Picasso 1932

 

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I can’t be the first to think that Picasso is too profuse, that he painted too much. One way of coping with an overpowering surfeit of work is to limit your focus in an almost arbitrary way, and to concentrate on everything produced in a certain year, for instance.  Picasso is one of the few if not the only artist with whom such a bizarre tactic makes sense. We are helped a lot by the fact that in the early 30s he is dating his paintings by the day. So the works in the Tate exhibition were usually labeled with a day’s date, and only after that, a title.

Luckily the curators were not strict about the boundaries: a few works from 1931 crept in, and a couple from 1933-34. There’s no great consistency or sublimity about 1932. It was the year of his first big exhibition: that might have stirred him to produce more, but there’s still a pleasing arbitrariness in the choice.

Picasso is notoriously restless, but repeats subjects he likes, repetitions that are always variations not copies. Some of the most enjoyable moments came in following transmogrifications of simple themes, like the 26 small pages of Sketchbook no. 17 in  ultra thin pen-lines that summoned up beings like one-celled creatures seen under the microscope, who seemed to be floating or swimming when viewed sideways. In fact you could only have this experience in the catalogue, with a magnifying glass, but it was magical, and gave a more intimate sense of Picasso’s inventiveness than almost anything else in the exhibition.

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Strangely enough, the supreme display of invention in the show began with a kind of copy, a copy of Grunewald’s famous Crucifixion in Colmar. Apparently it is doubtful that Picasso ever saw the work itself. In any case, he must have depended more immediately on a photograph, probably in black and white. Almost at once the painting got away and became something else, a meditation on cruelty or alienation and the dispersion of the self. Images of these dark drawings below follow the sequence Picasso followed, moving further, then nearer, then further again from recognisability, an oscillating approach to something that keeps threatening to disappear.

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At almost the same moment he was doing a series of little sketches of women playing ball on the beach, sometimes crowding and even stepping on each other. Some observers have detected conflict or ambivalence in Picasso’s ability to entertain these two subjects almost simultaneously, violent cruelty and Dionysiac release, and they have also read both extremes into one another.

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It remains a question to what extent simple themes like women playing or sleeping are carrying heavy metaphysical burdens in the work of 1932. Two famous nudes, Nude, green leaves and bust and Nude in a black armchair, provoked enthusiastic response in the art-dealer Kahnweiler, who thought them the best things Picasso had done, ‘as if painted by a satyr just after he had murdered a woman’, his way of expressing their frightening intensity.

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T J Clark connects the two paintings to Rimbaud’s ‘Je est un autre’ and Picasso’s ‘I am a woman’, by which he evidently meant more than just ‘the artist enters his subject’. Clark finds them a searching examination of desire and of the experience of sexual differentiation. The ideas are fascinating but the paintings do not support them. I am reminded of Leo Steinberg grappling with Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, imparting a powerful sense of struggle as he erects an intellectual structure that doesn’t match my experience of the painting. I have enjoyed the chase much more than most disquisitions I agree with, but I back off from the conclusions. Likewise with Clark—all this firepower is trained on bland and nerveless work. Picasso is not a colourist, a failing he can often conceal. In many of the larger pictures of this period, including these nudes, either horrid pastel shades predominate, or dull thickness of paint.

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So I found more enjoyment in the sculpture, which was perhaps a fresher medium to him at that moment, which in plaster or clay versions has a visceral immediacy that the larger paintings mostly lack. An interesting sub-genre crops up repeatedly, paintings that depict sculpture-like forms, another instance of Picasso’s grabbing onto sources in the world of art. In one of the most interesting of these, the paint itself was more lively, as if the idea of fresh clay had stirred him to a vivid rendering of its wetness and the variety of sheens on the surface, aspects of reality that he usually ignores.

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Sculpture also seems to be a realm where wit is licensed. The Woman in the Garden of 1925 is full of hilarious analogues in the world of construction to organic shapes and details. Here Picasso can play, an impulse which appears in his painting both before and after 1932, but in the exhibition it is usually sculpture or small and sketchy works which provoke a smile or introduce narrative complexity. At the end of the year a theme emerges, Rescue, which has its mythic reverberations, and which at least once reverses direction and becomes Rape. Here that alarmingly divided character surfaces again, who is unsure whether he is saviour or destroyer.

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Picasso 1932 at Tate Modern from 8 March to 9 September 2018

Kahnweiler doesn’t identify precisely the paintings that have impressed him.  Clark thinks it likely that the two mentioned above are the ones that provoked the ‘satyr’ comment (repeated in a letter to Michel Leiris dating from the time in March 1932 when the two nudes were painted).

The Horrors of War & Trauma inside the Mouth

Aftermath at Tate Britain, & Teeth at the Wellcome Collection, two exhibitions on disparate themes–artistic responses to the First World War and ways of coping with a troublesome part of the body.

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Much of the time Aftermath looks like another art exhibition. It leads off with paintings like Orpen’s Grave in a Trench, a bleached-out scene long after the battle, and Roberts’ Shell Dump, France, crowded with zombie figures underground.

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But then curiosities creep in, like paper knives with shrapnel handles or ‘nail art’– patriotic icons made mainly of nails, each banged in by a different member of the public, who thus gets the illusion of contributing to the war effort. Then there are documentary photos of damage to Reims cathedral and a fascinating film of a trip over the ruins of Ypres in a balloon. I didn’t question the pictures of Reims, especially the ruined stone angel bandaged with ropes and pads which both personalises and distances destruction.

I began to wonder though when presented with old photos of second-rate decorations in the centre of Paris or plans for humdrum war memorials, especially when Lutyens’ astonishing arch at Thiepval is left out. Charles Sargeant Jagger’s No Man’s Land follows the format of a memorial, a long horizontal slab, but disrupts the convention with a scene that is above all jagged, jammed with severe and heartrending detail scratched into bronze gone grey from grief. It shows six corpses strung up on barbed wire or stretched out in mud, and a lone sentry who is taking cover among the relics of death.

