that the variation in materials brings, resin, plaster, aluminium, wax, concrete and rubber. These are termed Torsos. A seemingly obvious process, with seemingly obvious subjects and seemingly obvious materials is transmuted into an homage to classical sculpture and the Renaissance masters who worshipped their forebears. There is also something of the womb about them. So we see the “concept’ become the subject and finally the object. Absolutely thrilling. Trust me.

In Room 101 and the floorboards cast in resin next to it further dimensions of RW’s art are revealed. Room 101 is a plasticised plaster cast of a room in BBC Broadcasting House where George Orwell worked and which was allegedly the inspiration for the eponymous space in 1984. So lots to chew on there in addition to the effect of the reversal of the space on a much larger scale than other subjects in the exhibition. Whilst there is a cast, Chicken Shed, in the garden in front of the Tate, and we have materials relating to the planning of RW’s more monumental outdoor works (definitely read up on these) ,we can only imagine what they look like but Room 101 helps. Next door the light falling on the resin floorboards emphasises the grain of the wood with every mark, scratch and knot evidence of time passing.

Nearby there is another fascinating large scale work in a cast of some library bookshelves. The detail of the pages from the books is intriguing as the spines are positioned inwards on shelves. So the shelves turn the knowledge inwards but we are not shut out. Imagine this on a much larger scale. That would be a sight to behold. And that is why I want to see the Holocaust Memorial or Nameless Library in Vienna which is exactly that.

The coloured objects and boxes along the back wall and far corner (relative to the entrance) of the exhibition room are less successful in my view, (along with the papier mache architectural fragments where are definition and detail is lost). Turning toilet roll cardboard tubes into things of rare chalky beauty is a masterly achievement, but, overall, the “fact” of the process, and any beauty in the form and function of the object (in contrast to the architectural subjects), is less visible to me. These pieces were produced after RW had completed Embankment for the Tate Modern Turbine Hall which had a mixed public and critical response I understand. I never saw it so can’t comment but the photographic record, conjuring up an ice palace, looks pretty groovy to me.

In contrast the mighty cast Untitled (Stairs) is exactly that, mighty. Like the floors on show the wear and tear of use sing out, but the reversal of the space is somehow less interesting, or maybe too familiar from the works of Escher and others. This is not true though of the wall of doors and windows, the most recent works, and for me the very best of RW’s work on show here. There are just beautiful. Especially the coloured resin casts. Seeing “through” the windows echoes their purpose. I couldn’t take my eyes off the resin doors, especially the two “antique” subjects from the C17 and C18 century, with the light casting shadows and reflections through on to the wall behind them. Mind you I do like old doors.

So when you finally tear yourself from these works, pass through the room of works by other artists curated by RW, which show the association with other British conceptual sculptors of an earlier vintage who also weren’t prepared to sacrifice aesthetic appeal in their work. RW has followed a clear and identifiable artistic journey but the link bank to the first generation of US minimalists and US/UK conceptualists is strong.

Then make sure to see Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) in the solemn Duveen Gallery. 100 coloured resin casts of the “internal” space of little side tables arranged in, I think, random order. Like tiny sentinels, ice cubes, soaps, sweets or children’s toys. A “terracotta army” of plastic. A New York panorama. The pastel colours echo the use of plastic in modern consumer goods. Yet the colours are faded, the opacity compromised, creating an air of melancholy. Sad, baby tables. Or rather the insides of sad, baby tables. I think I better stop there.

The exhibition goes on to 21st January next year. If a quick glance at pictures of her work leaves you cold then maybe you are excused (though I still think you are missing out) but if you have even the vaguest interest please check this out. The best exhibition in London this year (so far)? For me yes. If you crave colour, emotion, passion then this may not cut it. If you like simplicity, volume. form, function, detail – if you are in touch with your inner ascetic – then pop on your sharpest threads (all black was a favoured look on my visit) and get down to Millbank.

