Art

Civilisation (1969) [Blu-ray]

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It’s all very well having a Glorious Summer of Sport on our TV screens, but it can be rather trying for those of us who are not so gripped by the prospect of wall-to-wall World Cup, Wimbledon and Commonwealth Games action. On the other hand, it does give us the chance to spend some quality time with our otherwise sadly neglected DVD collections, as was the case for me this week when I sought out a boxset that I’ve been meaning to watch for ages.

The BBC’s 1969 documentary series Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark is one of those programmes that is still hailed today as a genuine TV landmark. It might not look it to our modern eyes, but its approach of putting the presenter right into the landscapes and buildings that he is talking about was a revolutionary one at the time; and the fact that it was one of the first British documentaries shot in colour was also a radical idea by the then-BBC2 controller who commissioned the series, one David Attenborough. Whatever happened to him?

Over 13 instalments, leading art historian of the day Lord Kenneth Clark takes us on a journey through the civilisations of western Europe starting with the Dark Ages and moving through to the modern era. But despite the title, this is not so much the facts-and-dates history of civilisation as a concept or even a working system with Clark admitting that he doesn’t know how to define ‘civilisation’ in the abstract. Instead, it is the specific story of art down the ages and how it has been influenced by (and in return influenced) the societies in which it was created. Clark’s contention – and the ‘personal view’ of the extended title – is that the only way you can truly understand a civilisation is through its end products, and in particular its art and architecture. Read the rest of this entry »

Munch and Hirst (Tate Modern)

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A slightly embarrassing blast from the past: a review of two Tate Modern exhibitions from the summer of 2012 that for some reason never made its way into the site. It’s presented here in archive format with apologies for the 15 month delay in arriving…

Although I’d heard of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, it was chiefly through his 1893 painting The Scream which last year sold at auction for nearly $120 million. Although that painting was not present in the 2012 Tate Modern exhibition The Modern Eye, I was very much looking forward to finding out more about the artist and his other works.

munch-tateI was, I have to say, hugely underwhelmed. Either the Tate had put together an incredibly dull selection of Munch’s work (unlikely) or else I’m missing a huge part of Munch’s appeal (probable) but the paintings here seemed monotonous and repetitive – and that’s even away from Munch’s well-known habit of recycling old themes and motifs like The Sick Child, The Kiss and Girls on the Jetty. Munch insisted that such repetitiveness was entirely done on artistic grounds, but it’s hard not to be cynical and thing that he’d just churn out another copy of an easily saleable work when he needed to pay the bills. Even The Scream comes in four versions.

Even away from the same subjects, the paintings fail to develop. Other artists change their styles, learn and evolve, go through different phases; but Munch seems to have started fully-formed and never changed. His crude brushwork and sometimes laughably bad depictions (one face is done as a circle with a U-shaped single stroke smile …) would be forgivable if it seemed part of a stylistic choice against a backdrop of work showing a broader range, but here the impression is that this is all that Munch could or ever wanted to achieve. Even his paintings in the wake of a violent quarrel and shooting with another artist come across as flat and banal and dull. Read the rest of this entry »

Whaam! Roy Lichtenstein at Tate Modern (BBC4)

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In previous years I might have popped in to the Tate Modern to see their Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective, but in these more austere times I’ll just have to settle instead for BBC4’s hour long documentary on the 1960s ‘pop art’ artist famous for his large painted reproductions of comic book panels. Read the rest of this entry »

Picasso and Modern British Art (Tate)

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The Tate in London certainly seems to be playing some big name cards in 2012, with the first major Damien Hirst UK exhibition on at the Tate Modern, and a Picasso-centric exhibition on at the Tate Britain.

The latter has an unusual twist on it – at least, unfamiliar to me: rather than an exhibition about or consisting exclusively of Picasso’s work, it uses the Spanish Cubist artist as a spring board into a much wider and more varied selection of art, by examining the time that the painter spent in Britain, the effect his work has had on British artists, and the spread of his works through public and private collections in the UK over the course of the 20th century.

This allows the exhibition to consist of maybe only a quarter of its total exhibits from Picasso itself, while other works range from pre-World War I British artists such as Duncan Grant and Wyndham Lewis, and then Ben Nicholson in the 1920s. More recently Picasso’s influence has been particularly apparent in the work of Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland, and there is also a room of sculptural work by Henry Moore that takes its cues from Picasso’s forms.