No Man's Land 1919-20 by Charles Sargeant Jagger 1885-1934

Among the most uncomfortable but thrilling exhibits are Henry Tonks’ pastels of soldiers’ badly damaged faces. Jagger gets too close to what death looks like for comfort, and Tonks gets even closer, with living subjects, who are walking, breathing memorials or ruins of war. These works are redeemed by Tonks’ skill, by an unexpected artistic flair, and by sympathy which penetrates the men’s carefully controlled anguish.

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My heart sank when I came to a room called The Print Portfolio, a category which appears out of nowhere, as if we’ve run out of thematic subjects and turned to technical forms narrowly considered. It happened that two of the series were among the highlights of the exhibition, not because they fit the inappropriate category but because they were powerful. Otto Dix’s War prints gave the most nightmarish visions of all, far more interesting than his paintings, and Max Beckmann’s Hell created a kind of spatial anguish in everyday situations where all is splintered fragments.

Now comes a room that you should skip, the largest in the exhibition, full of big paintings. It is called Return to Order and constitutes a denial of the excitement generated by the preceding denser displays. It feels un-assimilated, included just because this too happened in this period, 1916-32, boundaries which look arbitrary when used to excuse the presence of forgettable work on a bigger scale than the little prints and drawings.

The limitation to France, Britain and Germany is here exposed as both too wide and too narrow. It has pushed curators to include such dire painters as Marcel Gromaire and dim Germans only present because they illustrate particular social-historical themes.   What a relief to get back to the authentic seriousness of Dada, in Grosz and Heartfield’s The Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Goes Wild, a work of 1920 (reconstructed 1980) held over until the last room of the exhibition. It shows the human figure turned into a tailor’s dummy by modernity, with a light bulb for a head, as if it were the war-wounded in a perversely perfected form, pure prosthesis.

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Comparing Aftermath to Teeth at the Wellcome is unfair in one important way. Most of the exhibits in Teeth were never meant to be displayed to a curious public. They include models of teeth and mouths for dental students to practice on, and actual skulls containing outstanding decay or dental work in rare materials, of which photographs are politely discouraged. They also include lots of obsolete devices, some of which are mainly quaint, like drills operated by a foot pedal, while others now seem instruments of torture, like heavy metal ‘keys’ for yanking out teeth with a sudden twist.

The energy and fun of Teeth comes largely from abstracting these objects from their normal locations, a transposition which changes them utterly. There’s often a dose of  the surreal, even Dada, when they move from the world of work to the realm of play, where most of the Tate’s exhibits started out.

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The closest crossover came when we met another mechanical man with a smooth wooden skull implanted with obscure metal devices and genuinely carious teeth who, like the Heartfield mannequin, sat on a spindle or post, which brought him up to normal human height and tempted you to endow him with human traits.

Enormous model teeth with cave-like hollows for demonstrating different kinds of filling are here just creatures from nightmares, material for stories. Sometimes you wonder if the Gothic element in a howling face wasn’t relished by the original fabricator. Maybe there has always been an almost clinical enthusiasm for certain kinds of horrendous but unthreatening pain. This head, which calls up the mad researches of the 18c Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, seems prepared to drown analysis in feeling.

DSC02435 copy.jpgDeciphering the spirit in which the Wellcome’s objects were collected would be an absorbing study. A fantastic intent surfaces more than occasionally. Among my favourites were a poster showing the furthest nightmare of a user of the old kind of toothpaste tube that split or fractured easily, resulting in mock carnage that takes unspeakable humanoid form.

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Next to it came the unsettling magnification of a decayed tooth into a wonder of the ancient world. A dentist once explained to me why what goes on in the mouth feels so much bigger than it is, but it seems self centred to dwell as we do on the affairs of these little hidden universes, which, like the Colosseum, occur in storeys and arched shapes.

DSC02428 copy.jpgLike the Tate, the Wellcome tempts you to keep going when the exhibition is over, straying into other rooms wondering what you will find there, perhaps another instrument of torture, like the early X-ray machine that resembles a treadmill turned on its side

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or another Surrealist juxtaposition in a ball-gown decorated with a huge collection of contraceptive pills in their plastic bubbles, enough for 26 years of daily doses, someone’s calculation of how many fertility-suppressing tablets a woman would need to take in a lifetime, reduced or elevated here into a bewitching glitter.

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Aftermath at Tate Britain, Millbank until 23 September 2018

Teeth at the Wellcome Collection, Euston Road until 16 September 2018 (admission free)

 

 

Rodin and Ancient Greece, or Rodin and the Fragment

Rodin never went to Greece. He was the most anti-academic artist imaginable, who defied every classical rule. Yet the recent exhibition at the British Museum on this unlikely theme was a revelation. From his first sight of them, Rodin was besotted with the Parthenon sculptures, but he took an unorthodox view of the stones, prizing them for their fragmentary and ruined state.

There had been an earlier Rodin who invented immense epic schemes, like the Gates of Hell, six metres high, and seething with hundreds of figures. This project combines the medieval material of Dante’s Inferno with the modern spirit of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. The static form of this set of monumental doors becomes a great field of movement and upheaval, a gate which shudders convulsively, rather than a stiff and stable barrier.

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Rodin’s responsiveness to the art of the past is full of surprises. He writes imaginatively about Gothic cathedrals as vast poems, not all of which can be taken in at once. He focuses on their porches, which he likens to grottos or caverns lit unevenly by the sun, which brings certain figures into view while it hides others, shifting throughout the day. His Gates are a kind of condensed porch, and reading him on the subject one inevitably applies these ideas to his own project, too vast and various to be comprehended all at once, so that the sun’s movement becomes a metaphor for our attention, shifting over the surface, continually leaving parts of it behind.