PS. I note on Wiki that Ms Whiteread spent a little time working at Highgate Cemetery fixing lids on time damaged coffins. I cannot think of work that would have bettered informed her art.

Loot at the Park Theatre review ****

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Loot

Park Theatre, 14th September 2017

There has been a lot of progress in the last 50 years in this country. Good people are more tolerant and accepting of the identity of others (though there are still plenty of bigoted d*ckheads to be found polluting the discourse), The fairy tales of religions are losing their grip on peoples’ thoughts, (though some still get fired up by this tosh and just will not leave us unbelievers alone). The police will always have unconscionable biases and corruptions but great strides have been made in remedying institutional failings.

Oh and the idea of shoving a dead body around a set for comedic effect in the theatre is unlikely to outrage any but the most conservative of Mail readers. All this means that the dark satire of Joe Orton’s famous play Loot is now muted, and the outrage which greeted its first performances seems quaint to this observer. BUT it is still, when performed well, a very funny, subversive play and its targets are still worth taking aim at. Taking the piss intelligently out of the institutions which create the superstructure is still a vital artistic imperative. And an antidote to all those digital crusaders who get wound up for nanoseconds about ephemera.

And be assured this production, directed by Michael Fentiman, at the Park is very good indeed, and it would be a shame if the remaining sold out performances are the last we see of it. The set and costumes from Gabriella Slade are exemplary – the action cleverly all takes place in an all-black funeral parlour with a hefty dose of religious iconography. The costumes put us slap bang in the middle of the 1960s, not the flower power generation but the more mundane, tired, conservative world which was the reality. The production kicks off with a speech from that tiresome crone Mary Whitehouse. And we have an actor as corpse rather than a dummy which adds a new and funny dimension.

The excellent cast take a great delight in playing up the characters faults and rapidly firing off the lines in the faux sincere way that they require (and largely avoiding the Carry On-esque trap that bedevils amateur interpretations). Everyone here is on the take in some way. Following a “bank job” lovers Dennis (Calvin Demba) and Hal (Sam Frenchum) need somewhere to store the loot. Hal’s Mum has just passed away but her murderous nurse Fay (Sinead Matthews) has designs on his Dad, McCleary (Ian Redford), or, more exactly, his money. Truscott (Christopher Fulford) is the copper investigating the bank robbery but poses as an inspector from the Water Board to grill the others. Cue the acid humour and farcical form and a conclusion where everyone gains financially though loses morally, not that they give a sh*t.

Sam Frenchum show’s up Hal’s jealously in the face of Dennis’s bisexuality and avarice. This is where the restoration of the cuts demanded by the Lord Chamberlain (yes kids we had a bloke in a wig telling us what we could watch until the 1960s) is most welcome, sharpening the ambivalent relationship between the two lads. Shades of Orton and Halliwell’s own relationship? Ian Redford’s McLeary feigns, but cannot entirely claim, innocence. Sinead Matthews is outstanding as the hypocritical Irish nurse and her comic timing is flawless. And Christopher Fulford as Truscott defines splenetic as our bent copper whose twisting of judicial logic ends up with, for example, the priceless concept of Christ’s crucifixion as a put up job. Oh and Anah Ruddin as Mrs McLeavy almost steals the show despite not uttering a word.

So no longer a shocking black satire: more a clever parody with astute commentary on “that old whore society” as Orton observed.  I am guessing it helps if you have a feel for the period but the stereotypes and absurdities are recognisable and the laughs abundant. Like Ben Johnson but without the need for a degree in Ben Johnson studies to understand it. If the production pops up somewhere else (beyond Newbury where it is off to next) take a look. It is perfectly possible to make a sh*tshow of Loot which entirely misses the points in the pursuit of forced laughs and overplayed farce. Indeed, by all accounts, the first productions failed until Orton rewrote and licked it into shape and the 1970 film version is weak.