The overall result was an interesting, different sort of exhibition from the usual retrospective of a single artist or movement; but also, perhaps inevitably in the circumstances, rather uneven. Some of the rooms are really interesting and opened up a whole new view for me on Picasso, such as the time he spent in Britain working on set and costume designs for ballet productions at the Alhambra.

Overall, though, I’m not totally convinced that the Tate itself fully followed through on the excellent conceptual basis for the exhibition as well as it might: the descriptions on the British artists’ works tended toward lists of where and how they had been influenced by Picasso, and the overall effect of the repetition of these facts was to have the artists come across as thieving magpies stealing all their best ideas from the Spaniard and not nearly so capable of original thought, which was a most unfortunate (and unintended and inaccurate) misimpression.

Other rooms tended to drop into listing the slow spread of Picasso’s works into British collections, both private and public. I found this administrative cataloguing of buying and selling frankly uninvolving and lacking intrinsic interest, although some accompanying comments about the reception of these works at exhibitions of the day and the consequent purchases was rather better and could have been more interesting still had there been a wider perspective to the notes. Was the lack of early interest in Picasso’s work representative of the general European reaction to Picasso’s revolutionary ideas, or a case of Britain’s snooty and parochial attitude proving resistant to new ideas? The latter is hinted at by notes explaining how Wyndham Lewis, who – while himself was daringly innovative for the day and undoubtedly picked up cues from Picasso – found the Spanish painter in danger of dragging art into an air-headed, facile slump.

But perhaps my biggest problem in fully warming to this ambitious Tate exhibition is that I’m not really a big fan of Picasso’s work itself. The legend and reputation of the man is such that there is undoubtedly a frisson of excitement to be actually face to face with any genuine work by the master, but in terms of actually liking the end result I find that there’s only a very slender window of opportunity where I truly like and admire his output.

His earliest Edwardian-era pre-Cubist works of Impressionistic paintings are pretty enough but are undistinguished from the true masters of the style. The collages that he goes on to produce and which are an undoubted crucial stepping stone into Cubism have not aged well and look to my unskilled eye little different from the sort of output you’d get from a second year school art class assigned to paste down lots of bits of paper (the media used is also fading and ageing badly, which doesn’t help.) The best collage of all in the exhibition was actually a much later photographic homage by David Hockney, whose photographic reconstruction of an artist’s studio is both playful and beautifully visually executed at the same time.

Picasso’s later works are also so familiar and much-copied now that the originals themselves end up coming across as the ultimate in pastiche parodies, robbing them of the power that they surely had in their day. Experts will doubtless explain that the rapid simplification of his styles into crude geometric shapes and iconographic representations – many of them conveyed with a thick, hurried black brush outline – is to do with Picasso attempting to move fast in order to capture the energy and spontaneity of the moment, to get the idea on canvas in its rawest state and then move quickly on to capture the next, and the next, and the next. I’m sure there is also a strong argument that Picasso was intentionally making his work as aggressively degenerate, shocking and provocative to the established order of the day as possible in order to make waves and break through with his new vision of art.

But this long after their production, to my more modern but far less trained eyes, the overwhelming impression I get is of a painter who hits on a style that proves popular and then churns out more and more of them, faster and faster, while caring less and less about them. The later works where he does clearly care a great deal – such as his masterwork Guernica, not present in person in this exhibition which instead uses a reduced-size photographic stunt double – are immediately apparent.

I also find it very difficult to like Picasso’s abstractions of the female form, which still have such a powerfully vicious, brutal force that it’s hard for me not to see them as anything other than aggressively misogynistic pieces. By contrast, the work of Henry Moore – while clearly drawing upon Picasso’s painted abstractions of the female form – delivers such a beautiful, flowing, sensuous result in sculpture as to be unmistakably loving and caring about its subject matter, and consequently far more appealing.

That leaves for me his best and most appealing work to be in the very early days of his abstractionist output, where he produced incredibly detailed and intricate works such as 1910’s Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and similar portraits and studies, which are amazingly lush and endlessly fascinating pieces. This exhibition has far too few of these for my personal preference before his work rapidly simplified – perhaps as a response to the appalling horrors of the outbreak of war.

