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Interview | Trate | Emotive Brutes

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Trate Studios, London

Canadian artist Trate is causing a stir in London’s art world, and this will intensify next year when he holds his first U.K show. Digby Warde-Aldam tracked him down to his east end lair, Trate Studios on the Regent’s Canal, to find out who the hell he is…

It is a miserable Thursday evening in Bethnal Green, and the streets around the Regent’s Canal have taken on the character of a film noir stage set. The sulphuric glow of street lamps ripples back on the water, and the creeping sensation that something terrible is about to happen is hard to shake. This is not eased by the fact that I am enroute to meet a self-taught artist about whom I know next to nothing, a mysterious painter known only as Trate. His paintings, more to the point, suggest the hand of an intense character. They are expressive, angsty and deeply serious works that wouldn’t look out of place in the penthouse of a particularly cerebral Batman villain. His signature style consists of sharply coloured backgrounds that project a menagerie of long-necked, androgynous figures who toe a precarious line between elfin beauty and outright grotesquerie. In short, they do not look like the work of an artist with much time for trivial interviews.

As it turns out, thank God, he is extremely good company, a slim, shaven-headed ex-skater who looks a lot younger than his 45 (or so) years. He has a conversational tendency to slip from high seriousness to chummy informality without missing a beat, and crucially, without sounding affected. Within moments of walking into his vast studio space, he offers me a beer – we get through many in the four and a half hours I end up spending there – and explains that his condition of anonymity comes less from any sense of inflated self-importance than from the fact that, in his own words, he is “quite a private person.” The alias, he explains, is a variation on the word “trait.” “I’m interested in capturing the different imperfections in people’s faces and bodies and exploring emotive states,” he explains. “I’ve been making art since I was a teenager – doing sculpture and eventually painting. It’s a point of continuity for me.”

Continuity is something of a key word here, because his CV is anything but consistent. I never learn Trate’s real name, but in the course of the interview, I do establish the following biographical information: having grown up in a small town in Canada, he has followed the kind of journeyman path Augie March might have done had he grown up listening to punk. Interspersed with eclectic university studies in Canada, France and the UK, he has variously lived on a farming commune; been a tree-planter in  isolated bush camps in Northern Canada – a job requiring daily helicopter transport to the forests and a constant lookout for grizzly bears; undertaken UN humanitarian work in Bamako, Mali (“an amazing place”); and worked in finance in Mexico City and now in London. 

It was in Mexico that Trate began hanging his own paintings on the wall of his apartment –  and was pleasantly surprised by the strong reaction of visitors. The works, he explains, are not portraits, but all the same, the figures they depict have not sprung from nowhere. “There are always elements and traits you pick up from people,” he says. And though he has exaggerated most elements drawn from life, “people do sometimes pick up on certain things.”The eyes of his figures are particularly striking, giving off glances that are by turns reproachful, plaintive and adoring. No wonder. “We’re all very basic,” Trate explains. “You can try to hide something, but the eyes give a lot away.”

 

Self-Possession, 2018, Oil on Canvas , 150cm x 90cm

Nothing in these paintings is pre-ordained, however. Trate starts on his canvases with next to no conception of the finished product, allowing his circumstances to dictate the direction the image will take. “Whether I’m in a dark mood or a light mood, no one element determines how a painting will turn out. But often your mind is a head of you: step back [from the canvas] and you’ll be surprised […] either I’m moved by it, or I’m not.” If he isn’t, à la Francis Bacon, he just destroys it.

Trate’s artistic influences are varied. Now and again, you pick out a point of reference, whether intended or not: the paintings contain hints of Schiele; a bold Patrick Caulfield outline here, an abrupt Bernard Buffet gesture there; there are even touches of the so-called “New Neurotic Realism” so avidly touted by Charles Saatchi around the turn of the Millennium. He himself admits looking to the Mannerists of the late Italian Renaissance, and I can’t help notice a book of paintings by the great Canadian landscape artist Tom Thomson (1877 – 1917) lying on his coffee table. However, he draws far more on music and literature than he does from art history.

The musical influence is handily demonstrated by the first-rate record collection Trate keeps in his studio: in the course of our conversation, we listen to everything from the first Velvet Underground LP to the Bullitt soundtrack, to Scottish electronica duo Boards of Canada’s excellently titled 1998 album Music has the Right to Children. Records, and in particular Russian and Eastern European classical music, help to establish a certain rhythm when painting.

Books, however, are a more significant inspiration entirely. Despite childhood dyslexia Trate has been a voracious reader since his youth. He names Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Millennium, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Mort à crédit and – tellingly –  the works of Camus, Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir as particularly important. “Painting is a way of coming to terms with ontology and the existentialism that defines us as humans,” he says as we look at one work informed by Camus’s L’Étranger. “But forgive me if I sound like a pretentious ass.” 

Trate, portrait

He doesn’t. But one mystery remains. Although he has been in London for almost seven years, it is only recently that he took the decision to publicly exhibit his work. The question is: why now? “I just want to share it and see where it goes,” he says, adding that there is “no prejudged direction” for where he’d like public exposure to take him. This is all the more intriguing for the fact he, Trate, still very much the DIY punk kid at heart, has taken the process of exhibiting entirely into his own hands. 

Rather than seeking gallery representation, he has chosen to show his works in his own studio, which will double up as a showroom-cum-salon for future projects. This way, visitors will be able to see his work in the setting in which it was created, hopefully allowing for insights one might not perceive in a traditional gallery space. Plus, as Trate adds, “it’s a cool place to have a party.” 

It’s going to be interesting to gauge the public reaction to his work when he opens his debut exhibition here in February. For one thing, art can take on a new character entirely when it has an audience, and Trate’s peculiar but compelling paintings are likely to spark some strong emotional reactions. For another –  if my experience hanging around with him is anything to go on –  that party should be very fun indeed.

Emotive Brutes will take place from 7 February – 2 March 2019 at Trate Studios, 45 Vyner Street, London E2 9DQ. For more information, visit Trate Studios.

Words by Digby Ward-Aldam.


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Review | Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde at The Barbican

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George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus and Jared French, 1937.

The centrifugal drive behind much of the work featured in the Barbican’s Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is enunciated by Rodin in the first gallery: ‘I express in a loud voice what all artists think. Desire! Desire! What a formidable stimulant.’ By exhibiting the work of artistic couples, including letters, books, music, and visual art, the show aims to demonstrate how desire affects artistic practice, and how artistic practice affects desire; we see how each inflames, distorts, inspires and destroys the other.

Auguste Rodin, Mask of Camille Claudel, 1889.

Frida Kahlo, La Venadita, 1946.

The show begins with two couples, sculptors Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, and composers Gustav and Alma Mahler. Both relationships took place at the end of the 19th century and retained patriarchal inflections which subsequent artist-couples strove to shed. Rodin encouraged Claudel’s work and collaborated with her on some fine clay miniatures of lovers entwined like tree roots. But the bust of her featured here, with the joins of the cast visible, hints at the cracks beneath the surface; in 1905 she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and confined by her brother to an asylum for the last 30 years of her life, despite doctors trying to convince her family that she was well enough to leave.

The case of Alma Mahler is probably the only instance in the show of one half of a couple trying to inhibit the work of the other; Gustav felt his wife ought to support him to an extent that would leave no time for her own compositions. However, after consulting with Freud he relented and we have the results here; beautiful and haunting next to the bombastic scores of her husband, Alma’s work is a highlight of what this exhibition does so well: show us the unknown work of the other half.

The majority of the exhibition is dedicated to avant-garde artists of the early 20th century: couples like Salvador Dalí and Federico Garcia Lorca, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch. It is in this period when notions of desire began to open up alongside artistic visions: we have ménages-à-trois or more, polygamy, gay and lesbian relationships, swapping, transsexualism, and interracial affairs running in parallel with Surrealism, Rayonism, Orphism, and the birth of photography as an art form. The exhibition’s strongest and weakest points are to be found as we progress through this period. Its exploration of large networks allows us to make new connections between disparate artists; I came to Romaine Brooks’ portraits of Luisa Casati and Natalie Clifford Barney in the context of a cross-Channel network of lesbian artists including Woolf, Djuna Barnes, and Gertrude Stein. What drew me to Brooks’ paintings were the backgrounds, indistinct but hinting at underlying structure. We see the features of an English coastline and a Paris street blurred by mist, a technique which aligns these prosaic settings with (in the portrait of Casati) an abstract Erebus in which the subject appears as sorceress or Fury.

Fritz G Walker, Emilie Flöge in Chinese Imperial Costume from the Qing Dynasty in the Gardens of the Villa Paulick in Seewalchen at Attersee 13th or 14th September 1913, 1913.

However, as we expand beyond the well-trodden paths of modernist Paris, London and Vienna, the show loses its focus. That’s not to say there isn’t wonderful work here: the photography of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus and Jared French is beautifully composed, and Sonia and Robert Delaunay’s respective textiles and paintings echo one another with ecstatic vibrancy. But as couple after couple is introduced with only enough space to show a few works, the exhibition fails to give a wide enough representation of their respective oeuvres or only includes minor work, and I left feeling overwhelmed with small portions. I understand and encourage the desire to go beyond the familiar, but when introducing lesser known artists like Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt it would have been advantageous to allow their work more time and space. The sheer scope and ambition of the exhibition can make individual pairings feel rushed.

Sonia Delaunay, Stroll, 1923.

That said, though several couples failed to make an impression, there is such a range of work in different mediums and different styles here from so many artists that whatever their background, visitors are bound to be pleasantly surprised by at least one new discovery. I came away with amazement at Delaunay’s textiles, handmade with colourful repeating patterns which pop and fizz like champagne and fireworks, and with an appreciation for Eileen Grey and Jean Badovici’s efforts to create a fluid, interactive architecture against Le Corbusier’s ‘machine for living’. And despite Claude Cajun’s letter to Marcel Moore in which he said ‘I am the work of your life’, the show thankfully resists biographical interpretations of the art. We get the necessary information of who knew whom, for how long and where, but no generalisations such as that art and passion cannot coexist before one destroys the other. In fact on one wall a timeline of each relationship demonstrates the surprising longevity of many of the couples: Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti together from 1918 until 1944, Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko from 1914 to 1956, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov from 1907 to 1962. All three groups remained couples until the death of one of their members.

Modern Couples is a significant show, an extensive survey of modernism that embodies an original viewpoint which genuinely sheds new light on the period, and will hopefully lead to further such explorations. Though somewhat overambitious in its attempt to include so many artists, it nevertheless offers abundant surprises and delights.

Words by Mathis Clément

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde will be at the Barbican Centre until 27th January 2019. More information here.

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Essay | Personal Feeling is the Main Thing by Sue Hubbard

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Big blonde in Red Dress (2012) by Chantal Joffe, taken from the Victoria Miro website

By Sue Hubbard

I have long been interested in the work of Chantal Joffe and have written about her on several occasions. Her figurative paintings of family and friends are rooted in a gritty, observed reality which makes her unusual in an art world full of insouciant irony. She’s interested in people, their inner landscapes and what makes them tick. She’s also interested in the materiality and language of paint which she uses with verve and vitality. She’s obsessed with what paint can be made to do and what it can tell us.

There are many influences to her work. The American artist Alice Neel. Renaissance portraits of the Madonna and child. But there’s one influence that connects us directly, as writer and artist – the little-known German painter, Paula Modershon-Becker (1876-1907). There is a self-portrait of Paula in the Courtauld but you’d be hard pressed to see any more of her work in this country. Most of it is in Germany. Joffe’s new exhibition at The Lowry, which uses a quote from Modersohn-Becker as its title is, in many ways, a homage.

“Paula is a bubble between two centuries”, Joffe tells me.

In 2012, I wrote Girl in White, a novel based on Modersohn-Becker’s relationships with those she met when she settled in Worspwede, a remote artists’ colony on the North German moors. There, she mixed with others who wanted to live a life dedicated to art outside the strictures of 19th century German bourgeois society. These people included the older painter Otto Modersohn, who was to become her husband, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom she had a passionate friendship, and the sculptor Clara Westhoff, who, disastrously, became Rilke’s wife.

Dan Eating a Banana by Chantal Joffe (2012) taken from the Victoria Miro website.

The Worpswede colony was very much part of the mood-music among late 19th century European artists who wanted to ‘return’ to nature. Essentially a Romantic movement, this nostalgia for a prelapsarian existence was precipitated by the growth of industrialisation and the effects of urban modernisation. Many believed these were destroying their relationship with the landscape and their folk traditions. When Paula arrived in Worpswede she too initially painted landscape but, as she grew intellectually, emotionally and artistically, she developed a different agenda. Her subject became people. She painted the old in the local poorhouse, breast-feeding women and the children of peasants with an empathy close to that of Van Gogh’s. It’s hard for us to realise just how radical such a decision was, especially by a young middle-class girl. Paula sought out the raw, the authentic and the marginalised in a way that was completely modern. There wasn’t a smack of the drawing-room sentiment anywhere to be seen. 

