Mysteries of London 2: Petrie museum of Egyptian archaeology

 

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The Petrie is a museum with no presentation in the modern sense, no attempt at atmospheres or effects. Objects are packed as tightly as possible, bumping into each other, often slightly obscured by labels which never try to make a case for their items’ importance, or even to situate them, except for vague references like ‘Dynasty XVIII’.

The only criterion is visibility. Objects are arranged by size, so you come to the biggest first, or by type or subject in patches, so small models of animals are together, but only some of them, and combs made of bone. This arrangement (or lack of one) is now a historical curiosity. Formerly many museums were like this—the museum in Whitby in Yorkshire comes nearest of those I can remember.

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My method for dealing with the overwhelming profusion of mostly small things was to pick out what was strangest–drastic truncations (‘senseless fragments’), faint reliefs so shallow it was hard to see them at all, half-erased scenes, damaged inscriptions reverting to rough lumps of pure geology, drawings which might become reliefs or were cheaper substitutes.

I wasn’t looking for important objects or even for the best ones, liking the feeling that these weren’t great to start with and that I had been turned more than usually loose among them, without guidelines or commentary. The extreme fragmentation of the remains made them more like disconnected flashes or hallucinations. Why did I like some of the most damaged best? Because this was where you felt the effect of all that past time most powerfully, time that wasn’t helping you but trying to defeat you.

DSC03514.jpgMuseums are usually more accommodating, making you think you are getting somewhere, but here there’s no overarching narrative, only a tremendous crowd of separate things. I got the idea I should write about the Petrie in the first flush of my enthusiasm, preserving the exact state of my current ignorance, before I’d read any further in the two books I got there and found out more. This would give me a chance to test a favourite theory, according to which I’ll do damage by burdening myself with learning, like a burrowing animal going further into darkness.

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I could still pick out my favourites–the fat porphyry frog, the sacred lettuces, the dog under his master’s chair, the scene of trading sandals for grain, the ruined ivory like flesh, various reused stones defaced from their former shapes, the misshapen leather bag still carrying its quota of congealed fat, and half a dozen partial depictions of Akhenaten and his family, instantly recognisable.

The final stage of the experiment (if it worked) would be a separate piece, approaching this little museum newly stuffed up with knowledge and guided by the disheartening floor plan passed out free to visitors (mainly students the day I was there, instructing the girl- or boy-friend they had brought along, or sketching objects in the cabinets, who didn’t need such diagrams), a plan which showed every single display case, but generically and not especially accurately. Wasn’t actually writing the second piece, in order to complete the before-and-after scheme, innocence and experience, doomed in advance, before it even happened?

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The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. University College London Malet Place London WC1E 6BT. Free entry. Open Tue – Sat 13:00–17:00. Closed 22 December to 1 January 2019

Malet Place is a small turning off Malet Street lined with UCL buildings.  The museum is upstairs in a building on the left near the far end of this mainly pedestrian street.

Oceania—art of the Pacific islands

 

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A moment of vertigo as you realise that by allotting a whole wall to a map of these scattered islands, you’ve drawn attention to the vast expanses of empty space between them.  Once you’ve left the land masses at either end of 6000 miles of ocean behind, there’s almost nothing there. It is the most dispersed series of human habitations on earth, given a flimsy coherence by the comforting (comforting and embarrassing) 18c names, reminders of European monarchs, like Caroline or Mariana, or far away and inappropriate places, like the Hebrides (now Vanuatu), Britain or Ireland (with New tacked on in front) and quaintest of all, Easter Island (now Rapa Nui) after the purely accidental day of European landfall.

The adventure properly begins with the ocean, represented in the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy by a huge, nearly featureless blue hanging, crinkled like a calm sea and cascading toward the viewer. This was followed by a vast space where three slender canoes were suspended in the dimness. The largest was never meant to touch the water, a soul-canoe, already full of crouching wooden passengers–fierce birds, quiet turtles and human figures knotted together at both ends, where they hung out over imaginary sea-water.