Thence perhaps arises Rodin’s strange conviction that every part of the Gates allows us to intuit the whole. And so he detached small and incomplete elements from high on the cliffside of the work and brought them down to eye level,

 

DSC02075.jpgattaching them to notional cornices with new flourishes of plant matter or fabric. They are complex little knots of movement composed of flying and falling figures, but they are at the same time defiantly fragmentary, parts not wholes, more suggestive than complete and perfect entities, like shorn-off pieces of the Parthenon that have long evoked for some observers earlier, fresher stages of the work, as if you had stumbled into Phidias’s studio.

One of the achievements of the exhibition was to create a continuity between Rodin’s appreciation of the antique fragment and his understanding of his own work as metamorphic, continually re-forming itself in new combinations, seen from fresh angles. At the entrance to the exhibition a strange hybrid appears, a woman’s head with a small Greek temple planted on it as if growing from it. The carving of the marble face is soft and subtle as if it fades before our eyes, but her hair and shoulders are rough-hewn. The temple doesn’t fit, in more than one way. It is plaster and crudely fashioned; the stone has been abruptly sawn off to accommodate it.

DSC02056.jpgIt makes some observers think of Athena born violently from the head of Zeus; others are reminded of those allegorical busts with castellated headdresses who represent classical cities. The face is recognisable as the wife of an Australian painter, a favourite model of the sculptor’s: perhaps it is his awkward way of representing antiquity inspiring the present.

Another work (called Thought at some point in its life) shows a woman’s head emerging from an uncarved block, recognisable as one of the most interesting women in Rodin’s life, the sculptor Claudine Claudel, whose work, which resembles his, he tried generously to promote. Other small elements detached from the Gates are shown attaching themselves to, as if growing back into, the blocks they came out of. A couple of these in the exhibition acquire cosmic titles like Earth and Moon and Constellation but seem to have shrunk from their original dimensions.

 

DSC02095.jpgMore often Rodin enlarged small figures from the Gates to greater than life size and lopped off their heads and one or two of their arms, with the effect of making them more powerful and less specific, more like survivors from ancient civilisations or pioneers in the modern drive toward abstraction.

DSC02152.jpgIn the 1890s Rodin got more interested in and more able to afford antique fragments. Twenty examples from his much larger collection were included in the exhibition. Some of them would hardly get a second glance, except that we read his rapturous comments and try to see them with his eyes, as precious visitors from Phidias’ time, remembering also his endorsement of the child’s fresh vision.

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The exhibition also made one see the British Museum’s Parthenon fragments differently, first by mounting fully rounded figures below eye level and allowing nearer views and freer passage round them than we are used to. Strange to find or to remember that Ilissos the river god and two lounging deities are fully carved all the way round though they were originally mounted high overhead at the narrow ends of pediments.

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And curators have singled out especially fragmentary sections of frieze where it is exciting to imagine plunging or rearing movements continuing beyond the edges of the slice we are left with. Rodin had radical ideas about restoration and argued publicly that restoring the Parthenon would change something natural into an unnatural pastiche. His famous Walking Man was originally found in a garbled state in his studio and was further ruined when enlarged, by removing his head and arms. Now critics like Rilke find the deepest profundity in those absences. It is in any case a direction in which the sculptor increasingly moved. Hard to believe therefore in a last grandiose project of which Rilke gives the only report known to me, a great Tower of Labour (or Work?) with a spiraling relief representing human occupations, starting with miners at basement level.

One of the highlights of the exhibition was the treatment of the Burghers of Calais, brought indoors from their normal location on the Embankment. Apparently at Meudon Rodin always moved much of his work outdoors every spring, because that is where, following Greek practice, he thought sculpture belongs. The hill at Meudon was or became his Acropolis where he emulated his hero Phidias, surrounded by his own work mixed with his antiques.

Though brought indoors, the Burghers had the next best thing to changing daylight and natural air, standing next to a tall glass wall, conveniently lower than Rodin ended up displaying them, with ample room for circling round them. The grouping of the six over-life-size figures is one of the great triumphs of his career. They walk as you walk round them, changing their relations with the others, arriving and departing in endless combinations, all within a basically frieze-like format, like planets following their different trajectories, but pulled finally back into place by the gravitational force of the others.

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The result is more unruly and more dynamic than the processions in the Parthenon frieze, but the one has probably inspired the other, vertical elements in horizontal movement, each strongly characterised but all moving to the same tragic end in spite of the reprieve awaiting them, which we know about and they don’t.

 

 Rodin and the art of ancient Greece, by Celeste Farge, Bénédicte Garnier and Ian Jenkins, book of exhibition at the British Museum from 26 April to 29 July 2018, with exceptional photographs and stimulating text.

Soutine and suffering

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Soutine is a neglected outlier in 20th century art, for reasons all too obvious. He constantly disturbs the calm and balance of his subjects, and does this so relentlessly that at first he seems wilful and arbitrary. Even in still lives the furniture teeters and threatens to fall, and if the vegetables don’t slide off the table, one wonders what keeps them in place. In Soutine there are no apples or pears, reliable geometrical solids, but gnarled peppers and ageing tomatoes which are losing their shape. The plates that hold them wobble, their edges indescribably vagrant.

Much worse is to come. Soutine delights in the corpses of small animals, small enough to fit on a table. There is something unseemly about bringing them into domestic settings, food perhaps, but not quite ready for the table, like the eviscerated rabbit in the Barnes collection whose posture reminds us of a human infant warding off a blow.

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Another still life at the Barnes contains Soutine’s most involuted reference to animal suffering at the table. This is one of his most deliberately awkward pictures and includes several nearly indecipherable objects—a stiff smoked herring propped against the wall or hanging from a rope and held in place by a long-handled wooden spoon (participant in many Soutine still lives), a lumpy, twisted turquoise form that might be a kind of pitcher judging by its top, which has a lip for pouring.