Talking to Chantal in her studio, on the battered sofa among postcards of Paula’s work and her own half-finished paintings, it becomes more and more evident that our interests overlap. We’re both mothers and creative women who, like many others including Paula, have struggled to find a balance between home, art, motherhood and career and, for whom, the intimacy of everyday life is central to our work. Though separated by more than 100 years, Paula’s intensity of vision and her commitment to the fullness of life, as an artist and a woman, reverberates throughout Joffe’s work. Like Freud, Joffe paints those from within a tight circle of family and friends. She not so much produces portraits, in the sense of a photographic likeness, but investigations – a sense of what it is like to inhabit the subject’s skin.

Self Portrait with Hand on Hip (2014) by Chantal Joffe taken from Victoria Miro website

“I was”,  she says, “hesitant, mindful of the danger of placing myself alongside such a strong painter. I was worried it’d be seen as a form of self-aggrandisement, but I’m interested in the intimacy Paula creates. Personal feeling is always the main thing. That’s why I love her. There’s never anything unnecessary, nothing extra or extraneous. Only what is needed. The work’s so strong, so modern, so ahead of its time. My decision to go ahead was helped by the fact that she’s poorly known here and that maybe, through this exhibition, her work will become more celebrated. She’s just so good.”

I ask why she chose Paula and she says that she was attracted to a painter she’ d never seen before – a woman who was both tough and romantic, vulnerable yet determined. She loves the works of Picasso and Bonnard but here was a painter she could relate to directly and in a very personal way. She wanted to explore what they shared. Her paintings, like Paula’s, are intimate and domestic. She’s painted fellow artists, such as Ishbel Myerscough, and charted the passage of her daughter Esme from new-born infant to adolescent, with many of the blips along the way. These works map the passing of time, the minute changes that occur day to day within emotional connections and bonds.

As we sit talking, with our tea and biscuits, about our mutual concerns – just as Paula did with her friend Clara in her Worpswede studio – it strikes me how similar Joffe looks like Modersohn-Becker. She has the same broad intelligent face, pulled-back hair and snub nose. I tell her my thoughts and she blushes. Of course, she has seen this herself, though she does not admit it. It’s there in her Self-Portrait as Paula II where she looks inscrutably over her shoulder with her back naked to the viewer. Self-Portrait at 21, with its Matisse-style patterned robe, echoes something of the background of Paula’s Self-Portrait on the Sixth Wedding Day.

Mother and Child II (2012) by Chantal Joffe taken from the Victoria Miro website.

Paula Modersohn-Becker had an uncanny sense that she was going to die young. Her quest, at the century’s turn, was ‘to become something.’ Her whole life was a struggle between the binaries of domesticity and artistic fulfilment, duty and self-determination, the security of home and the stimulation of adventure and new experience. She longed for a child. She would paint herself holding her stomach as if she were in a phantom pregnancy. She would then claim that she was actually pregnant with art. Despite Modersohn-Becker’s bourgeois upbringing, she had a restless sensuality which is mirrored in Joffe’s work. You can see it in her unsparing nude self-portraits that show her, for example, sitting naked on a striped chaise lounge. There’s nothing romantic about the dark circles under her eyes, her sagging breasts and stomach and the unflattering long black socks – the only things she wears. And, there is nothing flattering about the ¾ Length Self-Portrait where she stands against a barren, leafless tree like some menopausal Eve. There are also a number of paintings of pregnant women and women with children, and there’s an especial poignancy to those of her daughter, Esme, when we know that Paula died tragically at the age of 32 from an embolism – only weeks after giving birth to her own daughter, Mathilde.

Paula Modersohn- Becker’s life was brilliant but sadly her career cut short. Her passionate female nudes and portraits of prepubescent girls, which sought for ever-more simplification, are extraordinary, considering that convention demanded she was a wife first and a painter second. Spirited, brave, tender and fierce, Paula understood that ‘personal feeling’ is always the main thing. Fashions in art come and go but there’ll always be a place for what is authentic, for what is true.

It’s as if Joffe, with her broad strokes of expressive and nervy paint, has picked up Paula’s baton and is running with it into the middle of the 21st century.

Chantal Joffe’s artwork exhibition ‘Personal Feeling is the Main Thing’ is running at The Lowry Art Gallery until the 2nd September. You can find out more about the artist here

 

Review | Black Book by Gideon Rubin at The Freud Museum

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Youth, Black Book, Gideon Rubin

The Freud Museum, in Freud’s old house, is a five-minute walk from Finchley Road tube station, away from the main road on a residential street. Other than the small sign and the two blue plaques which bear the names Sigmund and Anna Freud, the house blends into those on either side. Freud’s house, in which he probed the human memory and subconscious, is a fitting location for its current exhibition, Black Book by Gideon Rubin.

Black Book is a work of erasure. Rubin erases the faces, figures, backgrounds, flags, and the text of works to create anonymous characters onto which we place ourselves, our locations, and the faces of those we know. This erasure, particularly of facial features, metaphorically plays with the concept of identity and self. This interrogation would be enough to understand the Freud Museum as an appropriate location for the exhibit. However, when you understand the context of the work, it gains in significance immeasurably. The erased works are Nazi propaganda, the text, Mein Kampf.

This contextual knowledge makes Gideon’s work a statement on the current refugee crises; Freud himself a refugee in London. It turns the faceless figures from a comment on the individual into a comment on nationalism, on mass hysteria, on demagoguery, and on social forgetfulness. It is a comment on a historical moment which affected the families of both Freud and Gideon, but also is highly charged contemporary statement. It is harder to think of a more suitable mix of subject and setting.

Gideon’s works are not confined to a single room but instead are placed throughout the Freud Museum. They are sometimes obvious, like the old newspapers stuck to the wall on the landing or the canvas paintings in the dining room. They are sometimes subtle, like the small images in vintage frames which sit on shelves amongst other photos or sit on Freud’s desk amongst his old papers. The choice to display these works in locations both obvious and obscure adds to the insidious feel of the exhibit. Gideon works in layers. He makes you look and look again.

The idyllic images only enhance the exhibit’s insidious feel. Originally these pictures masked abhorrent content. Designed to beguile and allure they aimed to dilute Nazi message. Gideon, by removing aspects of the images, subverts this. Erasing part of them heightens our sensitivity to the context; painting over the pictures makes us more aware of their message. He plays with our collective knowledge and our collective memory. We know the doctrine these images promoted without being told. We can see how these images helped the spread of Nazism and in the faceless figures, we can see ourselves.

Tuxedo, Black Book, Gideon Rubin

Gideon’s use of the handsomely dressed couple shows the disarming nature of these pictures at their peak. The image of the couple, which recurs throughout the exhibit, grows from a small print into a full wall canvas and differs from the other images because they are more than beguiling or alluring, they are aspirational. You can’t just see yourself in their faceless figures, you actively want to. This is the nature of the work. Devoid of context they are a successful couple. He is dressed in a full tuxedo and she in a matching flapper-esque body suit. They seem wealthy and, despite being featureless, you imagine them attractive and happy. They draw the viewer in despite the context. They are the ideal. They represent the ubiquitous ‘happy couple’ to which we all aspire. The growth of this painting, from a small print to a full canvas, seems to mimic the growth of this idea as promoted by Nazism. As you move through the Freud Museum and through Gideon’s works, this image/idea grows and blossoms and culminates into a full canvas of the couple directly opposite the blacked-out text of Mein Kampf. Opposite Mein Kampf the fallacy of both images is highlighted. Vilifying others does not make you better than them. The happy couple, like Mein Kampf, are a harmful illusion. This becomes starkly contemporary in Freud’s house, a man who dealt with forgetting and the repression of memories.

p 426, Black Book, Gideon Rubin

 

On the opposite wall in a room length glass cabinet is Mein Kampf. Eighteen open editions of blacked out pictures and text. Gideon’s deletions are not uniform. Some pages are completely defaced, others have lines across the page regardless of the columns of print, others are divided in two where the columns of print separate down the page, others are individual words with the spaces left intact. The pages opposite the blacked out text are landscapes with buildings removed, portraits with blacked out heads above a chest full of medals, and blacked out marches with silhouetted people with their arms held in roman solute. It is particularly easy, when arranged opposite the marching scenes, to see organised columns of people in the blacked out text, to see rallies, to see the crowds at Nuremburg. The scenes are not shocking. We are all familiar with the icons of Nazism. What is shocking about Gideon’s work is that its base text is in English. Gideon worked from a serialised English translation of Mein Kampf distributed in 1939. It is widely known and taught that Britain had a fascist movement lead by Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. However, it is less known that an English version of Mein Kampf was available here in 1939, that those seeking refuge from Nazism in Europe were still being dogged by its propaganda while in England. These are less thought of, less remembered.

The Freud Museum is worth visiting, regardless of this exhibit, as a testament to the man who helped shape our modern definition of memory and self. Gideon’s work is worth seeing as an independent work of art for its technique and beauty. But the thematic combination of setting and subject elevates the Gideon exhibit at the Freud Museum to a higher level, a deeper introspection on history and memory and national identity and immigration. The exhibit delves into history to confront highly contemporary issues, fittingly Freudian. Standing outside of the Freud Museum it is hard to think that such a strong and probing debate about nationalism, mass hysteria, memory, immigration, war, and tragedy, is happening behind the walls of a quintessentially suburban home. Everything about this exhibit is a statement.

Black Book by Gideon Rubin at The Freud Museum runs from the 7 February 2018 until 15 April 2018. 

Further details are available here

By Alexander Douglas Bryan

Quotidian Queerness

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Hannah Gluckstein, Gluck, 1942. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery.

The great strength of this exhibition is its demonstration of the ubiquitous nature of queer art and culture. Timed to remind us that it is only fifty years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality following the Wolfenden Report ten years earlier, Clare Barlow’s curatorship is generously broad in its cultural reach and deep in its historical references. The exhibition in fact distinguishes itself by drawing attention to the multiplicity of meanings embraced by ‘queerness’. ‘Queer’ has in the past been a slang term for homosexual and has also been a term of abuse. More recently ‘queer’ has become an umbrella term for all marginal and marginalised sexual identities while ‘queer theory’ is concerned with all kinds of unstable sites of engagement. Such fluidity presents the curator with a range of difficulties, not just in representing what queer might mean now, but also in selecting art works to embody something as ethereal as a disregard for dominant systems. After all, an exhibition must present something. More than many exhibitions then, the audience is subtly challenged to consider both the prevalence and the disruptions of queer art in British cultural history of this period and beyond. By interpreting queer expression broadly, the exhibition makes the point that queer art is significant to all our histories.

Simeon Solomon, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864. Courtesy: Tate.

From the pre-Raphaelite paintings of Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) to Health and Strength magazine, from Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) to Danny La Rue (1927-2009), and from a prison cell door to a box of buttons, a myriad of artists, movements and symbolic artefacts, represent our queer culture. This diversity is important, as important as the contemporary linguistic grappling for definitive ways to name all manner of relationships: queer, homosexual, lesbian, homophile, bisexual, transvestite, transsexual, intersex and asexual, witnessed by the growing list of initials LGBTQIA+ as a growing label which attempts to include and define all non-heterosexuals. However, this exhibition argues back against restrictive terminology, and gives us pause to reflect on these contemporary naming practices, which we also apply retrospectively, sometimes revealing the inadequacies of labels in capturing the range of human experience. Labels are inadequate in describing the painting by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) of Charles Rickets and Charles Shannon as Medieval Saints (1920), where the subjects are depicted in cosily matching Dominican monk robes, complete with encoded symbols of peacock feather and bat, or the adoption of ‘Michael Field’ as the joint pseudonym of Edith Emma Cooper (1862-1913) and Katharine Harris Bradley (1846-1914), or the polite distance between two teams, male and female, playing at opposite ends of the painting in The Bowlers by William Blake Richmond (1842-1921). Behind such images, just as in other radical social movements like the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 1980s, lies much playfulness and wit, making points about surface perception and latent meaning, using humour to awaken our senses.

Negotiating queer history has long raised the question of private and public personas and the issue of celebrity and anonymity. The exhibition certainly nods towards those artists and writers, sometimes already known, and now canonised in queer histories too, such as Oscar Wilde, represented by both his wedding portrait by Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington (1854-1920), and Wilde’s now well-travelled prison door from his time in Reading prison. Important movements, such as the Bloomsbury Group are represented through the paintings of Duncan Grant, and the sexologists and campaigners through portraits of Havelock Elis, Edward Carpenter and others. Contemporary celebrity artists, already ‘out’ are here too, with work by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and David Hockey (b.1937) (who also had a major exhibition of his work at Tate Britain earlier this year). And the notion of celebrity queerness is reframed through the theatrical presence too, an already–important site of gender exploration and alternative sexualities, both on and off the stage, since Shakespeare and before. A whole room is devoted to the transgressive and camp performativity of stage, its trappings, expectations and knowing double-gendered performances, featuring a pink wig and diamante tiara worn by Jimmy Slater, and Noel Coward’s pink dressing gown.