DSC04791 copy.jpgAround them were grouped embellishments of canoes: splashboards inscribed with wave patterns that turn into birds biting each other, or a menacing crocodile prow with a demonic face on a canvas shield looming over it (see opening image). There were also three navigation charts like a cross between maps and abstract art, made of sticks (the main stems of coconut-palm fronds) lashed together into lattices dotted with tiny shells tied on in asymmetrical sequences. It’s the asymmetry and minimal means that make them feel like abstract art, and the diagrammatic arrangements of lines and dots that recall maps.

Western observers cannot help trying to match up the pattern of shells with islands on a map (a German attempt illustrated in the catalogue), an effort that can only ever succeed in part, because ‘lines’ on these ‘charts’ represent ocean-swells not distances, a subject long studied by island navigators, and classified into four types according to various resistances like undersea ridges, island shapes and prevailing winds. The charts aren’t taken along on voyages (hence their picture-like scale) but studied ahead of time and used in teaching. They are only the tips of icebergs of esoteric knowledge which have drawn occasional Western sailors to devote years to fathoming them.

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The precarious situation of islands which barely stick out above the sea often finds an echo in the islanders’ art, in headdresses formed of thousands of tiny feathers loosely mounted on flimsy cane frames, forming gigantic quivering auras 7 feet across over the dancer’s head. These rarely survive and are meant to be thrown away after a single performance, like those much solider island products, the malangan carvings made for funerals, depicting big fish entangled in little fish and threading their un-fishlike tusks among the fins. Their painted gaudiness seems almost another sign of a short life, of going out ablaze. Malangans turn up surprisingly often in museum collections, apparently because their makers think that selling them to the anthropologists is just another kind of destruction.

DSC04682 copy.jpgFlimsiness, undependable materials and the prospect of a short life can also lead to delightfully casual effects, as they do in barkcloth masks stretched on light bamboo frames which are hard to control precisely. The resulting wobbliness of forms can look like beings who are changing shape before your eyes, as in the lopsided duck or bird above, who seems to make space for a large spider living on his forehead at the centre of a web that covers the bird’s face. Its enormous eyes are not used for looking at the everyday world but at something further off. The wearer can see only through the bird’s beak, which must give everyone, dancer and spectator alike, a dislocated idea of where reality will be found.

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Under the sea’s influence Oceanic art, like Shakespeare’s late plays, is possessed by the idea of transformation, of things turning into other things, as in a carved board of uncertain purpose that starts with a large moon-like face at the top and then becomes a trellis of small faces melting into others, and then larger, more indistinct ones like Rorschach blots, with mirror-selves upside-down below. The overall effect is not unlike the mazes of Northern interlace, and all the piercing makes every perception insubstantial.

Next to this screen happened to be another mythical transformation, in which a long-tailed bird dug its talons into the scalp of a man it intended to carry aloft or devour and subsume on the spot. Already its claws were turning into human hair combed into parallel ridges. The leaning form of this roof finial foreshadowed the gentle motion of the bird’s flight and its acceptance of the composite creature it had become.

DSC04670 copy.jpgTattoos, and especially Maori face-tattoos, are indisputably an art-form, but difficult to include in an exhibition consisting of objects anchored in one place. There’s a remarkable drawing made in England in 1818 by a Maori artist suffering climate and culture shock. He depicts his brother’s face-tattoo as a single exploded view which flattens out the parts of the design that would disappear around the corners on the cheeks or over the top of the forehead. He makes it easier to grasp how this process consumes a part of the body and transforms it into a work of art, or rather how the body and the design are fused into a new being and a new work, a deeper idea of what writing lines on the body might achieve than most tattooists dream of.

DSC04985 copy.jpgIn 1896 a museum director in New Zealand solved the problem of how to display tattoos in a gallery that conveyed their vividness and power. He commissioned a sculpture from a noted Maori artist that would give him a three-dimensional rendering of tattoos. The resulting work looks as if it is carved from a single piece of dark wood left largely uncoloured to represent with defiant strength the darkness of native New Zealand skin. It shows three fully rounded heads emerging from a flat background deeply carved with traditional patterns, stained red and including two fierce birds with mother of pearl eyes. The heads are arranged in rows, two men at the top, a woman at the bottom. The men stare straight ahead, sightlessly; the woman looks down but her eyes are closed. You can study the tattoos as the director intended, but the expressions of the three and their asymmetries are unnerving.

