Natalia Goncharova exhibition at Tate Modern review *****

Natalia Goncharova

Tate Modern, 26th August 2019

Right cards on the table. If I don’t start getting a move on I am never going to catch up in terms of documenting my cultural adventures on this blog, Which would render it even more pointless and too much of a chore. So focus Tourist. Focus.

Cards on table again. I had a vague idea who Natalia Goncharova was before I pitched up to this. But I knew she was “important”, the reviews said go and Tate membership needed justifying.

Wise call. My guess is that I had seen some of her work in the Russian Art post the Revolution at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago. Mind you as someone who never fully signed up to any art movement, in fact quite the reverse as she plundered from everywhere and everyone, I can’t be entirely sure. What I can be sure of is that NG was an artist in the very top rank in the first half of the C20. Which is a pretty crowded field.

Quick bio. She was born in 1881 into an impoverished aristocratic, but academic, family, (shades of Chekhov), with money coming from textiles, in a village 200kms south of Moscow, to which she moved with her family in 1892. Studied sculpture at Moscow Art School at the turn of the century and met life long partner, and tireless advocate, Mikhail Fedorovich Larionov. European modernism, direct from Paris was an early influence on NG, but her early work actually drew more on traditional Russian folk art, most obviously the lubok, a popular coloured print format with simple graphics. Yet the works that she contributed to the first exhibition of the radical Jack of Diamonds Group in 1911, whilst still portraying folk art subjects, offer an abstracted, fragmented perspective clearly in debt to Cubism.

In 1912 NG and Larionov did found a school dedicated to traditional Russian art formats but this was quickly followed in 1913 by their so-called rayonism which took the geometric forms of futurism and vorticism but with subjects lit by prominent rays of light. In September of that year NG held her first solo exhibition in Moscow, comprising over 800 works, in a jumble of styles that peers dubbed vschestvo or “everythingism”. You get the picture (forgive the pun).

She then moved with Larionov to Paris where she fell in with the beau monde and specifically Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes for whom she designed costumes and sets most notably for works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky. She was the go-to designer when Russian folk stories graced the bill whilst still continuing to paint, teach and illustrate books . Contributions to exhibitions in London and New York in the 1920’s and 1930’s extended her renown but commissions dried up through the 1940s and 1950s. In 1955 she and Larionov married and there was sufficient interest in their work to mount a major retrospective by the Arts Council in London in 1961. NG died in Paris in 1962.

This varied practice was fully represented in this extensive exhibition with 170 contributions from numerous private and public collections, especially her native Russia, and specifically Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery. It kicks off with early works and her own collection of objects that show, for all her affinity with up to the minute modernism, her life long connection to Russian folk art. One word people. Colour. For this is what leaps out across NG’s work. Take the electric orange she sprays around. Or the cobalt blue. Straight out of the tube with no attempt to dull then down or change the tone. Just delicious.

The second room takes pieces drawn from the collections of turn of the century Moscow industrialists, Ivan Moroznov and Sergei Shchukin, which mixed the best of post-impressionism and early modernism with traditional Russian folk art. Alongside NG’s own syntheses, seen in the work taken from the her 1913 exhibition, it is the bold colours, simple forms and flat surfaces which links everything together. The nine part (seven are brought together here) series of large scale oil paintings, Harvest, dominated by bright blues, oranges and purples, are probably the most striking examples of this synthesis but it is there across all the pieces from this period, whether prints, drawings, textiles, wallpapers or designs for theatre and clothing. It might look like a Cezanne, Gaugin, Matisse or Picasso, but the feel is recognisably NG.

This individual style wasn’t just in her art but also in her self. NG strutted around as a full-on boho, face painted, showcasing her own designs, which led to commissions from the trendiest Moscow couture houses. Remember this was still the streets of Moscow not Paris, at a time of massive social upheaval. The 1905 Revolution may have loosened things up a bit in Russia but this was still the most conservative country, give or take, in Europe. When WWI opened the couple were in Paris but had to return to Moscow in August 1914 when Larionov was called up, though it wasn’t long before he returned, wounded, from the front line and was then demobilised. NG’s response was a series of lithographs, Mystical Images of War, which combined the national symbols of the Allied Powers with images from Russian liturgical works and medieval verse. Angels wrestling biplanes, the Virgin Mary morning the fallen, Death’s Pale Horse.