There are difficult histories too, with uncomfortable questions raised about sexual tourism. For whilst Soho may have been viewed as the epicentre of British homosexuality, so places less open to scrutiny attracted others. Wilhelm von Gloeden’s (1856-1931) photography of Sicilian boys, and the men who travelled there, indicate more troubled aspects of potentially predatory behaviour as young boys posed for money. Relatedly, John Minton’s (1917-57) painting in a naïve, vernacular style of a ‘Cornish Boy at a Window’ also raises questions about Londo-centric sexual scenes.

Henry Scott Tuke, The Critics, 1927. Courtesy: Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK).

Yet the treasures of this exhibition lie in the unexpected and the moving. Clare Atwood’s (1866-1962) painting of John Gielgud’s Room, 1933, is an uninhabited domestic pageant to chintz-swathed femininity, and in Robert Medley’s (1905-94) Summer Eclogue No 1: Cyclists, 1950, can be discerned a distance of unarticulated desire, obscured by class removal. The cultural reach extends to print media too, this being so very important to sensitive individuals seeking reassurance and role models. Reading lists and literary sections of magazines such as Arena Three, the first British lesbian magazine (although not mentioned in this exhibition) had an important social function from early on, offering readers and members comfort, hope and reassurance. Magazines such as Man’s World and MAN-ifique! are represented here with posed images of bodybuilders.

Little about ‘Queer British Art’ is sensational or sexually explicit (apart perhaps from Aubrey Beardsley’s famous and amusing erect penises of course), and overall the exhibition is sensitively human and interestingly varied, with frequent focus on the domestic, intimate and private sensitivities. And what could be more human (and British) than the prank of stealing library books, recrafting the pictures on the covers, replacing the books and then waiting to see other borrowers’ reactions! This vitrine of re-collaged books by Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton is laugh-out-loud funny. And yet, tragically, their imprisonment for this ‘crime’ led to their deaths. This evidence of such human spirit combined with such sadness, epitomises the tragicomic history of much queer cultural production. This celebration of showmanship and sensitivity, of creative potential and mournful loss comes in from the margins to become the shared history of all our lives, everyday.

By Laurel Forster


Queer British Art 1861-1967, Tate Britain, 5 April – 1 October 2017

Castles in the Air | Stephen Chambers : The Court of Redonda

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State of the Nation, The Court of Redonda, Stephen Chambers

Princes, prefects, urchins and poets; these are just a few in a court of luminaries setting sail to Venice. But all is not as it seems, for this royal court is not to be found on the passenger list – all are actually cargo, nestled safely below deck. From May to November, The Court of Redonda, a solo exhibition by Royal Academy artist Stephen Chambers is due to be presented in the historic setting of Ca’ Dandolo, Venice, accredited as a collateral event of the 57th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale 2017. Curated by Emma Hill this installation of over one hundred imaginary portrait paintings will reimagine the extraordinary literary legend of Redonda, a tiny, uninhabited island in the Eastern West Indies.

It was while spending time living and working along New York’s East River that Chambers was introduced to the Redonda legend through the writings of the novelist Javier Marías. The mythology first took shape as a fantasy in the mind of Matthew Dowdy Shiell, a merchant trader who claimed the island in 1865 and elected himself monarch – effectively building castles in the air that others would add to and populate. His son M.P. Shiel, a writer of science fiction, determined that the kingship would be passed through a literary succession, and anointed the English poet John Gawsworth as his successor. Gawsworth went on to bestow honours to his friends, creating a court of writers, poets, artists and ne’er-do-wells. Marías himself was also a former king of Redonda, who appointed many creative individuals to his honorary court, including Pedro Almodovar, A.S. Byatt and W.G. Sebald.

Magda, la Encantada

Postmaster General

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the concept of Redonda flowers a labyrinthine weave of visual possibilities where Chambers found ‘the ignition point of unresolved narratives’. It took him fifteen months to create the portraits; at points he was inventing the characters quicker than he could produce them, such was the imaginative stimulation that the ‘mental collaboration’ with Marais expounded. Each character, from Magda the Encantada to Harold the Bum has their own back-story, a personal context and history created by Chambers. At the heart of the project was the ideal of wanting these faces to be regular people; interesting, not necessarily beautiful, extraordinarily ordinary and, perhaps most importantly, for creativity to be king, if in mind only. By elevating people who make thinks and think things, he hoped to emphasise how creativity, along with diversity and inclusivity, played a part in this mythical kingdom.

The themes of diversity and tolerance run vividly through Chambers’s work. Born in Notting Hill Gate in the 1960s, a time still much defined by the race riots of the late 1950s, he was bought up to see how diversity can be a cause of both celebration and segregation. He went onto study at Winchester School of Art from 1978 to 1979 and then at St Martin’s School of Art from 1979 to 1982. He graduated with a Masters from Chelsea School of Art in 1983 and went on to win many scholarships and awards, including a Rome Scholarship, a Fellowship at Winchester School of Art, and a Mark Rothko Memorial Trust Travelling Award. He was elected to the Royal Academy of Art, London, in 2005 and was awarded an Honorary Fellowship from Downing College in the University of Cambridge, in 2016, where he has been Artist in Residence. His career does imply a sense of being an establishment insider. Yet, his work would tell a different story. Here lies the intriguing contradiction of Stephen Chambers. He declares himself ‘a disobedient by default, a cuckoo in the nest’, a provocative outsider. These one hundred faces reflect the anti-court; those on the outside, looking in and are ultimately a reflection of Stephen Chambers himself.

The Principal Farrier

Harold the Bum, The Court of Redonda, Stephen Chambers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The project has an added universal poignancy, for Chambers was working on it parallel to the Brexit campaign. In this exhibition he wanted to elevate democracy and to show the benefits of tolerance and diversity. By exploring the creation of myths and the articulation of the role played by artists envisaging a world not how it is, but how it could be – the court shows us a world where we are all united by what we have in common. This court is open to all, not just the selected few. So it is only fitting that in these tumultuous Brexit days the Redondan ‘court’ is counterpointed with three large canvases entitled State of the Nation that were made before, during, and after Britain’s referendum about whether to remain in the European Union. The paintings hint at the precarious state of the modern world through their motifs of a falling rider (Chambers states that if the Remain vote had been victorious, the rider would have stayed on his horse). Rod Mengham captures the essence of this work in the following statement : ‘…his patterns refer us to the stories uniting us as a group, even when they are stories of division and rivalry: stories about islands, and their relationship to bigger land masses…’

This court, although seemingly mythical and far-removed are actually the faces we see everyday on the street and on the tube. Chambers work is strikingly relevant because he takes the familiar and puts it on a bigger scale. The personal and the universal are stories closely weaved and inextricably bound. In this exhibition each face has their own story and it is when they are bought together that they create a whole, for better or for worse. Although not overtly political, this exhibition is a seductively solicited and humorously surreal enquiry into these changing times. Maybe these one hundred faces could be any of us, in any group, on any island. In The Court of Redonda we find a self-portrait for all.

By Lucy Binnersley


Stephen Chambers will be exhibiting The Court of Redonda at the at Ca’ Dandolo, Grand Canal, San Polo 2879, 30100 Venice, 13 May – 26 November 2017.

Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends at the National Portrait Gallery

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The Tilsons by Howard Hodgkin, 1965-67, Private Collection, London © Howard Hodgkin.

According to a new exhibition of Howard Hodgkin’s work at the National Portrait Gallery, one of the artist’s principal concerns throughout his sixty-five year career was to ‘evoke a human presence in his work’. Absent Friends is dedicated to an exploration of Hodgkin’s portraiture in all its guises – an area of the artist’s work that curator Paul Moorhouse believes has been overlooked. Even those familiar with his work believe that the artist ‘does not make portraits’, according to Moorhouse, and the exhibition aims to tackle this conviction head-on. Nonetheless, an initial stroll around the gallery may well lead to puzzlement. Where are all the people?

The title of the exhibition, in evoking absence, is appropriate. Absent Friends is named after the very first painting on display, an abstracted work featuring a sweep of muted colour, pale green brushwork, and a painted frame within a frame. What it does not, ostensibly, feature is people. The note next to the painting explains that it ‘refers to people, but does so without resorting to the creation of a literal likeness’, drawing instead on the emotions conjured by memory. This is portraiture that stands in direct opposition to traditional examples from the genre, choosing to show sensations and associations evoked by the subject rather than literal physiognomy. Painted in 2000-1, it is one of Hodgkin’s later pieces; for those who like their portraits with a dash more realism, some of the artist’s first forays into portraiture offer more recognisable representations of people.

These early examples of Hodgkin’s work appear in the second room of the exhibition, which consists of portraits from 1949-59. Some of these were created while Hodgkin was an art student at Camberwell School of Art; he later studied at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham. Memoirs was painted when Hodgkin was just seventeen. With its dark outlines, block colouring, and the strangely large hands of its subject, a family friend of Hodgkin’s nicknamed Aunt Bette, it could almost be an illustration for one of the stranger Grimm fairy tales. While the artist is also depicted in the painting, a sense of absence is conjured by the photo frame at Aunt Bette’s feet, which shows the mysterious outline of a man in a hat. Other pencil sketches, torn from notebooks, also play with the exhibition’s theme of absence, with large areas of paper left untouched. Depicting in turn fellow students and Hodgkin’s landlady, these realistic portraits were drawn entirely from memory, highlighting the important role that recollection would play in the artist’s later work. The most striking image in the room, however, is the most abstracted one, a painting entitled Interior of a Museum. Set within the confines of the British Museum, the piece features figures who seem at once suspended and anchored in the thick, creamy brushwork. Gazing at a collection of ancient Greek pots, the people themselves seem object-like, set in their own spheres of space for our viewing pleasure.

Interior of a Museum by Howard Hodgkin, 1956-59, Tate © Howard Hodgkin.

The third room, centred on Hodgkin’s burgeoning abstract work in the 1960s, is by far the most dazzling. Dominated by The Tilsons, the image used by the National Portrait Gallery in much of its publicity, the room is a riot of colour, motion, and expressive brushwork, with all the paintings vying at once for the viewer’s attention. ‘Some are quite representational in a limited visual sense; others hardly at all, or not at all’, Hodgkin said of these paintings, which often use geometrical shapes to represent human beings. The Tilsons is a fabulous case in point, where the figures of British Pop artist Joe Tilson and his wife Jos blend in harmoniously with the triangular sandwich shapes and dart board imagery of the painting: the effect is joyous, playful, exuberant. These are paintings that are a delight to look at. Portrait of Rhoda Cohen is a fascinating mix of literal and expressive representation. The sitter’s body is recognisable from the neck down, and her legs are flung open in an image that suggests both sexual abandonment and physical ease. The fervent brushstrokes in this part of the painting give a sense of energy and movement, so that the subject, who is tipped backwards in her chair, seems to be caught in motion, balancing playfully between sitting and falling. Her one blue shoe adds to this nonchalant and joyful effect. Her head, however, has been replaced by a mandala – a Hindu and Buddhist symbol for the universe – contributing to the life-affirming energy that radiates from the painting.

Later portraits become more complex, weaving figurative and abstract elements together into coherent wholes. A painting of the artist’s friend Cherry Monro manages to look both like a woman and utterly unlike a woman at once. Hodgkin explains that the piece ‘commemorates a moment in March 1966, when Cherry stripped after lunch in the living room in order to put on a 1938 crêpe de Chine dress. . . . The blue disk behind is a mirror which was hung about a year later’. The flowing fabric of the dress is evoked by waves of blue and yellow paint, while Cherry’s arched back reflects the curves of the mirror behind her. The painting’s white background means that all attention is on the figure, and her dramatic transformation as she changes her dress; there is a strong sense of delight in appearance and the visual. There is also something decidedly erotic about the image – and indeed, about many of the works on show. It is perhaps for this reason that paintings such as R.B.K. feature bars painted across them, in an attempt to contain the bold energy and colour within.

Mr and Mrs E.J.P. by Howard Hodgkin, 1969-73, Tate: Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1996 © Howard Hodgkin

As I sat and considered a painting entitled Mr and Mrs E.J.P., which contains a yellow triangle, patches of red, a striped interior, and what looks like a giant green dinosaur’s egg, I was approached by a friendly and inquisitive couple. Did I think that it was important to consider the titles of the paintings as I looked at them? We discussed the merits of focusing on a painting solely for itself, with no added information from title or blurb. In relation to Hodgkin’s work, however, we concluded that the titles have huge import for the paintings. Would it be clear to the viewer that Mr and Mrs E.J.P is a portrait, without the sign post of its title? And is it enough to rely on a title to give us this information – or should a portrait take further, and more identifiable, steps to tell us of its status as a portrait? How you answer that question might well indicate the level of enjoyment you derive from Hodgkin’s interpretation of portraiture. My own sense is that if Mr and Mrs E.J.P accurately reflects the artist’s sense of its subjects, and gives an insight into their presence and personalities, then it is successful as a portrait.