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But to interpret this strange form you really need to know another Soutine of a goose with a broken neck. Then it dawns on you that the turquoise monstrosity is shown upside down, with its pedestal in the air and its top dangling below, a duck’s head with open beak held onto its body by a thread, like the doubled-over goose’s head still attached to its body by its windpipe. The Barnes still life is a picture that gets grislier the more recognisable it becomes. Its most unrecognisable bit (just to the left of the upside down duck) is the misshapen form standing up in what looks like a bread basket. Is it a primitive carving of a dwarf figure, or a twisted ginger root, or a broken fragment of bread? Is there another Soutine somewhere that shows the same object from another angle and clears up the mystery? It’s only the duck that makes us think this might be the case. Or is the contorted figure a traveler in the basket-boat which is moving out of the picture?

Soutine’s magic springs from his visceral involvement in paint, deeper than almost anyone’s but largely missing from the Barnes still life, which was only able to help us (if it did) understand something about his attitudes toward his subjects. That is a kind of instruction, but the Soutine who wins allegiance revels in paint, and the rapture that this produces silences our misgivings at the idea (for instance) of an animal brought to the table with its fur intact in order to be attacked with forks, which hold it firmly in place.

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Colours change or coruscate unpredictably, a ceaseless pulsation of life, a nature morte that is defiantly alive. The table-top comes near to matching the shape of the picture space, only slipping downward to show that there is motion after all in the motionless subject. To describe every sensation of motion in the tablecloth would take a long time. The most surprising is the wave motion of the scalloped and re-scalloped edge, which flirts with the lifeless horizontal of the bottom of the canvas.

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His involvement in paint sweeps all before it in a picture like Two Pheasants on a Table, the ultimate topsy-turvy of dead objects, where anguish and pathos are submerged or concealed in giddy sensations of motion, of the spinning and teetering table, of the flailing limbs and speaking facial expressions of the birds. As often, the colours are inappropriately and almost unbearably beautiful, blue on their backs, red on their mouths, cream on the shroud and green and ochre on the wall behind. Blurring in the forms and surroundings seems to describe our unwillingness to look straight at what lies in front of us. In this whole series of images of  animals prone and animals hanging, strung up by their necks or their heels, Soutine diminishes his subject, the death (often in conditions like torture) of creatures, by choosing animals smaller than us and canvases smaller than those favoured by most of his contemporaries. This has an untoward effect, of slipping profound material past us before we realise what is happening.

Soutine once made what seems a crucial confession. He recounted an occasion in childhood (was he 8? or 10?) when he watched a butcher wring the neck of a goose. At the moment of death he had a powerful desire to scream, and at that moment the butcher looked at him and smiled, and the cry was stifled in his throat. Soutine said that all his paintings of dead animals and cuts of meat were attempts to release that strangled cry.

So in some sense many of the paintings are repetitions of a single experience. And of course much more than that, meditations on the universal facts of death and dissolution and the local experience of cruelty.

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b3 16a 20 DSC00717 copy 2.jpgMost harrowing of all the variations on these themes are a series of dangling victims strung up in the throes of death or its bedraggled aftermath. One of the chickens uncannily resembles a familiar form of ample female nude met in Hellenistic sculpture. This one also appears to crane eagerly upward via a grotesquely elongated neck, at odds with the tranquillity of the torso beneath.

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A whole series of grotesque possibilities are explored in this series. One loaded to excess with bitter ironies appears to dance, set off against a background in two shades of blue reminiscent of fabric patterns found in Cezanne and Matisse. Soutine delivers some of his sharpest shocks from within the world of painting. They are normally comforting colours but in this setting leave you with nowhere to turn, fooled by a background into letting down your guard in front of a horror, which combines an eighteenth-century minuet (in the crook of arm, wrist and ankle) with a bloody corpse (in the virulent colours of the body).

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Others are less grotesque and more surreal, like a scene from Frankenstein’s laboratory, where a stream of ghostly bubbles escapes from the tormented body caught perhaps in the final spasm of death. The feet are dematerialised, on the way to becoming fog or smoke, and eerily beautiful. Mysterious activity goes forward, the neck caught between a threatening and mesmeric piece of machinery and a black ruff of feathers left behind in  plucking the bird. It summons up Kafka’s Penal Colony, a world which writes obscure messages on its creatures. In other paintings victims are dangled head first–a rabbit stiff like the subject of a lynching, and another turkey spread eagled on an ornate chair until its head almost touches the floor. This unlikely moment gives rise to some of Soutine’s most exuberantly Baroque handling.

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Soutine first forced himself on my notice on a visit to one of the world’s great museums,  a day full of frustration.  I was turning away from Picasso’s Three Dancers which had disappointed me by its coldness and distance, by its excessive size for what it was trying to say, and I noticed a small picture facing the Picasso that wasn’t ashamed of its paint, letting it run wild across its modest surface. It was a landscape by Soutine, and I rushed toward it, captivated by its love of paint. Not that it was just a painting about paint, without any other discernable subject, but that its meaning couldn’t be separated from its material presence. It wasn’t mainly propounding an idea or proposition. It seemed nearer to living, breathing experience than the more conceptual work on every side and I was grateful to it for having appeared at just that moment.

‘Chaim Soutine: Flesh’, an exhibition of 30+ paintings at the Jewish Museum, 5th Avenue at 92nd Street, New York, until 16 September, including all but one of those illustrated here.

Jacob Lawrence’s Haitian Revolution

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I am prone to a milder form of a disorder Ruskin suffered from, in the throes of which he convinced himself that he detected a hidden order in the random happenings of, say, a certain winter afternoon in Venice. So, on a recent afternoon in the British Museum I made a set of non sequiturs into a meaningful narrative. The sequence began with an anti-climax, a return visit to Nebamun’s tomb, in an obscure corner at the back of the building. I had discovered this wonder two months earlier, thinking it a new installation. Here the vividest wall paintings that survive from ancient Egypt show hunting in a marsh and dancing at a feast, well stocked with reeds, birds, an unexpected cat (every hair of whose fur stands out), plates piled high with food and unclothed dancing girls.

This small room had been my main goal, but now had nothing like the powerful effect of the day when I was the tomb’s discoverer. From this point onward, I was thinking of the exit, gave the Assyrian reliefs a distracted glance and halted only at some scanty fragments from Crete, just because we might be going there.

