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Reviews by NdA posted on Blaugustine
2 October 2015
The name itself sounds like a cry of anguish...Ay! Way! Way! He has every reason for anguish but he's not crying, at least not in public. In public he exhibits two perspectives: on one hand, a calm defiance of the monolithic, arthritic, despotic regime hidden behind his country's mask of modern progress. And on the other, a display of meticulously crafted objets d'art, mixing the materials of venerable ancient Chinese artefacts with irreverent attitudes of surrealism and conceptualism - shades of Duchamp, Magritte, Carl Andre and all.
The most valuable and moving piece in the exhibition, for me, is not an art object but a video: an effective and affecting piece of investigative journalism. It was filmed in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and documents the discovery, due to stubborn and painstaking examination of the ruins by Ai Weiwei and others, that the instant collapse of several schools in which hundreds of children died, was due to local authorities' corruption leading to lax building regulations and shoddy construction. Weiwei's response to the scandal was to buy tons of the mangled rebar, the "'useless bones of all those schools that collapsed". In his studio, workers pounded hundreds of the twisted metal bars straight and kept hammering even when he was imprisoned by the government for several months.
After his release Wewei created, with 38 tons of those rusted rods, a respectful and defiant memorial to those lost children, titled Straight, of which he has said:
The tragic reality of today is reflected in the true plight of our spiritual existence. We are spineless and cannot stand straight.
The problem I had when looking at this...installation...yes, that was exactly the problem. It had become an 'Installation' because of where it is shown: in a prestigious art institution. So the whole point of the memorial- its history, its meaning - has become merely a caption for an art object and its viewers are the people who go to art exhibitions. Does this make sense? Not to me. What would make sense would be if Straight was laid out in a public place in Sechuan where the children died, for example, or in front of government buildings in Beijing. But of course the Chinese authorities would never permit this. So the next best locations for exhibiting it would be...Well, you can see what I'm getting at.
I like Ai Wewei, I respect his integrity, his courage, patience and humour, his defiant stoicism in the face of the mental and physical hardships, injustice and repression he (and thousands of his unseen, unsung compatriots) have suffered, are suffering. I just wish he was as bold, unconventional and resourceful in his choice of venues for the display of his protest-works as he is in protesting.
Peering down into the several mini-tableaux which reproduce, half life-size, the actual cell in which Wewei was detained, along with the Chinese guards who watched his every moment, I couldn't help wondering, again, if this was the relevant place to show them. In the art gallery context they were reduced to rather ironic toy-scapes, even when you had read the explanation.
As for Ai Wewei's objets d'art in the exhibition, I must admit to being underwhelmed. The joke in this one is that the object lifting its legs at tradition is made from a traditional Qing Dynasty table. Get it?
Below, I think it's the caption which is the conceptual artwork rather than the cute paint-streaked vases. Those private collectors, did they buy because their vase was a Weiwei or because it was Han Dynasty or Neolithic? And did the price reflect one or the other? And who is taking the mickey of whom?
The bicycle chandelier is rather beautiful, in the way that a twenty layer birthday cake made of sugar cobwebs would be beautiful but even the Chinese bicycle symbolism doesn't save it from being instantly forgotten (by me) once I've seen/eaten it.
Before I end this grumpy review, I want to apologise for it to Ai Wewei even though he surely won't be reading it. I'm truly glad that the Royal Academy is exhibiting his work, he deserves encouragement and support from every quarter, public and private. I sincerely wish him well and I hope that his country's leaders will come to their senses, in his lifetime, and recognize what he, and all the other exceptional individuals they have been tormenting and repressing, could do for China if they would only be given the freedom which is every human's right.
10 May 2015
SONIA DELAUNAY AT TATE MODERN
Well the first thing I wanted to see of course was the 1913 original of Trans-Siberian Prosody and Little Jeanne from France. I must admit to being disappointed that the tall narrow panels were hung on the wall and framed, rather than being folded and viewed in accordion book format as intended. Also disappointing was that on the information panel next to it there wasn't more about Cendrars and the making of this work. However the voluminous and excellently illustrated catalogue does devote about twelve pages to Trans-Sib. It's hard to believe that the photo below could really have been taken in 1913 - Robert and Sonia would then have been only 28 and Blaise Cendrars 26 - the photo is blurred but even so, do any of them look that young? As well as the catalogue, I also bought another irresistible book, Blaise Cendrars: Selected Writings, with a preface by Henry Miller.
In case you're new to this blog, Cendrar's poem has occupied my thoughts, the sweat of my brow and every other available physical and mental resource for the past nearly two years - a creative saga shared, in different ways, with Dick Jones whose splendid translation of Cendrar's poem was the stimulus which inspired me to illustrate it with over 40 relief blocks, and with Nicolas and Frances McDowall who turned the project into a magnificent Old Stile Press publication.
Now that our version - visually very different from the Cendrars/Delaunay original - is published and gradually making its way in the world, there remains the task known as PR (actually HS: Hard Slog). Promotion, public relations, publicity: does anyone actually enjoy doing that stuff? Professional PR people probably do, if the smiles permanently attached to their faces can be trusted. Although I do not in the least enjoy it, I take on this task out of habit because, for most of my life, I've had to rely only on myself to get attention for my work. That's a bald way of putting it but the truth is that what we want - and what we need if it's our livelihood - is attention for our work. Whether we're bloggers, writers, artists, actors, musicians, craftspeople etc - maybe we just want to know that what we wholeheartedly give our time and thought and talents to is seen and heard. If you're hiding because you don't want to be found, that's fine. But if you're hidden and want to be found, then some form of HS/PR becomes unavoidable.
While walking around Sonia Delaunay's quietly invigorating world - she never shouts but calmly and confidently asserts herself - it struck me that she took on that task in an original way, managing to make it part of her creative practice. She was always multi-faceted but extending her work as a painter into fashion design, interior decoration, textiles, etc. and establishing the Simultané logo not only provided financial support but also took care of PR because there was no separation between the private and the public art: you could wear a Delaunay as a dress but it could also serve as walking publicity for Sonia and Robert's other artwork.
It's a wonderful, life-enhancing exhibition and a good way to, temporarily at least, chase the blues inflicted by the Blues' incongruous victory in the election. Enough has been said and written about it so I'll stop right here.