Questions of abstraction and representation are taken to a new level by Hodgkin’s most recent work, which includes some of my favourite pieces – and perhaps some of the most controversial in terms of portraiture. The last room features just three works, completed before the artist died in March this year (sadly, prior to the opening of the exhibition, although he was involved in much of the preparation). Blue Portrait consists of several strokes of dark and light blue on a wooden board, capturing the moment Hodgkin sighted a friend ‘standing by the bar and wearing a brilliant blue dress’ at a retrospective exhibition of his work. The blue, dazzling against the wooden board, signals the immediacy and fleeting nature of the impression. Tears for Nan commemorates the death of a friend, the tears painted on in hot, quick flashes of yellow. Startling upon the dark background, they intimate a celebration of life as much as they do a process of grieving. This is Hodgkin’s gift – to distill the impression of a moment into paintings whose emotional force equals the vibrancy and vividness of their colouring. These portraits last in the memory long after the gallery doors have been shut.

By Suzannah V. Evans


Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends
National Portrait Gallery
23 March – 18 June

Adventures in Moominland at Southbank Centre

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“What do you know of the Moomins: the books, the television series, or maybe you just recognize the characters?”

That was one of the first questions asked at the Adventures in Moominland tour, an immersive exhibition currently on at the Southbank Centre; the span of all the different mediums mentioned perfectly encompassing the much loved Moomin’s longevity across generations and cultures. Originating as a series of picture books written and illustrated by Finnish author, Tove Jansson, the Moomin stories follow Moomintroll, a white-as-cloud hippopotamus-like creature, as he lives out his adventures with his family and friends in Moominvalley. Translated in over forty-four languages, readers both young and old have adored these characters for decades, ever since they were first published in 1945 as Jansson’s refuge from the cruel reality of the Second World War.

Part of a larger series called “Nordic Matters” at the Southbank Centre, the Moomin exhibition brings together a collection of Tove Jansson’s sketches, stories and memorabilia from her own life in a completely vitalizing setting. Low ceilings in most of the rooms create an almost child-like playworld, where anyone above the age of ten will likely have to crouch down, not least in order to see the wonderfully petite original drawings rarely showcased to the public before. For the duration of your time in Moominland, all that constitutes being an adult diminishes, starting with the most obvious of characteristics that make you a ‘grown-up’ (as the word suggests), stretching to the playful pantomimes that the escort will engage you in.

In fact, the entire physical set-up of the exhibit is a manifestation of all the different elements that are so central to the animated world. Chilled temperatures mirror the lands of Finland that inspired the author. Dimmed lighting in the space dedicated to the Groke encapsulates Jansson’s period of depression that the character reflected. Adventures in Moominland, rather than being a static tour from room to room, becomes a completely visceral experience, because these are not just drawings on a page, and this is not just a legacy behind glass casing. Tove Jansson drew from a bank of memories, people, feelings and encounters, posing the question: why should the artistry of the Moominworld – with its rich characters and riveting tales – somehow be segregated from its creator, as if it were something inorganic? The exhibition sets itself up to do just the opposite from the very start, beginning with the origin of Moomintroll, who was contrived from a scary tale told to Tove Jansson by her uncle to keep her from raiding the kitchen at night.

Rather than take us chronologically, the exposition continuously intertwines Moomintroll and Jansson’s life and times, both narratively and physically. One area might be Snufkin’s tent recreated, while in the next, the author’s studio in Stockholm. Though each room within the exhibit is immaculate in its ability to transport you to another world, the crux of Adventures in Moominland resides in the astounding attention to detail. Not counting the atmospheric lighting and sound that bring the space to life, so much of what makes this tour exciting for the young and old alike are the novelties that surprise. It’s enthralling to discover Easter eggs, like Kant and Schopenhauer’s manifestos, sprinkled about Moomin’s home – a call-out to Tove Jansson’s intellectual preoccupation with many of these great thinkers, often tackling them in references found within the comic strips. It is precisely in this kind of minutiae that so much of one’s nuanced (and newfound) appreciation for her work arises. The wonders of growing up lay in the fact that the world around us, though no longer simple, is even more fascinating in its complexity.

And Tove Jansson had a way of conveying that. Her narratives often focus on topics of love, tolerance, freedom and existence, hidden behind the guise of a children’s book. But a particularly overarching idea throughout was the author’s compulsion with always finding solace and beauty in the minute. That no matter how bad times may seem (and Jansson was, in fact, writing in the worst of times), there’s always good to be found. One of the stories, for example, shows Moomintroll horribly cross with Moominpappa after not understanding why he does and thinks the things he does. You later find out this was very much Jansson grappling with her own father’s Nazi sympathies, a sentiment common in almost half the Finns at the time, given that Hitler had been viewed as a liberating alternative to the oppressive Russians the country had had strained relations with for decades. In the end, Moomintroll can’t help but still love Moominpappa. Nor could the Finnish penwoman hold her affection for her parent at bay. To love is complex, rooted in the littlest of things, and whether by accident or by design, the exhibit is very much in line with that. And that’s important. Because in an all too familiar scenario we see echoes of today, whereby a population of people can be divided at the seams over a common issue, stories like those of the Moomins are not just a delightful and leisurely pastime for us to engage in, but a very dire reminder of our shared humanity. “One can’t be too dangerous, if they like to eat pancakes. Especially with jam on it,” Moomintroll tells us.

Madeleine L’Engle once said that if a book is too difficult for grownups, write it for children. But Moomintroll and Adventures in Moominland isn’t just for kids, or just for adults – it’s for anyone with a beating heart and a love to share. Paradoxically, a love that, like the devil, is found in the details.

By Kristian Radev


Adventures in Moominland
Southbank Centre
16 December – 23 April
£13.50 – £16.50

The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection

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“It’s not about how great the collection is. It’s about the photographers who took the photographs…how they changed the art form forever.”

While he still manages to rock over 100 gigs per year, the Rocket Man is also revered in most cultural circles as a tastemaker par excellence. He has always been an early champion of emerging talent, from Eminem in the 80s to Ed Sheeran in the 90s, and last April, he collaborated with Lady Gaga to launch a clothing line. Now, a major exhibition of international modernist photography at the Tate Modern proves that his private art collecting is as chameleonic as the public curation of his hairstyles and sunglasses.

Drawing from Sir Elton’s private photography collection—with over 8,000 works, it is one of the largest in the world—“The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection” surveys photography’s development in the early twentieth century, calumniating in a love letter to an art form. Beginning in the 1920s and ending in the 1950s, the exhibition is the first of its kind to focus on the period of major experimentations that followed the end of the First World War. Charting technological advancements and artistic movements alike, the curator Shoair Mavlian presents formal trials, avante-garde provocations, and pop spectacle that pioneered many of the medium’s movements, from Surrealism to the Bauhaus. Canonical figures such as Man Ray, Irving Penn, and Aexlandr Rodchenko headline the some 200 original prints, all created by the artists themselves. They are displayed in varying arrangements, from gallery-style straight lines, to small and large clusters that reflect the way photographers during this period hung their photographs in order to consider potential edits.

We are privileged to central biographical details behind the collection that shape the trajectory of the exhibition: Sir Elton began collecting photography in 1991, a year after he got sober; the photographs are maintained in the same frames as they are displayed in Sir Elton and David Furnish’s home. However, audiences will be disappointed if they expect any semblance of a tell-all fantasy fandom akin to 2013’s “David Bowie is” at the V&A. An unassuming aesthete, Sir Elton cheerfully demystifies his handiwork behind his possession in the audio guide’s introduction: “It’s not about how great the collection is. It’s about the photographers who took the photographs, what they were willing to experiment with, and how they changed the art form forever.” Indeed, the exhibition title is not a reference to the art buyer’s prescriptive gaze—it alludes to the camera’s altered way of seeing the world.

One of the great British artistic institutions was skillfully illustrated near the exhibition’s entrance—a complicit queue waited to individually inspect André Kertész’ “Underwater Swimmer” (1917). This tiny contact print, hardly bigger than a bag of tea, is all rippling refracted light and slicing musculature of a seemingly cadaverous swimmer—a beautiful male body, the model was Kertész’ brother. In an interview with the Telegraph, Sir Elton declared it to be the most important photograph from the twentieth century. But if Sir Elton had not provided special audio commentary to accompany this photograph, which is so engulfed by its oversized burnt-gold frame, would the general viewer have even noticed it? The exhibition’s double-rootedness in superstardom branding, and its spectacular survey of a visual art form, one that does not typically draw large museum crowds, anticipates polarised responses. But perhaps, for the groupie-cum-museum-goer, whether or not the exhibition delivers on the implied promise of its title is beside the point—it got you to look in the first place.

By M. René Bradshaw


The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection
Tate Modern
10 November 2016 – 7 May 2017
£16.50/£14.50

Björk Digital at Somerset House

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Photo by REWIND VR

Over her three-decade long career, Icelandic artist Björk has always blurred limits; genre limits between experimental and pop music, verbal limits between language and scat singing, formal limits between music and visual art.

‘Björk Digital’ is an embodiment of this blurring, for the exhibition is an unclassifiable show that is in equal parts tech demo, cutting-edge visual album and performance art. The exhibition is built on tracks from her latest record Vulnicura (One Little Indian, 2015), a self-professed ‘complete heartbreak album’ after the artist’s separation from her long-time partner. The first five of the six rooms that comprise the exhibition are different types of virtual reality presentations, each set to one of the tracks from Vulnicura.

First there is ‘Black Lake’, set in a dark room with projections on opposite walls and surround sound. Björk stumbles around a volcanic landscape as blue lava bleeds from the rocks around her. Her powerful interpretive dancing has her beating her chest until she dies and is reborn in lush green hills. The changing quality of sound is fascinating, and has viewers walking around the space trying to hear every note of the haunting track.

In the next three rooms viewers sit on stools with virtual reality headsets on, moving from the gorgeously sad beach of ‘Stonemilker’ to the nightmarish ‘Mouth Mantra’, filmed from the inside of Björk’s mouth as she sings the most terrifying track from Vulnicura. While the ideas are perfect, unfortunately they are ahead of the technology; the images are low-resolution and the immersion is broken by visible pixels.

This is not a problem in the penultimate room, that is also the most  technically demanding. ‘Notget VR’, instead of using wireless headsets with smartphones in them, wired headsets hang from the ceiling, and viewers are invited to walk around the space. An initially life-size glowing outline of the artist grows and grows, endlessly pacing forwards as she spits out her words to angry strings. Not cowering away from her goddess-like apparition is difficult; the immersion is total.

While Vulnicura is a narrative album, the songs are here presented out of order. This has a jarring effect; while ‘Stonemilker’ is a heartbreaking attempt at keeping a failing relationship together, it comes after ‘Black Lake’, a song from the pits of post-breakup hell that has a clear turning point towards positivity in its closing minutes. The presentations must be thus interpreted as separate pieces, which means that some of the album’s momentum is lost.

Another problematic element is the placement of the rooms themselves. Paradoxically, what is supposed to be the most immersive form currently available consistently breaks the immersion that the artist works so hard to achieve. Aside from the unavoidable awkwardness of having to place heavy equipment on your head, and having to endure an explanation on how to adjust the focus and volume for each piece, the rooms are also separated by corridors and are on different floors, which causes drastic changes in lighting levels. This layout seems to be a result of the exhibition being spread out over Somerset House’s New Wing, and it would certainly benefit from a smaller, more contained space.

After the virtual reality rooms, visitors are led to the ‘Cinema Room’, in which over twenty of Björk’s music videos play on a large screen, with crystal-clear sound quality. While the videos are consistently thought-provoking and well presented, they highlight again the technical limitations in some of the virtual reality rooms.

What this room does reveal is that virtual reality seems to be the technology that Björk has been waiting for. Her videos have always placed emphasis on movement and immersion. ‘Big Time Sensuality’ (1993) directed by Stephane Sednaoui, for example, has Björk performing on the bed of a truck driving through the streets of Manhattan. It is difficult to think of a scene more suited to being filmed in virtual reality.

While Björk is the focal point of each piece (no other person features in any of the virtual reality videos, and very few others in the cinema room screenings) it is important to remember that ‘Björk Digital’ is a quintessentially collaborative project. From the directors of the videos, to the talented session musicians and multiple producers of Vulnicura, to the virtual reality boffins who make Björk’s wonderfully bonkers ideas possible, these are people working on art that is not technically perfect, but original and necessary.

‘I wish to synchronise our feelings’ sings Björk on ‘Stonemilker’. This goal becomes easy when the artist is standing in front of you, life-size, staring into your eyes, bearing out her soul just inches from your face. Briefly, you can forget the heavy contraption strapped to your head, and that the image has visible pixels. ‘Björk Digital’ uses virtual reality well, and does more than enough to be moving and establish a true connection between artist and viewer, despite its technical limitations. It is yet another success led by an artist who is always looking forward.

By Ludo Cinelli


Photo by Nick Knight
Photo by Nick Knight

Björk Digital
Somerset House
1 September – 23 October
£15/£12

Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck

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Paul Cezanne, Three Bathers, 1879-1882. Reproduction courtesy of The National Gallery

The idea behind ‘Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck’ is an exciting one, if a little difficult to communicate in a title. The exhibition explores the relationship between artists and the paintings which they owned: how they came to possess them, why they wanted them and the influence they had on their own art.