Then at the end of the corridor leading to the main entrance, an oversized image jumped out. It could have been a brightly lit mural like the mock-ups from Knossos I had just left behind, but in fact it was a projection which kept changing. The technique was bold, assembling flat patches of strong colour, no shading or detail to speak of, to depict violence in strangely satisfying ways.

The effect was very close to children’s cut-outs in colored paper, but a sophisticated feeling for design created exciting spaces in the flatness, as in one where a black man tied to a chair is threatened by white officers brandishing swords who form a web shrinking to a point in the distance. Or as in a troop of soldiers riding straight towards us and closing in on one of their number. It’s evident that these are not paper cut outs but paintings, so the primitive feel is deliberate, more like Picasso than a child. By now I’ve gathered that the traces of eighteenth century dress, and the uniforms with braid consisting of yellow squiggles belong to the story of the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 and its exotic hero Toussaint l’Ouverture.

12208-842.jpgThe paintings date from 1938 and are late fruits of the Harlem Renaissance. The artist, Jacob Lawrence, had been trained in the art school in Harlem established by the movement, had seen W E B Dubois’ play about Toussaint in 1934 and then researched the subject in the New York Public Library. The series started out as 41 paintings in tempera on paper. It isn’t easy to come by reproductions of the whole set; Lawrence supervised silkscreen prints of 15 of them he considered the best. The painted versions, each only 19 by 11 inches, were used to make the ten huge projections in the British Museum display. They must be something like 9 feet by 5 on the big screen, the size of a large Jackson Pollock, and they support the enlargement brilliantly and become truly heroic images.

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In the years just before Lawrence painted them the United States had occupied Haiti for almost twenty years, from 1915 to 1934. Undoubtedly this dark history was in his mind as he meditated on the revolution and its miraculous success 130 years earlier. As another dark moment is in mine, encountering this small exhibition the day after it went up and six weeks after the current American president called Haiti a ‘shithole country’ in the course of an argument against allowing immigrants from such countries to remain.

In Darkest Southwark

Every unfamiliar part of London is infinitely strange to begin with. This bit of Southwark had no distinctive features. After you left the main road the place consisted entirely of big rectangular solids, presumably council housing, but such pure, unpenetrated masses as you had never seen before. These hulks seemed to push against the pavements that ran along them until there was barely room to pass comfortably. Opposite, a low building spread itself behind a high metal fence, to which were tied rubberised banners with enthusiastic comments by parents selling the building within. So this unfriendly sprawl with windows in mirror glass was nothing but a harmless school.

How could an art gallery have landed in such barren soil, we wondered, as we turned into its street? Here was a little row of slightly older buildings, with a couple of former shop fronts painted an incongruous oxblood colour. You had to get extremely close to read the words ‘Matt’s Gallery’ and only then did you notice a row of artists’ names, half of them scored through in white paint which only half obliterated them. Were these artists formerly represented by the gallery, who’d left, and were now like deposed emperors remembered only in scratched out inscriptions?

The doorbell was answered quickly by a man looking surprised but not unfriendly, like one of those characters in Alice who has just waked up for no other reason than the story’s needing him in order to continue.

I didn’t notice then how ingenious the room he ushered us into was, only that it was incredibly small. It was also bright, and empty. We had come to see a friend’s exhibition, and we soon knew that we were in it, because the two small paintings on the entry wall contained small, nearly identical butterflies, and our friend is fascinated by moths and butterflies, about which she has some interesting ideas that I haven’t got to grips with yet. On the wall opposite was a larger painting consisting of patterns and marks in colours so subtle you even wondered if they were there at all.

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The house we were in, for it felt like a house, was very small. We had already sensed that, having caught a glimpse as we entered of packed-in slivers of space beyond, in which someone was working. So we hardly needed to ask, is this all? is this room it? The man came back and said yes, I always pare down the work: leaving things out is the main task in a gallery. He put it better than that, and I believed that he meant it. He thought the small butterfly paintings were enough, and our friend had added the larger painting from an understandable fear of the void even in the confines of this little cube. For it was a cube, inserted into the fabric of the house on a pronounced diagonal, with its one way in, diagonally, at the corner.

This minimal insertion was the brainchild of the gallery man’s son, an architect who had studied and taught at places I knew and had taught in. So had the gallery man, who had spent longest at a place where I had given one of my worst lectures ever. I began to see the gallery man as quite an art work in himself. His shirt, half concealed by a purple fleece, was a hilarious display of summertime drinks. But it was the way the conversation jumped around that was particularly delightful, and before long I heard my wife inviting him to Kentish Town to carry on with this.

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He explained the scoring-out of the artists’ names: it only meant that their exhibitions were over. They were minimal too and always lasted exactly eleven days. It seemed the same anarchic and even half-destructive impulse was surfacing in all these forms. It was an impulse that didn’t continue for that long in the same course but shifted its orientation continually. He told us he’d just bought a new batch of ISBNs, having used up his initial supply of 100. So we wanted to see all the past books, which turned out to be stylish fold-outs, not books, most of them.

Coming away, we saw the desolate scene with different eyes. In the large industrial hulks, like council blocks without the windows, we now knew that 100+ artists’ studios had formerly lodged. The runaway property boom that is destroying much of what anyone has ever loved about London has also sent these artists packing to create high class rentable space with the soulless anonymity of money itself.

At least one large drafty leftover of the big studio spaces survives as a funky café-gallery inhabited by a riff-raff of second hand furniture and assorted survivors of the art schools, one of the last jewels in the crown of British culture.

 

photos by Esther Menell     for more see esthermenell.com

 

 

Modern works from the Brera, Milan at the Estorick

 

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This was the most enjoyable small exhibition I can remember. It’s partly the domestic scale of the spaces at the Estorick Gallery in Islington, partly too the modest scale of the paintings, and maybe something un-doctrinaire and playful in the way most of them approach the task.