Tattooing is not universal across the islands. One of the most rewarding aspects of studying all these tiny self-contained cultures is finding out how un-homogenous they are. New Guinea alone, the largest land mass in Oceania, contains or contained over a thousand languages and a dizzying variety of forms. In the middle Sepik region on the north coast appeared one of the most surprising simulacra of a tattooed face, sitting atop a special stool which commemorated a famous orator. It wasn’t a stool for sitting on, but a kind of effigy for contemplating the departed, which envisages him expressing his power with circular designs that start from the eyes and spread hypnotically over the whole face, which takes on a new concave form to accommodate them. Are these lines the spreading ripples of the orator’s voice, a visual analogue for sound waves?

DSC04701 copy.jpgThere is often a strong impulse in Oceanic art to dissolve solid bodies and obliterate the distinctness of forms. One of the most perplexing works shows a human body become almost two dimensional, a graphic squiggle of concentric curvelets enclosing an essence receding toward the status of a dot. In a world without writing there is no letter C, but in a world with drawing there is certainly this empty but enclosing form of a shallow curve with more copies of itself within.

DSC04849 copy.jpgIn the same company belongs the astonishingly featureless figure from Nukuoro in the Carolines whose head is a spinning top like one of Oscar Schlemmer’s, spherical at the back, narrowed to the point of a cone at the front, its chin. I imagine that I see on this ‘face’ the most delicate concentric tattoos and even almond-shaped openings in the pattern for the eyes. From Tahiti comes another way of blanking out the person with strong shapes and textures, ones which do not belong to personhood, large flat pearly shells instead of face, hands and breasts; stiff rectangles of alien substances covering the rest of the body. Appropriately this is a costume for the chief mourner at a funeral, someone who cuts off from all connection while the ordeal lasts.

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How is the deity A’a from remote Rurutu recognisable as a person at all? He has a head, sort of, and a body, but has been so colonised by parasites which he exudes like beads of sweat that he himself is obliterated. I had known him a long time before I’d been anywhere near the British Museum or had any idea what he looked like, except what I could glean from William Empson’s poem. Apparently he has functioned as a totem for many unbelievers who have little or no other contact with Oceanic art. He exercised his sway on the missionaries who brought him back to England instead of incinerating him, as had been their custom with the other idols which local people submitted to them to confirm their trust in the new creed, Christianity. The anthropologist Edmund Leach thought A’a’s visual power lay in his resemblance to an erect penis, an emblem of fertility, sweating lots of copies of himself which don’t resemble him exactly, but suggest increase, rather alarmingly.

He appeared in Roland Penrose’s exhibition of 1948-9, 40,000 years of modern art, after which the curator had a cast made. Seeing him in the Penrose studio, Picasso wanted one too, as did Henry Moore. Occasional visitors from Rurutu have come to see A’a in the British Museum, and a copy of him finally made it back to his birthplace and sits beside sports trophies in the mayor’s office. Recent scientific conclusions that he is made of sandalwood were debated by the island elders, who reaffirmed their adherence to the traditional belief that the material is pua wood, a species of tree noted for its sweet-smelling flowers.

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Homage To The British Museum

 There is a supreme God in the ethnological section;
A hollow toad shape, faced with a blank shield.
He needs his belly to include the Pantheon,
Which is inserted through a hole behind.
At the navel, at the points formally stressed, at the organs of sense,
Lice glue themselves, dolls, local deities,
His smooth wood creeps with all the creeds of the world.

Attending there let us absorb the cultures of nations
And dissolve into our judgement all their codes.
Then, being clogged with a natural hesitation
(People are continually asking one the way out),
Let us stand here and admit that we have no road.
Being everything, let us admit that is to be something,
Or give ourselves the benefit of the doubt;
Let us offer our pinch of dust all to this God,
And grant his reign over the entire building.

 

William Empson

 

In the exhibition A’a was shown with his back removed and his internal cavity exposed. I came at him from behind and received a tremendous shock. I did not know that he was hollow.

‘The Price of Everything’—money and the art world

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The title of this mainly hilarious and occasionally disturbing film avoids getting into the deeper waters called up by its missing other half–‘Someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. The film avoids them too, mostly, opting for an entertaining procession of outlandish characters–artists, collectors, dealers, auctioneers, historians, one critic, one novelist–outlandish in themselves or in juxtaposition to whoever comes next.