I wandered into the gallery from Trafalgar Square, so the subject wasn’t clear to me until I entered the first room in the S Wing and found that it had been laid out in a way that resembled an architect’s sketch of someone’s front room, with a portrait hanging over a shape that gestured at being a mantelpiece.

The front room was Lucian Freud’s and the portrait was Italian Woman by Corot, which Freud had gifted to the National Gallery in 2014 and which was the inspiration for the exhibition. Certainly, the portrait is worth building an exhibition around. In Corot’s hand this romantic, often saccharine genre becomes a stunning exercise in colour and shade. You can see how it appealed to Freud too, both in the ambivalence of the sitter’s expression and the physicality of her skin.

Freud’s room is rather sparse. We get a little illustration of his real room, which was also rather sparse. There is an ‘erotic’ Cézanne, a few other fleshy items and a stunning little Degas bust of a ballet dancer with her head pressed to one shoulder.

The exhibition then moves back in time through a number of masters until we get to Van Dyck. The curators have made sure that we are in the artists hands as much as theirs, which is inevitably a good thing. Matisse’s room is dominated by Degas’ vast, pulsating red La Coiffure, one of the galleries own pieces. Other highlights include two portraits by Picasso, one very funny, one grey and alienating, as well as more Cézanne. Everybody liked Cézanne. Matisse had long, personal connection with Cézanne’s Three Bathers – he used to wake up early in the morning to watch the light hit it.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Italian Woman, c. 1870
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Italian Woman, c. 1870. Reproduction courtesy of The National Gallery

The painters here acquired their works for a wide variety of reasons: artistic, personal, financial. At its best the exhibition is a fascinating insight into the artists’ lives and characters. Degas was such an obsessive collector that he gets two rooms worth of paintings. He bought more than he could afford. He swapped his own works to get his hands on other peoples. He gave the careers of struggling friends a little push by buying their paintings. He is very hard not to like. As for himself, he liked Ingres and his exacting neoclassicism, although there is plenty of Delacroix here too.

Degas also had brilliant taste in landscapes, despite not being known for them himself. Alfred Sisley’s The Flood, Banks of the Siene, with its simple French farmhouse wobbling in the distinctly unthreatening floodwaters is wonderfully wet. There is also a dreamy, violet valley by Theodor Rousseau, which Degas bought on mistaking it for a Corot: a happy accident, it turned out.

The curators were right to let the paintings speak for themselves. All the same, I did want to hear more from the artists. Had they made notes on their favourite pieces? Did they make records, lists? Even a purchase order or two would have been interesting. All we get is a photograph of the catalogue used when Degas’ collection was sold off posthumously.

More might have been said, too, about the way in which the artists displayed the works. Several of the rooms gestured towards recreating how the paintings would have been hung. I found myself wanting a room completely made up. Larger pictures of the rooms would have been nice in any case.

Exhibitions have to work with what the gallery holds but it remains a fact that these masters were all European men. The fact that they were men felt particularly urgently in need of addressing, given that one thing that almost all of these artists liked to collect was pictures of women, often in various stages of undress.

The question of the representation of women in art is hardly a new one and it is a shame it was not engaged with here in some way: the context of collection is especially illuminating. Corot’s Italian woman stares silently out from the posters and promotional material.

The reverse chronology means that the exhibition will be top-heavy for anyone who is not a dedicated fan of Reynolds and Lawrence, which I suspect is most people. Still, there is enough in the first few rooms to justify the entrance fee. The question of money lingers over the whole thing. The more modern artists appeared to have less of it, which I suspect is important.

Personally I was disappointed that the National Gallery is now charging £1 for exhibition postcards. 

By Jeremy Wikeley


‘Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck’, National Gallery, 23 June – 4 September

Hockney in L.A. by Robert Wennersten

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Image: appeared in The London Magazine's August/September Issue in 1973, Vol. 12 No. 3.

To celebrate the opening of David Hockney’s exhibition 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life at the Royal Academy, we’ve republished an interview with Hockney, which originally appeared in The London Magazine‘s August/September Issue, Vol. 13 No. 3, in 1973. Within this lengthy interview, Robert Wennersten talks to Hockney about success, teaching in his early career, and the artwork that hung on his walls many years ago.

David Hockney was in Los Angeles the first three months of this year to do a series of lithographs. On the day of this interview, after the morning’s work, he was off to a café on Santa Monica Boulevard for lunch. He ordered a curry omelette and a litre of white wine, then began drawing on the tablecloth with a silver cigar cutter. A moment later he looked up and smiled: ‘Never drink red wine during the day unless you want to take a little nap.’ His Yorkshire accent is soft, sometimes almost languid.

Hockney is a tall, large man, but well-proportioned and unnecessarily concerned about his weight. His hair, trimmed to medium length, is straw blond; and his pale blue eyes look out through big, round glasses. He wore a white shirt under a green pullover, a loosely-knotted red bow tie, and baggy blue trousers with deep cuffs that swept the floor. Hockney never wears matching socks.

During lunch he talked about London in the early-Beatles era, about his vegetarianism that ended in illness, about one of his Hollywood prints being reproduced in knit on a limited edition of expensive sweaters­­—‘I wouldn’t pay that much for a sweater’ —and about his plans for the next several months: New York for a few weeks and then Paris, to illustrate Flaubert’s A Simple Heart.

The meal over, he lit a cigar and asked, ‘Do you like junk shops? There are two just next door. We’ll go to the second one. The quality of their junk isn’t so good, but their prices aren’t as high as the first one’s.’ Inside the store, he walked quickly, stopping only twice: once to examine a dented tin thermos and again to flip through a book titled Your Mexican Maid, elementary Spanish for American housewives.

Then he returned to the studio on Melrose Avenue. In the room where he worked, some of his lithographs, in various stages of completion, were pinned to the walls. A corner table was stacked with colour Polaroid photographs of him and his local friends. Here and there were things he’d bought on previous trips to junk shops: a 1927 tourist guide to Burma and Rangoon, an old picture post card of Land’s End. Hockney set to work immediately, tracing a design onto a large, flat stone and talking all the while. When one stone was finished, helpers wheeled it out to the press and brought back another. In the intervals, Hockney answered more questions, scrutinised the lithographs on the walls or, chuckling, read aloud some of the tourist guide’s dated advice. ‘I’ve been to Rangoon,’ he said, ‘and the people there still think it’s 1927.’

When he quit for the day, Hockney went to his rooms on the fifth floor of the Chateau Marmont, a run-down, but elegant, hotel on Sunset Strip. It was growing dark, and the billboards outside his windows began to light up. Hockney opened a bottle of white wine and stretched out on the couch. He talked a while longer, then changed for dinner. Thanked for his time, he nodded and said, ‘I’m always happy to answer any question as long as it’s not put by the police.’

R.W: How did you decide on a career as a painter?

D.H: It never occurred to me to do anything else. I always wanted to be one. When I was a child, I was always drawing; and people thought the drawings were quite good. Perhaps I was eight years old when I decided that I was going to be an artist. I didn’t know how you became one, but I thought: Well, that’s what I’d like to be; that’s what I’d like to do. As I got older, I wanted to leave school early and get on with it; but I couldn’t, because you’re supposed to be at least sixteen to leave. But I got out at the first legal opportunity.

My parents wanted me to go to work, because none of my older brothers or sisters had stayed on at school after that age; but, as a child, I’d been quite naïve about how one earns a living, and the difficulty of earning a living as an artist hadn’t occurred to me. So, when I left school, I thought I’d have to be a commercial artist, because that’s how you earned a living doing art. I went around Leeds with a folio of work trying to get a job in a commercial artist’s studio. They all said, ‘Oh, you should go to art school for a bit.’ I only went around to two or three studios, although I told my mother I’d been to twelve; and I said to her, ‘They told me that I must go to art school for a little bit.’ So I went. I went when I was sixteen.

The moment I got to art school, I decided I wouldn’t worry yet about making a living and that I’d spend some time drawing and learning a few things. So when the people at the school asked me what I wanted to be, I said that I wanted to be an artist. They said, ‘Do you have a private income?’ I said, ‘What’s a private income?’ When they explained it to me, I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ And they said, ‘Oh, then you can’t be just an artist. It’s a ridiculous idea, because nobody makes a living as an artist. Be a commercial artist.’ My first reaction was: That’s a terrible thing to tell some sixteen-year-old. (At least you can have some ideals then; you can change your mind later.) But I was reasonably realistic and went along with them for a bit. Then, when they wanted me to study lettering and things like that, I got firmer and told them that I wanted to learn how to paint and draw. ‘Ah,’ they said, ‘what you want to be is an art teacher.’ I said, ‘All right. If that’s what I have to say to study painting and drawing, then that’s what I’m going to be.’ But I never really intended to be an art teacher.

You know, I was probably part of the last generation in England that went through art schools when they were still quite academically run. You simply did drawing and painting from life. They made you draw from a model all the time. The most elaborate thing you did was what they called figure composition: you had to compose pictures with at least three or four figures in them. That’s how I was trained. I don’t think that’s done anymore, because to find an art student who only draws from a model is extremely rare now. But fifteen years ago it was very common in England. I suppose today (though I’m not positive, because I’m not too involved with them) they’re more concerned with modern painting. Then, they weren’t. They didn’t think it was a necessary part of the student’s discipline. They simply felt that you should be taught some technical skills. Now they probably believe technical skills are irrelevant. Which, of course, they are to some kinds of art. But when I was sixteen, I believed everything they taught me; and later I realised that modern art wasn’t like they said it was. So, when I finally got to the Royal College of Art, I abandoned most of the things I’d been taught—other than drawing—and began again.

By the time I came to leave school, I was twenty-five—I’d spent four years in an art school in Bradford, two years National Service (I worked in a hospital) and three years at the Royal College of Art—and I’d already started selling pictures. I found that I could live on teaching just one day a week, so I taught etching at a school in Maidstone. I gave that up after about a year, when I’d finished a kind of ambitious work: I’d done sixteen etchings that made up my version of The Rake’s Progress and sold the whole lot. The publishers paid me £5,000 for an edition of fifty. With the money, I came to live in California and paint. I thought: well, I can live for a while off this money; and when it runs out, I’ll go back to teaching. Of course, what happens is that if you can work for a year on your own, you begin to get going and doing something. I sold more work, and I’ve never taught since.

Actually, you have done some teaching since then, haven’t you?

Occasionally. I taught once for six weeks at UCLA and for eight weeks once at Berkeley. Other than that, I’ve not done much teaching. I’m not very good at it. I don’t like it and get bored too quickly. I resent my time being taken up by teaching. I’m very conscious of time passing, so I’d rather do my own work. I much prefer working away on my own, as I suppose anybody would.

I’m not interested in art education systems. You can’t teach art. Well, you can’t teach it easily. I think you can teach certain skills, and I do enjoy teaching drawing a bit. But I’m not sure what use it is, how artistic it is, or how relevant it is to art.

Did any other students who were with you at the Royal College become prominent later?

Some became very influential. Allen Jones. Peter Phillips. Patrick Caulfield. Those are all people who were there when I was. I don’t know how well they’re known here, but in England they’re known reasonably well.

And do you know the work of R. B. Kitaj? Well, Ron Kitaj was in the same year. I got to know him pretty much straight away when we met there. He was a very influential person—and not just in the style of his painting. When I started at the Royal College of Art I was twenty-two, and he was probably about twenty-seven. That five-year difference in age was quite big then. Somebody who is a few years older usually knows a bit more and is a little more serious about work. That was one of his major influences on me. I mean, I was impressed with the seriousness and the diligence that he went about work. Somehow he was tougher and more serious than most of the students. The other students weren’t as clear in their views, as mature in their aesthetic ideas.

Often it can be a teacher who influences you. But in my case, it wasn’t. I didn’t respect the people who were teaching there at all, because none of them was quite an artist. So when I found somebody who was interesting and very serious about their study, it was stimulating in many ways. It really got me going.

You must realise that the average art student isn’t that serious about studying. In England, for probably, oh, seventy per cent of them, it’s a second or third choice. When I was a student, the only people I was interested in were those who seemed to have passion about art. Of course, that was a minority. It’s not as many as you’d think. But that’s probably true about anybody studying anything, isn’t it?

What did you think of London when you first got there?

When I first arrived from Bradford, I thought it was terrific; but I was a student, and I spent all my time working in the Royal College of Art, and I rarely left it. I used to get up very early in the morning and work there until ten at night, and then I’d just go and have a drink in a pub and go home and read. Very occasionally I went to the opera, in the balcony. I didn’t do much else. I mean, I couldn’t afford to do much else. A few years after that—after I’d come to America for the first time—I thought the city got dull. America was much more exciting. Now I enjoy London; but, you see, I’m always leaving it, I’m always travelling.

In some ways, I live a slightly domestic life there. All day I stay and paint, but in the evenings I do like to go out. I go to the opera—that’s the only thing I see in the live theatre—and I sit in restaurants and bars. There’s always something to do in London. You never get bored.

