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‘Points of View’ at the British Library

I just visited the slightly uninspiringly titled ‘Points of View’ exhibition at the British Library, which is an exhibition of nineteenth century photography. I’ve been very impressed with the BL’s temporary exhibitions since they moved to the new site; they obviously have an absolutely staggering amount of stuff in their collections and they do a good job of displaying it, with a thoughtful selection of material and lots of interesting information.

fisherman

Not all subjects are equally interesting, of course — I glazed over a bit going round their exhibition of modernist pamphlets — but C19th photography has a broader appeal. It starts with the early history, Fox Talbot and all that, and then the rest of the exhibition is arranged thematically: travel, portraits, science, industry and so on. I liked the way they manage to provide plenty of variety: some pictures chosen for artistic merit, others for historical, social or technical interest, and some a bit quirky, like spirit photographs taken by spiritualists. Or the staged picture taken by an Indian Army officer of an officer being woken by his manservant after a drunken night before.

mussucks

One thing that is striking is the explosive speed with which photography became popular: from Fox Talbot’s early experiments in the early 1840s, it was a major commercial enterprise within ten years, and being used in every conceivable way all across the world, from Brazil to the Himalayas, within twenty. Perhaps that isn’t surprising — the advantages are obvious — but when photographs were taken with fragile glass plates which had to be chemically prepared immediately before use in a portable darkroom, it is still remarkable.

The exhibition is kind of huge, but it’s also free, so you could always take a break halfway round and go for a cup of tea and a bun.

» ‘A Fisherman at Home‘ is from Peter Henry Emerson’s Pictures From Life In Field And Fen, a photographic record of life in East Anglia published in 1887.

The other picture is a section of ‘Mussucks for crossing the Beas River, Kulu‘, taken in India by Samuel Bourne in 1865. The ‘mussucks’ are inflated bullock hides used to cross the water.

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Culture

‘The Sacred Made Real’ at the National Gallery

To quote their own blurb:

The Sacred Made Real’ presents a landmark reappraisal of religious art from the Spanish Golden Age with works created to shock the senses and stir the soul.

Paintings, including masterpieces by Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán, are displayed for the very first time alongside Spain’s remarkable polychrome wooden sculptures.

By ‘polychrome wooden sculptures’ they mean things like this, Christ as the Man of Sorrows, 1673, by Pedro de Mena (I’ve had to take the picture from the Guardian, which has a good selection, because the NG has got no images on the exhibition website at all):

Sacred-Made-Real-Christ-a-016

I find this business of coloured sculpture intriguing, because of course if you’re aiming for verisimilitude it makes perfect sense; and yet, largely by historical accident, we have come to expect sculpture in the fine art tradition to be in the bare material, whether marble, bronze or whatever.

These works looks especially foreign from a Protestant perspective. And yes, I know I keep going on about being an atheist, but I’m clearly a Church of England atheist when it comes to my religious sensibilities. And the Protestant aesthetic of whitewashed churches and plain glass is explicitly intended to contrast with this kind of art; it is sculptures like these that are processed through the streets of Seville in Holy Week by masked penitents, which must be the apotheosis of the bells and smells side of Catholicism. Protestants over the years have found that either tawdry and vulgar or solemn, dignified and mysterious, according to taste, but one way or the other it has a fascinatingly exotic quality for those of us brought up with the tea and biscuits kind of Christianity.

My initial reaction to these sculptures was ambivalent; there was something spooky or creepy or just a bit odd about them. And I don’t mean the gore; the head of John the Baptist where the cross section of the neck looks like something from the butcher’s, or Christ bruised and dripping with blood. No, even the statues of saints and the Virgin seemed a bit creepy at first encounter. St Ignatius Loyola, with his dark robes, looks like something that might lurch out of the dark at a carnival ghost train.