All in all it was a bit of a patchy exhibition for me, and I’d have preferred more information on the art itself rather than surrounding social and art history. But I certainly learned a lot of unexpected information and it broadened my appreciation of a number of contemporary British artists that I hadn’t known well if at all going in. I have to admit, then, that I probably got more out of it than I would have done from the ‘normal’ type of exhibition I’m used to, so full marks to the Tate for continuing to push the bounds of what it does every year, and how it goes about it.

Gerhard Richter: Panorama (Tate Modern)

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I hadn’t intended to go to the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Tate: I’d not heard of him at all before I turned up at the Tate Modern for an entirely different exhibition that was actually being held at the Tate Britain. Whoops. But no matter, because it was a happy accident that led me to check out something completely unfamiliar and unexpected, which in many ways is the best way to approach any artistic exhibition.

And what a weird mix Richter indeed proved to be. I’ve rarely come across an artist with a less defined specific personal style, or such a wide mix of different types of output. The exhibition starts with his 1960s paintings featuring a series of World War 2 aerial scenes based on photographs with a sort of “motion blur” smearing of the the grey palette of paints. There’s a scattering of more commercial illustration work that Richter did around this time for the advertising industry, before we’re quickly into a series of paintings which again are worked from photographs but now seek to make abstract works of macro scenes such as the sky and the sea, or an overhead abstracted view of a bombed-out city centre.

Then there’s some severe all-grey abstract block works akin to the likes of Rothko, before a sudden shift to his “colour chart’ stage where the works are full of colour panels resembling a Dulux paint catalogue, and also evoking the feeling of Bridget Riley’s later experiments relating to the effect of the interplay of colour with the eye of the beholder. There’s more micro/macro experiments, from triptychs of puffy white clouds to black and white brutal close-ups of the texture of canvases and the layering of paints on some of Richter’s own earlier works blown up to huge size and looking like alien landscapes; and some installation pieces involving glass plates.

With most artists, you can see them moving through specific phases and styles; and then, feeling that the particular avenue has been deserted, they move on to the next thing. But there’s no such separation with Richter. In the last decade he’s used more raw photographs but then also produced a full blown abstract set of six paintings named after American avant-garde composer John Cage. At the same time he has also been producing somewhat more traditional portraits of people and figures with a romantic “soft glow” blur effect that harks back to his earliest work but now with a lush colourful palette contrasting the greyness of the wartime scenes, almost achieving a ‘chocolate box’ effect. But then the all-grey WW2 style is returned to again for a set of paintings unflinchingly depicting subjects related to the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group in the 1970s, a hugely controversial subject for a contemporary German artist to cover and which provoked much outrage and discussion at the time.

In many ways it’s like a handy overview of the predominant styles and artists of the second half of the twentieth century; but I struggled to get a sense of what was uniquely Richter in all of this. It’s as though he has been restlessly seeking ways of depicting subjects in a way that says what he wants and needs them to, but in each case he finds the approach wanting and so moves on to another, round and round his portfolio of styles eternally searching but never quite appearing happy or satisfied that any one of the approaches really does the job as completely or as in-depth as he is seeking. It’s as if the abstracts are appropriately complex and deep but too open to misinterpretation to accurately convey his intent; but the more traditional works are too obvious and superficial to satisfy him, even though they are more successfully accessible to the audience.

I’ll be honest and admit that this was the first exhibition I’ve seen at the Tate where not a single work has appealed to me personally, from the point of view of being something that I would be happy to have hanging on my wall. That’s not to say that I actively disliked what I was seeing, just that there was nothing that I connected with. The feeling that I got of the artist’s questing dissatisfaction left me feeling similarly distanced from the works as well.

However, I will add that I admired his Baader-Meinhof work in terms of its desire to stir up people from political apathy. It’s a reminder of the sort of provocation that has always been important for art to achieve through the ages, but which is all too easily forgotten centuries later when the original controversies are forgotten and all that modern audiences see is an inoffensive pretty picture on the wall. Richter’s work here reminds us that art should be difficult and dangerous at times and dare to prick civilised sensibilities and spark anger where necessary.

The Vorticists – Tate Britain

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The Vorticists were the subject of an exhibition just concluded at Tate Britain.