It’s just luck which painting you start with, but it can make a difference. Sironi’s The Lamp shows a plump tailor’s dummy in high heels adjusting a lamp hanging over a table. It hovers somewhere between Cubist rigour and a homely interior. The next Sironi tries something else entirely, a telescoped fragment from a city street dominated by a big motor car jammed against impressions of architecture, a more typical Futurist subject but not quite rigorous enough to qualify. This is what I’ve always liked about Sironi, that he doesn’t entirely believe in whatever mode he has adopted, like the almost-Fascist classicism that comes later, for which he is mainly remembered now.

Next came Filippo de Pisis (a pseudonym) entirely new to me and a favourite, who does Surrealist subjects in an exuberant sensuous style that is a send-up of Surrealist dread. Marine Still Life with Shrimps does take place on a beach, just about. Wonderfully impressionistic open clam shells and shrimps are displayed on tilted sand-coloured rectangles and also on the bits of ordinary beach that are allowed to remain around the edges. De Pisis is also present in an almost cartoon version of the façade of St Moise in Venice (already a cartoon in reality), where frenzied (the catalogue’s word) Baroque brushwork practically dissolves the subject.

With de Pisis goes Ottone Rosai who enjoys the paint in which he renders his Cubist glasses and bottles too much to stick to his agenda of deconstructing reality, which is thwarted too by his full blooded palette. The serious backup in this first room was provided by Carlo Carrà whose de Chirico-like interiors come with their own brand of wit: mannequins are connected by lead pipes into a general system of heating or circulation. An earlier Carrà, Rhythms of Objects, perhaps the most demanding picture in the show, outdoes the Cubists in its impossible density of ordinary objects multiplying themselves for unfocused eyes. Are they crockery on a table, or fragmentary human figures, or a combination of the two?

Equally enigmatic is Gino Severini’s Le Nord-Sud which mixes the indoors and the outdoors, as a ride across the city on an elevated train usually does. Here sudden incisions in reality let you see through to fluffy seascapes sliced through by orderly ranks of sharks, or dark interiors mistaken for tunnel entrances. Somewhat difficult to pick out and superimposed on all the hints of journeys are two sedate matrons with effusions of broken lace at their throats.

Marino Marini’s bronze head of Emilio Jesi, collector of all these paintings, presides over the second room. It is mounted at a pronounced tilt and exudes a genial calm. This is a less serious room, or is it just the children’s tables for sketching and colouring-in which make it feel this way? For here we meet a powerfully spiritual or at least ectoplasmic Giorgio Morandi, whose bottles are transparent or luminous and coated with a mysterious dust at the same time. One little pitcher emits a strange pink glow, at least around its neck, which makes it look something like flesh.

There are other Morandis, as well as the whole room of Morandi etchings and drawings from the permanent collection on the top floor. There’s another Sironi landscape of a desolate urban scene crossed by railway tracks with three promising industrial portals in the second Jesi room. This is matched by one upstairs, smaller and even bleaker. Two artists not included in the Brera selection, Medardo Rossi and Renato Guttuso, are also up there, permanently, the first in a richly grimed wax sculpture of a moment glimpsed in a city street, the second in a characteristically crude but gripping work, a dead proletarian hero in a hospital bed. Is it just my imagination or is Guttuso thinking of Mantegna’s similarly foreshortened dead Christ? Guttuso’s shroud is a riot of angular folds and colours—green, purple and ochre all lurking in the monotonous white of the sheets.

The biggest painting in the second Brera room is Mario Mafai‘s Butchered Ox which shows two oxen rendered in what the label calls an ‘intensely expressive and emotionally painterly style.’ But I had to put Soutine’s much wilder versions of the same subject out of my mind to enjoy the abandon of this one. The catalogue prints Butchered Ox upside down. The tradition of inverting modern paintings, deliberately or inadvertently, is a venerable one.

This instance made me turn the catalogue upside down to look at Mafai the right way up and I couldn’t help carrying on, like a thwarted Baselitz, with the rest of the collection. It’s a better joke with some than with others. Almost all the paintings I have singled out survive the experiment well, especially the Carràs and the still lives generally. A zaniness which is always there in Morandi, not far beneath the surface of these quiet, obsessive pictures, is revealed even more clearly when you invert them.

All too human at Tate Britain

Francis Bacon, one of the key painters in this exhibition, took the critic David Sylvester to see the Soutine landscapes at the Redfern Gallery because they had shown him how he wanted to paint at that moment. Some of the links that matter most in this exhibition are intuitional and will burst upon you, not argue their way into your head. So the connection between Bacon and Soutine, who inhabit adjacent rooms in the layout, is there in a visceral love of paint, though Soutine’s is thick and Bacon’s is wonderfully thin at this point; is there also in the abruptness with which they broach emotions, Bacon with a howling maw that is also a cultural reference (to Eisenstein), Soutine with faceless animal carcasses (flesh of a terrible directness). Flesh is the subject, encountered in a treed baboon (another awful view of teeth inside the head) and a cornered dog.

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Flesh appears too in the strongest F. N. Souzas, like the Crucifixion where Christ’s body is also the tree and the cross, sprouting thorns from legs and arms as well as its head. Two attackers, or more likely supporters, are also liberally thorned. In fact very little space is left on the surface for anything that is not thorn. Even Souza’s signature is prickly, something to steer clear of. The catalogue makes much of Souza’s outcast status as an immigrant, and he did eventually flee Britain for New York, but contextualisation can go too far, and coming after Bacon, we don’t find Souza’s an outlandishly alienated vision. There’s also an eerie link in their gravitation to Catholic themes (Souza’s family Goan and devout), only to distort them, of course.

Coldstream comes next, like an icy bath. I seem to remember that Souza sampled the Slade but it didn’t agree with him. If different ways of paying attention to the flesh are a thread running through the whole, Coldstream and his students represent an incredibly strange strand. For me his endless measurements trying to get sizes and relations exactly right, and marking each estimate with a little cross, produce some unusually dead results. A big nude in the exhibition is awkward overall, but full of interest when you focus on details. It is hardly credible that Coldstream thought he was serving truth by not moving pieces of furniture out of his compositions when they got in the way. He must surely have followed this principle selectively, and even then can you really call it a composition if it must obey prior placements as if they were divine laws?