11 November 2014
The little ash-grey brain cells start leaving us the minute we're born and by middle age they've taken early redundancy and when we're OLD they've emigrated in droves to wherever brain cells go when they're not in our skulls. The stubborn handful which remain to await final expulsion are just about capable of turning on the tv or perhaps taking up a hobby that doesn't take up too much room or make a mess.
This, in an exaggerated nutshell, is what scientists, academics and other highly qualified authorities assert is fact. Some of them have also done research which proves that ground-breaking innovation in art, as in other areas of human creativity, happens, when it happens, only in the young. The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.
In my un-authorised opinion youth is a flexible definition, one that can be stretched like elastic if the pull is strong enough. And the strongest pull of all is creativity itself, if persistently exercised, sustained and nurtured. Which is why certain individuals, Rembrandt for example, throw the facts about ageing out of the window.
Old Mastery, such as I was privileged to witness last week in the magnificent National Gallery exhibition of Rembrandt's late work, is proof that brain cells can and will obey the instructions of genius rather than the robotic agenda of nature. He died aged only 63, a mere stripling by modern standards, but the old man who looks out of his uncompromising self-portraits has reached a state of understanding which transcends age and a mastery of his craft which grants him freedom to focus only on what really matters to him - to the genius in him - and to discard the rest.
..In ancient Roman religion, the genius was the individual instance of a general divine nature present in every individual person, place, or thing.
...attendant spirit present from one's birth, innate ability or inclination’, from the Latin root of gignere ‘beget’.
Rembrandt, Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul
Rembrandt, Self-Portrait 1669 (the year he died).
Could it be that the attendant spirit in each of us reaches a state of maturity only when we allow it to become the dominant influence in our lives? Whatever form it takes, whether expressed through art or by any other means, it seems to be a path consciously chosen and pursued with unswerving dedication.
More than Rembrandt's bold, astonishingly modern handling of oil paint and the miraculous fluency of his drawings and etchings it was the compassionate yet unsentimental truth of the portraits which struck me. Technical virtuosity was always evident throughout his career but it is in these late works that you can feel he has jettisoned all desire to please, to compete or to be 'correct'. His eyes are not looking at the audience, fans or critics, but into himself - the sadness, the losses in his life, his own failings and disillusions - but also beyond himself to the unknown and unknowable.
4 November 2014
ANSELM KIEFER AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY
Like or dislike do not apply and Wow, though appropriate, is unacceptably lightweight for such weightiness. Weighty is the word that keeps coming to mind as I try to gather my impressions of this stunning - as in stunned by a sharp blow to the head - exhibition. Literally heavy: sky's-the-limit kilos of lead, plaster, clay, sand, ash, wood, straw, brick-thick slabs of paint and other stuff making the stately walls of the R.A. groan in pain, awe or ecstasy. Weighty as in authoritative, serious, ponderous.
Anselm Kiefer is a heavyweight in a lightweight contemporary art world. His works are like slow-burning coals in that world's flashy fireworks. Do I like his art? Like - a word now and forever degraded by FaceBook and other social media - does not apply. Kiefer's work is anchored, you could say trapped, in gravity, in gravitas. It aims at immortality with iron-willed determination and pre-empts the destructive effects of time by imitating them.
I'm going to risk stereotyping and say that you can't separate Kiefer's work from German history and culture. Wagner and Nietzsche could be the soundtrack to this show but a thoughtful silence is better. German identity - historical, cultural, political, mythological, psychological, personal - is a theme that Kiefer has intensely and consistently explored in unorthodox, often controversial ways and although he's travelled the world and now lives in France it seems to me that, wherever he goes, he carries his German-ness like a heavy back-pack which is both a burden and a useful source. Whether or not his astonishingly productive, energetic and successful career owes something to the Hero-As-Conqueror Teutonic gene, Kiefer demonstrates that you can conquer the world without invading and occupying it (turns these into art-actions). If proof is needed of his artistic dominance take a look at the list of some honours Anselm Kiefer has received:
Grand State Prize for Fine Art, Germany 1983. Wolf Foundation Prize in the Arts, Israel and Goslarer Kaiserring, Germany 1990. Praemium Imperiale, Japan Art Association 1999. Federal Cross of Merit and Austrian Decoration for Science and Art 2005. Peace Prize of the German Book Trade 2008. Adenauer-de-Gaulle Prize (in recognition of his contribution to cultural dialogue between Germany and France) 2009. Chair of Artistic Creation, Collège de France 2010. Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, French Ministry of Culture 2011. Leo Baeck medal for German-Jewish reconciliation, Leo Baeck Institute, New York 2011.
I must apologise for not writing a comprehensive, objective review of the works themselves but, as an artist looking at others' art, my objectivity becomes blurred by personal agenda, personal creative tendencies, needs and preferences. In a gallery or museum my ego usually walks ahead, pushing aside my humbler self. "Is there anything here for me?" it says, hunting for something which might feed the muse, maybe just a clue, a hint. I'm not ashamed of my biased one-eyed doppelganger. I need it, it's a helper. If it pays insufficient attention to a large proportion of extraordinary things on show I have to admit that life, my artist life, is too short to appreciate everything. And anyway, great artists can do without my appreciation.
Among the pieces in this vast exhibition that my egocentric eye focused upon were, of course, Kiefer's books. I'd only seen some in reproduction before so the materials themselves, up close, excited me: watercolour on plaster on cardboard! Pages as tall as I am! Pages I'd need a weight-lifter's help to turn. Allright, I won't make my pages so heavy. But those lead books...I want to stroke the pages, forget about lead poisoning! No, I don't think I'll use lead. Ever. Plaster-coated cardboard, very possibly.
And there were woodcuts pasted onto canvas and painted over, under, between, behind. And a terrific giant concertina-wall woodcut The Rhine (Melancholia) that you walk through as you exit the show.....I will do some giant prints. In sections. Yes, I will.
To make up for my shortcomings as art reporter, here are some relevant links I found after writing this post. If any don't open when you click on them, copy/paste into your browser.
MALEVICH AT TATE MODERN
15 September 2014
I went to the Malevich exhibition this week and came away exhilarated and inspired. Walking along the South Bank afterwards I saw geometric blocks of primary colours moving towards and away from me in an animated re-enactment of Suprematist paintings. That these colours were strolling pedestrians wasn't important yet the presence of life was implied by their movement in space.