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The story begins with the true mascot of an art world ruled by money, the richest artist of all, Jeff Koons, a ridiculous prankster whom no serious person could take seriously, except that they do. His fans include Marilyn Minter, an artist of some integrity who specialises in depictions of pubic hair, and the collector Stefan Edlis, the wittiest presence in the film, proud owner of a couple of Koons. Koons himself surfaces in a large studio where fifteen assistants are working simultaneously on fifteen famous Old Master paintings, of which they are making laborious copies. Koons gives an involuted explanation of how he is actually making every stroke of all the brushes, though he never touches any of them. A second high-flown explanation covers how these copies, each of them with a ‘gazing ball’ of blue mirror-glass inserted into the middle of it, will thereby become a profound representation of the five spheres of existence.

Later on, Edlis gives a more believable argument for gazing, in front of his own gazing-ball Koons. Edlis is a conundrum throughout, lively, seriously intelligent, not fooled by a lot of art-world silliness, yet captivated by much work that seems almost pure spoof to me, like Koons, Roy Lichtenstein and Maurizio Cattelan, whose ‘Him’, a child-sized Hitler saying his prayers or begging forgiveness, kneels between the bookshelves in Edlis’ flat looking at a wall.

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Koons is set off against another artist, Larry Poons, who was famous long ago for his dot-paintings, which he declined to keep turning out, dropped off the map, moved to a dilapidated house in the woods and went on painting furiously while the art world assumed he had died. Poons’ paintings are visceral (Koons’ always look machine-finished), painted entirely by him, and lack any handle or joke by which you could instantly grasp or describe them. We follow him trudging through the snow in old clothes like a trapper inspecting his catches. He even mentions Cooper’s Deerslayer, set nearby. A dealer has tracked him down and pushed him into showing his recent work in New York. Larry Poons seems very sane, but we tremble for him.

The dealers are a different race, exhibited in another pair–a shiny gesticulating man near the beginning who admits it’s all a bubble, the recent steep inflation in prices for contemporary art, ‘but it is doing so much good—please don’t pop the bubble!’. And on the other side, a scruffy English dealer who senses a crash on the way. He thinks he can already smell the smoke—of a bonfire or an apocalypse? And I think of climate change and the biosphere, something even bigger than the art world.

‘The Price of Everything’ sketches in–late in the day—how we got here. The supply of Old Masters was visibly drying up, and it seemed the whole game might be nearing its end. Then out of nowhere young collectors, fabulously rich on the boom in the financial sector, got interested in contemporary art, which not many years ago the bosses at Phillips wouldn’t even allow into the building, so off we went on the heedless spiral so amusingly surveyed by this film.

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The Price of Everything, a film by Nathaniel Kahn, 2018, 1 hr 36 min

George Condo is this how the painting he works on in the film ends up?, Jeff Koons Monet waterlilies with Gazing Ball implant, Larry Poons Trichordal 2016, Gael Neeson with Cattelan’s Him

African sculpture — art versus anthropology

 

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I used to think that Picasso and the other early modernists who raved over the African masks and carved figures they found in Parisian museums saw only formal designs and discarded the cultural baggage that came with them. They weren’t superstitious natives but aesthetes, who appropriated the geometrical discoveries they needed and ignored the rest. Now I think that this describes my attitude to African objects in the primitive days of the 1960s, not Picasso’s, who thought he recognised in African carvers fellow artists practising a kind of magic, standing between the spirit-world and their audiences like shamans and interpreting that dangerous reality to them. He credited the African objects with waking him to the true seriousness of art.

The divide between the artist’s vision and the anthropologist’s isn’t quite what I thought it was then, but it is still there. I even begin to think this painful split is not resolvable and bound to haunt anyone who becomes deeply interested in African sculpture. For it is sculpture that carries the serious weight of African art and above all sculpture in wood. Sculpture includes all sorts of useful objects–backrests, stools, musical instruments, containers for food—a full list would go on much longer and show that the concept enclosed in our word sculpture doesn’t really fit in Africa.

