Twombly, Poussin, Emin and Hungarian Photographers

A bit of an exhibition round up. This is not, as you might think, four exhibitions, because at Dulwich Picture Gallery at the moment they have a combined Cy Twombly/Nicolas Poussin exhibition. Which might seem like a rather odd choice at first glance, since they lived 330 years apart and one of them painted highly controlled classical paintings and the other did scrawly abstracts.

But there is a kind of logic to it. Both of them moved to Rome at the age of about 30, both use lots of classical references in their work, and Twombly specifically referenced Poussin in several paintings, most notably by painting a large group of four paintings called the Four Seasons, a subject Poussin painted 300 years earlier.

And while I don’t think it was exactly revelatory to see them together, it’s always interesting to explore these kind of comparisons, as an intellectual parlour game if nothing else. I guess you could argue that the Poussins brought out a controlled, restrained quality in the Twombly, for example, but it’s rather an elaborate way to make such a straightforward point. I did find myself warming to Poussin more than usual, though. Clearly he’s a great painter, but generally I find his work a bit sterile. But being displayed among modern paintings did at least make the paintings seem a bit fresher.

Meanwhile the Hayward is holding a retrospective of Tracey Emin. I went into it with mixed feelings. She has attracted so much bone-headed mockery from the media over the years that I’ve always felt the need to stick up for her… despite not actually liking her work that much. But seeing it all together it does hold up pretty well. The caricature is that she just splurges her personal life uncontrollably into her work for shock value; and that’s not completely unfair. But of course the execution is what matters, just as a confessional memoir could be good or bad could be good or bad depending on who wrote it. And at her best — some of the appliqué blankets, the video work — Emin’s work is sensitive and intelligent. On the other hand, by the time I had gone all the way round the exhibition, it was also starting to feel a bit repetitive. So she’s still not exactly my favourite artist, but I enjoyed the show well enough.

And at the Royal Academy is an exhibition of C20th Hungarian photography. Why Hungarian photography? Well, because five of the most notable photographers of the C20th — Brassaï, Robert Capa, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi — were all Hungarian. So they provide the core of the exhibition, but other, less famous people are included as well. In some ways the exhibition is about Hungary, with striking photographs recording the various wars political upheavals that engulfed the country, but it also includes many taken in other countries: Brassaï photographs of Paris nightlife, or Kertész shots of New York.

If there is anything distinctively Hungarian about the work, I couldn’t particularly see it. It did feel very European, somehow, and it reminded me again how much my idea of Europe was shaped by the Iron Curtain growing up. Austria ended up on one side of it and was therefore a ‘real’ European country; Hungary was on the wrong side and was part of some shadowy other Europe. And 20 years after the fall of communism, that sense of them not being part of the European mainstream still lingers. I don’t know how much that’s just me showing my age; people just out of university now, who were two three when the Berlin Wall came down, hopefully see the continent rather differently.

Anyway, geopolitics aside, the exhibition is definitely worth going to because it has some very fine photographs in it.

» The Triumph of Pan is by Nicolas Poussin; Hotel International, 1993, © Tracey Emin; Greenwich Village, New York, 30 May 1962 is by André Kertész.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at NHM

I made my annual trip to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum. I thought it was particularly good this year. Here’s a pleasing and particularly original long-exposure photo of a gannet colony by Andrew Parkinson:

You can see all the winners on the NHM website, but obviously it’s better to go and see the pictures blown up nice and big on lightboxes if you have the chance.

Links

Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the NHM

I made my annual trip to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum. Which was, as always, well worth a visit. Obviously I recommend you visit it in person, because little jpegs don’t do the pictures justice, but if you can’t do that, you can see all the pictures online here.

Picking your own favourites is part of the fun of going to any exhibition, I think, but that’s even more true at WPotY, because you can compare your own choices to those of the judges. And my perennial complaint is that they tend to give the overall prize to a portrait shot of a large charismatic mammal: lots of elephants and lions and leopards. Yawn. Don’t get me wrong, those are fabulous beasties, but there’s a whole world of beautiful and curious lifeforms out there.

Well, this year, the winning shot is, once again, a portrait of a large charismatic mammal; but for once I have no complaints at all. Because the winning photograph, of a wolf jumping over a gate, is absolutely jaw-dropping. I have my quibbles with some of the other choices; I would have picked the booby or the whale as the winner of the underwater section ahead of the pike picture, for example. But for the overall winner, I think they were spot on.

» Fantail, a picture of a bearded tit landing on the ice, is the winner in the Creative Visions of Nature category. © Esa Malkonen.

