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Exhibition roundup: Nash, quilts, Moore

Dulwich Picture Gallery currently has an exhibition of the English painter Paul Nash, best known I guess for his work as a war artist in both world wars. I know I first encountered him at school, when we were doing Wilfred Owen or Robert Graves or someone.

This exhibition did include some of that work, but also provided a bit of context for me. It was certainly interesting to see the kind of surrealist/symbolist paintings he did, often of the English landscape, when it wasn’t wartime. But it wasn’t really to my taste; it didn’t trigger that acquisitive urge. All else being equal, I am drawn to paintings which use strong, clear colours and sharply defined forms: Vermeer, El Greco, Matisse. Provençal Van Gogh rather than Flanders Van Gogh. Paul Nash is kind of the opposite: grey-brown tones and splodgy brushwork.

Meanwhile, the V&A has its first exhibition of British quilts, Quilts 1700-2010. I went to see it at an evening event in aid of Fine Cell Work, a charity that teaches prison inmates to do needlework as a rehabilitation exercise. There’s a quilt in the exhibition made by inmates with FCW; it is given context by a quilt made in a Japanese POW camp and one made by inmates on a prison ship who were being transported to Australia in 1841. Not surprisingly, the exhibition is keen to tease out this kind of social history from the quilts, but the other pleasure of it is just the extremely high quality of work on show. I’m fairly familiar with this stuff — my mother is a keen quilter — but they really have put together some great pieces.

The curator of the exhibition has managed to seriously annoy my mother by coming out with stuff like this in the Guardian:

Curator Sue Prichard thinks this enthusiasm is partly due to the global downturn. “I started on this project in 2004. Now there is a huge revival of interest in traditional crafts. There are a lot of women out there who are really keen to learn new skills and step away from their computer and their Blackberry.”

or in the Times:

Ms Pritchard said she hoped that the museum would inspire a revival of the craft through workshops that would teach people traditional techniques.

Because if there’s one traditional craft which didn’t need a revival, it’s quilting. That’s what appeals to me about quilting; it’s a genuinely living tradition, a vernacular art form which is thriving. It doesn’t need to be supported by government grants, it’s not the preserve of a handful of obsessive enthusiasts. Quilt shows are big business; indeed, the V&A’s exhibition is their most successful ever in terms of advance ticket sales. If there’s one criticism I have of the exhibition, it’s that it doesn’t give much sense of the liveliness of that current tradition. That gripe aside, it’s well worth visiting.

And finally Henry Moore at Tate Britain. Henry Moore was perhaps the biggest name in British art in the mid-C20th century, but he’s probably been rather out of fashion for a couple of decades, so it’s quite interesting to see this big show at the Tate.

Rather like the Paul Nash, I can’t say this particularly excited me, though it had its moments. Moore’s sculptures are often quite appealing as objects, with their curves, and the textural qualities of the materials; but it often feels like they are attractive in the same way as a weathered tree stump. Don’t get me wrong, I like a weathered tree stump as much as the next person, but I kind of feel that art could aim a bit higher than that.

The most interesting bits were probably the famous drawings of people sheltering in the Underground during the Blitz. Even though he makes the people look so much like his own sculptures, they have more impact than the sculptures themselves. They seem to hit a sweet spot between sculptural dignity and living humanity. There were some fine pictures of coal miners at work that managed the same trick.

Some of his post-War sculpture had some of the same human vulnerability and oddness, a bit of edge to it; but generally he seems to have reverted to weathered tree stump territory. Perhaps his greatest strength was a knack for producing sculptures that really worked as public art: large scale, impressive, and just about modern enough while unlikely to offend anyone.

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Culture

‘The Kingdom of Ife’ at the British Museum

I went to the BM to see the exhibition of art from the medieval west African kingdom of Ife (now in Nigeria). Ife is most famous for some extraordinarily high quality naturalistic heads cast in brass or copper, although the exhibitions also has various other pieces, including terracotta heads in the same style, jewellery, animal pieces and so on.

These heads are of such high quality that one of the first Europeans to see them felt they couldn’t possibly have been made by Africans: instead he hypothesised that they were evidence for the lost civilisation of Atlantis. Which is, umm, a bit cringeworthy. You know you’ve got a bit of a blind spot when you think that Atlantis is a more likely explanation than a previously unknown African kingdom with a strong metalworking tradition. Its especially embarrassing because while it sounds like something some Elizabethan explorer might have come up with, it was in fact… in 1900. Yikes.