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Take masks, one of the most numinous of African cultural forms, to which we bring associations from ancient Greek drama, tied to venerable texts, not appropriate to African cultures which were not literate in the time of the earliest surviving masks and so have left no contemporary interpretations. For the aesthete (perhaps for any museum-goer) it is convenient to think of African art existing outside history, like ghosts in a dream, or a continuous unchanging present. This is a cultural appropriation uncomfortably like looting in its own high-handed way. Sometimes it’s obvious that a mask has been shorn of its history—it had one, but the evidence was too bulky for the collector to bring that back as well as the mask proper, or the material was perishable (grass, feathers) and has decayed and disappeared. More often than not, the masks have functioned as part of a kind of theatrical performance, a masquerade that took place in the street or the field and played its part in agricultural or social cycles.

I have two books that represent the two poles clearly, one is Africa, the art of a continent, the catalogue of an enormous exhibition of 1995-6, the other is A History of Art in Africa, which in spite of its title is full of photos showing the art in use, smothered by and barely visible under the social hubbub, art sharing the space with anthropology. This reflects current discomfort with treating African masks and figures simply as museum pieces, which have left their lives in the villages behind.

Bits of Greek or Egyptian temples in the British Museum, Italian altarpieces in the National Gallery—these are also instances of dismembering culture to turn it into art. Photos in the great Africa catalogue isolate the works and make every detail visible, elevating them into a place of special clarity, transfiguring them. The current style of museum display, however, (in the British Museum in London or the National Museum of African Art in Washington) sinks them in a surrounding darkness from which they emerge eerily, uncertainly. Photos taken under those conditions convey the murk of clouded consciousness.

1f butterfly mask copy.jpgIts subjects exist outside history in a world ruled by metaphor, like a huge butterfly mask in Washington with four birds and three chameleons perched on it, stretching sideways for almost six feet in a shape unlike any face that ever was. Labels for such objects too often simply show the limits of knowledge—dates are the date it was collected, or a guess–‘late 19th/ early 20th century (?)’—how often have we met that? Then comes an interesting debate about which of two nearby groups is more likely as the source of the work. In the meantime more intriguing questions have slipped away—why a butterfly? why such an abstract, bird-like form of butterfly? why such strident tattooing over the whole wing-surface of the flimsy creature? and the inversions of size, small birds & large butterfly—is that just a picture of thought roaming free, or a more specific puzzle to be solved? No answers, only questions.

DSC03299 copy.jpgOrdinary objects are turning into animals, like a stool ingeniously composed of a long nosed beast which can fold its limbs into a stool with none left over or sticking out, an improbable completeness in disparate realities aligned. Less immediately perplexing are appliances embellished with a single or a couple of animal features, a big container with a head and a tail, or a backrest with a ram’s head at the top and two supports turning into his front legs, the rest of him nowhere to be seen or thought of as continuing underground.

1w ram backrest copy.jpgIt is wrong to view the animal features as embellishments or decoration of a useful object. They are all we need to turn a thing into a being. Even a modern Westerner, susceptible enough to the literal mindedness that runs deep in all art, will seize on the slightest signs that the inanimate is becoming animate to take the hint, carry it further and complete the conversion, even in the case where what I took for a large storage container made from a log is actually a slit-drum for sending long-distance messages by banging on its sides with wooden hammers. I reckoned it a giant ant-eater, so stretched-out was its body, nine feet long, but everyone agrees that the head is another ram’s head, and the tail a ram’s tail, so these proportions call for difficult digesting by the viewer. Or perhaps its mass is so powerful that it overcomes all objections by that fact alone.

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There is a whole category of African mask which looks nothing much like any existing man or beast, such as an example in the British Museum which I mistook for a wolf (a non-African species), then decided must be a crocodile. These masks are even called Cubist in catalogues, on the theory that like Braque and his contemporaries the African artist has analysed the form of the animal’s head into purer geometrical solids, as a kind of intellectual feat or, more likely, in hope of striking terror in the viewer. A being of such heartlessly perfect forms, encountered in a masquerade, would be the last opponent to pay any attention to a plea.

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The same goes for the ridged human face with its features alarmingly protruded and separated from each other. Here again analysis immediately reveals itself as ruthlessness, all thinking finished, all results final. To the early twentieth century artist this work seemed to go further and more fearlessly than the West had ever dared.