I’m tempted to invoke the uncanny valley, but actually I think it’s mainly simple unfamiliarity. The sculptures only seem like something from Madame Tussauds — something other than fine art — because of my expectations. Eventually, once I had been in the exhibition for a while, that sense of novelty wore off a bit; and eventually I was able to stop overthinking it and start to respond to the works as pieces of art.

And once that happened I did start to appreciate them and find them quite effective. They are not my new favourite thing, and I’m still not sure I’d say I really like them, even. But I’m certainly glad I went. Thought-provoking stuff.

There are also some fine paintings in the show as well, incidentally, by Velázquez and Zurburán particularly; but those were more familiar and less interesting to me, except in the way they provide a context for the sculptures. It is interesting, for example, that although they are recognisably part of the same religious culture, the paintings are immediately and obviously ‘art’, while my reaction to the sculptures was so much more difficult.

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Culture

Island Boy by Tom Davis

…or to give him his full title: Sir Tom Davis, Pa Tuterangi Ariki, KBE. The ‘Pa Tuterangi Ariki’ bit was a title he got by marriage; the knighthood was all his own. Davis was the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands from 1978-87, and Island Boy is his autobiography. He was undoubtedly an impressive individual — he studied medicine in New Zealand, then took the job of Medical Officer of the Cook Islands, where he modernised a decrepit colonial medical service; then he sailed his young family in a small yacht from the Cook Islands to Boston to study public health; did some medical work in Alaska; then he took various research jobs in the US, including research on physiological adaptions to extreme conditions for the army and the nascent space program; raced sports cars; then returned to the Cook Islands to enter politics as a free market ideologue, eventually becoming Prime Minister.

So there’s lots of good material. However, although Davis wrote perfectly well, he was not a dazzling prose stylist, or a man with a gift for anecdote, and he clearly had no intention of sharing anything very personal; he mentions two marriages, a divorce and several children during the book but gives absolutely no details at all. So what you get is a straightforward, by the numbers autobiography which is often interesting but also often a bit of a chore. I don’t think he was terribly introspective, to be honest. His obituary, which I found while trying to learn more about his title, says (among more flattering stuff):

A driven and ambitious man, he was sometimes seen by his peers as arrogant and conceited.

And that does ring true. He is certainly really quite dismissive of most of his political colleagues and opponents.

I ordered Island Boy as my book from the Cook Islands for the Read The World challenge, before realising that the Cook Islands wasn’t actually on my list of countries, which is based on UN membership. But the list isn’t that rigid, and having bought it I may as well count it.

» The picture, Avarua Market, is © Daniele Sartori and used under a CC by-nc licence.

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Culture

‘Pop Life’ and ‘John Baldessari’ at Tate Modern

Two superficially very different exhibitions at Tate Modern at the moment. One is Pop Life: Art in a Material World; to quote the blurb:

Andy Warhol claimed “Good business is the best art.” Tate Modern brings together artists from the 1980s onwards who have embraced commerce and the mass media to build their own ‘brands’. Pop Life includes Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and more.

Which is flashy, exhibitionist, loud — several rooms have music playing — and vulgar. I don’t mean to be snobby; much of it is intentionally vulgar. Not least Jeff Koons’ kitschy hardcore porn imagery.

The other is John Baldessari: Pure Beauty [which doesn’t have much of a website just yet… they may just be running a bit late]. The tone of which is much more Serious and Arty. Not that it’s humourless, there’s plenty of dry wit on show; but it’s all very restrained and low-key. Series of small photographs, made with an eye on content rather than beauty. Stills from black and white films with sections blanked out. Rather formally-constructed photocollages. The later work gets larger in scale, more complex and I think more human, in the sense that his collages refer more directly to emotions and issues and almost form proto-narratives; but it’s still very tightly controlled and visually restrained.