He was at least right that these are genuinely remarkable objects, superbly crafted and of great beauty. In fact if you judge art by how much it looks like the thing it portrays — the Daily Mail school of art criticism — there is something extraordinary about this little flowering of naturalistic sculpture in a continent dominated by various kinds of highly stylised art. Certainly that was the Western press reaction when the bulk of the work was found; references to an African Donatello, to African sculpture standing comparison with the great works of Greece and Italy, and to these sculptures being a great mystery of African art. Because, of course, there is no higher ambition than to produce work which fits tidily into the European tradition, and it is inherently mysterious that Africans should be able to do it.

I’m being a bit glib, but actually the exhibition had me examining my own preconceptions about art (I haven’t reached any conclusions yet). Although these days we are all much quicker to see beauty in ‘primitive’ art, not least because its profound influence on Modernism helped change our expectations of what ‘fine art’ looks like, I think most of us have at least an implicit sense of a hierarchy which sees exquisite representational art as, if not better, then more developed or more sophisticated than the highly stylised carvings which we normally associate with Africa. And so these Ife heads seem to carry a significance beyond their beauty.

But the emergence of naturalism really require any special explanation? I guess it might need a society wealthy enough for some people to work as nearly full-time artists, but beyond that maybe all it needs is a shift in fashion. In fact, perhaps representational art is the kind that needs least explanation, since the logic of ‘making things that look like other things’ is so straightforward.

All such questions aside: it’s a marvellous exhibition and if you’re passing through London in the next three months you you should go and see it.

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Culture

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot and Ron Arad at the Barbican

I went along yesterday to see the new commission by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot in the Curve gallery at the Barbican. You may have seen it on YouTube, where it has been a bit of a hit:

The set-up in the video isn’t exactly the same as the one in the gallery, but it gives you the idea: a flock of zebra finches in a room with electric guitars and up-turned cymbals, who ‘play’ the instruments by hopping around and perching on them. They are free-flying in the gallery, and you can walk on paths between the instruments.

It’s an immediately appealing idea and quite memorable, so it will probably be something of a hit, at least by the standards of contemporary art installations. To be honest, though, I thought it was less striking in reality than it was in neatly-edited little close-ups on YouTube. It was more like being in a slightly odd aviary than in some kind of extraordinary art-place. People did seem to be enjoying it, though. I slightly wonder how much of that was just the pleasure of being in among all these very tame little birds, but perhaps I’m just projecting my own reactions. I did inevitably go into birdy-man mode, noticing that they were piking up nesting material and looking in vain for somewhere to put it, wondering why they were pecking a concrete wall, looking for mating behaviour.

And while zebra finches aren’t exactly imbued with an enormous amount of dignity at the best of times, there was something slightly off-putting about seeing these little birds with their own aims and desires in life being cajoled into being art. I’m not suggesting it was inhumane: they had grass and food and water, and lots of room, so by cagebird standards it seemed like pretty good accommodation.

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Culture

Chris Ofili at Tate Britain

Chris Ofili is a contemporary British artist who is, I suppose, best known for using balls of elephant dung in his paintings. Indeed I’ve been well-disposed towards Ofili for years, ever since The Daily Mail or some other self-consciously philistine rag decided to be terribly outraged when he was nominated for the Turner Prize. It’s always irritating when hard-nosed tabloid journalists pretend to have the delicate sensibilities of Victorian spinsters, but it particularly irritated me because actually elephant dung is really very innocuous stuff: I remember reading about palaeontologists in Africa having ‘snowball’ fights with elephant dung, which gives you an idea of how harmless it is. They eat lots of dry vegetable matter and it passes through them barely digested, emerging almost as tightly-bundled balls of hay.

In retrospect, this quibble about the particular characteristics of elephant dung was rather missing the point. Especially since when you look at the early paintings he clearly was being intentionally provocative; for example, one of the titles is 7 Bitches Tossing their Pussies Before the Divine Dung. And several works with ‘shit’ in the title, like the distinctly creepy little sculpted head, made with elephant dung, dreadlocks and human teeth, called Shithead. And the painting of the Virgin Mary surrounded by snippets cut from pornographic magazines. Indeed, if you’re an artist who wants to shock people the Daily Mail* provides a valuable service; it must be difficult to find anyone easily offended in the world of contemporary art.

Not that the dung is just there to wind people up; it’s also a symbol of Ofili’s African background. Apparently he started using elephant dung after a trip to Zimbabwe, along with a dot-painting style inspired by cave paintings in the Matobo hills. The style developed into elaborate paintings that combine paint with collage, sequins, resin in layer after layer, and the effect is both decorative and very visually engaging: there’s a lot to look at in these paintings. The major theme is, broadly, images of black identity: hip-hop and blaxploitation movies provide a lot of the visual cues. These paintings really are gorgeous as objects, which always helps.