If you are interested get along to the Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain (Queer British Art at Tate Britain review ***). Not a treasure trove of great art but a fascinating journey through gay history in Britain in the century or so proceeding the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which partially decriminalised homosexuality. Orton’s play premiered a couple of years before the Act. The exhibition shows some of the library books that Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell “defaced” and for which they were unbelievably imprisoned for 6 months.

 

Queer British Art at Tate Britain review ***

Bathing 1911 by Duncan Grant 1885-1978

Queer British Art 1861-1967

Tate Britain, 18th August 2017

I learnt a lot from this exhibition. A damming reflection of my ignorance of gay history in Britain over the period under review. However I am afraid I didn’t really see much in the way of compelling art or artists which I had not already encountered. No matter. Sometimes it is good just to learn and with a muppet like me sometimes all that is required to achieve that aim are a few pictures and some well chosen words.

Now in some ways the reason why the history lesson was of such interest was precisely because curator Clare Barlow mixed up work by gay artists, with portraits and mementoes of courageous heroes of gay history, as well as art which depicts ostensibly gay themes, whether acknowledged or moreorless concealed. For someone with no prior insight the shifting content did not detract from the edification. For those more versed in the art itself or gay social history this jumbling up may prove less satisfying. It did also mean there is a lot of rippling torso on show to draw the eye from the absorbing captions.

The first room kicks off with a Pre-Raphaelite extravaganza, reminding me of how much I detest this art, but also how overtly camp it is even as it hides, badly, behind its classical allusion. Sorry if you feel differently. But it does neatly emphasise the enduring link back to the High Renaissance and in turn to ancient Greece. It seems some will never tire of the classical nude. Room 2 explores how gay identity filtered through into public and “scientific” discourse through the late C19 and early C20. Room 3, largely through some fine photographs, explores how the notion of the “theatrical” acted as a conduit for queer expression to a sometimes knowing audience. As with Room 2 no real art of any great consequence (a sign of the artistic times) but bags of insight for me. In Room 4 we get a some recognisable pictures, but largely from the Bloomsbury Group and their acolytes. Now I know these toffs are terribly important in the development of British Art in the C20 and they are an endlessly fascinating bunch of characters, but this is hardly unexplored territory, and Vanessa Bell excepted, (and obviously Keynes in his chosen field), their output isn’t up to much – witness the Duncan Grant contribution above. (The SO will kill me if she reads this given the implied dissing ofVirginia Woolf). Room 5 finally serves up some fine pictures (to my eyes) for example the Laura Knight self portrait (though the thematic link here is tenuous) and explores notable female same sex relationships. Room 6 was the most interesting to me in terms of painters with works from diverse names such as Edward Burra (a real highlight), John Craxton. John Minton and Keith Vaughan all offering new viewing opportunities. Great stuff. Back to the history lesson in Room 7 showing the dichotomy between public and private gay lives in the 1950s and 1960s before the first step to decriminalisation in 1967 (the exhibition timeline having begun with the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861). Room 8 loads up Hockney and Bacon, though there might have been more of their genius .

So I would say carve out some time to get along to the exhibition (it ends on October 1st) ideally with a chum or two (this is not a show for private contemplation) to soak up some defiant stories of fearless people sticking it to the fearful. Just don’t expect too many draw-dropping pictures.

Some ideas for the culturally inclined in London

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Here is a very brief round-up, (apparently I can drone on a bit so have tried to be disciplined), of the current and forthcoming major theatre and exhibition events in London that have caught my eye (and ear). I have a list of classical concerts which is still good to go for those that way inclined (Some forthcoming classical music concert ideas (with a bit of nostalgia thrown in) and will take a look at the best of the forthcoming seasons at the two major opera houses in another post.

No particular order and not at all obscure. There should be tickets available for all of these but in some cases you may need to get your finger out.

Hope this helps if, unlike me, you are not over endowed with time.

Theatre

I can vouch for the first four below and the rest are those which I think are likely to be the most likely to turn into “must-sees”.