1g ridged mask copy.jpgIt isn’t really in the same class-–creating fear or disturbance—but the famous mask with twelve eyes might be in its way just as intimidating. The rules of ordinary reality give way all at once without a chance to discuss them. Of all the objects in this series, this is the one which most needs to be seen in isolation for full effect, surrounded by a void, a true minimalist reduction.

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The forms are superficially similar but the intention is as far away as possible in the chaos of cylindrical forms that dominates the mask now in Washington which uses discarded found objects to make the approximation of a straggly beard.  Spent cartridges may still carry the original threat of unassailable power, or the whole thing may be a joke on the bluster of the white man. Interpreting the humour of other cultures is a notorious trap for the unwary—is this dangerous aggression or hollow thunder? I lean to the first.

1m cartridge mask.jpgIt is rare to find reliable reports connected with a specific piece. The History of Art in Africa illustrates a mask that resembles an actual decapitated head with gaping nostrils and sagging mouth, whose teeth are apparently taken from executed criminals condemned by the mask, which functioned as judge and lawgiver until the late 1930s, when forced into retirement by a bureaucrat. Apparently this mask was regarded as so dangerous that it was brought to meetings wrapped in a black cloth. Its bangles each represent particular victims for whose deaths it was responsible.

There’s a familiar sort of fetish which carries even more ominous evidence of a long and violent history. These are the figures of dogs or men stuck full of blades until they bristle so thickly, like a gruesome distortion of the animal’s fur, that we wonder if there is room for any more exercises of the fetish’s power. Apparently the painful profusion is the sign of a figure that works, whose power has brought about all those desired outcomes. As in Kafka, excruciating pain is the precondition of enlightenment. In The Penal Colony the cult of pain ends badly, but ambiguously. The fetish stuck full of all-too-vivid jabs is one of the severest tests of Western understanding of African intentions. Who is the victim? Is there one or hundreds of them? I make the most twisted sense of these alarming objects, which give me a kind of kick, but which I doubt if I understand in their original sense at all.

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Wonderful masks of tiered figures, much too heavy for one person to wear, again test our ability to enter the moods or states for which they were made. In this one a rider carrying among other gear the decapitated head of an enemy, sits on an overscaled head which is part of the same tree but now seems made of an entirely different material, lighter in colour and rough and granular like bread. Apparently this texture comes from many applications of sacrificial blood and palm wine, not the friendly feeding of the image that one finds in Indian temples, not intimate and domestic, but administered in fear and awe of the image’s power, proven over years of testing its ability to fulfil requests. In truth I can go only so far in enjoying this feature—I like the texture and the idea that one part of a work of art receives such destructive attention while the rest does not. To an African villager this outsider’s approach, stopping short of the most important element, the change that the image can bring about, must seem nonsensical.

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Another impressive composite figure in the British Museum looks like a mask on legs, turned into a piece of furniture or stabilised into a permanent shrine which doesn’t move about. Looking more closely, we detect a strange deconstruction of the central figure. The large cavity where the dancer’s head would go, if it were actually a mask, is found in place of the main figure’s stomach, which is also a monstrous maw ringed with teeth. Just as incongruously, this man has four legs not two.

DSC03451.jpgOne of the group’s most intriguing features is the mixed character of the beings brought together and organised symmetrically. There’s a small elephant mounted on the large figure’s head, and two children or deputies whom he holds at arm’s length. It is a mysterious and powerful group which only runs into trouble when we attempt detailed interpretation. Is it a portrait of a particular family which would have been kept in their house, or a cosmological diagram commissioned by the tribe and taking part in its ceremonies, even briefly worn on someone’s shoulders as if it really were a mask? It’s the old problem of wanting to give an African object a history, and feeling that the more one insists, the more one is making it up.

Very few African objects look truly old, and often it seems to go with having been neglected. Some of the most venerable are grave figures raised to commemorate individuals. These are unusually tall and thin, because they are made from trees, because they are markers which need to stand out in a field of others like them, and because they haven’t eaten anything and are already part of the spirit-world. The main reason they look so venerable and carry their history so visibly is that no one is taking care of them, and they are left to decay like the other bodies buried at their feet.

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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.