‘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.

Links

  • Cool toy: 'PhotoSketch is an internet-based program that can take the rough, labeled sketch on the left and automagically turn it into the naff montage on the right.'
    (del.icio.us tags: cool geeky photography )
  • 'A spectacular and extremely rare textile, woven from golden-colored silk thread produced by more than one million spiders in Madagascar … measuring 11 feet by 4 feet, took four years to make using a painstaking technique developed more than 100 years ago.

    This unique textile was created drawing on the legacy of a French missionary, Jacob Paul Camboué, who worked with spiders in Madagascar in the 1880s and 1890s…. Previously, the only known spider-silk textile of note was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, and it was subsequently lost.'

    (del.icio.us tags: silk weaving textiles spiders Madagascar )

Hmmm. Decisions decisions.

I finally got a new lens for my camera yesterday — I say finally because for various reasons I won’t bore you with, I’ve been waiting for one for months now — and I’m now not sure about it.

It’s a wider-angle lens (28mm, so equivalent to about 45mm on a film camera) and it’s not as fast as my old lens (f2.8 compared to f1.8). Of course I knew it wasn’t as fast when I bought it, but it was still a bit of a shock: it was really struggling yesterday in the gloomy conditions and I actually started to wonder whether I’d got a bad copy of the lens: I took about 60 test shots and none of them was really sharp.

Well, in today’s glorious sunshine it’s working much better, so I no longer think there’s actually anything wrong with it. But still, having a lens which is dodgy in low light conditions might be all very well in California, but it’s less wonderful in the UK, where the poor light often lasts from about September to April. I was really hoping to use it as a standard lens to just carry around with me, but if it only works when the sun’s out…

So I was considering returning it. On the other hand the only real alternative for a faster lens is the 35mm f2.0, which isn’t really that much wider than my old 50mm; unless I’m going to spend a lot more money. Which I don’t particularly want to do.

‘Rodchenko & Popova’ at Tate Modern

I went to ‘Rodchenko & Popova: Defining Constructivism’ at Tate Modern today. I’ve seen quite a few exhibitions in the past few years that feature Aleksandr Rodchenko*, so I wasn’t really sure how much I would get out of it, but in the event I enjoyed it. Firstly I didn’t know anything about Liubov Popova, and also they had a couple of rooms of paintings, which I certainly hadn’t seen many of before.

I think they were much better designers than painters, mind you — the paintings look like rather generic examples of early geometrical abstracts, to me — but it was still interesting to see them. And the graphic design work they had on display seemed to be a different selection from what I’d seen previously. So that was all good.

The Tate’s exhibition website doesn’t have much stuff on it — I’ve used most of the pictures in this post — but curiously enough, when I was looking for pictures, Google threw up the Tate’s Immunity from Seizure page which, currently as least, is full of (rather tiny) pictures of work from the exhibition. If you’re curious:

Part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 provides immunity from seizure for cultural objects which are loaned from overseas to temporary public exhibitions in approved museums or galleries in the UK where conditions are met when the object enters the UK.

Or you could check out this page of Rodchenko stuff from Howard Schickler Fine Art in New York, or this from MoMA.

Incidentally, I was interested to note that they’ve started using touchscreen iPods for their multimedia guides. Last time I got an multimedia guide at the Tate, it was on a Windows Mobile-fuelled piece of crap of some kind and it annoyed me so much that I complained about it at some length afterwards. I didn’t try the guide today, so I can’t offer a comparison, but it seems like a move in the right direction.

* There was an exhibition of his photography at the Hayward; at one stage the Tate had a room displaying his photomontages for USSR in Construction; he also featured in the V&A’s Modernism exhibition and the British Library’s exhibition of printed material from the European Avant-Garde.

» both pictures from the Tate website; the top one is Liubov Popova’s Painterly Architectonic, 1918, and the bottom is Aleksandr Rodchenko’s design for an advertisement for the Mossel’ prom (Moscow agricultural industry) cafeteria, 1923.

Darwin and wildlife photography at the NHM

I went along to the Natural History Museum to visit a couple of exhibitions: Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Darwin.

The WPotY exhibition is an annual treat; some years are  better than others, but it’s never less than enjoyable. My long-term gripe is that the overall winner is almost always a portrait of a large charismatic mammal (usually one of the African big games species) rather than ever being a picture of a shrimp or a toadstool or something. This year I’m willing to give them a partial credit on that front; they’ve picked a picture of a big cat, but it’s the fabulous, rare and extremely elusive snow leopard, and the picture, a night-time shot with falling snow, is pretty great.

