Exhibition roundup: History is Now, Marlene Dumas, & Cotton to Gold

The South Bank Centre is marking 70 years since the end of WW2 with a collection of events entitled Changing Britain. The Hayward Gallery’s contribution is an exhibition History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain.

Filtering collective history through their individual perspectives, seven British artists of different generations and backgrounds – John Akomfrah, Simon Fujiwara, Roger Hiorns, Hannah Starkey, Richard Wentworth and Jane and Louise Wilson – each curate distinct sections of the exhibition and provide their unique ‘take’ on recent British history.

As you might imagine, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. John Akomfrah has selected a whole range of films from the Arts Council Film Collection, which I pretty much skipped, because who has the patience to watch seventeen different pieces of video art in a row? I hope some people do, but not me. Roger Hiorns has put together a whole exhibition of material related to the BSE crisis, arranged chronologically, and I found it really interesting to go back and revisit that period but I’m not sure I was responding to it as art — whatever that means. The only reason it couldn’t have been an exhibition at the Science Museum is that contemporary art has a willingness to be more boring — or at least dense and text-heavy — than a traditional museum would dare.

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The two I enjoyed most were Hannah Starkey and Richard Wentworth. Hannah Starkey selected 70s, 80s and 90s photography from the Arts Council Collection, which she juxtaposed with commercial photography in a somewhat heavy-handed but still effective way. So glossy ads for fashion and booze were contrasted with grimy, peeling 1980s unemployment offices and so on. I don’t know if that contrast was absolutely necessary — the photographs would have been effective on their own — but it was still good. Richard Wentworth’s was the most crowd-pleasing section. To quote the blurb: ‘Through his eclectic selection of objects, artworks and artefacts Wentworth takes us from post-war austerity to the optimism of the 1950s and into the gloom and paranoia of the Cold War.’ So there was some art by people like Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore, lots of press clippings, lots of old books which were thematically appropriate but also appealing for their mid-century graphic design, various objects like a 1950s TV, and most dramatically a decommissioned anti-aircraft rocket launcher out on the balcony.

Meanwhile at Tate Modern they have Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden. Marlene Dumas is a South African artist who paints rough, blobby paintings, nearly all of people. I enjoyed it much more than I expected because the Tate have done a terrible job of marketing it. Or at least a terrible job of marketing it to me. All the pictures I’d seen made her work look dismal and unattractive, and quite a lot of it is a bit like that: lacking immediate visual appeal (which is not the same as being bad, but doesn’t make me rush to go and see it). Particularly, there are paintings in black ink which are dark and grey and miserable looking. But actually her larger oils are much more likeable, and some of them are even quite colourful. I didn’t come out of the exhibition as her biggest fan, but I certainly liked it more than I thought I would.

And at Two Temple Place is Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were some people in Lancashire making a hell of a lot of money from cotton mills and other industry. And some of them put that money into collecting historical manuscripts, or old coins, or beetles, or Turner watercolours, or Japanese woodcuts… With the result that there are apparently some particularly notable regional museums up there. But for the moment a lot of those coins and beetles and whatnot have been lent to Two Temple Place.

It’s an enjoyable kind of exhibition to visit: the building is attractive, entry is free, and if one cabinet leaves you cold, well, the next one will have something completely different. Last year they had a similar exhibition of items from the various University of Cambridge collections; I think that one was better, with more varied and more remarkable exhibits, but Cotton to Gold is enjoyably eclectic in the same way.

» The painting is Evil is Banal, Marlene Dumas, 1984. Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands. © Marlene Dumas. Photo credit: Peter Cox, Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern

I finally got round to visiting the Sigmar Polke retrospective at Tate Modern — it ends on Sunday — and it was enjoyable. Not so much because I absolutely loved the work; I liked quite a lot of it, but if there was another Polke exhibition next year, I wouldn’t be excited to see it. No, it was a good exhibition to visit because the work was varied, and going through thirteen rooms of work you’re lukewarm about, it helps if at least each room is a bit different.

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So it started off with some Pop Art-esque commentary on consumerism and mass culture; there was work playing with the idea of the artist as Artist/egomaniac (with titles like Polke as Astronaut, and Polke as Drug-Pulverized Polke in a Glass Pipe); and commentary on the idea of Modern Art (“Malevich looks Down on Pollock”); then a 1970s hippy phase when he travelled around India and Afghanistan, took lots of drugs and made collages of pornography and psychedelic paintings with references to magic mushrooms, Alice in Wonderland and Mao; a series of watchtower paintings which used a stencilled design of a hunting watchtower to reference both Nazi prison camps and the Iron Curtain; there were some big paintings using unusual materials like neolithic stone tools and meteorite dust… and so on.