I’ve had the same flat in London for eleven years now. (In the end, I had to buy the building. Well, I didn’t have to buy it; but it was advisable, seeing I’d spent so much money on it.) Even when I lived in California, I kept it. I just locked it up or let people stay. I paid something like £200 a year for it, so it was cheap enough to pay the rent and go away for a year.

One of the reasons, of course, you don’t give up flats in London is that they’re very difficult to get. But once you’ve got one, as long as you pay the rent, you can’t really be evicted from it. It’s not like here, where you can find another place to live quite easily. In London you can’t; it’s very, very difficult. When I was a student, for instance, I lived in rooms, and at the end of each term I gave term I gave them up and found others. But the moment I found a rather large space to work in, I wasn’t going to give that up so easily. And you’ve got to have somewhere to keep everything—the paints and the books are things like that—and that’s as good a place as anywhere.

I like living in London as a kind of base. It’s very easy to go from there to Paris or Italy, or anywhere, so I do enjoy it.

Who are my friends in London? Well, I’m still very close and friendly with Ron Kitaj. He’s one of the few artists I’m close to. I’m close enough to him that I can discuss art with him a little. But most of my friends are not artists at all. They’re all kinds of people. Do you know Ossie Clark? He designs clothes, and he’s a close friend. Of my, say, twelve close friends, I’m sure you’ll never have heard of eight of them.

Several times you’ve mentioned living in California. When were you living here?

I lived here on and off for about four years. From January 1964 until July of 1968, most of my time was spent here. Say, eight months of each year was spent here and only four months in Europe. People in London thought I lived here. Every time I went back to London, they would say, ‘Oh, how long are you here for?’ I did regard it as going home, but they didn’t seem to think of it that way.

When I first came to California, I came on an intuition; and it was correct. I came because I thought it would be very sexy. One of the things that prompted me to come here was a magazine called Physique Pictorial. I noticed that it was published in Los Angeles, so I assumed that’s what life was like here. The photographs portrayed what a certain life was like in Los Angeles; and, in a way, it was true. They were accurate if you looked for it. So I thought the place would turn me on in many ways, in all kinds of ways. And it did.

I’d never seen a city like this before. In fact, there’s no city in Europe like this. I found Los Angeles quite exciting visually. Architecturally, it’s a fascinating city—especially the rows of houses that were probably put up in the ’thirties and ’forties in different styles and all made of stucco. Driving down streets like that, with the trees in front of the houses and along the curb, is beautiful. And buildings in Los Angeles often amuse me. This is the one place in the world where you can be driving around, and the buildings make you smile—laugh almost. You see buildings here that are caricatures of other styles. That’s funny, and it’s rare in architecture. Architecturally, I’ve always enjoyed Los Angeles. It’s very stimulating, and I’ve painted pictures of it and of life here.

But somehow it’s not as sexy now. In fact, America is less sexy now. At first I thought it was me getting older, but I don’t think so anymore. There was a marvellous, sexy tension here in Los Angeles a few years ago. Now it’s gone. It’s ironic, because today you can go see fuck movies, you can go in a bar and see naked people dancing about, yet it’s not as sexy. With everything being blatant, it’s lost a certain perverse appeal. It’s rather unerotic really. It used to be much sexier.

And people don’t look as attractive as they used to. I keep saying that I hate the Jed Clampett look. I hate moustaches. Or everyone trying to look like Robert Redford. It all seems too bland. I know people say everyone used to look alike in their crew cuts, too; but somehow that was more original, it was more Californian, it was more something you couldn’t see anywhere else. Now people look the same here as in New York. Los Angeles has lost a lot of its original look.

I don’t want to say that drugs have ruined things. Maybe there’s something in that, but I’m not an authority. People look a bit more haggard; they don’t look as beautiful. And they’ve got, or they seem to have, more interest in drugs than anything else. It’s a pity that people should be more interested in drugs than in other people or other aspects of life.

Speaking of fuck movies, have you ever seen a good one?

No, not a good one. Most of them are so awful. They’re all too medical. They look as though they were meant to do the community some good in passing on medical knowledge. I always think that I could make them far better, but I’ve never got around to it. Usually, if I decide to do something, I do it; so I suppose I’ve not yet been that serious about making one. Maybe one day I’ll have a go at it, but I’m too busy with everything else at the moment.

How are you spending your time in Los Angeles this trip?

I’m working away every day making six lithographs about the weather. I’m doing rain, sun, wind, snow, frost, lightning, mist and a rainbow. I’ve not done complicated colour lithographs in a long time, not since 1965. In the evenings I go home and read, which is a bit unusual for me. Although I do go out to movies a lot, catch up on movies I never saw in London. And I go to bars.

I know a lot of people here, but I don’t know many of the artists who live here that well. (Don Bachardy is the one I know best, I suppose.) I know other people better. I know Christopher Isherwood, for example, better than I know most any artist in Los Angeles. Then there’s Nick Wilder* and his friends. Nick’s friends aren’t all artists; they’re all kinds of people. The people I know here are similar to those I know in other places. You always get to know similar kinds of people, don’t you?

You were once planning to build a studio in the south of France. Does the south of France attract you for the same reasons as southern California?

In a way. It’s warm and pretty in the same way southern California is. In a sense, it’s a great deal prettier. Summer evenings in the south of France are very pleasant. Sitting in a little square or harbour and drinking is very nice. But there’s lots you don’t get there: you don’t get the fuck movies, you wouldn’t get the bars. (I mean, not the same kind of bars.) On the other hand, you get better food. I like the south of France a great deal, and I go a lot from London. I don’t think I’d actually live there, but I love going to stay for a month. I’ve taken a house down there for a month at a time and done drawings.

Does New York turn you on?

I’m sure it’s the art centre from every point of view, but it doesn’t attract me as much as California. New York is like a European city without the advantages. New York is quite beautiful if you live in Brooklyn and look over the river to it, or if you fly in an aeroplane above it. On street level, I find it ugly. The views you get are beautiful for a while, but they become incredibly monotonous. Those long, long streets, and all you see is a long avenue. And the buildings are too tall. At street level, New York is not exciting; whereas most European cities at street level are very beautiful. Paris exists only at street level, doesn’t it? Yet life in New York is exciting. Nobody would say it was dull, would they? When I first went there, I thought it was fantastic. I was terribly excited by it, but the more I come to California…

I go to New York frequently. I go to New York more than I come here, because it’s nearer. But I’ve never actually done any work there, other than just draw when I was passing through. I’ve never done any paintings there, never done any prints there. There’ll come a time when I have to try it and see what it’ll do for me.

But I’ve decided that I’m going to try working in Paris first. I’ve never worked there; and it’ll be change, after Los Angeles, to have a bit of French culture. I’ve always enjoyed Paris very much and done a lot of drawings there. But I’ve never stayed longer than a week or a few days; I’ve just made nips over from London. So I want to try Paris before I try New York.

You’ve been talking lots about architecture. Do you have a special interest in it?

Yes. I take a visual, figurative artist’s interest in it. When I travel, I look at architecture. In Europe I’m always interested in architecture, and I usually check guide books when I’m travelling and find out what’s nearby. I know what I like, and I read about certain kinds of buildings. I make the detours and visit Gothic cathedrals or Romanesque cathedrals. I love the one at Vézelay in France. That’s the most incredibly beautiful Romanesque cathedral. As for the other sorts of buildings, I like the turn-of-the-century hotels on the Mediterranean. They look good. And I love the colonnade in the park at Vichy. It’s glass and iron, which is a terrific combination in a building. Locally, one of my favourites—mind you, this is an interior—is the dining-room of the Sheraton Palace Hotel in San Francisco. That’s one of the prettiest rooms for breakfast in the United States.

I would say that I was a lay lover of architecture. Actually, I suppose my knowledge is slightly more than the layman’s, but it’s nothing like an architect’s. It’s not an incredible passion with me, but it is a strong interest. Architecture is a very solid art. You have to live with it for some time, so it should be good.

What’s the state of English art in general?

I suppose the state of English art is not as interesting as American art on the whole. But, to be honest, I don’t think American art is that interesting either. Perhaps American art is a little more interesting, but it’s like talking about the difference between numbers 35 and 37. The difference is slight.

There are some good things going on in England, and there is lots going on that I don’t have much sympathy for. I mean, I don’t care about it one way or another: I don’t think it’s bad and I don’t think it’s good. There are just lots of things in art that don’t interest me at all. For instance, I get more and more bored with abstract art. It does so little for me that I don’t care about it. I’m not involved in its aesthetic politics, so I tend to ignore it. I wouldn’t rush to any exhibition of it. Conceptual art interests me to an extent—there’s a certain amount of wit which I like—but I’m never moved incredibly by it.

So I have to admit that there aren’t many English artists that excite me right now. Apart from Ron Kitaj, there aren’t many figurative painters working in any serious way. There just aren’t many of us. Francis Bacon, certainly. Richard Hamilton. Peter Blake. Richard Smith. (In a way, Richard Smith is an abstract painter, but far the most interesting one.)

And there are Americans who are still interesting, I suppose. Andy Warhol doesn’t pain anymore, but I love his movies. And I might go out of my way to see what Jasper Johns is doing these day. But the bulk of American painting is abstract. There is all that photographic realism too, but I don’t find that very interesting either. It is for a short while, but it doesn’t offer enormous possibilities. It’s a vision which completely relies on the camera, and the camera has to look at things in a certain way. (What makes photography interesting is its choice of subject matter, not the way the picture’s done.) So you always have to look at the subject in the same way. I cannot see how that sort of vision can be developed a great deal. In short, there aren’t many interesting painters. There’s just not much good art being done. It’s the same everywhere. We’re going through a fallow period.

I used to, as it were, worry about the art activity of my time. Now I tend to withdraw more into my own ideas and carry on with them and ignore a lot of other things. If you don’t, you get a big bogged down in them.

But I’m not pessimistic, because what’s going to get exciting is that there will be a re-evaluation of many things. There’ll come a time when we’ll re-examine concepts which were accepted perhaps a bit too readily in the past. I mean, if in the end what we think of as modern art led up to a sterile intellectualism, then one will trace back to find out where something went wrong. Painting is still rooted in the past—as it probably should be—so one simply goes back a little into the past and re-examines. Perhaps then one will find out what was wrong about this or wrong about that. For instance, I think it was wrong to assume that abstract painting was the great thing it was, that it was the answer and that all modern painting should be abstract. I don’t think it should, because it’s all boring now. So, obviously, to look at it intelligently, one will re-examine it, look back to where it came from and re-examine a few concepts there. I think it was Kandinsky who said—what, in 1915? —that he saw pitfalls, and he saw how abstract paintings could become simply an ornamental art of interest but not very profound. That’s almost where we’ve gotten to recently.

You know, I do think that one thing that’s terribly good—well, it was very good for me—was the fact that living outside your own country for a number of years does put its art into perspective more. I suppose living outside any community does the same thing. If you’re an English artist and you’ve never left England, English art is much more important to you than if you go and live abroad. You’d tend to give it much more importance than it really has, because you’re always more in interested in the art of where you live. On the other hand, if you’ve never been to England, you’d probably go to the opposite extreme and dismiss it when you shouldn’t. You see, a lot of art is never exported; ideas aren’t exported; so one doesn’t know about them. As you well know, there must be artists here in Los Angeles who have quite a reputation locally and outside the city are not too well known; they are not well known, say, in England. And vice versa. There are a great number of English artists who in England are highly thought of as people who have done interesting work; and in America they’re hardly known, on the continent of Europe they’re hardly known. So when you live abroad, you’re able to look at things with more detachment and get a better perspective on ideas. Then you can see what is good, what is interesting, what is not interesting. That you can only get by living abroad for a long time.

What art do you live with? What’s on the walls of your London flat?

Not too much. I have a few things people have given me. I have some Picasso etchings. I’ve some etchings by Helleu, some prints of Richard Hamilton’s, some drawings by Peter Schlesinger and two or three paintings that I bought from a young English artist, Steve Buckley.

You once said that your style changed in 1965. What was so special about that year?

I must have just picked a year. My work didn’t change just like that. If you look at the work, you wouldn’t say it changed instantly. I suppose I chose 1965 as a kind of watershed. That was a year when ideas became a lot clearer, when I somehow made a bigger stride. I think I made a bigger stride in 1965, say, than in 1964 or 1963; and maybe there’s not been a year since then that I felt I’d made such a break from previous ideas.

Some artists, of course, do just stop doing a certain thing and start something else completely. I’ve actually never done that. I don’t think it’s a bad thing; often it’s good. People come up with a slightly different attitude and completely different solutions. I know artists who have done it, and they, of course, could be more precise. They could probably give you the year, the day and the hour. I can’t because it was a rather lengthy process.

Who influenced your early work?

Oh, on the early work there are an awful lot. They’re reasonably obvious. Like in style. One time I was quite influenced by Dubuffet. Quite influenced by abstract impressionist techniques: the way you put paint on, the way you might make a gesture with a brush. I was influenced, I think, by Klee and the people everybody is influenced by: Miro and Picasso. (I might mention that Picasso’s recent work still interests me. I bought a little etching of his from 1968 that’s fantastic. And, actually, Dubuffet still interests me too, as does Balthus.) But the influences did change, because I became more realistic; the style became more realistic.

