Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain review ****

Don McCullin

Tate Britain, 1st May 2019

The main event first. The astonishing work of Don McCullin, the renowned “war” photographer, though this epithet doesn’t get close to covering the depth of the work revealed in this retrospective at the Tate, (now finished, sorry). McCullin, now 83, left art college at 15, worked on the railways and then did his National Service, where he worked as a photographer’s assistant having failed the theory paper which would have let him take pictures. In 1959, back in Britain, his mates persuaded him to submit his portrait of gang members, The Guvnors, to the Observer. It was printed and the rest is history.

His work in Berlin, as the Wall went up, and in Cyprus on partition, catapulted him to the top of his profession, he has been lauded with awards throughout his career. From 1966 to 1984 he was a photo-journalist for the Sunday Times Magazine producing iconic work in Vietnam, Biafra, Northern Ireland, the Congo, Bangladesh, Palestine, Beirut, Uganda, Chad, Cambodia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He also documented the plight of the poor, homeless and marginalised across Britain. His later work includes landscapes, ancient architectural treasures, notably Palmyra, and even some still lifes.

The exhibition includes work from across his career, as well as original examples of his work for newspapers and magazines and some helpful biographical details. He cites Alfred Stieglitz, the father of art photography in the US and husband of Georgia O’Keefe, as an influence despite their different genre focus. McCullin’s sharp, monochrome images are remarkable, even to this numpty, for their composition and mastery of light, though DM only staged one image in the exhibition, and for their visceral emotional power. Unusually he has printed very image in the exhibition himself which means he has to constantly return to these powerful images.

He clearly had to be very brave to take these pictures. He was wounded in Cambodia, imprisoned in Uganda and kicked out of Vietnam. His camera got in the way of a bullet intended for him. That camera is here in this exhibition. His has been hospitalised on numerous occasions. The UK Government pretended the ship was full and refused him a pass to cover the Falklands War. He hasn’t let up, travelling in 2015 to Kurdistan to document the struggle between Kurds, ISIS, Syria and Turkey.

Given the often appalling suffering, war, starvation and disease, which his photos captured it isn’t a great surprise that DM wrestled with the ethics of what he was doing. There are a couple of quotes below from Wiki which get to the heart of his dilemmas. Ultimately the urge to show the world the horrifying stories behind what he saw rightly trumped any sense of voyeurism. The most affecting works are the close up portraits especially those where the subject is often staring direct into camera. Even in a crowded Tate exhibition these are impossible to pass by. We live in a world saturated with images. It is hard therefore to understand just how much impact DM’s photos and the stories that accompanied them had on our society and discourse, especially in the pre-digital 1960s and 1970s. You will probably already know some of these images such is their importance.

An excellent exhibition if somewhat overwhelming. There is some relief in the early, nostalgic, photos of the British working class but, when it gets difficult, the Tourist opted to focus on a few works to try to take in the documented subjects and events. Not entirely successful. With this many people milling around and with so much history and suffering to contemplate it was hard to avoid being numbed or simply failing to see. Just occasionally though I think I saw the truth which DM wanted to captured. It was pretty scary.

“I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practise religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: “I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.” That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.”

“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

Brodsky Quartet at Kings Place review *****

Brodsky Quartet, In Time of War

Kings Place, 18th November 2018

  • Karen Tanaka – At the grave of Beethoven
  • Erwin Schulhoff – String Quartet No 1
  • Shostakovich – String Quartet No 8
  • Dave Brubeck – Regret
  • George Crumb – Black Angels

It’s been donkey’s years since I last saw the Great British Brodsky Quartet. In fact my guess is there has been a couple of line up changes since then, though Ian Belton on violin and Jacqueline Thomas on cello remain from the original founders in 1972, now joined by Daniel Rowland’s violin and Paul Cassidy’s viola. There were famous back in the day for me and my punky mates because they got involved with pop/rock types. They have never lost the spirit of adventure as this programme plainly shows. The centenary of the end of WWI has seen a lot of fine concerts: this idiosyncratic alternative was one of the best.

Now the main reason to turn up here was not, for once, Shostakovich’s No 8. Mind you that would have been worth the entrance money alone. Having heard a sophisticated, smooth version of DSCH’s quartet masterpiece from the Emersons a couple of weeks earlier, it was exhilarating to hear this much darker, plaintive alternative. This really got inside the meaning of the score, dedicated to “the victims of Fascism and War” in a way that the Emerson Quartet only hinted at. The two outer Largo C minor movements, with their famous DSCH musical monograms, were grimly intense here, the second movement scherzo fugue ferociously pungent and the middle movement waltz bitterly sardonic, on the edge of giving up. The slower fourth movement was here properly, brutally, dissonant with the KGB not just at the door as DSCH remarked, but inside the flat rifling through possessions. This is exactly what the Eighth should sound like, vibrato when vibrato, forte when forte, pianissimo when pianissimo. 

Yet like I say this was not the main attraction nor war it the highlight of the evening. That was reserved for George’s Crumb’s Black Angels. It was written in 1973 as a response to the Vietnam War. It is scored for “electric string quartet” and includes a magic box of percussive and other effects, including vocals, and even featuring crystal wine glasses. Subtitled “Thirteen images from the dark land” and inscribed “in time of war”, it is, by turns, startling, frightening, menacing, ritualistic, elegiac, ethereal, mysterious, very loud and very soft. It is divided into three sections, Departure, Absence and Return each of which contains a painful threnody. There are baroque dances buried in here, but don’t expect Lully or Telemann. And then there is just noise. I haven’t the faintest idea how to convey the sheer breadth of its sound world and depth of its emotion. I suggest you go listen to it and see what you think. Probably best not, as the Brodsky’s refrained from doing here. amplify the music to the “threshold of pain” as Crumb instructed. Though it might have been interesting to observe the reaction of the Kings Place crowd to a heyday My Bloody Valentine take on Black Angels. GC is near 90 years old now but I bet he would still turn the dial up to 11. 

Black Angels has rightly secured a pre-eminent place in the modern string quartet repertoire, but it isn’t easy, so fortunately, here, we were in the hands of experts. It is probably the best half hour or so of “music” I have heard this year.

The Karen Tanaka piece was commissioned by the Brodskys to mark the bicentenary of Beethoven’s Op 18 quartets and takes the first few bars of No  as its inspiration. Interesting if not memorable. Erwin Schulhoff’s upbeat first quartet, with its mix of Czech folk rhythms, Stravinskian jazz and agitated dance probably needs further investigation. He was born in Prague, and this piece was written in 1924 when he was 30 but 17 years later he died of TB in the Wulzburg concentration camp. The Dave Brubeck piece. originally composed for string orchestra in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, says it all in its title.

Marvellous stuff. Oh and I caught a glimpse of the score for Black Angels even from my back of the stalls perch. For George Crumb’s scores are almost as intriguing as the extended and innovative techniques in the music itself. The above is not from Black Angels but a moto perpetuo piano piece. Even so see what I mean?