Over time his paintings got less aggressively confrontational and more, um, spiritual, I guess. But he still kept developing that style, with the dots and the elephant dung and so on, in various different ways, until recently he clearly felt he had taken it as far as it could go, because his latest paintings are quite different, much more straightforward, painted with big sweeps of colour. I’m sorry to say I wasn’t really keen on these new works: they didn’t have the same visual impact and they just felt a bit insubstantial to me. But it will be interesting to see where he goes with them, because he’s a talented man.

* And, incidentally, Rudy Giuliani.

» The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars 1998 © Chris Ofili. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery, London

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Culture

‘The Real Van Gogh’ at the Royal Academy

Not that rubbishy fake Van Gogh that other galleries having been fobbing us off with, then.

The exhibition’s full title is ‘The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters’. The inclusion of some of Van Gogh’s letters supposedly provides a bit of biographical-intellectual-psychological context for the paintings. Which is an interesting idea, but calling it ‘The Real Van Gogh’ is still ridiculous.

The show hardly needs a special hook to attract the public’s attention; it is, somewhat surprisingly, the first major Van Gogh exhibition in London for 40 years, and I’m quite sure that it will be packed for the whole run. And rightly so: it has a lot of marvellous paintings in it. Van Gogh is so universally popular that the bloody-minded part of me almost wants to argue that he’s overrated, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Quite apart from anything else there is to say about his work, there is just such a lot of straightforward pleasure to be had from it.

Looking at the late landscapes I found myself thinking of El Greco: the strength of colour, the tension in the distorted forms, the stretching of the possibilities of figurative painting without losing that connection with real objects. By which I mean: he doesn’t seem to have been heading towards abstraction in that way that, in Cezanne’s landscapes, the mountain sometimes seems to be fragmenting into patterns of light and colour. Van Gogh’s landscapes are full of the thingness of things.

So it is a marvellous exhibition which I highly recommend. On the other hand I thought the letters were a bit of a sideshow. Most of them were written to his brother Theo; in the relatively short sections which the curators have translated from Flemish or French, Vincent talks about what he has been doing, how his work is going, and provides little ink sketches of the paintings he has been doing. It’s quite interesting; you do get some sense of his personality, of how articulate and thoughtful he was. And some of what he has to say about the work is somewhat interesting. But even without buying into the Death Of The Author idea that the artist’s life is irrelevant to understanding the work, I do think there is a limit to its value. Artists’ comments about their own work always seem so vague and generic compared to the specificity and particularity of the work itself; which I guess is why they end up as artists rather than writers. And the awkwardness of putting too much text in an exhibition mean that you’re not getting that much of Vincent’s thought anyway.

Perhaps there is a particular value in providing this kind of biographical material for Van Gogh, since he is probably still widely thought of as the mad genius artist. The letters at least give a more rounded sense of a real human being, since he comes across in them as, well, fairly normal. Intelligent, good with languages and incomprehensibly good with paint, but certainly not frothing at the mouth. I guess that point is worth making.

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Culture

The Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre

The Guildhall, for those who don’t know, was basically the town hall for medieval London; it is now the only surviving stone building in the City from before the Great Fire which isn’t a church. And, again for those who don’t know, when I say ‘the City’, I don’t mean ‘the city’; i.e. not the whole metropolis of London, but the City of London, the area within the medieval city walls, which now operated as its own special little fiefdom by the Corporation of the City of London. It’s the kind of place where you can’t throw a plate of tapas without hitting a banker or a lawyer.

The Guildhall Art Gallery is another gallery which I decided to check out because it’s on the Art Fund list and I’d never been there. Unlike the Guildhall, the gallery building is fairly new. The original gallery was extensively remodelled by the Luftwaffe in 1941 and didn’t reopen until 1999. And the building is rather grand — though if the City of London couldn’t grub together a few quid to build an art gallery, it’s hard to imagine who could.

The actual art was a bit underwhelming (or at least not my taste). Especially so at the moment as they are between exhibitions, so one of the large rooms was closed. What was left was a load of portraits of royalty and City grandees (Lord Mayors, heads of livery companies, yawn), some scenes of London, and a selection of Victorian/Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Some of their Pre-Raphs are rather famous, but still: really not my favourite thing.

The amphitheatre was quite interesting, although rather less spectacular than the word might suggest. Ephesus it ain’t. They didn’t even know it was there until 1988, when archeologists found it, and they decided to incorporate it into the building of the new gallery. So you go down to the basement and you can see a section that was the entranceway. Basically it’s a few traces of wall and some wooden drain, but it was interesting to see it.

» The painting is My First Sermon by John Everett Millais. The photo is of a bit of the 2000-year-old wooden drain from the Roman Amphitheatre. OPH 2008__0079_Guidhall.JPG is © king_david_uk and used under a CC by-nd licence.