I still like to fluctuate, but it’s more difficult in painting. In prints I can do it; I’ve found that there the solution is a little easier. For instance, I did a lot of etchings illustrating six stories from the Grimms, and within them they move about an enormous amount. One of them could be completely abstract. (What the design represents is not clear at all. It could be simply treated as these rather weird shapes. It’s only with the title that it becomes clear what it is and what it means.) Some of the others are incredibly literal, taken from the dramatic situation in the text. I found that graphic solutions are easier, perhaps, than painted solutions. I still haven’t quite, I think, been able to do it in paint. That’s why I keep trying.

You once mentioned that your taste was becoming less catholic. In what way?

What I meant was that I was getting more sure of my taste. When you’re a young artist, you go along with the general consensus of other artists and think: Well, yes, that’s very good. You don’t commit yourself too much. It’s a question of committing your taste in the same way you commit your ideas to canvas. You become more committed, more sure.

And as your idea of your own work is becoming clearer, you begin to drop things that you’re not that interested in. Such as, as I’ve said, abstract painting. Now a great deal of that obviously has a natural beauty about it in a sensual way, but for me that isn’t enough. I’m not that much of a sensualist in painting; my own pictures, I don’t think, are like that. So one tends to leave behind ideas about using things like that. Then you find that you’re clearing up, clearing up the edges. The periphery shifts. The whole centre shifts. It’s a natural process. I’m sure it must happen to any artist.

You just said that you didn’t consider your own work sensual. Well, that’s one of the points about your pictures, isn’t it? I mean, you can take an erotic subject—say, a naked boy lying in bed—and treat it in a very detached way.

I treat most of the subjects I do in a detached way. But I think all art is rather detached in that sense. The purely erotic in art isn’t finally, it seems to me, interesting enough. I’m not saying that it isn’t nice having sexy pictures, but the point of the art is not just to titillate. There are all kinds of different purposes for art. So one is better off having a certain distance from things, a kind of detachment. Sometimes I wish I could be more detached than I am. At times I could be as detached as Matisse was when he drew. I don’t think I could, and yet I’d love to. I admire it.

Often art can be better than nature. At times you can improve on nature. But I’m not sure you can in an erotic situation. I’m not sure art can improve on that. I guess the truth about erotic art is that if it’s just the sexiness of it you’re liking, the real thing is always better, isn’t it?

Your work seems to be very English, in that it’s usually narrative. In this respect, do you think of yourself as an English artist?

Well, English art has a narrative tradition more than, say, French art or even American art. (Although American art has a little narrative tradition.) But if you look at it that way, then, yes, my work falls in line with certain known English attitudes to the visual arts. I’d never thought about it, because it’s not something you sit down and think about until somebody asks you.

In English art there’s always been a certain element that the English have liked, and I would say that I fitted in with that a bit. The English have always tended to like artists on their own, rather than schools. Even within what was a very English school, the Pre-Raphaelite painters, there were very different attitudes. They were really quite idiosyncratic. Whereas in other countries—in America now, for instance—people talk about a mainstream of art. If there is an English mainstream, it meanders all over the place. In the American sense of the word, I’m not a mainstream artist at all.

At one time, when I was younger, I thought about that a bit. You know, one wants to be involved in the ideas of your time and what’s going on. Then I sorted things out. I realised what I was up to and abandoned ideas of belonging to a mainstream. It just doesn’t worry me.

What attracted you to the idea of illustrating Cavafy?

I’d liked his poetry for a long time. Some of the very first etchings I ever did were based on Cavafy poems. They were done four or five years before I did the book.

I mentioned earlier that I did a set of prints from 1961 to 1963 based on Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress. That was published as a loose set. I thought about making another group of prints on a particular theme, and then I thought it would be nice to actually make a real book and print them in it. You know, a hand-printed book. All the time I kept thinking of Cavafy. I’d always wanted to illustrate his poems, so one day I stopped painting and sat down and did them. In the end I only did the love poems, though originally I wanted to illustrate a lot of the ones about the politics of ancient Egypt and the Ptolemies. There’s a terrific one called Waiting for the Barbarians. I’m still waiting to do it myself. Maybe I’ll do it one day. I meant to put that one in at the front of the book, but I never got around to it; and somehow the book had got large enough, so I stopped. But I think they’re very beautiful poems.

Poetry is one branch of literature I’ve always kept reading. I once read novels a great deal, then I stopped, and lately I’ve started reading them again. But poetry I’ve always read. I’ve read all the classic poets. I have my favourites, and occasionally they alter. I was a great fan of Walt Whitman, and I did paintings from his poems. And an English poet I like, though he’s not considered that much as a poet, is Thomas Hardy. (People read his novels, and his poetry is rather ignored.) The truth is that I do like poetry, and so I read anything that I come across. But, as I said, I have a weakness for what would generally be called the classics. And it’s the same with novels, because I hardly ever read trashy novels. I used to read other kinds of trashy books: semi-sociological things like The Arms of Krupp. I was always reading trash like that, and I got fed up with it. So I thought: Why waste your time, David, and why don’t you start reading something good again? So last year I started re-reading Proust. I got into it so quickly and enjoyed it so much, I’ve not stopped. I mean, I finished that and then kept on reading novels. Maybe I’ll stop now and go back to trash.

In the Cavafy etchings especially, isn’t there a certain amount of propaganda?

Yes, and I suppose it’s half intended. Earlier paintings contained what one could call propaganda for various things. At one time I was a very keen vegetarian, and I used to do paintings about that. I think I even used the word propaganda myself about them once. But it’s propaganda at a rather low level. If you really wanted to propagandize, you wouldn’t do etchings. Although you could always ask people to see them.

You once said that if you’d been able to find sexual satisfaction in Bradford, you might have become reconciled to the place. So at one time sexual happiness was a determining factor in your life. Is it still a major influence?

Not as much. When you’re eighteen or twenty and just starting out, you move where you think you might get it. It still plays a part; but now I wouldn’t mind, for instance, going to the desert and reading for a year. I’d like that actually. (It’d be something else that’d drive you to do that, wouldn’t it?)

Anybody from a small town, if they want to find out about people and things, naturally wants to leave. I used to think that the only thing that might have been strong enough to keep one back there would have been something that was sexually satisfying. Now I think that’s not true. It wouldn’t have been strong enough; because you’d always think you could get it somewhere else, and you’d want to go off.

Certainly your sexual inclinations have influenced your work.

They influence your life. So, of course they influence everything. And if you paint the way I do, your life influences your work and your attitudes. If you painted stripes, it wouldn’t influence your work too much, would it? Or maybe you’d paint them horizontally.

You’ve said that illusion and artificiality in art were related to illusion and artificiality in life. Were you making a point about your own work and life?

I don’t necessarily think so. What I meant was: What is real life and what is not? I do think that there is a distinction between art and life. Recently a lot of artists have tried to show that there is not, and that art and life are one. I don’t share that view. If art and life are one, then there’s no such thing as art. It’s cancelled out. Maybe life if very rich then, but what we know as art and the experience of art wouldn’t exist.

There are aspects of life that have artificiality about them that’s appealing. They’re appealing in the same way that art is appealing. Look at artificial flowers, for instance. One can look at them with horror and say how awful they look compared to real flowers; or you can look at them with a slight smile and think they were perhaps meant to be art, and that they could have been art. After all, one could do a sculpture of flowers, and, if it were done well enough, it would be art. But a normal artificial flower is not art. So one can smile at it and think that it was a attempt, a strange attempt at art. And you can stick them in a vase, and they do look real until you get up close.

That kind of artificiality, it borders. It borders on art without ever being art. One can see a connection, and things like that interest me. Even in the way, sitting here, I can look outside and there are all those horses galloping on that Marlboro ad. There’s a certain point where you can sit and think there’s a bright cornfield out of your window. Yet you know it’s not; it’s this great big poster out there. Even though I hate billboards and think they’re ugly and spoil things, it’s got some strange appeal. From here, looking through the curtains and seeing that scene, there’s something mad about it that’s terribly nice. There aren’t many places where you can look out and see brightly lit horses galloping through corn. And we’re five floors up!

You know, hardly anyone would have recognised Jackson Pollock, and few people would ever recognise Richard Lindner or Robert Rauschenberg. Yet you’re immediately recognisable. What difference has that made to you? Do you set out to create David Hockney?

Well, I didn’t consciously set out to do it. Often people create themselves, don’t they? I mean, they create the personality; they invent themselves. I probably did that. But one doesn’t do it in the sense that you’re inventing it for other people. You’re inventing the personality for yourself. That’s how it works.

I didn’t mean to be visible, and I can’t say that I enjoy it much. One of the pleasures of coming to Los Angeles is that I’m less visible here. There are people here who say: Oh, yes, I know your work. But certainly the ordinary person in the street wouldn’t recognise me. Whereas in London I’m well aware that some people know who I am, but they would never know a painting of mine. Sometimes it gets you down. At any rate, I don’t give it much thought.

Do blondes have more fun?

From my experience yes. I’ve been a blonde now for twelve years.

Didn’t you go through a gold-lamé phase in your life?

No. I only wore that gold coat twice. Once, because the Royal College of Art gave me a gold medal. I saw the absurdity of that medal, and, walking up Charing Cross Road, in Cecil Gee’s I saw a golden jacket for a band leader or someone like that. I suddenly thought: Oh, that’s what one should wear for a gold medal, because then the medal would disappear. So I went in and bought it on the spur of the moment, simply as an amusing thing to do. The second time I wore it was for some photographs which Anthony Armstrong-Jones took, and of course those made it rather famous. I hated that coat, and afterwards I wished I’d never worn it. I’d never wear it now.

What difference has money and success made in your life?

I don’t think it’s made much difference. Instead of hitchhiking, you can travel first-class. And you can eat better, which is one thing I do like.

I was always happy no matter how much money I had, because money doesn’t mean that much to me. I don’t care about it. I spend all I get. I throw it away. It just disappears. And the more money you have, the more dependants you have. It doesn’t make much difference.

At one time when I’d got quite a bit of money, some lawyer said to me, ‘If you go and live abroad, you won’t have to pay as much tax.’ Then he said, ‘That’s what I’d do too, but I thought I’d advise you.’ I mean, what’s the point? If you earn some money and you can’t do what you want to do, it’s terrible.

I’ve been told that you draw a great deal, and that the people around you virtually jerk the drawings out from under your pencil or pick up drawings you leave behind. Is this true? And if it is, does it annoy you?

It’s slightly annoying. I do draw a lot, because I like drawing. And drawing, for an artist like myself, is the most immediate form of expression. You just do it intuitively, straight away. Therefore, the drawings are the most personal form of expression one does.

I’m well aware that people like them or want them—even things I would consider scraps—so I’m more careful now. If I think they’re bad, I tear them up. A lot of them I put crosses through and keep and decide later. The fact is that they’re very expensive. (Although I’ve always thought my art was very expensive. Even when it was $200, I thought that was very expensive. For a painting, I thought that was a lot of money.)

Now I’m more careful what I let go from the studio. I do give a lot of drawings away; but I give them away, because I think they’re OK. That’s the same as giving them to a dealer. You just give things you’re proud of. I wouldn’t give away lousy drawings; I’d tear them up. People say, ‘Why don’t you give it to me?’ and I say: ‘Well, I’ll give you something else, because I shouldn’t give you something if I don’t think it’s good.’ But then they say, ‘Oh, let me have it.’ If I’ve drawn them, and I don’t like it—especially if I tear it up in front of them—they get a bit annoyed. Then I feel terrible, because I’ve wasted their time. I’ve made them sit for an hour, and then I just tear it up. But I can’t find any other solution. I don’t know what one should do.

Do the business aspects of art concern you much?

No, I never get too involved in it. I’ve stopped worrying about it. I run away from it. I hardly ever discuss money with dealers. I leave it to them and assume they’re trustworthy. I probably could be swindled very easily, but I prefer it that way. I can’t get worked up about money. (Mind you, the truth is I say that because money is the least of my problems at the moment. I have no idea what it costs me to live, but I do know that I’ve quite sufficient money to live how I want to live and work how I want to work.)

And, you know, there’s no fixed price for art. The price, obviously, is simply what somebody will pay for it. If somebody’s willing to pay a high price, that must mean they like it. I know there are other arguments about how they’re investing their money and that they think somebody else will pay more for it. But somebody else will pay more for it only if, in the end, that somebody else likes it. So it seems to me it’s not worth discussing at length. I don’t bother with all that myself. It’s a problem I push under the mat.

Have you ever felt any weariness with drawing and painting and a desire to try something new? Can you imagine a time when you might give them up and move on to other things?