I’m often aware how much my reaction to works of art is dependent on factors which are extrinsic to the work itself: if the exhibition is too small, I might get all the way through it without ever getting into the right mindset. If it’s too big, it doesn’t matter what they put in the last few rooms, because my concentration will be gone — something that happened at the Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain recently. It’s much more difficult to engage with the work if the gallery is too crowded, or there are lots of small works so you are constantly in mini queues to look at them, or if there’s a group of schoolchildren bringing out the terrible acoustics of big unfurnished rooms. Or you can simply be in a bad mood or a good one.

In the case of the Polke, the exhibition was almost too big; but it wasn’t too busy, the works were large and varied, and the schoolchildren were old enough to keep their voices down, so it was a pleasant experience. But there’s something odd about reviewing an art exhibition as though it was a bed and breakfast (a little bit cold in the Turbine Hall, but lovely views of the St Paul’s…).

Anyway.

One other thing I thought was interesting was a curatorial decision. On the website the blurb says:

He worked in off-the-wall materials ranging from meteor dust to gold, bubble wrap, snail juice, potatoes, soot and even uranium, all the while resisting easy categorisation.

It’s the ‘snail juice’ I want to pick out. In the exhibition itself it calls it something like ‘dye made from crushed snails’. But when you read the label next the painting in question, it turns out to be Tyrian Purple. That is, the highly prized dye of classical antiquity that was used by the Romans to colour their ceremonial togas. Which is indeed made from crushed snails; but referring to it that way, without any hint of the cultural context, seems, you know, weird.

» The image is Girlfriends, 1965/66, from the Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart. See lots more of Polke’s work in this review of the exhibition when it was in New York.

Damien Hirst at the Tate

So I went along to see the big Damien Hirst show at Tate Modern.

It rather lacked the element of surprise; whatever Hirst’s other qualities, he is a great self-publicist, so anyone living in the UK with an interest in art is already very familiar with his work. His earliest student pieces were new to me; apart from that I think there was only one work in the whole exhibition which I didn’t immediately recognise.

I didn’t come out of this feeling very enthusiastic. Sometimes you go into a big retrospective, and seeing all the work together makes it more powerful: because you can see the threads running through the work, or the development, or you absorb the artist’s aesthetic and gain a deeper sense of what they’re trying to do which you don’t get from individual paintings.

I think the opposite is the case with Damien Hirst. His work often works well in a mixed exhibition: it has a clear, simple quality to it and a designery aesthetic which helps make it stand out when it needs to compete for your attention. But when you put a whole lot of his pieces together, it starts to seem obvious and corporate and a bit dull.

You can see why Hirst became so commercially successful: his work is instantly recognisable, easily produced in large quantities, and looks modern without being too difficult or threatening. Just as Abstract Expressionism was the perfect art for big corporations in postwar America, when they needed something modern looking to hang in the lobbies of their shiny new glass and steel office buildings, so Hirst was the perfect artist for the time before the crunch. Ideal for people who find themselves with a startling amount of money but who don’t have much confidence in their own taste. Like Prada or Bentley or Patek Phillipe.

And why not, after all. He didn’t create the madness of the art market, he just did a very good job of exploiting it. And he’s used his money to build up his own big collection of contemporary art, which I believe he’s planning to open to the public. So I approve of that.

And despite the grumpy tone of this post, I don’t dislike his work — but seeing a whole load of it one place made me like it less rather than more.

» The picture is Psalm 23: Dominus regit me. Butterflies and household gloss on canvas, 2008.

Miró at Tate Modern

Without knowing a lot about Joan Miró, I’ve always liked his work when I’ve seen it. It’s interesting the way that the work of one artist will speak to you and another won’t… so I’ve aways liked Miró, never liked Chagall.

Or at least I say the work ‘speaks to you’ but that’s not the right metaphor; I don’t think it’s because the paintings are making some sort of intellectual or emotional connection. Or at least I don’t think that’s primarily what it is; it’s more to do with a basic visual aesthetic. I tend to like controlled, precise, carefully composed paintings with strong clear colours: so I like Vermeer, but find it hard to like Rubens. It’s suppose it’s a graphic design sensibility, really.

Articulating it like that does make me feel a bit shallow; taking great painters and sorting them into sheep and goats according to the most superficial and basic elements of their visual style, well, it doesn’t exactly make me a sophisticated judge. But there you go. It’s not the only factor which decides which work I like, but it certainly makes a difference.

So I was predisposed to like this exhibition. Which I did. I thought it was fabulous. Mainly because I liked all paintings, of course; but also because I didn’t know much about Miró, so it was interesting to see the chronological development of work. There was also quite a lot of biographical context, much of it related to Spanish politics — Miró’s Catalan identity, the Spanish civil war, WWII and so on. So that was all quite interesting.

But mainly I just love the paintings. I want to own all of them and have them on my walls.

» Women, Birds, and a Star, 1949. Which is in the Met, although I got the image from RMN.

Gauguin at Tate Modern

So, I went along to the Tate’s big Gauguin show the other day… which to be honest was slightly disappointing. Not least because nothing seemed very surprising; I wouldn’t have said I knew Gauguin’s work very well, and I would have expected to learn more or see something new, but not really.

Obviously I hadn’t seen every piece of work before, although quite a few of them had turned up in previous exhibitions, like ‘From Russia’ or ‘Rebels and Martyrs’, or were from the Tate or the Courtauld anyway. But even those which were new to me generally felt like more of the same. Not just because he developed a fairly distinctive style and stuck to it, but because his hit rate isn’t that great: the best of his paintings are genuinely gorgeous things, but they seem to be heavily outnumbered by ones which are just a bit underwhelming.

And at the risk of sounding like a complete philistine: they are also disappointingly small. I think one reason they are almost work better in reproduction is that you can see a photograph and imagine the original painting as a large, impressive piece, when in reality they are rather small and cramped. I guess I wouldn’t expect him to be painting huge, wall-filling canvases in his hut in Tahiti, but fair or not, that was my reaction.

There is also of course the uneasy politics of the work: Gauguin was a colonial sex tourist who painted the Tahitians in his own version of traditional Polynesian myths, even though they had in fact long since converted to Christianity. One myth is as good as another as far as I’m concerned, but the fact he completely ignored the reality of Tahitian life in favour of preconceived images of the innocent noble savage, even while living with his thirteen-year old ‘wife’ — it’s all a bit icky.

Since this review has been so negative, I guess I should reiterate: I still think the best of his work is pretty great. I just didn’t enjoy the exhibition as much as I thought I might.

‘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.

Futurism at Tate Modern

I went along to the Futurism exhibition at Tate Modern. Having sometimes commented on the excellence of past Tate exhibition websites, I have to say they’ve fallen down on this one — nothing to see at all. And they also didn’t have any exhibition booklets, so I have no aide-mémoire at all.

EDIT: they now have a much improved website up, so they obviously just hadn’t got their act together yet. Who knows, maybe they have some booklets ready as well.

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The Futurists were the early Italian Modernists — most of the paintings were pre-First World War — who were keen to embrace modernity, speed, machines and suchlike. They’re probably most famous not for any of the paintings but for the Futurist Manifesto, written by Futurist poet Marinetti. And whatever its aesthetico-philosophical merits, it’s punchy stuff; this is point 4:

4.We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

Admittedly some of it is a bit less appealing; this would be unpleasant anyway, but it’s even more so in the context of the upcoming war:

9.We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
10.We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.

Which segues neatly into the other thing that the futurists are famous for: Fascism. You can see how all the rhetoric about war and power and modernity might appeal to the same people who liked Fascism; and after the war, Marinetti founded a Futurist political party which ended up being absorbed into Mussolini’s Fascists. But the Tate makes a very reasonable case that it is unfair to tar all the Futurists with the same brush. So much happened between 1909 and the 1930s — the war, the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression, for a start — that you need to be very cautious in drawing any link between provocative aesthetic statements before the war and the politics of 25-30 years later.

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And in fact many of the pre-War Futurists had left the movement by then, apparently. The reality of full-scale modern mechanised warfare left them less enthusiastic about the idea of machinery and war. And indeed some of them, like the Russian Futuro-Cubists, went in the other direction to produce Constructivist posters for collectivist farms.

One thing I rather enjoyed was one of the many manifestos: ‘Vital English Art’. This was published in the Observer in 1914:

VITAL ENGLISH ART.

FUTURIST MANIFESTO.

I am an Italian Futurist poet, and a passionate admirer of England. I wish, however, to cure English Art of that most grave of all maladies—passéism. I have the right to speak plainly and without compromise, and together with my friend Nevinson, an English Futurist painter, to give the signal for battle.

AGAINST :

1.—The worship of tradition and the conservatism of the Academies, the commercial acquiescence of English artists, the effeminacy of their art and their complete absorption towards a purely decorative sense.
2.—The pessimistic, sceptical and narrow views of the English public, who stupidly adore the pretty-pretty, the commonplace, the soft, the sweet, and mediocre, the sickly revivals of medievalism, the Garden Cities with their curfews and artificial battlements, the may-pole Morris dances, Æstheticism, Oscar Wilde, the Pre-Raphaelites, Neo-primitives and Paris.
3.—The perverted snob who ignores or despises all English daring, but welcomes eagerly all foreign originality and daring.

[…]

8.—The old grotesque idea of genius—drunken, filthy, ragged, outcast ; drunkenness the synonym of Art, Chelsea the Montmartre of London ; the Post-Rossettis with long hair under the sombrero, and other passéist filth.
9.—The sentimentality with which you load your pictures—to compensate, perhaps, for your praiseworthy utter lack of sentimentality in life.

[…]

WE WANT:

[all the usual Futurist guff; I can’t be bothered to type any of it out]

F. T. MARINETTI,
Italian Futurist Movement (Milan).
C. R. W. NEVINSON,
Art Rebel Centre (London).

Ah, what fun. You gotta love the ‘Art Rebel Centre’.

As a geeky aside, the multi-media guide (basically an audio guide with a few still photos) was excellent. Last time I got an audio guide at Tate Modern I said this:

The commentary has a kind of coy, knowing, vaguely patronising tone, as though the narrator was trying to seduce a slightly dim 12-year-old…. It was also short of insights that reached beyond the blindingly obvious. If I’m standing in front of a painting, I don’t need the guide to carefully tell me what the painting looks like; I want some kind of extra information that I can’t see for myself.

… instead of the standard audioguides with a big keypad, the Tate has got some little touchscreen devices. Which would be fine in principle, except that the touchscreen is erratically responsive, you have to carry around a stylus, and the user interface is badly designed…. I spent a couple of minutes trying to figure it out and nearly crumbled and went and asked for help. Even when it was working, some design decisions were just bad; for example, when you pressed the ‘Go’ button to start a recording, the screen changed and the play/pause appeared on exactly the same part of the screen, with the result that many times, I accidentally pressed the screen twice and found I had paused the audio by mistake. And just when I was coming to the end of the exhibition, it crashed and I lost the tour altogether.

Well, this time the guide was much better written; it actually added useful context and information I wouldn’t otherwise have. And they’ve sorted out the hardware by getting some iPod Touches. Admittedly since I have an iPhone it wasn’t a fair test of how intuitive it would be to just pick up and use, but it has to be better than the crap they were using before.

Personally I would like it even better if they would let me buy the guide through iTunes and use it on my own phone or iPod, with my own headphones: either as a stand-alone application or just as a set of audio or video files. Why not? That would save them worrying about people nicking their equipment — I had to leave some ID as a deposit — and it would mean I could listen to the introductory blurbs on the train on the way to the exhibition. Or refer to them at home later.

» Carlo Carrà’s The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli is currently in the Tate but normally lives at MoMA. Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is part of the Tate’s own collection.

Rothko at Tate Modern

I went to the Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern today. The show is of his ‘late series’: the centrepiece is the Seagram Murals (i.e. the group of dark Rothkos which have been in the Tate for years, plus some related works that normally live in Japan), but there are also some other groups of works (the ‘Black-Form’, ‘Brown and Grey’ and ‘Black on Gray’ paintings) as well as related odds and ends.

'Red on Maroon Mural', Mark Rothko, Tate

It’s quite suggestive, I think, that the Seagram murals were commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram building in New York, and that they ‘never reached their original destination, after Rothko decided that a private dining room was an unsuitable environment to experience his paintings.’ Because with these big colour-field paintings there is always going to be a delicate path to tread between art and interior design. And indeed you can see why the restaurant might have wanted them: they would have added a touch of modernity and sophistication without actually challenging the air of hushed pomposity which is so important to an expensive restaurant.

But although they could serve as interior design, they are certainly more than that. They are seductive pieces, and they do reward patient contemplation. Partially that’s because they are much more carefully made than the simplest description of them might suggest: a painting may be, in the most reductive terms, a big maroon blob on a red background, but they have more presence than that. Apparently he painted them with many many layers of very thin paint, and they remind me slightly of fine Japanese lacquer; the way a plain red and black rice bowl can be a deeply desirable object because of the texture and way the light falls on it.

And despite what I said in my last post, and despite the funereal colour-schemes, they aren’t gloomy. They are whatever the antithesis of frivolous is — suolovirf — but half an hour spent in their company was restful rather than depressing. They are beautiful things: big, but subtle in their colours and textures.

Or at least the Seagram murals are; some of the others were less exciting, most notably the ‘Black on Gray’ works, all divided into an area of black at the top and pale grey below. Those ones managed to be exactly as boring as the description suggests.

» The painting is ‘Red on Maroon Mural’, from the Tate. I’ve taken it from the exhibition website, which as usual with the Tate, is very good, so do go and take a look.

Cy Twombly at Tate Modern

I went to the Twombly exhibition at Tate Modern today. What a fabulous name, btw: I tried climbing the Eiffel Tower but the height made me go all twombly.

He’s not someone I knew much about beforehand, and I don’t know how excited I would have been if I had known; he does what you might describe as scribbly abstracts. In fact with some of the the early ones, white covered with scrawly pencil marks, you wouldn’t be totally surprised if you were told they were taken from the wall of a particularly chaotic primary school. Or perhaps, given the presence of crudely-drawn genitalia and thick gobs of turd-brown paint smeared on with the fingers, a nineteenth-century lunatic asylum.

The paintings in the exhibition, which covers his whole career, are nearly all large whitish canvases with various kinds of roughly-applied scrawls, smears and squiggles. The colours, the media used, and the arrangement of the marks all vary, but there’s a clear continuity through the work. Despite the brief outbreak of genitalia they are overwhelmingly abstract; only the titles and a few scrawly bits of text give you a hint of what they are ‘about’. The two main themes seem to be classical myth and particular places, mainly I think in Italy where he works.

'Quattro Stagioni: Autunno' by Cy Twombly

When I say I might not have been excited to see the show had I known what the work was like, it’s because I find myself increasingly unsympathetic towards non-representational art. Which is a bit philistinic, I know, and I don’t want to get too Daily Mail about it — I do know there’s a baby somewhere in the bathwater — but I think it’s just a sense that when abstract art doesn’t work it’s really exceptionally dull, and I’m not sure even the most successful stuff can ever reach the heights, or have the richness, of representational work.

Having said all that, I did actually enjoy this exhibition. Twombly has the knack of producing charismatic objects. Even the paintings which appear most messy and haphazard have a kind of presence to them. I was going to say that they are more than the sum of their parts, but perhaps it’s that they don’t seem like the sum of parts at all: they come across as organic wholes. Why that is true strikes me as a deepish mystery. The sheer size of them helps give them authority: the painting above, which is perhaps 8’×5′, is typical. There’s a room of much smaller works, about 18 inches square, and although I quite liked those too, they were that much easier to ignore.

» The painting, Quattro Stagioni: Autunno, is © Cy Twombly; the picture is taken from the exhibition website.

‘Duchamp Man Ray Picabia’ at Tate Modern

The exhibition is subtitled ‘The Moment Art Changed Forever’ and the poster is illustrated with Duchamp’s Fountain, the famous work that just consists of a urinal signed with the name ‘R. Mutt’. In 2004 Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the C20th, presumably for having sharply and clearly established the principle that art is whatever the artist says it is. So I can see why the Tate is emphasising it; but in fact those kind of ready-mades make up a fairly small proportion of the show; which is probably just as well because they are pretty one-dimensional. Sure, it was a gesture worth making, and Duchamp did it well, with a good choice of object and title and so on; but I wouldn’t want to see a whole exhibition of them.

Other stuff in the show includes paintings and sculptures themed around the body, sex, machines and movement, including familiar pieces like Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase and The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) which is in the Tate anyway; there are paintings as well as photographs by Man Ray. Picabia was the artist whose work I knew least about beforehand; lots of the Duchamp and Man Ray has been in previous exhibitions about Dada and Surrealism. Picabia was also probably the least interesting, but some of his paintings were quite fun.

Daughter Born without Mother by Picabia

I can’t say I was wildly excited by the show, but if it’s the kind of thing you like it’s certainly worth checking out. The most covetable objects are mainly Man Ray photographs and Rayographs (made by placing objects on photographic paper and briefly exposing it to light), though there were some small, very abstract late paintings by Picabia, just a few dots of colour in thick paint on a plain coloured background which I would also quite like on my wall.

On thing I would say is: don’t waste your money on the audioguide. The commentary has a kind of coy, knowing, vaguely patronising tone, as though the narrator was trying to seduce a slightly dim 12-year-old; so that was deeply irritating. It was also short of insights that reached beyond the blindingly obvious. If I’m standing in front of a painting, I don’t need the guide to carefully tell me what the painting looks like; I want some kind of extra information that I can’t see for myself. You can actually hear some of the audio tour on the exhibition website (this page, for example) if you’re curious.

On top of the tour itself, the controllers were also a problem; instead of the standard audioguides with a big keypad, the Tate has got some little touchscreen devices. Which would be fine in principle, except that the touchscreen is erratically responsive, you have to carry around a stylus, and the user interface is badly designed. This is a machine which people are expected to just pick up, use for about an hour and hand back; there’s no time for a learning curve. So make the controls large, use standard icons for play/pause etc, and if necessary label the buttons with text. I spent a couple of minutes trying to figure it out and nearly crumbled and went and asked for help. Even when it was working, some design decisions were just bad; for example, when you pressed the ‘Go’ button to start a recording, the screen changed and the play/pause appeared on exactly the same part of the screen, with the result that many times, I accidentally pressed the screen twice and found I had paused the audio by mistake. And just when I was coming to the end of the exhibition, it crashed and I lost the tour altogether.

» The painting is Daughter Born without Mother by Picabia, from the exhibition website.

Visiting the crack

Last week I went to see the crack at Tate Modern, which is the latest big artwork in the Turbine Hall. You can read what the Tate thinks it’s about here. I found it less impressive in reality than I expected. I’d heard about it before I went, and it looked exactly as I expected except I vaguely thought it might be bigger and scarier at the fat end.


Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo – the crack at Tate Modern, London, originally uploaded by chrisjohnbeckett.

I personally didn’t notice it exposing a fracture in modernity itself or encouraging me to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, but then I didn’t read the blurb until after I saw it.

I also went to the Louise Bourgeois exhibition. Which I quite enjoyed although I wasn’t really in the right mood to give it the attention a major retrospective hopefully deserves. Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911 but has lived in New York since 1938. One interest was just to see work produced over such a long period; the earliest works were from the 1940s and the most recent from this year. I thought the objects were quite likeable—they had a very human sort of quality. A lot of contemporary art seems to be either highly finished and glossy or so roughly put together that it looks scruffy and half-arsed. This work avoids either quality. Apart from the traditional sculpture, I thought one example of that was the recent works which are ‘rooms’ assembled together out of found objects: furniture and tapestries and stuff. The objects themselves are battered and tatty, and it’s the kind of work which can often be a bit nothingy, but here I felt they were thoughtfully put together and really felt like coherent artworks. Those works also seemed very French; after 60 years in New York producing work that doesn’t seem so specific to a particular place, it’s interesting to see her returning to the details of her childhood in France.

Anyway. I can’t really claimed to have engaged with it in a very meaningful way, but it was interesting enough. I’ve got a cold and I’m feeling a bit shit, so rather than rambling on any more I think I’ll go and make some hot lemon and honey or something. Can anyone suggest any other favourite homemade cold remedies?

Gilbert and George at Tate Modern

I went yesterday to see the big Gilbert and George retrospective at Tate Modern. The Tate have done their usual thorough job of putting the exhibition online, so that link will give you a fair idea of what the exhibition’s like.

I enjoyed it more than I expected. Not that I expected to hate it, but it wasn’t a show that I was especially excited to see. My usual gripe about contemporary art is that it often seems a bit half-baked; good moments that never seem to be worked through and developed fully. Gilbert and George did at least seem fully-baked. There’s a sense of a lot of stuff in the show – lots of ideas and images and variation. At the crudest level, a lot of work. Not that work ethic is the most sophisticated metric for artistic worth, but it at least predisposes me to be little more sympathetic.

I preferred the works with a more geometrical composition and a more austere colour scheme; there was a period in the eighties when their work became a bit too much like the packaging for a particularly odd range of children’s breakfast cereals (click on any of the images to see an enlarged version):

Generally, the obvious visual parallel with their work is stained glass windows, but actually some of the more geometrical ones remind me of quilts. Whether that’s a good thing or not.. don’t know, really. I’ve always quite liked simple, traditional geometrical quilt designs; when they work, they seem to be doing so much with so little. I don’t know whether that sense of formal restraint really applies to a work like Jesus Said:

In the past few years, they’ve started using computers to do the design work, and I’m not entirely sure that it’s an improvement: they seem overfond of some of the heavier-handed tools in Photoshop. Still, I like some of them.

So overall, I don’t know that I’d like to have many of these pieces actually in my house—and yes, I know that’s another rather simplistic metric for artistic worth, but it’s one way of communicating a gut reaction—but I’m glad I went to the exhibition.

Kandinsky at the Tate

‘Wassily Kandinsky’; what a great name. Tate Modern currently has an exhibition Kandinsky: The Path To Abstraction, which traces Kandinsky’s development from a painter of Fauvist/post-Impressionist type landscapes to a ‘pure’ abstract painter. It’s confined to the early part of his career, but then I wasn’t very familiar with his work beforehand, so I didn’t have much to compare it to.

The early works use sizzling colours and distorted perspective but are still obviously representational. This is Murnau – Kohlgruberstrasse:

That reproduction possibly makes the colours look even more sizzling than they actually are, but it gives you the idea. Then you get increasingly abstracted landscapes like Landscape With Factory Chimney:

Then you get paintings full of symbolism, which are abstracted but still have recognisable objects in them. In this painting, for example, it wasn’t all immediately obvious, but you can pick out, going anti-clockwise from the dog, a cannon, a row of men firing guns, a cloud with a lightning-bolt, two men waving blue sabres behind the smoke from another cannon, and a boat with a yellow sail carrying four figures, one of which is rowing. The painting is just called Improvisation 11; the titles stop being very useful at this point.

The process of increasing abstraction continues, but the paintings still have content. Certain motifs recur – men on horseback, boats, mountains, waves, cannons – even if they wouldn’t necessarily be recognisable to a viewer who was unfamiliar with Kandinsky’s work. Apparently he was keen on the idea that a new better, more spiritual age was approaching, so there’s a lot of Deluge and Apocalypse going on. For example, this is Composition VI, and in the context of Kandinsky’s work, it’s fairly clearly a deluge painting. The real thing is 10 foot across, so this really doesn’t do it justice:

By the end of the exhibition, Kandinsky had started to produce some of the completely abstract, more geometrical work which apparently was typical of the rest of his career. By this stage he is, as far as I can tell, no longer even using representation or meaning as a starting point for the work. This is Circles On Black:

The exhibition was enjoyable for exactly the reason suggested by the name – seeing the process by which he gave up representational painting. If you’ve been brought up with abstract art, it doesn’t seem like an inherently difficult idea, but obviously at the time, artists had to arrive at it through a process. It’s not just Kandinsky, of course; you can see different versions of the same process in Miro and Mondrian and so on. As so often in artistic and literary development, it feels like there’s a process of building up in complexity as the artist develops and explores new ideas and techniques, and then a stripping back down as they pick out what seems most important and create works which are simpler, sparer and more focussed.

I was unsure, looking at Kandinsky’s paintings, whether he always had in mind that the goal was a complete divorce from representation, but that he had to feel his way towards it, or if that was just the direction his work took him. I daresay an art historian might be able to tell me. Either way, it’s worth going to just to see all the colourful paintings. Kandinsky liked his blues cobalt, his pinks fuchsia and his yellows daffodil; no fannying around with indecisive colours like ochre and olive.

Rousseau at the Tate

Back to Rousseau. The painter, not Jean-Jacques. I’m afraid the exhibition, Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris is nearly over, so this won’t be much use to anyone who was trying to decide whether to see it.

Rousseau was a bit of an oddity. He was self-taught and, according to the exhibition blurb, he aspired to joining the academic, classical tradition. Instead, his work was very much admired by a younger generation of artists, like Picasso, whose work Rousseau apparently didn’t like much. Which makes it hard to know what to make of him. If he was literally trying to produce paintings that looked like academic works, then he failed. On the other hand, his similarity to the Modernists is striking – his work has a limited sense of depth, a strong sense of colour and design, and is highly stylised.

But of course, these things are also characteristic of folk art; they seem, in fact, to be typical of self-taught artists generally. This is a self-portrait by Rousseau:

this is an anonymous panel from the American Folk Art Museum:

So was Rousseau absorbed into the canon, rather than relegated to folk art status, just because he happened to be in the right place at the right time? Well, there may be an element of that, but he does have some distinctive things in his favour. His compositions and use of colour are gorgeous, for a start. The most famous thing about him is the choice of subject matter, of course, in the jungle paintings. There was a lot of good contextual stuff in the exhibition, much of which you can see on that website, to show that the jungle paintings weren’t quite as random as you might think. There were World’s Fairs held in Paris in 1878, 1889 and 1900, and sensational portrayals of Africa were in the air in the French equivalents of Rider Haggard. There’s a startlingly dodgy statue in the exhibition (not by Rousseau) of a nubile woman being abducted by a gorilla, for example. For that matter, the Cubist interest in African art is an only slightly more enlightened version of the same thing.

Kowing where he got his ideas from doesn’t make the paintings any less peculiar, of course. In The Hungry Lion Throws itself on the Antelope, it isn’t the central struggle that is most remarkable, it’s all the other animals lurking in the jungle – an eagle, an owly thing, a leopard and a weird gorilla-bear creature, several of them with strips of bloody flesh hanging from their mouths.