So stylistically, they’re quite different. It’s a distinctly different experience going round them: the Baldessari is much less likely to give you a headache, for a start. To some extent, though, I think it’s as much a difference of personality as of kind. Not everyone enjoys celebrity and celebrities, and money and noise and going to Studio 54 with Grace Jones — or whatever the equivalent was for Damien Hirst in the 90s. But if you were an art critic from Mars, or a few hundred years in the future, the similarities might seem more significant than the differences.

Though having said that, the artists brought together in the Pop Life show are themselves a slightly mixed bunch, so perhaps I should resist making any more sweeping generalisations anyway. I mean, Tracey Emin, Keith Haring and Jeff Koons don’t necessarily have a great deal in common beyond a talent for self-promotion. Perhaps the Tate thought it would be a bit blunt to just call the show ‘Masters of Hype’.

Incidentally, having been at school at the time when Keith Haring merch — bags, pencil cases, whatever — was all the rage, it seems odd to find him in the Tate. It’s like finding a room dedicated to seriously analysing the artistic importance of Hello Kitty. Or Thundercats.

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Culture

‘Moctezuma — Aztec Ruler’ at the British Museum

So, I went to see Moctezuma at the BM this week. And yes, if you’re wondering, Moctezuma II (or even more correctly, according to Wikipedia, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin) is the man I always thought was called Montezuma: the ruler of the Aztec empire when Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors conquered Mexico. Except that apparently they weren’t ‘Aztec’ either; they referred to themselves as ‘Mexica’.

knife_xray

It’s hard to believe it has been seven years since the Royal Academy’s mega-exhibition about the Aztecs; this show is nowhere near as large or spectacular as that one. And it’s more narrowly focussed on a particular geographical and historical moment; the city of Tenochtitlan and the fall of the Aztec empire. Which does at least mean that it’s easier to take in the information, even if most of the exhibits are a bit less jaw-dropping. And it means that they can supplement the Aztec material with stuff from the Spanish perspective: colonial paintings and so on.

It’s certainly worth going to, although I wouldn’t say it was the most exciting exhibition I’ve been to recently. One thing I found interesting was what you might call the ‘deathcult problem’. The Mexica civilisation was kind of revolting. The sacred courtyard at the centre of Tenochtitlan was built around a temple where they ritually sacrificed their captured enemies. It also featured a skull rack where they could display the skulls afterwards. That’s the kind of design feature that would seem a bit OTT in a Hollywood representation of Mordor. And so it’s a curatorial problem: do you emphasise the gore? downplay it? make any kind of ethical comment?

Generally this exhibition chose to downplay it — not to disguise it, but not to place too much specific emphasis on it either. I guess I think that’s fair enough; better that than salaciously revelling in it, or stigmatising a whole civilisation as somehow subhuman. And presumably they can rely on their visitors to realise for themselves that ripping the hearts out of the living chests of their enemies is a Bad Thing. And yet somehow the studiedly non-judgmental tone of the blurbs and the audioguide, which seemed to treat ritual human sacrifice as just another intriguing cultural quirk like using thorny oyster shell for decoration, left me a little queasy.

Not that the Spanish were exactly saintly themselves; they killed a large chunk of the population of Tenochtitlan in a moment of panic, just for starters. But at least the killing was a by-product of a ruthless lust for gold and power, rather than the central organising principle of their society. Going round all the skull-covered Aztec stuff feels a bit like being at an exhibition of Nazi regalia. Though having said that, an exhibition of religious art from C16th Spain would probably have a bit of a death cult quality to it, with all that graphic martyrdom all over the place. So to sum up: people are a bit creepy.

Also on at the BM at the moment is a very nice little free exhibition of dogū — that is, prehistoric clay figurines from Japan. I didn’t know anything about dogū, so I found it interesting. And they are striking objects.

» The image is an x-ray of a knife with a mosaic handle and a chalcedony blade. They reckon it’s a sacrificial knife but that it isn’t robust enough to have actually been used, so it’s probably ceremonial.

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Culture

Rio 2016! (again)

On the subject of music from Rio, this is one of the fabbest and scariest things ever: