82 portraits and 1 still life

82 portraits and 1 still life by David Hockney at The Royal Academy

David Hockney is doing something very important for artists –combining the conceptual understanding of contemporary art today with the innate craftsmanship of applying paint onto a surface.

He is a modern man who doesn’t close his mind to new innovations.  He has that most important ingredient for an artist in any age, an open mind.  When a young man he became known for his photographic collages, large canvases which put together small standard photos but overlapping, adjacent and continuous to the previous image.  What these photo collages did was attempt to give a bigger picture than was possible with a single lens camera.  His paintings of sunny California bucked the trend away from the craft of painting and encapsulated something bigger and more interesting than the play of sun on swimming pool water.

He is still looking for the bigger picture, and, after a long and distinguished career, he comes to this project with a the vast amount of knowledge about the photographic image.  But he comes to it with something else, he personally observes the difference between looking through an image-catching single lens machine and looking directly through his two, independent eyes and he adds to that the skill to put down what the magic inside his head has translated and conveyed to his hands.

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82 portraits and 1 still life, Hockney’s ambitious new hang at The Royal Academy is so much more than just a collection of people painted in front of uniform backings in a maximum of three days in the artist’s studio in Los Angeles.  This collection of paintings is not only a view into the way we see the difference between individual sitters but also “reaffirms the significance of the painted portrait in an age when selfies and photo-portraits have proliferated in social media.”[1]

For me this exhibition is a very poignant and personal archive which when installed in near-chronological order – as it is, permits the viewer an insight into the psychology of the artist himself.  “Hockney was recovering from a very difficult series of events, including a minor stroke, and he did not paint for some time, which was unusual for him.”[2]  When you walk around the gallery space and take time to observe the format and execution of these paintings you can almost see as a tangible thing, Hockney’s emotional state of mind lighten as we follow his confidence and conviction in the format and medium grow.

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As I came away from the gallery and walked along Piccadilly it seemed that my own perceptive abilities had been heightened by an artist who had taught me a lesson in how to really observe people. The tourists, locals and business-people I passed now appeared more interesting; so much that I could almost see them with a blue wall behind them and a green carpet beneath them sitting on a chair and revealed in all their complexities.

This is what I consider a successful visit to a gallery.

[1] 82 portraits and 1 still life, by  Edith Devaney.  Royal Academy catalogue

[2] Ibid

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MONA HATOUM at The Tate

I saw Corps étranger [1994] by Mona Hatoum for the first time in 1995 when it formed part of the Tate’s wonderful Rites of Passage exhibition marking the end of the twentieth century.  I was just beginning my art degree then and I’d never seen anything like it; there wasn’t anything like it.  It made a very deep impression on me, the fibre optic camera moving slowly across the body’s landscape and disappearing down orifice’s and into deep thickets of hair was foreign territory for me.

Now all these years later and twenty years older I have had perforce a few occasions when I became a little more familiar with my own moist and glistening interior and I have become aware of just how complex this installation must have been to execute.

The perfect white encasing cylinder was a departure from the artist’s usual oeuvre and so evocative of one of Le Corbusier’s primary solids. But it also served to create a space that was both inside and part of, yet also separate from the space of the museum.  The neutral, clean surface of this column was cool and sophisticated, with a whiff of Huxley’s Brave New World about it – a giant test tube for creation?

Once inside I watched vertiginously from above the journey moving relentlessly onwards on a forward momentum through familiar and unfamiliar parts towards an unknown goal.  This time my added years and own personal experiences has lent this work added significance and a more personal appreciation of just how magically Mona Hatoum manipulates her audience.

Corps etranger

I had plenty of time, and the patience to wait and allow the works to communicate to me.  Three works especially moved me and highlighted the artist’s prescience. Light Sentence [1992] was visually interesting from the outset – this installation was made up of square wire mesh lockers stacked to create a three-sided enclosure of over human height.  They resembled animal cages, prisons or might have been short hand for modernist architecture?  The incredibly bright, single light hanging in the centre threw shadows of fine, intersecting lines and squares onto the outer walls.

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Standing quietly and watching the shadow play on the walls I slowly became aware that the disturbed ambient air in the room was making the light bulb swing very, very slightly on its wire thus creating the effect of shadows that were moving rhythmically up and down much like that of breathing.  This subtle, uncanny movement, full of suspense and unspoken threat spoke to me of sinister Prison Camps for terrorists.

One of Hatoum’s earliest works, Don’t smile, you’re on camera! [1980] was a performance where she surreptitiously mixed live shots of audience members with images of naked bodies and x-rays, making it appear that the camera could see through layers of clothing.  In 1980 how could she have foreseen cameras in at airport check ins which actually do see through your clothing – all introduced without any complaints about invasion of privacy or decency?

Finally there was a room full with a combination of kitchen utensils and household furniture, connected to each other with electric wire, through which ran a live electric current.  Homebound [2000] crackled and fizzed with the sound of the amplified hum of the fluctuating current which alternately illuminating separate parts of the installation.  At first I didn’t think this complicated set up was very effective.  I sat on the bench conveniently placed in the room; I sat and watched the loop of disparate, mundane objects lighting up and then going off and didn’t get it.  What was the connection?  OK so most of the objects were distressed metal, cooking utensils, whisks, colanders, chairs, tables, stools, buckets.  Then I noticed the empty metal baby’s crib, there was nothing to soften the hard, metal surfaces, no mattress or pillow.  Under the cot was a metal potty, white inside.  Then the lights went on and this potty glowed brightly and seemed to draw attention to the complete abandonment of the place and suddenly into my mind came the pictures of bombed out and abandoned building in Aleppo and I got it.

Homebound

Mona Hatoum’s work does seem to improve with age.  Her work.  Her Art.  Her magical ability to force her audience to experience something and to empathise with what concerned her mind at the time.  Taking the time with this retrospective I became conscious that for Hatoum the viewer is always part of her considerations when contemplating her work.  Seeing all these works together we are moved from vicarious involvment, bound up in hopeless adventure, empowered as a voyeur, entrapped, and with luck just a bit of self-recognition. If you go please give this very well curated exhibition plenty of time and an open mind.

 

MEMORY MOVEMENT MEMORY OBJECTS

by Alice Anderson

The Wellcome Collection

22 July – 18 October 2015

How do we remember the past and commit moments to memory?  This is one of the questions that artist Alice Anderson addresses in her latest exhibition ‘Memory Movement Memory Object’. In this painstaking and slick exhibition our visual sensibilities have been given to a treat.

Anderson has taken ordinary objects from our everyday lives and elevated them to iconic status by wrapping them in copper wire; the process itself becoming an almost religious and physically beautiful ritual.   The catalogue states that “beautiful and uncanny sculptures prompt you to rediscover things you thought you already knew”.


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By using mundane objects, it seems that Anderson has ordered the world, promising – by association – a better, more beautiful existence; a Utopian world where there is no rush, or dirt, or noise, or strife.  However, it is true that if you put enough things together of the same colour and brilliance and present them beautifully, as she has done, then almost anything would seem impressive.  But that is the point, I think.

As you enter the dark, expectant spaces of the Wellcome Collection you are met by a golden Ford Mustang, this iconic car, a pristine and copper-coloured phantom (sans fittings, sans, doors, sans mirrors, sans any defining features at all) seemed to promise exciting things to come.

In the second room (which felt like the ‘main installation’) each black podium disappeared into the similarly black background, making the rose-tinted objects shimmer, even float in a guard-of-honour leading the visitor along and up an ethereal stairway to something mysterious; an implied perfect place perhaps? Whilst in that room I was strongly reminded of a Sacred Inca place of worship, was it all that golden glow or the pyramid-shaped staircase, I cannot be sure?

IMAG0634                 Ladder

The objects were protected, glamorised and hidden, producing, what could be described as, ‘silk purses out of a sow’s ear’.  The clean, sharpness of the presentation and the precise and important lighting added to the overall effect of being in a sacred space, with a litany of minor deities on their pedestals.  But it is a funny kind of religion that doesn’t celebrate the details or the differences.

Nonetheless, I loved this visual treat, the shapes, the setting, the lighting and I think it went some way towards a better appreciation of the commonplace.  Anderson has run with Duchamp’s idea of the ready-made and taken it one step further – no mean feat – by showing that anything is capable of change.  Thus cleverly combining the spiritual with the conceptual.

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My only doubt was with the claims made by the curators that “both the making and display of works interrogate how we create, record and transform the past”, yes I get this, but “how we imagine the future”, is too great a leap of faith for me.

Alice Anderson, whose hair is, coincidentally, the same colour as her copper wire, has produced a stunningly attractive body of work, and it was a joy to walk through it.  Surely that is claim enough for me to recommend this to you, my reader, even though I cannot see my ability to imagine the future to be enhanced in any way.

WHAT IF?

At school I embraced science and rejected religion.  The certainty of science was reassuring.  Science meant facts & knowledge.  It was immutable, incontrovertible and empirical.  Science measured things, tested things, showed how things worked.  That knowledge was power.  Nothing left to chance, nothing a matter of faith. Religion was passed down to us as a fact, true, but we were expected to accept it at face value.  Knowledge imparted through dictum, not experience.  Testing God was not on.

Science nowadays seems bossy and smug; a closed egalitarian system for the initiated in-crowd and it too involves interpretation.  Richard Dawkins, the spokesperson for the hatred for all things religious and love of the life scientific, had seemed so plausible – of course science should help us find the answers together with experimentation, tests, blind-tests and empirical measurements.

On the other hand, Religion did not seem to have much going for it.  Christianity could be held responsible for a lot of bad things, going back through its two thousand year history, the inquisition, nepotism, child abuse, heretical burnings.  But in that same time period it had also been the great religious orders – the Cistercians, the Benedictines, the Dominicans – that offered the opportunity for scientific experiments.  In those days there were simply no other organisations supporting brilliant minds, just the religious orders.  Cut off from society in lonely monastery cells, these religious were radically pushing the frontiers of knowledge forward.  The thirteen century Franciscan scientist, Roger Bacon was an intellectual pioneer of the study of nature through empirical methods.  In his day there was no such thing as a scientist, it was the monks’ faith that led them to explore the conditions for life, as a God-given mystery, to be understood.  The monasteries and convents were the power-house of creativity, education, medicine, hygiene, food, wine and scientific development.

To be religious now could mean thinking and speaking from the heart, nebulous thoughts, more fluid connections and ideas, free from the threat of damnation and hell fire.  Yes, and even humour is back in fashion in the Vatican, this new Pope can laugh.  What a laugh it would be if he were courageous enough to ordain a woman as a Cardinal, in one fell swoop he would steal a march on the Church of England and open up the church to the millions of women who shore up large and tiny parishes, all around the world.

Where are those power-houses now?  Is it Silicon Valley, or its counterparts in Russian, China, Korea?  The great Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft empires, where folk still dress in sandals and have long, flowing locks and beards; could they ever be capable of great art, music or writing?  Or is their vision concentrated, fixedly on their monitors and banks of screens, searching for answers along the virtual connections, circuitry and silicon chips of their sophisticated machines?  Is their future one of co-evolution, of human/machine coupling?

Life, emotions and relationships cannot conform to an algorithm, it is chaotic.  But if chaos theory tells us anything, it is that when Chaos is magnified enough times, it becomes order; maybe we just haven’t the ability to see the whole picture yet.  According to the big bang model, the universe expanded from an extremely dense and hot state.  After the initial expansion, the Universe cooled sufficiently to allow the formation of subatomic particles, and later simple atoms. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity to form stars and galaxies.  The big bang theory does not provide any explanation for the initial conditions of the Universe, rather it describes and explains the general evolution of the Universe going forward from that point.  Why had the conditions that went to make that explosion, existed in the first place?  The potential for the beginning.  Where did that potential come from?

Why are we designed the way we are?  The human genome project illustrates just how marvellous we are, but why are we that way?  To find God maybe we need to be even bigger than the memory of a strand of DNA, after all DNA has not been given to us by scientists, scientists have just revealed DNA to us, it comes from….. who knows where?  Our brains make connections, our blood flow can be observed, using MRI scans, moving around both sides of our hippocampus – our brain waves are a brain wave, but our inventions only expose the beauty of what we always had, but couldn’t see?  Seeing is believing, but the ultimate answers are still a mystery.

The beautiful, brilliant mystery that scientists are beginning to reveal, still does not supply the answer as to why the original pieces, the building blocks that make us who we are, were there in the first place?  Potential us, so dependant on chance encounters and conditions allowing for millions of different outcomes.

There are things that can’t be explained or matched up and ticked off.  Maturity, life experiences, does it endow us with a newfound tolerance for uncertainty?  No answers?  Mystery?  Daring to say there are some things we just don’t understand? Faith?  Have we reached a place where we can accept that open-ended, unsatisfactory realisation?

THE GREAT EUROPEAN DISASTER?

On Sunday 1st March 2015 a programme called ‘The Great European Disaster Movie’ was broadcast on BBC 4 and followed by a ‘Newsnight Debates’ programme with newly floppy-haired Robert Peston. 

Following those programmes, there has been massive wringing of hands, predictably, from UKIP who have complained (unsubstantiated) that the film was EU funded, and schadenfreude from political journalists like Peter Hitchens.  Undoubtedly the future looks bleak for the great European dream that began on March 28th 1957 with high hopes and the signing of the ‘Treaty of Rome’.  It is worth reminding ourselves, I think, of a little bit of European history which is often overlooked.  It is called the ‘Werner Report’ and it illustrates that The British Government was never hood-winked into signing up to a secret idea of Europe that they were unaware of – the only people deceived  were the poor British public.

 In 1970 British Prime Minister Edward Heath’s government applied to join the Common Market, the same year that Pierre Werner’s confidential report began circulating in Brussels. The Council of Ministers had commissioned the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Pierre Werner, to draw up a plan to move the Common Market forward to full economic and monetary union, possibly also including a common defence policy, and Werner’s recommendation was that this should be achieved quickly, “within a decade”. 

 When secret papers released under the 30-year rule, from the time Mr. Edward Heath was the British Prime Minister, the most striking of these documents were those reflecting the Heath Government’s reaction to that report. Apparently, what alarmed the Foreign Office was not the contents of the Werner Report. On the contrary, Mr Heath and his ministers did not throw up their hands in horror and say “good heavens, we had no idea this was what the Common Market is about. We could not possibly accept such a thing”. In fact, when Geoffrey Rippon, the minister in charge of our negotiations, went to see M. Werner on October 27, the minutes of their discussion show that Rippon went out of his way to congratulate him on his report, which he said “well stated our common objectives”.

Privately, Her Majesty’s Government had no objection to the political union Werner was proposing. The only real concern of Mr Heath and his colleagues was that this plan should not be talked about too openly in public, because this might so inflame public opinion that it would be much harder to persuade Parliament and the British people that it was in their interests to join what they were being assured was no more than a ‘common market’, intended to boost trade.

When these documents were released in 2001, these details were confirmed by a retired Foreign Office official Sir Crispin Tickell, who had played an intimate part in Britain’s Common Market negotiations as Geoffrey Rippon’s private secretary and was present at the meeting with Werner. In a BBC interview Tickell frankly admitted that, although worries over Britain’s loss of sovereignty had been “very much present in the mind of the negotiators”, the line had been “the less they came out in the open the better”.

 Here was chapter and verse showing how politicians and civil servants had been party to a quite deliberate attempt to hide from the British people what Britain’s entry into the Common Market was letting them in for.  From the very beginning, the British government’s involvement with the “European project” introduced an element of deliberate deceit into the politics of this country. To anyone who follows such matters in detail, nothing is more striking than the way, again and again, we see supporters of Britain’s participation in this project apparently having to resort to obfuscation and subterfuge, both to disguise what the project is really about and to hide what they themselves are up to. And the fundamental reason for this culture of concealment is that there have always been two quite different perceptions as to the nature of this European project.

 For 40 years British politicians have consistently tried to portray it to their fellow-citizens as little more than an economic arrangement: a kind of free-trading area primarily concerned with creating jobs and prosperity, which incidentally can help preserve the peace. This is the lie, founded on deceit, that is now pedalled by such decent and upright people as Nigel Farage (who by the way has no scruples in taking EU money himself) and Peter Hitchens whose fantasy world of a perfect Britain standing alone, out of Europe – proud and independent, is only a product of his fevered brain. 

 But ultimately this culture of concealment derives from that same basic act of deception, the pretence that the nature of the ‘European project’ is something different from what it is. Is it too much to ask for honesty now in British politics and political journalism?

 What does Britain want from membership of the European Union now? 

Most other EU countries are committed to the union, and are prepared to work for that dream of closer harmony.  If Britain isn’t, then they should leave and go it alone.  But I personally fear for what will happen to the United Kingdom if that is what they decide to do.

A Contempt for Ingratiation.

The conspiracy of Claudius Civilis

Rembrandt’s The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis

When Rembrandt was invited to redeem his reputation by the Burgher Masters of Amsterdam and contribute a painting for the interior of their new Town Hall they expected something restrained, classical and above all respectable.  What they got was deformity, barbarianism, ugliness, a thickly painted depiction of a rabble of rebels, the all too human Claudius Civilis.  An utterly brilliant painting.

He had every incentive to conform and was quite capable of painting what he knew the Burghers wanted but this was not Rembrandt’s style.  If you were to ask “What drives the greatest art?” what we see in this image is “The contempt for Ingratiation”.  Rembrandt had lost everything, his reputation, his wife, his house and his money but he wasn’t prepared to to paint anything inferior or to sell out to people who hadn’t the vision to recognise brilliance when it stared them in the face.

Inspirational I think.

LEST WE FORGET

KÄTHE KOLLWITZ

Self Portrait

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War it seems appropriate to remember a truly amazing female artist, Käthe Kollwitz, who depicted the turbulent events of late 19th and early 20th century Germany through the eyes of a mother.

The subject for her early works The Weaver’s Revolt 1899 and The Peasants’ War 1908 highlights her empathy for the less fortunate, expressed through the graphic means of drawing, etching, lithography and woodcut in which she embraced the victims of poverty, hunger, and war.

Riot

Traumatised during the whole of the First World War she was unable to complete a single work, her silence a token of her pacifism and a reflection of her deep sadness at the loss of her younger son Peter in the conflict.  “Where do all the women who have watched so carefully over the lives of their beloved ones get the heroism to face the canon” she asked?

It was only some time after the war that Kollwitz approached the theme directly with her poster Never Again War! 1924.

Never again War

Käthe Kollwitz who trained at women’s art schools both in Munich and Berlin rose above the repressions of male-dominated artistic and social institutions, elevating the importance of the intimate, personal world in her works and focused on the downtrodden and outcasts of society.

From many wounds

She was dedicated to her art in a time that was intolerant of women and it is a great testament to her talent and her quiet, insistence that she received acclaim during her own lifetime.  Whilst personal and intimate her works had great political resonance, resulting in their removal from the museums by the Nazis and her expulsion from the Prussian Academy.  Kollwitz, nevertheless, never flinched from depicting the suffering of those oppressed by conflict and her defiant denial of ‘beauty’ continued to confront society’s injustices.

That her work is trembling full of emotion is self-evident; that she was an artist of the people is precisely apposite.  She reflected the unequal times in which she lived and her prints offer an eloquent and often searing account of the human condition, and the tragedy of war.

Kollwitz devoted her life’s work to the depiction of the suffering of humanity and, most significantly, the plight of women.  Her mastery over her chosen medium together with the subject matter – what mother could fail to be moved by that – endows her work with extra poignancy and lends exceptional force to her works even today, and a meaning which transcends the terrible events of her times.

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Visiting her small exhibition at The South Bank Centre back in 1995 was one of the few occasions when I was reduced to tears, it was there that I really understood the words of Anatoly Lunarcharsky, the Russian People’s Commissar for Culture in 1927 who said “She aims at an immediate effect, so that at the very first glance, one’s heart is wrung, tears choking the voice”.

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