Anyway. It’s a big subject and I’m not about to do it justice here. Interesting though. I’d recommend the exhibition if you’re in London in the next 11 days.

Art gallery blurbs

I’m feeling a bit pot/kettle for having been rude to Lynne Truss for whinging about things, because this, for the third post in a row, is going to be a whinge.

This time: those blurbs in art galleries. Specifically the ones that tell you what to think, and how you should be reacting. I don’t mind this kind of thing:

Although the inspiration for Embankment came from the single box she found in her mother’s house, Whiteread selected a number of differently-shaped boxes to construct the installation for the Turbine Hall. She filled them with plaster, peeled away the exteriors and was left with perfect casts, each recording and preserving all the bumps and indentations on the inside. They are ghosts of interior spaces or, if you like, positive impressions of negatives spaces. Yet Whiteread wanted to retain their quality as containers, so she had them refabricated in a translucent polymer which reveals a sense of an interior. And rather than make precious objects of them, she constructed thousands.

[some stuff about the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark which I can’t be bothered to type] Whiteread has spoken of wanting to make the Turbine Hall into a kind of warehouse, and this is an intriguing response to a space which was once industrial but is now a museum. For what is a museum, after all, but a storage depot for art?

There’s a certain amount of editorialising there, but it’s mainly concerned with the thought processes and techniques of the artist, which is quite interesting information which the audience can take or leave. But this, from later in the same leaflet, is the kind of thing that really bugs me:

Dwarfed by these towering structures as we wind our way through them, we become acutely aware of our own physical presence. But there is also a spirit of absence here, a ghostly echo of all the abandoned empty spaces that surrounds us day after day.

Thanks, Mr Tate-Curator, but I can decide for myself how aware I am of my own physical presence.

One particular problem with this kind of blurbing is that it invites the audience to disagree. This is from the leaflet for the Universal Experiences exhibition at the Hayward:

This 28-metre-long light table displays hundreds of colour transparencies of tourist destinations visited and photographed by the artists. The pictures evoke fantasies of escapism and are reminiscent of the illustrations in tourist brochures and travel magazines. Combined in this sculptural travelogue these images allude to the increase in global tourism at the end of the 20th century and re-invest their endlessly photographed subjects with a sense of the extraordinary.

To which my reaction is – no they don’t. Re-invest with a sense of the extraordinary, that is. If anything, they banalify the places shown by lumping together such a large number of generic-looking photos. Now the curators at the Hayward might argue that it’s a good thing that I’m being drawn into engaging with the work. Except that I find myself constantly put into a hostile, confrontational frame of mind; and I don’t believe that irritated and argumentative is the best spirit to get the most out of a work of art.

Perhaps all I’m doing is revealing my own character flaws again.

Rachel Whiteread at Tate Modern

Rachel Whiteread is the latest person to do a big installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Embankment consists of lots of translucent white plastic casts of the internal space of cardboard boxes, piled in a mixture of regular and irregular stacks.

These pictures are taken with my credit card sized digital camera, which is really just a toy. So they’re not great quality.

A longish view to give you an idea of what it’s like:

[pic of Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment']

Some shots to show what it’s like to wander through it. It creates lots of different vistas and such as you walk round.

[pic of Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment']

[pic of Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment']

[pic of Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment']

[pic of Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment']

It’s probably most visually striking looking down on it from the third floor:

[pic of Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment']

[pic of Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment']

I thought on balance it was a bit of a lost opportunity. All these Turbine Hall installations are necessarily big, and they tend to be impressive through sheer bigness. The best manage to do something a bit more. For that matter, the size of this work isn’t as impressive as it might be simply because it’s made up of lots of smaller objects. A big stack of cardboard boxes is less surprising and less dramatic than, for example, one enormous cardboard box the size of a house.

Also, Whiteread has made a career out of revealing the surprising forms created by the negative spaces of mundane objects – tables, bathtubs, bookshelves and so on. But the negative space inside a cardboard box just looks like a cardboard box. If you stack a lot of them on top of each other, so the details stand out less, the distinction is even less clear it just looks like lots of models of boxes. Not very exciting. I can understand why she was reluctant to do something too much like a repeat of House, which would have been the obvious thing to do in such a big space:

[pic of Whiteread's 'House']

but boxes really seem like a boring choice of subject.

Generally speaking, the whole project of commissioning works for that space is an excellent one – it makes a big public event of contemporary art and attracts comment in the papers on a regular basis. The fourth plinth project in Trafalgar Square is very effective for the same reason.

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