You can see all the pictures online, but they also put the show on in other venues around the UK and around the world, so if South Kensington isn’t convenient you still might be able to see it somewhere near you. The shot above is of a polar bear at sunrise. Cool, innit. And how about this one, of leafcutter ants carrying petals:

The Darwin exhibition, part of the build-up to his 200th birthday next year, takes us through his life and work, and is full of artefacts (notebooks, letters) and specimens he collected. It does a good job of telling us about his life, I think, although as I’ve read two biographies of Darwin, and the Voyage of the Beagle, and The Origin of Species, and a biography of his grandfather, and one of Huxley, most of the material was familiar to me. I did enjoy it — it’s good to see all his scribbly handwriting and there are some great items on show — but none of it was really news to me, so I may not be the key audience.

btw, if you’re going to the museums at South Ken, you could do worse than have lunch at Casa Brindisa. Brindisa are a Spanish food importer with a shop in Borough Market who now have three tapas bars, and the lunch I had in there was just excellent. The website has the menu on it, so I can tell you exactly what I had: the pan fried sea bream with morcilla de Burgos and Bierzo peppers, a herb salad with moscatel vinaigrette and a serving of patatas bravas. It was all really delicious; the fish was crisp and perfectly cooked and went beautifully with earthiness of the morcilla and the slightly spicy peppers; the salad was fresh and herby with just enough slightly sweet dressing, and the potatoes were golden and crunchy without being oily and not drowned in the sauce. They even make an excellent cup of coffee, which is almost harder to find than a good plate of food.

Happy Birthday Clouded Drab

Clouded Drab — my photoblog — is one year old today. And despite occasional fallow periods, I have posted 92 photos in that year, which seems a respectable number.

This puffin is not one of those photos. I don’t quite know why I only posted one of my puffin pictures from Wales, but here’s another one.

I’ve just installed a random redirect plugin, so click on this link for a random photo.

Links

  • 'Even some of our more intelligent commentators have convinced themselves that Sir Steve Redgrave is the greatest living Olympian for winning five successive golds in rowing, not seeming to realise that the sport is so elitist that it is virtually nonexistent across much of the planet.'
    (del.icio.us tags: Olympics )
  • via Daring Fireball: 'We present a framework for automatically enhancing videos of a static scene using a few photographs of the same scene. For example, our system can transfer photographic qualities such as high resolution, high dynamic range and better lighting from the photographs to the video … quickly modify the video by editing only a few still images of the scene … remove unwanted objects and camera shake from the video.' Watch the whole demo video, it's amazing.
    (del.icio.us tags: video photography )

The Muybridge Problem

I was wondering this morning why it is that narrative paintings always seem to fall so flat for a modern viewer (i.e. me). Not just those cheesy C19th paintings with titles like A Soldier Returns; even paintings by artists I find more sympathetic — Rembrandt, Goya, Velazquez — seem very obviously unconvincing when they try to capture a spontaneous moment. It occurred to me that the explanation might simply be what you could call the Muybridge problem.

Famously, Eadweard Muybridge started taking his high-speed photographs in an attempt to answer the question: do horses ever have all four hooves off the ground when they gallop? The answer turned out to be yes: but not quite what everyone expected. Before that, even someone as devoted to the careful study of the horse as Stubbs had painted galloping horses with all four feet off the ground when their legs were outstretched; in fact a galloping horse only has all feet off the ground when they are bent underneath it.

But if you have seen lots of photos of running horses, all those old paintings of horses flying like Superman over Epsom Downs look faintly but irretrievably ludicrous. Photography has permanently changed what we think things look like; and that doesn’t just apply to horses.

» The Stubbs is a detail from Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, a Stable-Lad, and a Jockey; the Muybridge is a detail from The Horse in Motion, both from Wikimedia Commons.

Prokudin-Gorskii photographs

I’ve actually linked to these before, but a post over at i heart photograph reminded me about them and I was browsing through them again. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii was a Russian photographer taking colour pictures in the years before the Great War. He took three black and white negatives of each subject using different coloured filters, then reassembled them using a projector and coloured light.

The Library of Congress have used a digital version of this process to recreate the images and have put them online. The one above is a harvest scene from 1909, but also check out i.e. Woman in Samarkand, dog, Siberian scenery, Georgian woman in national costume. [as Jean points out, those links don’t work: you’ll just have to browse the collection]

I find the particular aesthetic of the lurid coloured borders as appealing as the subjects, though those clearly have historical and ethnographic interest. 