I’d not heard of this short-lived modernist movement in British art that lasted all of two years around the start of the Fist World War until I happened across the Tate exhibition; coincidentally it was also mentioned at the start of a BBC4 programme on British art of the 20th Century.

It was basically driven by one man, Percy Wyndham Lewis, who managed by sheer force of (rather unpleasant) personality to briefly congeal enough painters, sculptors, writers and poets around him to bring Vorticism into being before mutual antipathies and the pressure of wartime caused it to almost immediately implode. Their biggest achievement was the BLAST manifesto, a scattershot and near-incoherent literary magazine edited by Wyndham Lewis beginning with a provocative list of things to be ‘blessed’ or ‘blasted.’

Vorticism never really seemed to have any real sense of what it was, only what it wasn’t: it was set up in opposition to prevailing European trends in futurism, cubism, the avant-garde and the abstract but can never come up with a clear definition of itself and consists mainly of what Wyndham Lewis said it did. In painting it mostly consists of a style of angled and lined abstractions, while in sculpture it includes one of Jacob Epstein’s most famous works, “The Rock Drill”, which remains impressively modern and dramatic to this day.

Perhaps the best painting in the exhibition is “The Mud Bath” by David Bomberg, even though Bomberg himself had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the Vorticist group. It maintains a power and relevancy to this day, unlike Wyndham Lewis’ closest counterpart “The Crowd” which looks crude, dated and dull by comparison.

Wyndham Lewis’ only rival in terms of the volume of contribution to the group’s output was sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and with Gaudier-Brzeska’s death in the war (the death notice appearing poignantly below his final contribution to the BLAST magazine’s second and final edition in 1915) the movement effectively died as well.

I can’t say I’m sorry. Vorticism seems to me to be a classic result of hubris and massive self-aggrandising ego on the part of Wyndham Lewis and little coherence or value – which is not to say that individual works are not of value. I was particularly drawn to paintings by Christopher Nevinson, one of which (“Returning to the Trenches”) was showing the exhibition and another (the more famous “La Mitrailleuse”) is on show in in one of the open galleries.

Otherwise, the Vorticists exhibition is a fascinating insight into the pre-war artistic scene, but artistically something of a massive bust: it’s not a movement I felt was any great loss to the world when it was swept away by real world events and subsequently replaced by much better, more coherent and productive artistic movements.

Watercolours (Tate Britain)

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Currently running at Tate Britain is an exhibition on this history of the watercolour in art, and since my dad has been very much into painting with watercolours in recent years I felt an interest in going to see what the Tate made of the medium.

I confess, I’m not a huge fan of the sort of twee watercolours you see of local landmarks pedalled to tourists everywhere you go; they’re pleasant but generally somewhat insipid unless done really well by someone with real talent. I also admit that I went to the exhibition expecting to see lots of such efforts, both good and bad; but the Tate’s strapline for this show is “challenge your preconceptions of what watercolour is” – and it really delivered on that.

I was also dubious about the show for another reason: I tend to like exhibitions where you follow an author’s life and his (or her) development as an artist, and see his talent and ideas grow through the decades. You don’t get that with this exhibition, which spans some 800 years and features dozens of different artists’ work. There’s a real risk that such a show just becomes a parade of ‘nice’ paintings without any overall linking theme or story to bring them together.

It’s a big compliment, then, when I say how impressed I was at how the Tate’s curators have taken all these varied works by various artists and fashioned a coherent and interesting story from them. Instead of being able to follow a single artist’s progression and growth, the show allows us to follow the medium’s progression and growth to the point where the medium is not only the message but a vital and vivid character in what you’re seeing. From its early days as a way of adding informational colouring to academic depictions of flora and faunas, through to its development as a more sophisticated painting style, its “mid life crisis of confidence” where it tried to mimic oil paintings, to its rediscovery as a more self-assured medium able to explore its own strengths, it’s a fascinating and eye-opening tale. Particularly striking was how watercolours often looked more bold and modern than their classic by convention-bound stuffy oil counterparts of the same age.