These are tremendous, and served to broaden NG’s reach, but they are surpassed by the selection from the Evangelists series in room 6. These large scale, powerfully direct images were based on the tradition of icon paintings but proved too much for the Russian authorities who had them removed from the 1912 exhibition. and again in 1913, this was not just because NG was a woman co-opting an exclusively male artistic tradition but also because of their astonishing modernity. (This wasn’t the first time the Russian “taste” police took offence: her 1910 painting The Deity of Fertility was confiscated and she was charged with some “corrupting the public morals” bollocks). The label “Neo-Primitive” is sometimes applied to NG’s work, including these, but, like the term Flemish Primitive to describe the early Northern Renaissance, it is misleading. Lines may be simple, forms resolutely modernist, colours flat, but these induced a similar reaction in the Tourist to the jewels of the early C15.

All her ideas are also reflected in the collection of book illustrations, catalogues and other promotional material that NG produced in the 1910s and 1920s when she was at the centre of artistic life in Moscow and then Paris. Following this are works from NG and Larionov’s response to cubism and futurism and specifically their rayonist manifesto. Now the subjects are machines and urban, not rural, life and movement and energy are the forces she seeks to capture. Landscapes, plants and people still appear but NG quickly veers to abstraction. Remember this was still 1913, pre WWI, making NG, in her prolific abundance, one of the first major artists of the time to embrace specifically non figurative art. Mind you the years just before the outbreak of WWI might just have been the most fertile in the history of Western art and ideas circulated so quickly it is tricky to know who influenced who. Anyway the point is that NG and ML were right in there.

Now in some ways, given all this outpouring of beauty, that NG got somewhat hijacked by the commissions for fashion, costume and interior designs that flooded in as her work became widely known across Europe and into the US. Teaching also took up her time. The 1920s and 1930s revealed a fascination with Spanish culture and the iconic Spanish Woman is featured in much of her non-theatre work in those years. The final room is devoted to the set and costume designs for the Ballet Russes and others, accompanied by early film performance footage and music. The “exotic” vision of the East has been a staple of C19 and C20 Western performance art, and NG’s physical representations, for the likes of works such as Le Coq d’or, the unperformed Liturgy, Les Noces, Sadko and L’Oiseau de feu are as much a part of the aesthetic, if not more so, than the music of Rimsky-Korsakov or Stravinsky.

There isn’t much other work from the 1940 and 1950’s as NG turned to a more neo-classical style, maybe harking back a bit too much to her younger self, and rheumatoid arthritis took its toll. NG may be one of the most “valuable” woman artists in the auction room but I can’t help feeling her career, after the massive creative outpouring at the beginning, and even allowing for the beauty of the theatrical design, got pushed towards design and away from “fine” art. The world is catching up with the brilliance and diversity of women artists at work prior to the second half of the C20, though it has taken long enough, but, I would contend, NG stands somewhere near the forefront, for who she was as well as what she created. Modern and traditional and overflowing with life. Apparently she once punched a bloke for calling her “Mrs Larionov”. And not just because she was by far the more famous, and talented, artist.

As it happens this is only the second exhibition dedicated solely to her work outside of Russia. Mind you although she left all her work to her native country it didn’t appear in state museums until glasnost and even then it was only in 2013 that the collection was presented en masse in Moscow.

Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries review ****

Faith Ringgold

Serpentine Galleries, 22nd August 2019

Once again it has taken the Tourist way too long to gather his thoughts on something he has seen. Which means this snappy retrospective of the work of Africa- American artist has now finished. Sorry. It was Very Good. I guess that doesn’t help.

I first encountered Ms Ringgold’s work at the Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern in 2017. Thematic anthologies are always a dream for an art numpty like the Tourist, giving an opportunity to discover all manner of ideas and artists, but this exhibition was especially fertile. Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Charles White, (especially) David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Barkley Hendricks and Melvin Edwards. All blokes. Which made Betye Saar and especially Faith Ringgold stand out, because not only does their art tackle issues of race, African-American identity and history, it also powerfully explores gender inequality.

Given Ms Ringgold’s engagement with the civil rights and feminist movements in the US over her five decade career it is perhaps surprising to learn that this the first exhibition devoted solely to her work in Europe let alone the UK. Through paintings, posters, books, sculpture, performance and her fascinating quilts she makes acute political points whose relevance has certainly not declined with time. Through her teaching and through the National Black Feminist Organisation which she founded in 1973 with her artist daughter Michelle Wallace, Ms Ringgold has been as much activist and influencer, (with real purpose, not like today’s self-obsessed “model/icons”), as artist.