I could imagine it, I suppose. But it’s not likely in the near future, because I still have a few things that I want to do. Ideas, as it were, that will keep me preoccupied for the next two years are still in my head. I’ve not got disillusioned about painting—not yet—not to do them. I’m an extremely visual person, and I believe that the static image has still got great power. Therefore, I’m not likely to reject it easily. Some people, you see, do. They think there’s no real point in painting anymore. They think the static image is not that powerful or that the photograph can do it. Well, I don’t believe that. Photography is pretty good, but there are lots of things it can’t do that painting can do. So I’m a defender of painting, and I imagine I’ll be painting for quite some time.

But I have occasionally thought of making a movie. I was thinking of making a movie based on Huysmans’ novel Against Nature, which I thought would make a good film. It’s a lot about the senses, isn’t it? Somebody could make a good film of it. I thought I could, actually. I assume I’ve not got around to it, because I’m not ready. I realise that I’m a person with a certain amount of energy’ so, as I said before, I usually do what I want to do. If I wanted to make that film very badly, I’d somehow get it together and do it next week. I’ve not done it yet, so…

Transcribed by Laura Garmeson


The London Magazine, August/September Issue in 1973, Vol. 12 No. 3.

This interview first appeared in The London Magazine, August/September Issue in 1973, Vol. 12 No. 3, which was originally priced at 90p.

white – a project by Edmund de Waal

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Attributed to Sawaki Rizo Masatoshi, The Hare with Amber Eyes, c.1880.

white – a project by Edmund de Waal at The Royal Academy of Arts until 3 January 2016

White has obsessed Edmund de Waal since he made his first white pot as a child. His bestselling book – The Hare with Amber Eyes – features a white netsuke hare as its talisman (an object extremely precious to de Waal which makes an appearance in white), and de Waal has been exhibiting his white porcelain vessels for over a decade. Displayed in the Print Room and Library of the Royal Academy, white symbolises a plateau in de Waal’s journey with white, a chance for him to cast a retrospective glance on the ‘images and objects that mattered to [de Waal] most’, as realised during the 6 years he has spent chasing his obsession and writing The White Road.

The exhibition invites us to share in this act of re-experiencing white through the objects on display – an experience necessarily (not on account of the subject but because of de Waal’s approach) reliant on encountering white as and through concrete forms. Considering this, the darkness in which the Print Room was shrouded shouldn’t have been surprising. For it was obviously intended to stress the contrastive radiance of the white objects (a C4th-5th marble fragment notably shone upon entrance), and to concentrate our attention upon them. Nevertheless, in a show entitled white, the surrounding darkness was somewhat stupefying. And de Waal seemed to be confused too: the first words of his introductory manifesto declared, ‘White is aura’, but in the dark and cramped upper-tier of the Print Room, these words rang hollow.

Here, most of the objects were presented in vitrines lining the walls. A blank page of Tristram Shandy sat alongside a score of John Cage’s 4’ 33’ and an 18th century porcelain cup – one of the first porcelain objects made in Europe. The combination of these different manifestations of white seemed to introduce the theme of the dual appeal of white as potential and ‘experience’ and white as object – perfected realisation. For de Waal, perfected white has always been porcelain: fragile, delicate, diminutive. Together with his own porcelain on display, the 18th century porcelain cup possessed a beautifully satisfying solid whiteness – a pure, glazed whiteness that cannot be tarnished but only cracked, and even in that instance, it would be the object that loses its integrity, and not the white. A large Rachael Whiteread collage hung in the lower-tier of the Print Room in contrast to this: featuring concentric circles, complete with a wiggly deviation, taped onto the canvas, the violation and disruption of the potential of the white space for this result seemed entirely pointless and absurd.

Though in truth the Whiteread collage was just a random object in two rooms full of random objects, connected only through de Waal and his love of white. The incorporation of some of de Waal’s own work into this miscellaneous display of whiteness created an interesting – albeit self-reflexive – dialogue, as the de Waal works mirrored and remarked upon the environments in which they were displayed. De Waal’s a mind of Winter (placed at the very end of the Print Room) seemed to be a microcosmic representation of the room itself, but one which acknowledged its failures, as the white porcelain vessels were carefully arranged within the compartments of the black vitrine far more satisfyingly than the tensions between the white objects and the surrounding dark could have ever been balanced in the Print Room.

In the Library, only the larger objects an unfinished statue, Ai Weiwei’s Lantern and a striking Arabian stele – were immediately discernible upon entrance. Nearly all of the other objects were unobtrusively and naturally dispersed among the book-shelves, like personally significant items decorating a domestic space. On top of this, the rich, motley back-drop of the antique books not only provided a more nuanced setting for the exploration of white, in comparison to the monochrome quality of the Print Room, but even dwarfed the impact of the white objects. Acknowledging and encouraging this effect, the de Waal porcelain vessels on display in the Library were encased in glass vitrines that enabled them to be infiltrated by light and the various angles of the Library which were visible through the glass.

In an exhibition dependant on the individual significance of whitish objects, it may seem strange that de Waal would willingly display them in an environment that essentially overshadowed them. But de Waal has always typically exhibited his work in spaces of architectural and aesthetic interest. It is almost expected of him to select those spaces which facilitate a dialogue between the work and its situation within a wider environment. The presentation of white in the Library was an obvious continuation of this practice, but moreover one in which all of the objects, whether created by de Waal or not, were drawn into a wider de Waalian frame. For example, rather than speaking to us of the illimitable white space – the exhilarating white aura which was so sorely lacking in white – a replica of Malevich’s Suprematist Teapot was almost hidden on a high shelf ­– just another porcelain object, emptied of its original significance – and the small Malevich sketch de Waal chose to squeeze between two shelves, was dominated by a dark cross motif (a strange choice considering  Malevich’s prolific production of white upon white paintings).

In the Library, the white had to be looked for and the boundaries between displayed object and environment became blurred. There was a pure white spine of a book on a high shelf, featuring indented words which were not discernible from far away. At the time it wasn’t clear whether it was part of white or not — it turns out that it was and it wasn’t: the white book was not listed in the provided exhibition guide (none of the objects were directly labelled), but it was almost certainly a copy of de Waal’s The White Road, which has a pure white cover with indented lettering on its spine.

Similarly, as most of the white objects were unobtrusively dispersed in the library without any protective frames, they inhabited the same existential plane as the books with which they shared the shelves: like the white objects, the aesthetically and historically rich antique books were both within and without of reach, as they begged to be appreciated and explored – essentially to be used – but this was of course firmly prohibited by the watchful eye of the museum staff. The presentation of the objects cultivated a consciousness of this through facilitating an illusion of informality that was inevitably undercut by the circumstances in which it was framed.

The effect generated here also reflected another consistent aspect in de Waal’s work: the books were drawn into a liminal space between art and non-art just as de Waal’s porcelain pots, plates and piled-up bowls resemble or even replicate objects that we’re used to touching and using everyday but which are deprived of their potential functionality, and thus arguably rendered as art, by the glass frames in which they’re presented, and also merely on account of being put on display. In view of this, the dialogue initiated between object and environment was surely not dependent on the whiteness of the objects, but on the tensions inherent within such a situation of quasi-informality.

Upon exiting white, I came upon an object that recalled the misplaced potential of de Waal’s ambitious opening words (‘white is aura’) – two huge, thick, blank pages of an C19th elephant folio album which stood open and exposed opposite the entrance into the white, drawing you in. I had a pen in my hand and all I wanted to do was to throw it at the pages – to attack the white and thereby to experience it, break it, perfect it. This is the power of white that I mistakenly expected de Waal to show me – white as aura, impetus and realised object. But although it was technically part of white, it was literally relegated, like de Waal’s unfulfilled declaration, to the outskirts of its experience. Offering a subtle and muted experience of white objects that buttressed and shed light upon de Waal’s own signature practices, white may have been conceived as a cumulative event in de Waal’s mind, but I’m not sure it will be realised as such in anyone else’s.

By Lizzy Hajos

Kamal Boullata – And There Was Light

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This autumn the Berloni gallery presents the first London exhibition of Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata’s work since 1978.  The acclaimed artist who is known both for his geometric abstract paintings, and for his intricate explorations of Palestinian identity and exile, will show around twenty new paintings on both canvas and paper for his return to London.

boullata-large-painting-5

Born in Jerusalem in 1942, after graduating from the Academia di Belle Arti in Rome (1961-65) and later the Corcoran Art Museum School in Washington DC (1968-71), Boullata continued to travel, living in the USA, Morocco and France. These journeys play a crucial role in his work; exhibitions of his paintings have been shown all over the world.

Now based in Germany, having been elected a Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, Boullata continues to produce work that challenges the conventions of his Palestinian heritage. With a history that includes researching post-Byzantine painting in Palestine, winning a Ford Foundation grant in 2001, and editing a number of books on modern Palestinian poetry and contemporary culture, it’s unsurprising that Boullata’s practice has been praised for its convoluted nature, with simple surfaces giving way to complex and unsettling truths.

Art Historian Gérard Xuriguera describes Boullata’s work as transformational:

Woven by translucent panes, by the vibrations of redoubling forms and sliding shapes that filter in through the heart of a sharply defined perimeter, this work exudes a spatial dimension of light; its chords discretely swell to animate variations of a rare harmony.

It is in the strange knotting, the ‘stabilizing geometry’ that Boullata establishes between transparencies and ‘the shimmering that crystallizes every now and then’ that Xuriguera identifies ‘a subtle dialectic… not the reflection of a coincidence but the product of a vigilant discipline’. This discipline is evident throughout Boullata’s work; the stark contrasts and architectural lines map out a conversation between materials and their interaction with light. With his signature abstract style these most recent paintings seem to bring the artist to an exciting new sparseness, a clear and controlled look at the relation between shapes and colours. More bluntly, we see Boullata explore the relationship between light and dark, a binary that provokes those central concerns of identity and exile that remain so fundamental to the Palestinian people.

 

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For more information visit the Berloni gallery website here.

 

By Thea Hawlin

Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots

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Jackson Pollock, Number 34 1949 © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015.

Upon viewing Jackson Pollock’s 1951 solo show in which he debuted his now famed ‘black paintings’, friend and fellow painter Alfonso Ossorio commented that the pieces, ‘demand alertness and total involvement…Without the intricacy of colour and surface pattern…they reawaken in us the sense of personal struggle and its collective roots’.

Jackson Pollock, 1950 Photograph by Hans Namuth Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona © 1991 Hans Namuth Estate
Jackson Pollock, 1950. Photograph by Hans Namath. Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona © 1991 Hans Namuth Estate

With the departure of Pollock’s usual colourful, textured and lyrical style, in Tate Liverpool’s latest exhibition of Pollock’s work the viewer is forced to confront their own ‘blind spots’ in the artist’s oeuvre. Pollock’s method alternated between sticks and a turkey baster which, according to his widow Lee Krasner, he used like giant fountain pens to apply black enamel paint to unstretched, unprimed canvas. This creates the impression of dark and controlled disintegration, contradicting the mythic ‘Jack the Dripper’ image, showing instead the work of a troubled man and troubled artist.

Jackson Pollock, Yellow Islands 1952 © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015.
Jackson Pollock, Yellow Islands 1952 © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015.

The exhibition opens with Pollock’s more familiar works. Summertime: Number 9A, with its streams of black, blue and yellow, is the visual equivalent of hearing musicians improvise; rhythmic and arching, the paint is allowed free movement across the vast expanse of the canvas. The juxtaposition with the black paintings which follow is therefore harsh, more striking. Although the artist refuted the claim that the black paintings marked a ‘return to figuration’, Pollock, along with other abstract expressionists, sought to express an inner landscape of the unconscious mind, hence his acknowledgement that ‘when you’re painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge.’

In paintings such as Number 14, 1951 therefore, the viewer is presented with what can be described as a Jungian dreamscape. Within Pollock’s calligraphic, curling and coiling lines can be found either two writhing bodies that call to mind Picasso’s Guernica, or two startlingly confrontational faces, framing the edge of the canvas. Alternatively, the two images could, conceivably, be engaged in a fight to secure greater prominence. The paintings that follow are similarly suggestive; Number 7 offers a broad face, lop-sided breasts and sturdy legs that speak strongly of Picasso, while Number 15, a vortex of faces delivered in thick, black slicks, appears to be inspired by Goya.

Jackson Pollock, Portrait and a Dream 1953 © Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS)
Jackson Pollock, Portrait and a Dream 1953
© Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS)

The exhibition concludes with Portrait and a Dream (1953), considered one of Pollock’s final artistic statements, created as his battle with alcoholism worsened and his productivity was declining. On the painting’s left-hand side, the dream: a knotted black graphic of frenetic, scratchy energy, with stick-like figures and obliterated faces. On the right-hand side, the portrait: a grey, yellow and orange face, half covered with a mask. The two images are dangerously close to overlapping and perhaps we are to interpret it, admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, the desire to overcome the conflict of order versus chaos, positivity versus negativity, the personal struggle of Pollock himself and perhaps, as Ossorio noted, the personal struggle within each of us.

The black paintings are certainly intriguing, more mournful in style when compared with the freedom of his earlier drips and pours, yet they offer unequivocal proof of Pollock’s originality.

By Catherine George 

To find out more about Tate Liverpool’s exhibition which runs till 18th October 2015 visit their website here

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