I was also amazed at the sheer variety of paintings on display. Yes, there were a few of what I would call the ‘expected’ watercolour style – a few Turners in there as well – but it was the paintings that managed to be vivid and bold and yet make the most of the water-based medium, often with augmentation from pen, ink, charcoal and/or gouache that really changed my mind about what a watercolour could and should be; the displays charting the tools and methods of watercolour painting were also fascinating and revelatory.

A quick list of my personal favourites would be the towering Source of Scaur by Andy Goldsworthy; the fascinating modern spin on landscape painting Valley and River, Northumberland by Edward Burra; the astonishingly bold abstract Untitled 1990 by Anish Kapoor which adds dirt as a texture into the vibrant red hues on a blackwashed canvas; and the utterly divine The Blue Night, Venice by Arthur Melville.

Any exhibition that challenges and overturns my preconceptions, and makes me look not just at specific paintings but a whole style and medium with new eyes is a big success in my book.

Tate Modern – Photographic Typologies

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If it hadn’t been for the recommendation of a friend via Twitter, I would have been completely unaware of this exhibition of photographs on the fifth floor of the Tate Modern – the museum doesn’t seem too interested in promoting this display and I couldn’t even find it on the building’s floor signs.

It’s an interesting idea in which photographs that themselves are not intended to be ‘artistic’ per se are given greater value and indeed beauty by being part of a wider set with common characteristics. There is a large set of black and white high quality vintage portrait photos of various German citizens taken over decades, from rural brides to Grand Dukes; shots of Palestinians, many posing with their guns in a pose chillingly similar to the famous photo of Lee Harvey Oswald; shots of buildings all digitally altered to remove doors and windows; and most interestingly of all, shots of random living rooms in homes across Malaysia using only the available natural light. The artist knocked on doors at random and asked if they could come in and take a picture; amazingly most people said yes. Wouldn’t happen in London, you suspect.

Quite apart from delivering a delicious kick of voyeurism, the living room photos show ‘typologies’ at their best and most interesting. Individually they are just shots of empty rooms; but the repetition allows us to see both what is common (sofas, religious icons; depressingly, big screen TVs more often than not) and what is individualistic (the grand piano, or the massive record collection.) The same is true of the German portrait photos – the pictures are usually posed and lit the same way, and yet each person retains their own character. The attempt to impose a uniformity on the subjects ultimately only succeeds in showing how each person, and each picture, is indelibly unique and different in a myriad number of ways.

One artist, Thomas Ruff, has two works on display that he intends should prove his thesis that photography can only ever depict the surface of its subject and never any underlying ‘truth’, contrary to the sort of pretentious guff artists have spouted over the centuries. His photographs of two blank-faced friends have all the personality of passport photos, albeit blow up to six feet high. And yet as you look at the photos, the observer can’t help but start to fill the information vacuum with thoughts and guesses about the personalities of the subjects anyway, whether accurate or wild inventions driven by their own internal preconceptions. In other words, all this artist has demonstrated is a universal truth that artists have known for centuries: that a piece of art can only ever display the result of a complex function comprised of what the subject chooses to reveal, with what the artist chooses to depict, ultimately filtered by the viewer’s own perception. Reality is rarely as ‘real’, as fixed, or as knowable as we like to think, but is instead as varied and as disparate as the number of subjects, artists and onlookers as there are in the world.

Tate Modern – Gabriel Orozco

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Thanks to a wonderful Christmas gift of a Tate membership, I’m able to visit exhibitions that would not normally be ‘my sort of thing’ that I would choose to spend money on, and it’s a wonderful liberation to be able to go to a show that one might really hate and not feel bad tempered about it if you do. Hence I went to see the work of Mexican modern installation and photographic artist Gabriel Orozco.

Modernist installation art is something that frankly I tend to find rather pretentious and vacuous, and there are certainly moments that came close in this exhibition. However I found Orozco’s overriding theme of using found objects from the environment around him to be interesting and powerful enough to win me over more times than not with the quality of the idea and the inspiration behind them, although I had problems with the execution of them at times. Apparently he often arrives at a museum where he’s been asked to exhibit his work with no actual art accompanying him, preferring instead to make it there and then form the environment and materials he finds there, to produce a truly localised installation.

Going into the exhibition in any more detail requires more space than is available in this “short view” format, so I’ll hand you over back to my main Let Me Think About That … blog article on Orozco for the lengthy version.