She was born (1930) in Harlem where she grew up immersed in jazz culture and the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, majored in art education and started her career teaching. She began painting in the 1950s and 1960s influenced by African art, Impressionism and Cubism and inspired by writers such as James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka. She turned to art full time in 1973.

This survey opens with 7 paintings from her American People series from 1963 to 1967 which examines social inequality and racial tensions at the height of the Civil Rights movement from a woman’s perspective. These works formed the core of her inaugural exhibition at the Spectrum Gallery in 1967. The large scale US Postage Stamp Commemorating The Advent Of Black Power about sums it up. Oversizing a stamp, Pop Art style, depicting 100 sets of eyes and noses, in a grid, with 10 black faces across the diagonal, (symbolising the 10% of the population that was African American in 1967), the worlds BLACK POWER are spelled out across the other diagonal, but with WHITE POWER not so subtly encrypted horizontally. As with her quilts later on you are presented with an arresting overall image, here using flat, bright paint, which demands further detailed inspection, even after the message has made its mark. At the time FR said she did not have a clear idea of what Black Power represented but she did feel the need to ask the question about how women would fit into the struggle. And, if you ever wondered where the inspiration for the iconic Obama Hope poster campaign came from look no further.

In the 1970’s she led protests against the representation of women and Black artists in galleries, designed posters to support her politics and organised The People’s Flag Show in 1973 where she was arrested for “desecrating” the American flag. Her paintings darkened in tone, drawing from African art and, away from traditional oils. She began to explore the potential in fabric after being stirred by the C14 and C15 Tibetan tanka paintings that she saw in the Rijksmuseum on a visit to Europe in 1972.

Less convincingly to my eyes were the abstract works from the Windows of the World series made with her fashion designer mother Willi Posey. This diverse practice was represented in Room 2 but. based on the punters when I visited, one work in particular reels you in. The United States of Attica dates from 1971/72, prompted by the Attica NY prison riots where 43 people died, and depicts a map of the US in green, red and black, the colours of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist flag, recording the details of genocides that have occurred in the US from the colonial era.

In the 1980s FR first turned to the story quilts for which she is best known and which form the heart of this exhibition. These incorporate images and text to present the inter-generational stories of African American women from slavery through to the present, often painful and poignant, but also powerful and uplifting. FR’s great-great grandmother Susie Shannon, born into slavery, was compelled to sew quilts for plantation owners.

I was particularly struck by the triptych of quilts extracted from the Slave Rape series which show naked women modelled on FR’s daughters fleeing through stylised undergrowth. The colours and lines reflect the rich textiles of Central Africa, the images are made more alarming by the absence of the pursuers. Then there is Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemina? from 1983 which reimagines the racist stereotype from interwar minstrel shows used in the pancake mix brand as a determined matriarch who runs her own restaurant chain. The embroidering is exquisite, the characters sparkle, the text demands to be read. Rare sight to see people. after the regulation snap on their phones then standing still to follow the story across four generations. The other highlight was the personal Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt from 1986.

Later on in the 1980s FR moved away from narrative quilts to something closer to her earlier oil paintings and, for me at least, some of the classic art of the Harlem Renaissance, most obviously in Jazz Stories . Though the powerful political messages remain. In fact maybe even more so. Even without the text these dense complex works, as in the earlier pieces, need time to fully take in. We Came to America from 1997, part of the American Collection, shows a dreadlocked Statue of Liberty with black baby in one hand and torch in the other, astride an Atlantic Ocean, filled with writhing black bodies. The ship in the background is based on JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship. FR created a fictional artist creator for the series who dreams of walking back across the sea to Africa arm in arm with her brothers and sisters.

The Tar Beach quilt from 1988 is more autobiographical recalling childhood summers spent on the hot roof of her apartment building in Harlem with parents, friends and siblings. This formed the basis for FR’s acclaimed books for children. Subway Graffiti from 1987 shows friends and neighbours crammed on a subways platform with names and tags filling the panels which surround them.

But just in case we get too comfortable this collection ends with something more trenchant in the form of 1997’s The Flag is Bleeding again from the American Collection. We see a black women bleeding from her heart protecting her two small children all against the backdrop of the Stars and Stripes. The title is the same as that used in the American People series which opened the exhibition though that picture shows a black man armed with a knife, a white woman, and a white armed man peering through the bleeding flag.