Pure abstraction, in art or in life, is not my calling but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate it and Malevich is among those I give homage to. His controversial black square was a bold manifesto for that period, a statement, like Magritte's later this is not a pipe. Malevich seems to say: this is not a window through which you can gaze at an illusory scene. It is just a square made of black pigment. But if your eyes are turned inwards you can also read it as a symbol, like the black stone of Mecca or the alchemists' Nigredo or the philosophers' Néant. Spiritual concepts played a greater role than is apparent in the evolution of non-objective art and Malevich, like Mondrian and Kandinsky, was particularly influenced by ideas elaborated in Theosophy and Anthroposophy. Reproductions of Malevich's paintings do not give any indication of their sensuous, tactile surface - the paint is laid on thickly, with raised edges where one colour meets another - and oddly enough, this loving attention to materiality makes you feel that they are about something more than matter. I'm allergic to 'holy pictures' whether traditional or alternative but early Russian and Greek ikons have a tangible spiritual presence for me. Their power is conveyed by very direct, solid, simple means and their reality is emphasised by strong, pure colours and gold embellishment. Whatever the spiritual or other-worldly may actually be, if it can be depicted at all then I'd say abstraction probably has one foot in the door.
Then there was this ready-made Constructivist landscape outside on the South Bank.
January 31, 2012
DAVID HOCKNEY: does size matter?
Yesterday I went to see this very BIG exhibition at the Royal Academy.
David Hockney is loveable. The politely jostling, smiling crowds lining up to bask in the glow of his latest pictures surely agree. His status as a National Treasure is not in doubt and even though he's lived a large part of his life in Los Angeles, Englishness can never be divorced from Hockney anymore than it can be from cups of tea, Monty Python or the Beatles. However, California did leave large thumb-prints in the Hockney psyche and, in my irrelevant opinion, that is a shame.
Before I launch into my critique, I must affirm that I am among those who love Hockney. I wish he was my friend so that we could have stimulating conversations about painting, buzzing with insight and discovery. I love his mercurial enthusiasms, his analytical and perceptive eye, his humour, impishness and no-bullshit bluntness, his inventiveness, committment, and the loneliness lurking behind the panache. So, with all that loveability plus the National Treasure status to contend with, I feel rather hesitant about airing my view of the current exhibition. There must be many sycophants in Hockney's entourage and I wonder if even his friends dare express anything along the lines of: hey, Emperor, aren't you feeling the cold? Well, here goes. Deep breath.
Too many of the paintings in this show are there because of their BIGNESS, because that was the agreed gimmick, but I can't believe that the curators, and Hockney himself in his heart of hearts, could not see the eye-watering superficiality of, for instance:The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire (oil on 32 canvases joined together). As a cheery restaurant mural or a backdrop for a Disney frolic, okay, it could work. But the appropriate format for it is a greeting card, ordinary greeting card size. What is the point of a super-gigantic painting, whether on a single canvas or a grid of 32 canvases, if everything about it is small and superficial, both in concept and execution?
As for the painting inexplicably chosen for the poster and all the advertising:Winter Timber 2009 - am I the only one who sees limp spaghetti or McDonald fries instead of logs laid out on the road? Is it possible that the famously acute Hockney eye did not notice this unfortunate ressemblance? As a brilliant draughtsman, how could he be satisfied with this banal image, which doesn't even have the saving grace of being a joke? Contrary to the BIGGER PICTURE theme of the exhibition, it is the largest works which are the least interesting, the most contrived, whereas it is in smaller single canvases, sketchbooks, and some marvellous charcoal drawings of trees that the unique Hockney talent is evident.
David Hockney Winter Timber 2009 (oil on 15 canvases)
Van Gogh in Arles was obviously on Hockney's mind much of the time when he was painting en plein air in Yorkshire but Vincent's engagement and struggle with nature is a world away from David's in every respect. I don't mean this negatively: my favourite landscapes in this show are those in which Hockney has translated Van Gogh into Hockney-ish. My least favourites are those in which he lets his California, or rather his Hollywood, take over his Yorkshire. The iPad-ish cleverness, laid-back speediness, ice-cream colours and shadowless light, the cinematic showmanship - all very L.A.
But the Hockney I deeply admire is the terrifically original boy of the 1960s and 70s, before California had seeped into his Bradford psyche. His paintings, drawings and etchings of that period are truly inspirational to me. Now that he's back in England (for a while?) maybe the next stage in his work will be the fusion of those two worlds - perhaps a Smaller Picture, but a deeper one. I'm sure David Hockney still has a lot of creating to do.
By the way, a lot of the reviews and catalogue commentaries mention the fact that he painted most of these landscapes en plein air, actually standing in front of the actual scene, outdoors in all kinds of weather, as though this is something extraordinary that nobody has done since the nineteenth century. Huh? What planet do they live on? Artists - brilliant ones as well as mediocre ones, Sunday painters as well as every day painters - have never stopped working en plein air. So there.
I loved the 9-camera 18-screen films at the end of the exhibition. Eye and mind-expanding.
If you're in London, go see this exhibition, it's absolutely worth a long, slow look. Disregard my comments and make up your own mind. Try to ignore the crowds and plant yourself assertively in front of anyone blocking your view. And it's easier to get tickets in person at the Academy rather than online.
August 13, 2013
The South Bank is in the midst of a Festival of Neighbourhood and all sorts of things have cropped up which weren't there before. Those yellow banners for instance and the fierce animals and humanoid insect-creatures drawn on walls. I don't know who did them or whether they will stay permanently and I'm not not sure what, if anything, they have to do with neighbourliness but they are startling and intriguing.
Inside the Hayward I began by going up to the level where the Museum of Everything is exhibiting a few works by the wonderful Nek Chand who, like Facteur Cheval, Simon Rodia and other so-called 'naive' artist-builders elsewhere, created an extraordinary magical world from recycled materials. You can see some of Chand's Rock Garden on this video and there's an interview with him here with subtitles in English.
I've always been fascinated and inspired by such mavericks: artists outside art movements, DIY scientists with no academic degrees, inventors/engineers/architects without qualifications, thinkers outside the outside of any box, philosophers mocked by their peers for their far-out theories, visionaries, odd-balls - I love them all. And the Alternative Guide to the Universe exhibition is dedicated to them. I only managed to sneak a few photos but have ordered the book and there are good images and plenty of information on the internet about all the people featured in the show. If you're as intrigued as I am by Otherness, please be sure to follow the links:
EMERY BLAGDON (one of his 'healing machines' is shown below).
UPDATE: Don't miss this wonderful video about Emery Blagdon, his life and work.
Below: two works by PAUL LAFFOLEY
What interests me about these and similar outsiders is that whether they are as sane as you and I, a bit bonkers, completely bonkers, hypersensitive, autistic, visionary or any other classification you prefer, they all speak the same 'language' and explore the same kind of themes: cosmological, mathematical, patterned, symbolic, universal, sometimes mystical, none of it within accepted traditions and yet seeming to belong to a common lineage. It's as if a part of their minds is tuned to a wavelength beyond the reach of most, especially very erudite minds. I don't think it's a coincidence that most of these mavericks are self-taught. Maybe their lack of sophistication is one of the factors which allows them to be antennae for whatever arcane messages the universe sends out. Of course any content they pick up and transform into paintings, constructions or words will be interpreted by their individual personalities and culture and thus may look weird, incomprehensible or merely charming to spectators. But I wouldn't dismiss it too easily.
ORHAN PAMUK: SNOW
November 29, 2010
MYSTERIOUS DREAM CONNECTIONS
At about 2 am a couple of days ago I pulled out a book on Egyptian mythology from the shelf where it sits with many other books about ancient Egypt. As you know if you're a regular visitor here, I feel an intimate familarity with ancient Egyptian culture, art and ambiance, even though I have no actual connection to Egypt. It's one of those déja vu things, if you believe in reincarnation, or simply affinity if you don't. Anyway I suddenly wanted to re-read about the Ka.
In art the ka was portrayed in several ways: a person identical to the person whom it was associated with, as a shadowy figure, as a person with two upraised arms on his head.........The ka is a manifestation of vital energy........The ka could also be seen as the conscience or guide of each individual, urging kindness, quietude, honor and compassion......In images and statues of the ka, they are depicted as their owner in an idealized state of youth, vigor and beauty......The ka is the origin and giver of all the Egyptians saw as desirable, especially eternal life.
EventuaIly I went to bed and had this dream: I was watching a panel of critics discussing a book which was either called SNOW or had that word in the title. The people on the panel were very c0mplimentary about it but one of them began arguing vehemently. She was a gnarled old woman with a prominent nose and mouth and dusky skin colour. She was sarcastic about books and films portraying Jewish subjects in banal ways and I thought she meant that SNOW was one of these. But her tone suddenly changed and she began to praise it warmly, saying it wasn't like any of the others.
That's all I remember but the dream was extremely vivid, as if I'd been watching a live debate on television. When I woke up I immediately turned on the computer and googled snow to see if there is a book by that name. There is: it's SNOW by Orhan Panuk. I'd never heard of it (shame on me) so I read a summary of the plot:
Pamuk's hero is a dried-up poet named Kerim Alakusoglu, conveniently abbreviated to Ka: Ka in kar in Kars. (The word for snow in Turkish is Kar). Though most of the early part of the story is told in the third person from Ka's point of view, an omniscient narrator sometimes makes his presence known, posing as a friend of Ka's who is telling the story based on Ka's journals and correspondence. This narrator sometimes provides the reader with information before Ka knows it or foreshadows later events in the story.
As if that wasn't enough synchronicity, I wanted to find out if there was yet another link in the dream to ponder about, so I googled snow together with Jewish . I got Phoebe Snow (real name Phoebe Ann Laub) a jazz/blues singer, best known for her 1975 hit The Poetry Man, a video of which I found here . Pamuk's character in SNOW is a 'poetry man' - Phoebe Snow is Jewish but changed her name (her double, her KA?).
What are all those dream and real connections trying to tell me? What do you make of this sequence of serial synchronicities:
1. Ancient Egyptian KA or double> 2. dream: discussion about book called SNOW> 3. dream: old woman with dusky skin dismisses banal Jewish productions>4. in reality SNOW is book by Orhan Panuk >5. main character is poet called KA> 6. in the book KA has a 'double' called Orhan Panuk >7. Turkish word for snow is Kar >8. singer Phoebe SNOW is Jewish, her real ('double') surname is Traub 9. another doubling: she has become a Buddhist> 10. her skin colour is dusky: people have thought she is black>11. her hit song was The Poetry Man.
I have, of course, ordered Panuk's book SNOW.
December 11, 2010
To round off my last post, I must say something about Snow which I have just finished reading.
I now have no doubt that the mythological KA or double was present in the author's mind when he worked out the structure of this book.
First of all, the fictional narrator 'Orhan' is the double of the real author, Orhan Pamuk. Secondly, Orhan tells the story based on his dead friend Ka's diaries and re-traces Ka's journey, trying to see things as the poet did four years ago. The 'double' theme is taken up again in the close relationship between the two teen-age boys, Necip and Fazil, who read each other's minds. After Necip is shot, Fazil says to Ka: "It's possible that Necip's soul is now living inside my body."
Other instances of doubling, as well as of duplicity, are scattered throughout the story. This is particulary intriguing to me because I was searching for the lesson implied in my dream. I have yet to figure that out but never mind the dream - was I impressed by Snow?
Impressed, yes. It's an impressive achievement. If it was a sculpture, it would be a public monument standing in a town square. A realistic sculpture but with modernist touches, lots of intricately crafted detail and symbols. Was I moved by it? No. Its monumentality, its intention to be an important novel creates a distance like those barriers not letting you get too near valuable works of art in a museum. While I admire Pamuk's grasp of the complex politics and beliefs of his compatriots and the tremendous skill with which he weaves them into a story, he doesn't make me care about individual characters. Apart from being told repeatedly that Ka's love-object, Ipek, is stunningly beautiful, what do I know about her personality? It has less substance than the snowflakes which dominate the setting. I feel the same about the other protagonists (perhaps Necip is the exception). They are all actors on a stage, reading their roles, and once I've left this theatre, I forget them. The other factor which alienates me from this novel is the surfeit of information: too much, too much! Just when my attention is captured by an incident or conversation, I'm immediately pulled away to look at something else, some irrelevant detail. This is infuriating.
Voilà. I'm obviously not going to join the ranks of those who adore Orhan Pamuk's writing but I will, definitely, take my hat off to him.
October 8, 2010
GAUGUIN AT TATE MODERN
I had booked early for this show, hoping to transform my indifference to Gauguin into enthusiasm. I've seen his paintings in museums here and there and of course in reproductions - his art seems made for high-tech printing, looks great in coffee-table books and on posters, cards, scarves, bags and baubles such as those currently adorning the Tate Modern shop. But I don't think I ever saw a comprehensive collection of his work gathered in one place so this was an opportunity to lose my immunity to his universal appeal.
Keeping eyes wide open, I amble respectfully through the galleries, stopping for long reflective pauses. The background story I'm familiar with so I ignore the big wall-captions and never ever opt for portable audio-guide - no matter how informative, I don't want somebody's voice interrupting my own impressions. I need to have silence in my head to allow the work itself to speak to me, unmediated, if it's going to speak at all.
One thing immediately creates a barrier between the painting and the viewer: those frames! Those ornate, overwrought, overweight, overprotective gold frames - why why why do museum curators still think they must burden modern paintings with these antiquated trimmings? Do they think that art won't seem like great art to the public unless it's got ten inches of baroque chocolate box icing around it?
Never mind the frames, what about the work? Am I dazzled, excited, inspired? Well...yes and no. Gauguin's prints, woodcuts and wood-carvings are marvellous - the craftsman-artisan in him is at ease in solid media, materials he can cut and gouge and smoothe and polish. In many of his drawings there is the same sense of inhabiting the medium, neither dominated by or dominating it. Noa-Noa is a masterpiece. But put him in front of a canvas and Gauguin becomes self-conscious: he's got a message, he is an illustrator, a decorator, he makes pretty patterns out of a pretty setting. I go back and forth in the rooms, absorbing different periods of his work, but only four or five paintings escape the shocking conclusion forming in my mind that, underneath the bohemian runaway rogue artist with his hat and cape and exotic teen-age vahine, a conventional, bourgeois banker is trying to get out.
Compare Gauguin to Van Gogh - I'm sorry but I have to make that comparison - and the difference is obvious. Vincent loses himself in the subject he chooses to paint, he is entranced by it, his technique is entirely at the service of it. All that he has learned about colour and form sits before a tree, a field or a person and humbly offers itself, like a lover. I'm yours, he says. Every drawing and painting is for Van Gogh a love affair and the pen or brush caresses the love-object, coaxes it to reveal itself.
For Gauguin painting is not such a visceral, intuitive experience. He's attracted to the picturesque, the exotic, and uses elements of it to construct a mythical scenario. He has an agenda. 'Maker of Myth' is an apt description of the man as well as the artist. I think that when Paul came to Arles, finally giving in to Vincent's lonely and hero-worshipping entreaties, he must have been stunned by the work Vincent had produced. Gauguin was sensitive enough to realise that this work was something unprecedented and perhaps he knew in his heart that it was far beyond anything he himself could have created. Of course this is just conjecture, but my feeling is that his pride couldn't allow him to admit this and the famous Gauguin/Van Gogh fight and ensuing ear-slicing incident was an explosion of these undercurrents - Paul's envy and competitiveness, Vincent's disappointment that Paul had not expressed the appreciation of his work that he had hoped for.
So, am I glad I saw Gauguin at Tate Modern? Absolutely. Do I recommend this show? Definitely. Did I lose my immunity to Gauguin? No, apart from the prints and wo0d-carvings.
July 26, 2010
LUCIEN FREUD AT THE POMPIDOU
I'm about to make sweeping statements but this is my blog and I'm allowed to sweepstate as much as I like. You are encouraged to refute, agree, elaborate, contradict, and I hope you will do one or more of these things because, frankly, comments are few and far between over here lately and I'd like to boost the participatory factor. So, here goes.
There are two types of creatives: receptives and obsessives.
Receptive-creatives have hyper-sensitive antennae which are continually picking up visual, verbal and subliminal information and sensations from the surroundings. Receptive-creatives are easily distracted because of the abundance of stimuli bombarding them. When an object or subject captures their attention, they will give it total concentration but only until the next stimulus becomes impossible to ignore. The variety and intensity of input vibrating their antennae is such that the degree of success (in worldly terms) which their creativity achieves depends on the amount of time they are able and willing to give to any particular message the universe sends. A state of readiness to absorb, combined with uncertainty about whether the material really merits absorption, is the receptive-creative's normal modus vivendi. I, ahem, am among those who fit into this category.
Obsessive-creatives are driven by a compulsion which demands single-minded focus on a chosen path and the avoidance of anything which might disturb, distract or question this choice. They too are receptive but in a one-track way and they arrange their lives so as to feed their compulsion and insist that anyone who comes close should either support it or stay out. Dedicated, opinionated, blinkered, uncompromising, workaholic, eccentric, egocentric, extraordinary, are some of the adjectives frequently used in describing them. I would prefer to be an o-c rather than an r-c but I have never succeeded in remodelling myself. Lucian Freud is among those who are probably born into this category.
I have not been one of the many admirers of Sigmund's grandson's painting (or of his grandad for that matter - don't let me get distracted!) but I didn't want to miss this exhibition because I hoped to be goaded into pursuing a completely contrary path. So I took my lethargic body to the Pompidou - nowadays ressembling a decaying community centre designed by committee - and escalated, via a bird's eye view of the Rue Beaubourg, to the sixth floor galleries where Freud's Atelier paintings were impressively hung.
Pompidou Centre entrance hall.
View from sixth level of the Pompidou Centre.
I did not expect to be impressed. But I was. Not impressed as in awestruck but as in, this is important stuff - must sit down and take it in slowly.
First of all, his colours. They are greys, browns, ochres, meat-red, black and the occasional dusty yellow-green. They are Old Master-ish, museum-ish colours, destined for posterity and weighty gold frames, defiantly academic, you could even say anti-modernist.
Then there's the light. The grey light of London bed-sitters in lonely winters and sweaty summers. The cold light of dawn, post-coitum triste. The sleepless night light of regret, apathy, desperation. The merciless light of hospitals, morgues and bus stations at 4 am.
Then there's the flesh, his subject. Passive flesh offered up to be penetrated by his dominant, hypnotic gaze. Naked but not erotic bodies splayed in apparent abandon on the bed, sofa or floor, seemingly obeying the master's stage-instructions to "be themselves" but, in truth, being only what he requires them to be. He says that what interests him in people is their animal side and that he likes seeing his subjects "as naturally and physically at ease as his dog." However, far from being at ease in their theatrical set-up, Freud's actors are more like tranquilised laboratory animals, their vitality suppressed, coerced by the painter's will into becoming still-life - even the dog must relinquish all doggy energy if he's to play a part in a Freudian tableau. But in the coruscating self-portraits, perhaps the only time the artist allows his model to confront him as an equal, Freud achieves magnificent, courageous insight.
I understand the necessity of establishing rules of engagement when absorbed in the intensely difficult process of looking at and transcribing a human presence. The artist may be inwardly saying to his subject: go away! I mean stay, but don't talk, don't move, don't interact, just be still so I can observe you without being observed. So it makes sense that Freud prefers his models to be asleep or in a kind of trance induced by long hours of posing, but his determined focus on flesh as meat, to the exclusion of any other aspect of identity (as far as he's concerned, the matiére of his portrait of a person is that person) must be the reason I left Lucien Freud's Atelier very impressed, but ultimately disappointed. The old Peggy Lee song ran through my mind..........Is That All There Is?
March 8 , 2010
VAN GOGH AND HIS LETTERS
Yesterday I had to go immediately to see the Real Van Gogh exhibition - the Artist and his Letters and the ordeal of queuing for nearly two hours in the freezing courtyard of the Royal Academy did not dampen the joy, when finally inside , of being once again in the presence of Vincent, my old hero. The first encounter I had with his oeuvre was at a large exhibition in Paris which I saw as a student: it was love at first sight and Vincent became my inspiration, my goal. At that time I bought a paperback of his letters, in French, a book now falling apart from being avidly thumbed so often.
The current R.A. exhibition is marvellously conceived and even if you think you know Vincent's work from ubiquitous reproductions, it's worth braving the crowds to see some of the original paintings, many stunning rarely shown drawings, and to come face-to-face with the passion of this man's life and his hard-won achievement. I can't have been the only visitor to wonder how he, the outsider, would react to this exhibition and to the universal acclaim his work and his letters have received. If you want to read all 902 letters from and to Van Gogh, you don't have to spend the £300-something it costs to buy the magnificent new edition on sale in the shop: you can see them all at leisure by visiting the excellent website of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
December 10, 2009
TURNER PRIZE WINNER
NOT THE TURNER PRIZE
(I've desaturated the above Guardian newspaper colour photo of Richard Wright's Turner Prizewinning gold-leaf mural, thus revealing only its black pattern.)
You've seen Rorschach ink blots haven't you? Some of you will have tried spattering black ink on a sheet of paper by flicking a brush, folding the paper in half, carefully smoothing it down and then opening it to reveal...taraaaa! A map of your unconscious? A Turner prizewinning work?
Here is a little demonstration of how you could create your own Turner prizework in approximately fifteen minutes, or less if you leave out making Photoshopped versions. Adding drops of water and oil to your ink spattering can add more textures. Transferring your masterpiece to a wall, cupboard, curtain or tee-shirt and applying gold leaf to it will take a bit longer but is perfectly feasible.
A FUTURIST-ISH DAY
Yesterday I walked from London Bridge Station and joined the hungry crowds milling around the market in Green Dragon Court overflowing with delectable Jamaican, Turkish, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, German, English delicacies then along Bankside in the warm sunshine, past the Globe Theatre and down to Tate Modern where surprisingly no one at all was queuing for tickets to the Futurism exhibition. Ended up making my own humble Futurist-ish speedy little movie which you can see here and now. The soundtrack is mine, made up from loops in Garage Band.
The Futurists themselves did not impress me, apart from their typography, Balla, and a few others who were more Cubist than Futurist. So much more attractive when reproduced in coffee-table-size art books, the actual Futurist paintings are mostly dull and formulaic, never achieving the grandiose aims of the infamous Futurist Manifesto of 1909. Leaving aside the manifesto's glorification of war and militarism, its vilification of all art, literature, women and pasta, the paintings completely fail to convey the Futurists' declared exhilaration about modern life. What's the big deal about breaking shapes up into kaleidoscopic jigsaws? Hardly breathtaking or revolutionary. Even Severini's huge Dance of the Pan-Pan at the Monico left me indifferent. Yes, it's clever and pretty and looks like an advert. I'm hard to please, sorry.
Food market in Green Dragon Court, London
Gino Severini, Dance of the Pan-Pan at the Monico
Millenium Bridge, London, near the Tate Modern
April 10, 2009
WHOLLY HOLY REFLECTIONS (Donald Pass and religion)
Where do I stand in the religion debate? It's easier to say where I don't stand.
Not in the Church of Atheism led by fundamentalist preacher Dawkins and fellow missionaries. Nor in the Church of Self-Idolatry frequented by insecure over and under achievers. Nor in the patchouli-scented New Age Temple of Anything Goes. Nor with the EveryWordWrittenHereIsTrue scripture-shouting Bible-thumpers. Nor with the spiritual-but-not-religious consumers and purveyors of magical recipes for getting everything you want. Nor with the guitar-strumming popsterising church huggy-muggers. Nor with the unbending Orthodoxydon't-ists. Nor with the mockers and takers of the Name in vain. Nor with the counters of angels on pinheads or eggheads. I could go on. But where do I stand?
If you've seen my God Interviews you've guessed that I'm a believer. But what does this mean, believer? Do I worship a balding cartoon character wearing a white t-shirt stamped "God"? Do I use humour to avoid the whole tricky issue? Maybe. I know that I believe in God and I know that this belief is not wishful thinking. I don't know why I know this. For me, 'Bible' and 'God' are not synonymous. Maybe 'religion' and 'God' are not synonymous either. I don't know whether the God I believe in features in the Bible or the Koran or the Torah or any other sacred book but none of them can either strengthen or weaken my belief. The faith I have seems not to depend on any of those traditions, including the fringe ones, which claim to have the last word on Divinity.