  • Hamlet – Harold Pinter Theatre – June to September 2017

If you think Shakespeare is not for you then think again. Andrew Scott as our eponymous prince could be chatting to you in the pub it is that easy to follow (mind you, you’d think he was a bit of a nutter) and Robert Icke’s direction is revelatory. Plenty of tickets and whilst it’s not cheap they aren’t gouging your eyes out compared to other West End shows. Here’s what I thought.

Hamlet at the Almeida review *****

  • The Ferryman – Gielgud Theatre – June to October 2017

This will almost certainly be the best play of 2017 and will be an oft revived classic. It is better than writer Jez Butterworth’s previous masterpiece, Jerusalem. Prices are steep but the Gielgud is a theatre where the cheap seats are tolerable. If you see one play this year make this it.

The Ferryman at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

  • Babette’s Feast – Print Room Coronet – to early June 2017

There are a couple of weeks left on this. Probably helps if you know the film or book. I was enchanted though proper reviews less so. Loads of tickets, cheap as chips, not demanding at all, lovely venue.

Babette’s Feast at the Print Room Coronet review ****

  • Othello – Wilton’s Music Hall – to early June 2017

Again just a couple of weeks left here. Once again perfect Shakespeare for those who don’t think it is for them. Big Will’s best play and an outstandingly dynamic production. Another atmospheric venue, though I would say get right up close. A bargain for this much class.

Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****

  • The Tempest – Barbican Theatre – July and August 2017

This is the RSC transfer from Stratford. Simon Russell Beale, our best stage actor, as Prospero. Some fancy dan technology is employed. Reviews generally positive though you always get sniffiness from broadsheets whenever RSC plays a bit fast and loose with big Will. Not cheap but at least at the Barbican you will be comfy (if you don’t go too cheap).

  • Macbeth – Barbican Theatre – 5th to 8th October 2017

More bloody Shakespeare. Literally. On this you are going to have to trust me. Ninagawa is a Japanese theatre company renowned for its revelatory productions. So in Japanese with surtitles. But when these top class international companies come to the Barbican it is usually off the scale awesome. I’ve been waiting years to see them. Enough tickets left at £50 quid a pop but it will sell out I think.

  • The Suppliant Women – Young Vic – 13th to 25th November 2017

Reviews when this was shown at Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh were very good. Aeschylus, so one of them Greeks, updated to shed light on the refugee crisis. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, and you can probably wait until closer to opening, but I still think this will turn into a must see.

  • Ink – Almeida Theatre – June to August 2017

Writer James Graham’s last major outing, This House, about politics in 1970s Britain, was hilarious and insightful. This is based on the early life of Rupert Murdoch so expect a similar skewering. Directed by Almeida’s own Rupert Goold with Bertie Carvel the lead (the sh*t of a husband in that Doctor Foster off the telly). I have very high hopes for this,

  • Against – Almeida Theatre – August and September 2017

New play which sounds like it is about some crazy US billionaire taking over the world (I could be hopelessly wrong as Almeida doesn’t tell you much). Written by American wunderkind Chris Shin, directed by master of clarity Ian Rickson, and with Ben Wishaw in the lead. Don’t know how much availability as public booking only opens 25th May, but I would get in quick here and buy blind. Almeida now a lot comfier with the padded seats and still a bargain for what is normally world class theatre.

  • Prism – Hampstead Theatre – September and October 2017

New play from the marvellous Terry Johnson who writes brainy comedy Robert Lindsay in the lead role of a retired cinematographer. I have a feeling there will be more to this than meets the eye (!!) and will buy blind on the public booking opening. Usually around £30 a ticket so if it turns into a hit, as Hampstead productions sometimes do, it is a bargain.

