tate modern

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 »

A quick top ten of 2011

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Everyone else is doing one of these Top Ten “best of” things, so why shouldn’t I? In fact the blog feels positively underdressed without one.

So here goes, the best of 2011 as seen in the pages of Taking The Short View:

10. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

A real treat for lovers of classic old silent movies, this new Blu-ray release contains four different versions of the quite brilliant Lon Chaney masterpiece that inspired the current musical production in several ways. (Fans of this period of cinema might also like to take a read of my Hallowe’en review of the original Nosferatu German expressionist film from 1922.)

9. The Shadow Line

In the end, this thriller mini-series couldn’t quite sustain the quality all the way through to the end, but it had some magic moments including a bravura seven-minute opening sequence beginning with an abstract overhead vantage point as two policemen with flash lights investigate a corpse shot dead in a car in the middle of nowhere. Stephen Rea’s character of Gatehouse was compelling and Rafe Spall stole a whole bunch of scenes with his giggling, Joker-eseque menace.

8. Watercolours

In terms of shows that I’ve seen at the Tate this year, this was probably the most successful. A very well put together exhibition which really demonstrated the history of watercolours down the ages, and the wide variety of techniques that have led to a huge diversity of results with the medium.

7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

An excellent re-imagining of the classic espionage story that was soaked in 70s atmosphere and even managed to escape the long shadow cast by the superb BBC adaptation starring Alec Guinness. Gary Oldman was flawless as Smiley, and among an all-star cast it also proved how stand-out Benedict Cumberbatch is these days, as he had one of the most gripping sequences in the entire film.

6. Super 8

If you’re the right age and happened to be growing up in the 70s just as the best Steven Spielberg movies were being released, then this wonderful movie will transport you right back to your childhood. Intelligent writing that puts the emotions and experiences of the young lead characters ahead of flashy monster FX (but equally doesn’t stint on those when the time comes either) this was a throwback to the very highest quality film making.

5. Doctor Who – The Doctor’s Wife

I’ve had my doubts and reservations about this latest series of Doctor Who even as I’ve faithfully reviewed every one of the year’s episodes. But when it came to this Neil Gaiman-scripted episode and also “The Girl Who Waited” I have nothing but praise: wonderful stuff, some of the best work in the series’ long and illustrious history.

4. The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall

I’d dismissed this as a bit of an shallow money-making stunt when I heard about it, but one viewing of the Blu-ray left me in awe of the quality of the production and what they were able to achieve staging this in a less-than-ideal venue for such an ambitious theatrical production. The performances are exceptional, and for any Phantom fan wanting a recording of the stage production this is the best there is.

3. The Shadow Over Innsmouth

A gripping and highly atmospheric audio adaptation of the HP Lovecraft story that was at times genuinely unnerving despite being “just” a one-man reading of the text and not a full-cast adaptation. It even managed to surpass the same production team’s excellent version of “At The Mountains of Madness” from 2010. Don’t overlook the same team’s “Tales of Max Carrados” about the turn of the century blind detective, either.

2. Senna

This brilliantly put-together documentary about the life and career and tragic death of the F1 racing legend had me struggling to maintain my composure when I left the cinema and not burst into tears. An extraordinary achievement in film making.

1. Forbrydelsen/The Killing

Without doubt the highlight of the year, and one that I very nearly talked myself of watching at the very start. Absolutely stellar quality, and a lead character and performance of the very highest quality together with engrossing storylines that grab you by the throat and won’t let go until after the final credits roll. Reviewed in this blog several times, especially episodes 17-18 of series 1 and episodes 9-10 of season 2.

That’s it – just time to thank everyone who has been to visit Taking the Short View in 2011 and wish you all a very Happy New Year indeed for 2012

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.

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.