The exhibition, and this is no criticism, did not include any of FR’s mixed media masks and costumes which she created in 1973, notably the Witch Mask series and the Family of Woman Mask series. Or any of her life-sized soft sculptures, which, like the masks, take inspiration from African art. The masks and costumes, together with music and dance, formed the basis of FR’s performance in the 1970s and 1980s which often retold the stories in her quilts.

Even without these elements this exhibition gave a very clear overview of FR’s practice. This is art with a clear message on behalf of those marginalised by race or gender, aware of its origins and its history. Nothing ambiguous or simplistic here. It elevates materials and making over theory and process, anger over aesthetic, and invites the viewer to take time to reflect on its meaning.

Above all else FR is a story teller. I like stories. And, I’ll bet, you do to. It’s just a shame that some of these stories still have to be told.

Modigliani at Tate Modern review ***

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Modigliani

Tate Modern, 5th March 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Tate Modern, 19th January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern ****

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Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

Tate Modern, 5th October 2017

I seem to have taken an age to get around to seeing Tate’s survey of African American Art through the vital twenty year period from 1963. There are a couple of weeks left to see it however should it be on your radar. It is, like the recently ended Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain (Queer British Art at Tate Britain review ***), an insightful overview for the uninitiated like me. Here we get a broad investigation of the Black American experience through these turbulent times and the artistic response to that experience.

It is focussed almost exclusively on the work of Black artists, with one or two exceptions (including a Warhol portrait of Muhammad Ali), and does an exemplary job in highlighting what it meant to be a Black artist in these decades of heightened Black consciousness. It groups artists from different regions, cities, collectives, exhibitions, and sometimes, movements, in order to map these responses which, on the whole, works, though perhaps makes it a little trickier for the dumb observer like yours truly to track the work of individual artists through the rooms.

For me the most interesting and effective art here was the most obviously political. The work that set out directly to highlight the impact of social and cultural change on African Americans, and specifically to attack the injustices meted out to African Americans both in the 1960s and 1970s but also stretching back through American history, was extremely affecting. Contemporary art with vague political entreaties can often seem naive to me. Here the anger, particularly in the work from the 1960s, was visceral.

The curators (Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, who have clearly put a lot of work in here) were, I think, keen to explore the question of whether there was a Black Art independent of the subjects. There were certainly some fine works in the exhibition which portrayed Black American cultural and political “heroes” but I am not sure I understand how this necessarily related to notion of a bounded Black Art. I did however see how disagreements about this concept were debated, and it did help me in my thinking about how cultural superstructures more generally are defined and articulated. It was also interesting to see how the materials and techniques which inform contemporary art (and more specifically the increasing absence of paint) meant that the overtly political narrative seen in the works from the early 1960s became far more diffuse by the time we got to the early 1980s.

It also got me to thinking why I didn’t know any of these artists. OK so I am only a moderately interested observer/consumer, though my awareness has come on in leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. It is also fair to say that it is the job of curators in public galleries to expand the modern and contemporary art canon to our advantage, exactly what they are doing here. And, at the end of the day, it is they, and the rich who buy the works, who chose what we see. In essence if they don’t tell us, we won’t know. But to not really know any of these artists from the country which, I am loathe to admit, has dominated plastic arts in the 70 years, suggests that access to the public consciousness for many of these artists was a problem then and may still be now.

What about the works? Of course there was a fair bit of stuff here which didn’t do much for me. But there was other stuff which really did work on many levels. For what it is worth (precisely nothing) here are my highlights.