His student Euan Uglow carried this idea of truth even further, and spent seven years on a painting of one of his students–in a sports jersey and pink tights–lying on and half-obscuring a bold pattern designed by Uglow. The result (finally finished?) is so bland we are fascinated by where all the careful thinking can have gone.

Next comes Bomberg, a rambunctious corrective. He is the first of three reprises that punctuate the exhibition, a brilliant way of startling us with a new role or a new approach to painting which would have less effect if Bomberg, Bacon and Freud had each been presented just once in the sequence. This is Bomberg the teacher, seen too in his students. There’s a violent landscape by Dennis Creffield, with an absurdly exact note of its location (The Isle of Dogs seen from Greenwich Observatory) which sets us scrambling to find all its parts. And a blotchy nude by Dorothy Mead, the nearest approach to Cubism in the show.

The most serious consequence of David Bomberg’s teaching, many would agree, is seen in the work of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, who in the immediate aftermath of the teaching took his idea of the spirit in the mass to extreme lengths in canvases where the paint lies so thick that it seems to thrust itself into the room and defies you to find distinct forms in it. Paint is the subject and content of these paintings, sensuous enough to feel something like flesh.

Paradoxically, when Auerbach gets further from Bomberg, the teacher’s influence becomes more visible, in urban landscapes centred around Mornington Crescent station.

In the largest room of all, Freud reappears, moving away from the smoothness of finish we saw around the time he taught with Coldstream, toward an equally exaggerated intensity of attention, now expressed in thicker paint and ultra-visible brushstrokes. Here are the famous nudes whose flesh goes on and on, changing colour monotonously, following what imperative–just to demonstrate fierce mental concentration, which will exhaust sitter or lie-er and viewer alike? The great example of the new, larger minuteness in this enormous room devoted to Freud’s production from the late 1970s to the 1990s is a maniacal portrait of two species of house plant which fills twenty square feet of canvas from top to bottom, and makes us perceive Freud in that moment as a close inheritor of the Pre-Raphaelites.

We’ve been set up to forget the fact that Bacon too suffered a great transversal of values in which his subjects became sensuous male nudes, or amputated sections of them, like sausages that have split their skins and begun spilling out. Paint is thicker, silkier, and runs on for longer uninterrupted.

Of all the painters in the exhibition Michael Andrews and R. B. Kitaj are least well served, partly by being forced into the same room. But Kitaj leads well into Paula Rego, present in five giant pastels, a big watercolour drawing and an older oil of great human interest.

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The three Rego pastels ‘based’ on Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode have pride of place and fill a whole wall. Hogarth is exploded to many times his original size and introverted to domestic privacies where someone has turned over a stone and let the pullulating life spill out. Commentators have said that Hogarth’s humour is missing: instead, pure black comedy with monstrous men like babies, grandmothers full of venom and furniture that has the power to thwart, the only salvation lying in the brio (especially the bursts of colour) with which it is recorded.

In the last room of all, four impressive women, two of whom stand out: Jenny Saville with the sideways head of a gigantic baby, not really a baby but bald and pink like one and nightmarish to inspect close up; and Cecily Brown, new to me, the actual daughter of David Sylvester and the spiritual daughter of Willem de Kooning. Boy with a Cat does have a naked human figure of a kind and a whole background of cats, but it is really just an exuberant explosion of paint that leaves patient observation gaping helplessly.

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The way to visit this exhibition is to let it unfold in front of you, even wash over you, not that it is a mindless journey or an assorted jumble, but that the paintings have more to say to each other than such collections usually do, and that some of the oddest conjunctions could turn out to bear the best fruit, not perhaps immediately. Both the sequence and the hubbub of the whole make it clear that British figurative painting of this period has not become old hat or lost its power to engage viewers deeply.

Living with the Gods

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This exhibition at the British Museum expands in the mind of the visitor and becomes a phantasmagoria of objects produced by cultures from across the world, of stories connected with them, of idols and charms, warding off illness or encouraging devotion, a general mental excitement in which all the human practices which might be called devotional or superstitious, otherworldly or magical seem equally interesting and equally valuable because they are human and rated highly by their practitioners. The exhibition lulls the visitor into a receptive state with faint but compelling background music, a combination of wind noises, human whispering and tinkling bells. The physical layout of the exhibits, grouped in sections separated by sinuous gauze curtains, which makes them feel like something taking place in the mind, seems to encourage the idea that these are in some way all phantoms.

Not that the objects are not real and often extremely vivid, but that they are mixed in ways that break down normal categories. A few of the objects are venerable, like above all the Lion Man from 40,000 years ago, discovered in a Swabian cave a week before the start of World War II. He is made from a mammoth’s tusk and dated by taking radio carbon readings of the soil he was found in. His lion-part is judged to represent an extinct species now called a cave lion, which, going by drawings on cave walls, did not have manes. Thus the uncertainty can arise over whether he is lion or lioness, male or female. He is thought to be an implement in a religious practice, based on the widespread attribution of spiritual powers to human-animal hybrids in other cultures and on traces of wear which have been taken as signs of frequent handling by the group that commissioned or made him.

He is the most numinous object in the exhibition, pieced together in the 70+ years since he was found by adding hundreds of further bits identified in the detritus surrounding him, leaving him in spite of all the careful attention looking extremely ruined. Except that, by the time I saw the Lion Man the ivory original had gone back to Germany, to be replaced by a piece of high quality 3D printing. Thus he had become a deceptive picture of himself, the most up-to-date kind of magic.

It seems appropriate to the ethos of the exhibition that the oldest object displayed has been transfigured into the newest without losing its aura, and is still displayed in a dark space all by itself. There’s a sprinkling throughout the exhibition of extremely fresh objects, made of cheap materials like plastic or commissioned by the Museum from contemporary artists and thus showing for instance that Jahrzeit candles go on being needed because ancient practices survive. In the world of belief time does not need to behave historically. Someone who wants to determine the qibla direction can trade his little compass and sundial with exquisitely small directions in Arabic for a simple mobile phone app, and Tibetan priests fit their prayer wheels with prayers on computer print-outs that squeeze in more pleas than human handwriting ever could.

The idea of art doesn’t apply or is downgraded in many of the territories we visit. A series of household altars is one of the most moving sections, more appealing for being genuinely home-made or at least produced for humble customers, like an Ethiopian reredos crudely inscribed in a language unspoken since 1200 (Ge’ez) and completely covered in familiar stories.

I found myself leaning on the words ‘folk art’ at many points, but this is not the right term, except as it expresses our distance from much of what we see in Living with the Gods. Last week I was dazzled by an interior just around the corner, in a Victorian church I had passed hundreds of times and never thought of entering. This ordinary space was covered from head to foot in Byzantine-style paintings of saints and angels and biblical scenes. Down in the corners at two points were the dates 1993 and 2003. I can’t interpret the weird symmetry of the numbers but I can sort of imagine how the local Greek church got its job-lot of holy scenes and personages. They’re completely ordinary regarded as art, but overpowering as an enclosure for devotion.

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We, meaning visitors from the West, can certainly be fooled by other people’s devotional objects, or imitations of them. Juggernaut’s car, for instance, which I took as a genuinely Indian product, was ordered by a bored Englishman stuck in an out-of-the-way spot in South India in the 18c. It was the biggest of all the exhibits but still a very reduced model of a festival chariot which would carry an avatar of Vishnu on a nine-day holiday in the country, together with his brother and sister each of whom had their own similar transport.

The exhibition comes in another form which I have barely sampled yet. I don’t know which came first, a series of 30 fifteen minute radio talks by Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, or this exhibition. I gather that MacGregor uses many of the objects that appear in the present show, and more besides, re-combining them in different orders, an appealing possibility because they already seem a ferment of metaphors or physical analogues for modes of thought, translations of bodily sensations into something else, like prayer flags which disperse prayers into the atmosphere or bells that incorporate lamps or scarves which clothe cross-shafts and shield Christ’s nakedness.

The radio version of the subject ends with one of the largest and oddest of all religious gatherings, the Kumbh Mela, which takes place in the riverbed of the Ganges in the dry season. The British Museum version does not try to represent this gigantic hubbub, noisily present in the radio form. To attempt devout contemplation in the midst of a crowd numbering millions, to build a great tent city to accommodate all of them on the understanding that it will be taken down a month later, after which the river will rush in and erase all trace that it has ever been—can these ideas of passage and progress make sense of the bewildering variety of appliances and practices we have met, and transform agitated thought into a source of comfort?

Age of Terror: Art since 9/11

What did you expect? An exhibition called Art in the Age of Terror, housed in a building full of over-sized weaponry, planes banking downward toward their targets or accelerating upward, rockets of various types, some, like the V-2, so big they would only fit into the huge space if sitting on the ground. Even with its skin stripped off to show its innards, it’s hard to view this monster as a toy that we can study as if it were just a model of its evil former self.

Of course I know that this display space was designed by an architect, yet it feels as if the building has been hollowed out by a bomb or another kind of explosion. The hollowing has left a weird shrunken plan for the upper floors—they’re essentially corridors ringing the central void, relatively dark and cramped, as if that’s the right sort of space in which to think about war.

To top it off the Imperial War Museum is a space mainly populated by children. Not the Terror exhibition though; at first it is populated by no one. I have the amateur film of the events of 9/11 entirely to myself. It has no words except the screams and chopped off sentences of passers-by. The only connected speech I can remember is an exchange with a man who was meant to be on the 79th floor right now, but had missed his train. He seems crazed by his feeling of misplacement.

All of a sudden it gets much worse and the buildings collapse silently into themselves, producing giant clouds that chase people down the narrow streets, coat them in grey dust and shower them with paper like the unwanted contents of a thousand offices. The film drags, it was not composed, often it is milling in one spot, one spot after another. Yet there is something like fascination….

The exhibition is cleverly or fiendishly laid out. The walls and ceilings are a uniform dark gray, there are plenty of narrow corridors that may lead to another room with a few art works on the walls, or to an emergency exit or a pure dead end. It is a long time before another visitor appears, but after an initial absence guards are more actively present than usual, pacing without looking left or right. I even wonder if this is theatre; it feels like surveillance. I only think this after works which tackle interrogation, torture and surveillance, imaginatively to be sure, yet how do you make art of something like the famous photo of Obama’s National Security Council watching the assassination of Osama bin Laden? In this case you make it by matching a glossy widescreen TV of that photo to a blank white screen, to signify the blackout on any images of the corpse.

Grey corridors turn up again in one of the most interesting works, a film by an Israeli maker which explores the use of drones, a secret territory, by ingenious indirection: following a fictional family on a torturous journey of checkpoints, threats and near misses; interviewing a fictional drone pilot and splicing that with the anguished reminiscences of a real one, his face masked by blurring; and using shots of downtown and suburban Las Vegas to illustrate his talk of choosing his target buildings.

Otherwise, the rooms contain a catalogue of ways to express displacement from home and homeland, feelings that never go away and often seem relieved by forms of defacement, defacement of the map of the lost country for instance, or of a model of the family home. More often than not it seems a cry of pain that will end by being endlessly repeated.

I wasn’t thinking when I let myself drift next into the permanent Holocaust exhibition. This one wasn’t empty but packed with people, who moved at times like those being herded to someone else’s choice of destination. There were children here too, some very small, who were fortunately saved from reading the too-numerous texts.

Now that it’s over, I can’t imagine that my little war-excursion did me much good. When I got home I heard there’d been another mass shooting in an American school, this time in Florida, like another small incident in a worldwide disturbance that continues.