  • Young Marx – The Bridge Theatre – October to December 2017

So this is the opener from the team at the Bridge which is the first large scale commercial theatre to be opened in London for decades. The genius Nick Hytner directs and the play is written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. The last time these three came together out popped One Man, Two Guvnors. Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris (trust me you will know him off the telly) play the young Marx and Engels in London. Hard to think of a set up that could get me more excited but if any part appeals to you I would book now. There are loads of performances so no urgency but, if they have any sense at all, the seats here will be v. comfy with good views as it is all brand new, so taking a punt on a cheap seat will probably turn out well.

  • Julius Caesar – The Bridge Theatre – January to April 2018

Bridge again. Julius Caesar so probably need to know what you are letting yourself in for as solus Roman Shakespeare’s can sometimes frustrate. BUT with David Morrissey, Ben Wishaw, David Calder and Michelle Fairley, it is a super heavyweight cast. Same logic as above – it might be worth booking early and nabbing a cheap seat on the assumption they would be mad not to serve up the best auditorium in London if the venture is to succeed.

  • The Retreat – Park Theatre – November 2017

The Park often puts on stuff that sounds way better than it actually turns out to be, but this looks the pick of its forthcoming intriguing bunch. Written by Sam Bain (Peep Show and Fresh Meat) and directed by Kathy Burke. Comedy about a City high flyer who gives it all up but can’t escape the past. If anything is guaranteed to wheel in the North London 40 and 50 somethings then this is it. No cast announcement yet but I bet they rope some comic into the lead.

  • The Real Thing – The Rose Theatre Kingston – 2nd to 14th October

A co-production with Theatre Royal Bath and Cambridge Arts Theatre of one of Stoppard’s greatest plays. I really want this to be a cracking revival for my local.

Exhibitions

Here is the pick of the forthcoming blockbusters which I hope to get to see. The Jasper Johns and the Cezanne Portraits are the ones I am most excited about.

  • Giacometti – Tate Modern – just opened until 10th September 2017
  • Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains – V and A – until 1st October 2017
  • Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction – Barbican Art Gallery – from 3rd June 2017
  • Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! – Serpentine Gallery – from 8th June 2017
  • Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth – Royal Academy – from 23rd September 2017
  • Opera: Passion, Power and Politics – V and A – from 30th September 2017
  • Cezanne Portraits – National Portrait Gallery – from 26th October 2017
  • Monochrome: Painting in Black and White – National Gallery – from 30th October 2017
  • Impressionists in London – Tate Britain – from 2nd November 2017
  • Red Star Over Russia – Tate Modern – from 8th November 2017
  • Modigliani – Tate Modern – from 23rd November 2017

 

 

David Hockney at Tate Britain review ****

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David Hockney

Tate Britain, 2nd May 2017

OK so this is embarrassing so I will get it out of the way. I didn’t really know David Hockey’s works beyond a cursory glance at a handful of works in permanent collections and some mixed exhibitions and didn’t really know what all the fuss was about (this remember is about as popular an exhibition as TB has ever staged I gather). The idea that his fascination with new “ways of seeing” was somehow interesting or insightful felt like a bit of hype to me. I went it to this therefore expecting to be underwhelmed and finally to be able to write a review that wasn’t sycophantly gushing as is my wont.

Well I was wrong. When he wants to be this fella’s a marvel (though by no means consistently). So if there is anyone out there who didn’t know that (or was I the only one), I recommend you get along to this in the next three weeks before it closes.

So what turned me on? Well not all the scruffy early stuff though I can see its provocations. Not the first phase of LA swimming pool stuff – this is great yes (especially the buildings) but closer exposure didn’t bring to that WTF moment I look for in art. And not the IPad musings at the end. But the so flat, still, alienating double portraits, the room of amazing drawings, a few of the collaged photos and then the Wolds paintings, those paintings, and I was bowled over. I didn’t leave anything like enough time for those Wolds multiple canvasses so I will have to go back. It is like Van Gogh suddenly got serious with colour and that you are racing towards the vanishing point. So new ways of seeing – I get it now. And acrylic paint – no room for error – and the pure skill of the simplest drawings. There is still some pointless nonsense but this can be forgiven.