  • In Room 1 the work of the Spiral group active through 1963 to 1965 in New York is represented. They chose only to work in black and white in their only exhibition which lends real drama to, for example, Norman’s Lewis two near abstract oil canvases, Procession (which is is a theme he has explored in later works), and Alabama, which is a genuinely chilling depiction of Klansmen at night. The collages of Romare Bearden, a co-founder of Spiral, are nearly as affecting in a different way. This group sought direct engagement with the Civil Rights movement and created a powerful legacy for the next generation of African American artists.
  • Room 6 contains works by Charles White, David Hammons and Timothy Washington from their 1971 exhibition, Three Graphic Artists. White’s harrowing but dignified drawings, including his Wanted series of posters, detail the bloody history of slavery. Hammons’s body paintings were a revelation to me, in terms of the technique and their power. Injustice Case, which shows Bobby Seale, the founder of the Black Panthers, bound and gagged at his trial, will punch yo right in the gut. Hammons’s later engaging conceptual work is also featured at the end of the exhibition. Timothy Washington’s One Nation Under God engraving has multiple layers of meaning. This, along with the Spiral room, was the most compelling for me.
  • I think I could safely ignore the abstract artists in room 7 with the exception of Frank Bowling (born in Guyana) whose large canvas here, (sorry I lost my note of the title – note to self: perhaps this would be a reason to use a phone), refers to his birthplace and whose meditative canvas Texas Louise graces Room 10,
  • In Room 8 there is a wall of black and white photographs from Roy DeCarava which I guarantee will draw you in. The exposures are generally very dark which forces you to look very closely, especially at the portraits, whether they be everyday folk or famous Black musicians. On that note I also found myself fascinated by an OpArt portrait, maybe in Room 2, not because it was an especially powerful painting but because it was the divine Miles Davies.
  • Room 9 is comprised of Black Heroes and my eye was immediately drawn to the ironic self portraits of Barkley Hendricks, one as Superman, its sub-title Superman Never Saved Any Black People referencing a courtroom quote from Bobby Seale, and one nude responding to a critic’s comic (I won’t spoil the joke). His portrait What’s Going On comprised of four men in early 70s high camp white (mocking our expectations of “cool”) and one nude woman in acrylic and oil, refers to the classic Marvin Gaye song which was penned in response to the brutality of the response by police to the Berkeley protest through the 1960’s.
  • Room 10, Improvisation and Experimentation, shows just how diffuse art practice became in the 1970s and into the 1980’s and it is hard to see how this reflects any notion of a shared Black aesthetic. However the screen of barbed wire and chains which makes up Melvin Edwards’s Curtain screams incarceration even if the artist apparently claimed an entirely abstract intent.
  • Room 11 is devoted to the assemblages of Bettye Saar, now in her 90s. Her work also appears in Room 4 I think. The ideas and materials she employs are intriguing and create a link, which others have productively employed, back to African art.

 

Giacometti at Tate Modern review ****

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Giacometti

Tate Modern, 5th July 2017

Alberto Giacometti fitted the bill of the artist perfectly. Day upon day, month upon month, year upon year ploughing the same furrow. To capture the essence of the human form largely through sculpture and occasionally with paint. More than a nod to the representation of the human form in Ancient Egypt, the Etruscan world and in African culture, with the same relentless elongation. A recognition that, after the horror of WW2, another way of looking at humanity was needed.

A limited number of models (dad, wife, brother, mistress, a few other patrons/luminaries and, for me anyway, himself, indirectly if not directly). And brother and wife looking after all the wordly stuff.

You can see the constant reworking in the works before eventually they could be cast, if required, in bronze. Apparently he was never satisfied. Now for some this might come over as all a bit cliched. But the simple fact is it is impossible not to be drawn into his world. The early p*ssing around with other artistic movements is tossed aside. Thereafter the character of his models, at least in the more substantial busts, becomes clearer and clearer. The structure and basis of human forward movement is revealed in the “walking men”. All through, the “eyes” literally have it. You think you know Giacometti’s work and ideas. But this still pulls you up in places. 

Room 1 kicks things off in style with a host of tightly packed heads of different materials and arranged broadly chronologically. It is easy to see Giacometti’s early experimentation with, for example, cubism but it is even easier to the end to which he was inevitably going to be drawn. Room 2 also shows how he flirted with other more abstract and surrealist solutions to capturing the human form. These works are interesting but not really convincing – the surrealists (a generally bitchy bunch anyway) apparently got on his case for being too naturalistically inclined. Room 3 shows his flair for decoration but it is only in Room 4 that we get a taste of the larger scale works that were to follow. There are some cracking pieces here, some very disturbing if I am honest. Room 5 shows AG’s fascination with the very small scale. In Room 6 we see the “classic” AG forms, in groups, or “penned” in some way. Room 7 brings together 8 of the 9 the Women of Venice series AG created for the 1956 Biennale and they really are fascinating (to me and judging by the stares most of the other punters as well). Rooms 8, 9 and 10 give us paint as well as walkers and the best of the heads of the people he clearly loved. And a film with AG doing his full on artist shtick, little garretty studio (Left Bank – where else?), buckets of espressos, fag dangling, mess all the place, plaster splattered jacket. The works. But his eye connects to the eye of the journo who is acting as his model and voice-over and then you absolutely get what Giacometti was about.

So a terrific exhibition of the work of, for me, a terrific artist. But I am partial as AG for me fulfils in spades two of my favourite artistic traits. The power of repetition. And the gift of emotional connection. Anyway it’s on through to September so see for yourself.