‘Alexander Rodchenko’ & ‘Laughing in a Foreign Language’ at the Hayward

I went to the Hayward today to see an exhibition of the photography of Alexander Rodchenko; the price of the ticket included entry to a show called ‘Laughing in a Foreign Language’, a exhibition which “investigates the whole spectrum of humour, from jokes, gags and slapstick to irony, wit and satire.”

It was a pleasure to go to an exhibition of contemporary art and find that the gallery was filled with the sound of joyful laughter.

No, not really. The humour on display was not generally of the kind that would win the artist a long engagement at the Glasgow Empire. Which is fine; work can be gently humorous or ironic or whatever without being laugh-out-loud funny. But for an exhibition themed around humour, it was a curiously deadening event.

Perhaps something like the Glasgow Empire would be a salutary experience for a lot of contemporary artists: having to cope with failing miserably and visibly in front of a sceptical audience. Perhaps then they would tighten up some of their work so it was a bit more punchy. Can there really be many 30 minute video works that couldn’t be cut down to 20 minutes?

Lili Brik

I preferred the Rodchenko exhibition. Rodchenko was a photographer/graphic designer in the USSR in the 20s and 30s; I didn’t know a great deal about him beyond what was featured in the recent BBC history of photography. As far as I can see his most remarkable work was in publications like [I may have the title slightly wrong] The USSR in Construction which combine his photography with typography, photomontage and graphic design to produce something really incredible.

But that aesthetic rapidly fell out of favour with the government, who liked to micromanage all aspects of culture; Rodchenko was accused of ‘Formalism’ and had to find less radical outlets for his creativity. So he switched to a more straightforward kind of reportage. Perhaps most intriguing now are the most Soviet subjects, like the May Day parades and athletic demonstrations.

One aspect of the Rodchenko exhibition which I found interesting was the prints, which had quite a limited tonal range; I know I’ve seen more vibrant versions of the same pictures before. I guess the difference is down to the technological limitations of the older printing process—generally silver gelatine prints—rather than anything else, but it’s an intriguing curatorial question: do you present someone’s work as they produced it, or how you think they would have produced it given the chance? I suppose in a gallery authenticity trumps other considerations so you just post the originals.

Redwings

There’s a berry-covered tree over the road from the house—some kind of cotoneaster?—and at the moment there’s an almost constant stream of redwings going back and forth from it.

redwing with berry

The redwing is a smallish thrush with a marked white eyebrow stripe and a brick-red underwing. I’m always pleased to see them, not least because they’re one of the few true winter visitors we get here. I mainly see the same species in this bit of South London all year round. The only two species that regularly turn up in winter are redwings and siskins, and even the siskins are breeders in other parts of southern England. The redwings, though, have come from Iceland or Finland or somewhere.

redwing with berry

In fact, quite a lot of the birds in the garden in winter have probably come from the Arctic, it’s just that they’re the same species that breed here, so it’s not obvious. Millions of blackbird, blue tits, starlings and other common species come here for the winter while our summer visitors are soaking up the sun in Africa. It feels pretty cold here to me at the moment, but I guess it’s all relative.

» the photos can be found in my Flickr stream where you can see them bigger if you want. I’m not sure I recommend it, though: my digiscoping set-up was struggling with the miserable winter light and they don’t bear close inspection.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition

I went to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum yesterday, which is always worth a look.

Apart from the fact that there are loads of great photos, there’s the fun of deciding whether the judges have made the right decisions. I’m always a bit disappointed when they choose a portrait of a large charismatic mammal as the overall winner—a yawning hippo or a leopard or something—because much as I like those animals, I think it would be cool to see it won by a photograph of a shrimp or a toadstool or something. This year it’s an elephant (boo!) but it’s an abstracty kind of picture which I guess makes it a less obvious choice. And it is a good photo.

singing Corn Bunting

I paid slightly closer attention to what kit everyone was using this year; I was interested to see that the victory of digital is almost total. The only bastion of film was the ‘In Praise of Plants’ category; I guess if your subjects are stationary, it’s less important to be able to take thousands of shots and discard most of them without having to get them developed.

You can see all the pictures on the NHM website, so if you’re not going to pass through London before April, you might as well check them out. If you are considering going to the show, I’d suggest you don’t look at the website first, because the pictures look so much better seen large on lightboxes than as piddly little jpegs.

» the picture is of a Corn Bunting singing, with its breath forming rings in the dawn air. Which is cool. As you can see, it’s © Gastone Pivatelli.

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