To celebrate this weekend, here is something inspirational. I had never heard of Donald Pass and found him via a Google search for 'resurrection'.
I am impressed by his work and have no doubt he did experience what he relates here and in this video. You can see Blake and El Greco as influences but I think it may be that they shared similar mystical experiences rather than artistic styles. More paintings by Pass are here.
October 23, 2008
BRINGING HOME THE BACON
I went to see the Francis Bacon retrospective at Tate Britain. It is a comprehensive, impressive, almost awesome exhibition. But I can never 100% agree with the general opinion that Bacon is among the greatest painters of our time and right up there in the pantheon of all-time Masters.
Part of me says: yes, he does have that masterish assurance, universality, je ne sais quoi. While another inner voice snorts: yeah, but what about the Disney in him? What about that push-pull-the-flesh tricksy formula that he applies over and over again? Sometimes it really works and the way his brush manipulates oils is magnificently bravado. But at other times, isn't it just like the effects you can achieve in Photoshop? I know he never used a computer but the pictorial language Bacon devised is not unlike a software programme calculated by geeks to imitate what they assume to be the artistic process.
My doubts about Bacon's work can be summed up in Cole Porter's lyrics: " Is it the good turtle soup or merely the mock?" I think he worked really hard to produce the turtle soup but the poseur in him, the interior decorator, was never entirely overcome. The Disney factor is there, if you look long enough: those semi-circles that appear around the eyes in all the faces, the curvy-curly contours of bodies, the cartoonification. Snow White stripped, stretched, inflated, carefully messed up and laid out on an operating table.
The monographs and critiques about Bacon always stress his subject matter - the tragedy, cruelty, carnality of all those screaming, writhing, grappling, copulating, vomiting, shitting figures. Their existential hopelessness. Everybody knows about Bacon's chaotic lifestyle and we've seen photos of his chaotic studio so it all fits the concept of the decadent, tragic artist.
But I'm not convinced by this interpretation. Listening to him and watching his face on video when being interviewed I saw something else: it's not existential angst that inspired him: it's pictures.
He made pictures about pictures and he found a system for avoiding what would have been the banal copying of those photos and paintings which stimulated him - a combination of abstract expressionism's wilfully random paint-gestures and a carefully designed Picasso-esque distortion of the form. Add to that a plain, strong-coloured background and a box-like enclosure and you've brought home a Bacon.
My view is only my view and I wanted to have some fun with it so I took liberties in Photoshop for a while. Here are the results.
Francis baconised by Natalie (using Liquify and other Photoshop effects).
Master Duck and Master Bacon. Look at those curves!
Far fetched? Try to imagine all the stages that would transform Snow White into the creature on the table.
July 19, 2008
WYNDHAM LEWIS PORTRAITS, RECTANGLES, JUXTAPOSITIONS
Interesting exhibition of portraits by the Vorticist Wyndham Lewis at the National Portrait Gallery. My favourites were Edith Sitwell, T.S.Eliot and Portrait of the Artist as the Painter Raphael . Not a nice man, Mr. Lewis, but I appreciate his unsentimentally constructed subjects, like secular icons in which character is presented as architecture and emotion can be trapped in the precise folds of a jacket as well as in the slope of a cheek. He doesn't have a lot of depth but he sure knows how to make a surface meaningful.
I was instantly struck by Wyndham's borrowing from Van Gogh's L'Arlésienne (1888) in the satirical 1921 self-portrait Mr. Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro - the colour-scheme, the jagged edges - it's such an obvious influence yet nowhere, in none of the reviews or monographs, have I seen this juxtaposition. Am I the only person to have noticed it? Ha! Maybe you're seeing it here first.
It's such a relief, sometimes, to move in thoughtful silence amongst paintings, drawings and prints - images within familiar rectangles of canvas or paper or board - instead of being accosted by the whole shebang of multimedia artifacts and arty fictions which dominates our cultural landscape like a gigantic, noisy circus. Paintings that still exude the excitment that must have permeated artists' ateliers at the turn of the century and into the twenties, when truly radical things were being done inside that old traditional rectangular space. Illusory window or flat surface, there's something deeply satisfying about a rectangle of any size. With colour and line alone a painter can project thoughts, re-create the world, interpret reality, change reality, dispense with reality - all within a four-sided boundary.
January 31, 2008
FROM RUSSIA EXHIBITION
I went to the FROM RUSSIA exhibition at the Royal Academy yesterday. There's been enough in the press about the diplomatic row between Russia and the UK which threatened to cancel this blockbuster but, for once, I agree with Brian Sewell's diatribe concerning the politics behind the show and I even (shock horror!) share his view of some of the paintings, in particular La Danse by Matisse:
"...La Danse is now a classic example of knowledge so repeatedly received and reinforced that it cannot be challenged... ...the colour (so much over-praised) mere filling without modelling, thin paint scrubbed into the canvas, the surface dull and dry..." (Brian Sewell, Evening Standard 25/01/08)
When I visit exhibitions of works which have acquired sacred status via endless reproduction and the missionary zeal of art critics, I always wonder how much our responses are influenced by "knowledge so repeatedly received and reinforced" and how much we allow ourselves to think, feel and express outside those boundaries.
To me, the actual La Danse is a big let-down. It's like ordering something which looked great in the catalogue but when you receive it, the fabric, the colour, the style are all wrong. As a poster or a book cover, La Danse is perfect. But stand in front of the real thing and the paint is indeed thin, the surface indeed dull and dry, the shapes and colours filled in like paint-by-numbers. The huge size doesn't help - it just looks like a small sketch enlarged with a projector then traced. I love Matisse passionately but I don't worship everything he does and had I been his pupil (I wish!) I would have told him so. His fabulous Red Room, however, did not disappoint my expectations, the real thing being far superior to the reproductions.
Some of the other paintings which emboldened me to squeeze in front of the crowds and stand my ground for quite a while (being short is occasionally an advantage) were Nathan Altman's Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, Van Gogh's Portrait of Dr.Rey, Chagall's Promenade, Picasso's Dryad, Kandinsky's Composition VII , an early Cezanne Young Girl at Piano , Lyubov Popova's Portrait of a Philosopher, Natalia Goncharova's A Smoking Man and several Cubist-Futurist still lifes. The Gauguins looked dull and pedantic - another instance of the actual not living up to the virtual - and the Monets are like a meal consisting only of desserts: makes me crave either a hearty peasant stew or else total abstinence.
Speaking of total abstinence: Malevich's Black Square . It's like a Rorschach test: you can find out a great deal about the people who are looking at it by the way they are looking at it, more than you can know about the picture itself. In front of it, I am among those who can't decide whether to trust their heads or their senses. My head bows in homage to the saintliness of such a radical rejection of everything we think of as art, and to the courage of making that decision at the time it was made, when it truly was radical. Today the art world is one big Olympic sporting event and everyone competes to be the most radical, ie "new". It wasn't like that when Malevich did it. What about my senses? I can't make them agree with my mind. If that black square was made of silk or metal or marble I could stroke it, if it was dug in black soil I could smell it, if it was a room I could enter it. This is paint on canvas hanging on the wall and yet neither a "painting" or a craft object. I rebel against Malevich's severe dictum that I give up (yes, I take everything personally) the senses' role in art and enter his Suprematist monastery. But I also think he has a point. A point I am unable or unwilling to reach.
(Apologies to Kazimir)
August 12, 2007
Antony Gormley exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. The whole-body casts of Gormley standing on rooftops are wonderful, both in concept and execution.
But I was not impressed with most of the work inside the gallery where concept dominates and, in my admittedly hard-to-please opinion, falls flat. No way would I enter that Blind Light steam room - wet, cold, coughing, blinding disorientation comes under the heading of torture, or very bad weather in my book. But it provides stunning pictures from the outside.
The room of shiny spiky geometrics hanging from the ceiling looked to me like upmarket designer-interior Christmas decorations for a fancy office, regardless of their high-minded description in the exhibition brochure.
November 20, 2007
BOURGEOIS ET MOI
Went to see Louise Bourgeois at the Tate Modern on Saturday. If you expect an objective review of the exhibition, look away now. Privately (unless I have to be teacherly or technical) I look at art in a strictly biased, blinkered, subjective, egocentric way. It either speaks to me personally or it doesn't. If it doesn't, I might pass by silently or I might express a judgement that completely misses the point or is at odds with the most esteemed critical opinions. But I don't mind.
So: Louise. If I had met her, I'm pretty sure we would have become friends. I love her face, her brusque speech, her disdain of niceties, her fragility, her toughness. But I don't love her art. Like Frida Kahlo (whom she obliquely reminds me of) she is a wounded soul and those wounds dominate her landscape, obliging you to share her prison. Entering her cells feels like stepping into the house of a terminally ill, neglected, abandoned person. You feel compassion for the patient and admire the sinister beauty of their claustrophobic ambiance (smelling of camphor, lavender, dust and rage) but you can't wait to get out of there.
Only in the first few rooms of the exhibition, the work done in New York in the early 1940s and 50s, did I feel that Louise was speaking to me in her self-searching engravings and paintings and in the wry, patient, industrious humour of her Personnages.
After that she lost me - the "organic" forms, the marble and latex and plaster and fabric - well, I blame New York and its competitive what-have-you-done-lately pressures. As for that big spider, the exhibition notes say:
Both predator and protector, a sinister threat and an industrious repairer, the spider is an eloquent representation of the mother.
To me it just looks sad, and lonely, and old.
But like I said, don't take my word for it.
March 27, 2004
MESSAGE FROM AUGUSTINE TO MEL GIBSON: Re your sado-maso cartoon film
(This link is to an excellent review by David Denby in The New Yorker)
My "message" is also currently at Open Source Politics SocialEyes.
I had to see it in the interest of research, Mel, and I'm glad to report that my local cinema in London was half empty this afternoon. But I hear that in America the punters are arriving by the coachload and you've raked in a cool 350 million bucks already.
Mel, you are forgiven since you obviously didn't know what you were doing.
Did you imagine that a Kill Bill - sorry, kill Jesus - blood fest was going to inspire people to love one another and forgive their enemies? Did you think it would make Christians more Christian and unbelievers into believers?
Well Mel, if you're interested in credibility, here's what you should do:
Give all the money you will make from this travesty and its merchandise to the poor, the hungry, the weak, the innocent, the oppressed, the persecuted, the tortured and to all those who suffer because of fanaticism, of whatever religious or political persuasion.
And take a lesson in simplicity from Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (1964) also filmed in Matera (the only thing your film got right, Mel) but with a non-professional cast and no special effects.
(btw, Matera was the birthplace of my sorely missed brother-in-law, brilliant writer/critic, the late Gerardo Guerrieri).
Far from being a believer, Pasolini nevertheless put more truth and holiness into his portrait of Christ than your sorry gory expensive high-techmess of hyped up religiosity has done. Get thee to a monastery, Mel. A real one.
( Above: Enrique Irazoqui as Jesus in Pasolini's film)
August 27, 2003
HARVEY PEKAR: American Splendor
Saw a brilliant, ground-breaking film last night: American Splendor (ironic title) at a special screening organized by COMICA Comics Festival. Ashamed to say I'd never heard of Harvey Pekar whose autobiographical story this is. He was there in person to take questions from the audience afterwards, along with his ballsy wife Joyce Brabner, their 15-year old foster daughter Danielle and the actor Paul Giamatti who plays Harvey in the movie. Pekar's cracked, rasping voice narrates the story, which translates to the screen what was originally a comic book - or rather a series of comic books written by Pekar and illustrated by various cartoonists. What held my rapt attention from the first minute to the last was the way the ordinary, uneventful, heartbreakingly un-splendid life of this Everyman subtly becomes extraordinary by its unvarnished truthfulness and the film's brilliantly original technique. Interviews with the real Pekar and his family are blended into the main narrative interpreted by actors who, in turn, sometimes become realistic cartoons, complete with speech bubbles and frames pencilled around the action. All this accompanied by a great bluesy, jazzy sound-track. Difficult to describe the impact of this film. It won't be released here in London until January but I understand it's out in the U.S. right now. Do not fail to see it. And check out the American Splendor series of graphic novels too.
*** HIGHLY RECOMMENDED BY AUGUSTINE