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The Risk That Paid Off – Tate brings Choucair to London

30 Apr

We normally expect Tate Modern to put on blockbuster shows from exceptionally well-known artists who pull in the punters.  Lichtenstein is the perfect example but just a couple of floors above this popular current exhibition is a retrospective by an artist that I doubt many people have actually heard of.   You’d be forgiven for not having heard of her too as she is still relatively unknown.  Tate has taken a risk here as this is not what people expect of them; they have mounted the world’s first major museum exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair who has never really exhibited outside her homeland of Lebanon – she is now 97.  Older artists are certainly on trend at the moment.

Saloua Raouda Choucair in 1974

Saloua Raouda Choucair in 1974.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Choucair is a truly cosmopolitan artist and Tate ask us to consider this exhibition on level four in the context of Tate’s collections.  Although she rarely left Lebanon, Choucair did visit Egypt in 1943 and spent a few years in France from 1948 when she joined the studio of Fernand Léger.  Her crude copies of Léger’s works are a long way from mere imitations although this is how they may appear at first glance.  She imbues his style with a very personal reading and a new strident sense of dynamism and movement.  The women shown here aren’t fussed by our viewing them; they carry on with their activities, looking at art books, oblivious and uncaring.  The women who do look at us are forceful. Choucair lacks the crispness for which Léger is known, her figures are much rougher and less precise.  Through these works we instantly see her humourist and proto-feminist position.  The works articulate abstract forms and interlocking planes with an incredibly strong sense of colour.  Although, due to her use of natural materials, the palette in her sculpture is much reduced the forms recur again and again.

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Crude copies?  Own photograph.

To put together this exhibition, the curators were allowed to rummage through Choucair’s studio and one room includes a cabinet of hundreds of maquettes, drawings and documents that are actually stored in similar glass cabinets in her Beirut studio.  Through these maquettes we are able to see her thought processes in 3D and her varied and prolific output.  Choucair was very interested in architecture and architectural inventions; her sculptures illustrate her knowledge of architecture and her clear position on form where she liberated herself from the monolith of sculpture.  The creative energy of this artist is seen through her constant experimentation and need to be making things.  A lot of these objects remain small but she imagined them all big!

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Choucair’s cabinet of curiosities.  Own photograph.

Choucair has not had an easy journey and did not even sell a work in Lebanon until 1962 when she was in her 50s.  Of course, looking back through art history this in itself is far from unique but the political struggles that she had to endure add a further element.  Plus, through all this, we must not forget that to be a woman in this environment was exceedingly difficult.  One painting with holes and splinters of glass is the direct result of a nearby bomb during the civil wars; the violent history of Beirut can be followed through her art and much of her public art no longer survives.  Yet, she has continued producing and left us with an extraordinary body of work that constantly strives to break the boundaries of her environment and seek independence from her culture.  We must not underestimate how hard it was for her to create figurative works and even her choice of materials is extraordinary within the culture.

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The interlocking forms of Choucair’s sculptures. Own photograph.

Chouchair is fascinated by endless lines in her sculptures and the potential of the infinite.  She succeeds with the idea of playing with modular systems that can be taken apart and re-ordered in our mind’s eye.  The sculptures shown here are a highlight – ingeniously crafted and pulsating with life.  The forms of western design merge with Islamic motifs to create interlocking geometric puzzles.  Her works known as ‘duals’ present two carefully interlocking parts while some pieces stack together in a similar but more flexible way.

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Choucair, Infinite Structure, 1963-5. Own photograph.

The final room presents a completely different Choucair – a much more contemporary, altogether different artist.  But, look closer and the same ideas and principles are still very much hovering beneath the surface.  The tension, movement and dynamism is omnipresent.

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The final room of the exhibition. Own photograph.

Tate has produced a wonderful catalogue to accompany the exhibition that further elucidates Choucair’s career with remarkable insight and clarity.  This is a small show with only four rooms but I think it is the right size (entry is priced slightly lower than usual to reflect the size difference); I don’t think we would have been ready for a bigger exhibition of her work yet.  This is a well considered show.  Tate has kept it simple and not tried to cram in too much.  They have let us learn about Choucair for the first time.  They have let us come away intrigued and ready for her next exposure wherever and whenever that may be.

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Saloua Raouda Choucair is at Tate Modern until 20th October 2013, www.tate.org.uk.

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From Ben-Day to Man Ray

1 Mar

As soon as the escalator emerged at level 2 of Tate Modern, I knew I had made a mistake. Why oh why would I have thought a Friday morning in half term was a good time to visit an exhibition of one of the most popular and recognisable artists in the world who was one of the central figures of American Pop Art? A momentary oversight I think. But, I was there and, as I’d been looking forward to seeing the Lichtenstein exhibition for quite some time, in I went.

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Queues to get into Tate’s latest exhibition. Own photograph.

Tate say that this is the first major Lichtenstein retrospective in over 25 years – I’m not sure why everyone is forgetting the Hayward’s 2004 retrospective which was then billed as the first major retrospective in 35 years. It’s obviously a catchy marketing line. Tate’s show brings together one hell of a lot of works, just over 125 to be precise, including some of Lichtenstein’s most well-known paintings and some less-known sculptures in steel and brass alongside early works, monochrome images of everyday objects, unseen drawings, collages and works on paper.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Wham!, 1963. Image via www.theweek.co.uk.

Everyone knows Lichtenstein for his work based on comic strips with Ben-Day dots but this exhibition seeks to show that there is so much more to him than this. Inspired by the commercial imagery of advertising, Lichtenstein transformed this aesthetic, painting everything by hand in a strangely depersonalised way.

Lichtenstein’s most well-known pieces are displayed in room four which, ironically, is easy to miss as it juts off to one side and does not provide a link to the end of the exhibition as you would expect. These comic book scenes are certainly not as simple as they initially appear; they capture the zeitgeist of their era, funny but with a poignant and often desolate overtone. They are often a reflection of Lichtenstein’s own life – in his Masterpiece a blonde tells the artist ‘…this painting is a masterpiece! My, soon you’ll have all of New York clamouring for your work.’ Of course, it wasn’t just New York clamouring for a slice of Lichtenstein. His work has now been the subject of over 240 solo exhibitions and there can be no doubt that he defines the enduring legacy of Pop. It seems the blonde was on the money.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece, 1962. Image via www.londonist.com.

The first few rooms are engaging and momentous and then we sit on a downward slide (sadly, the more exciting slide of Carsten Höller are long gone). This exhibition isn’t doing Lichtenstein any favours. It certainly isn’t fair to say he was a one-trick pony but he knew what he was good at and some of his experiments should really not be hanging on Tate’s walls. The lack of soul in his pieces (a self-conscious decision of his style that dictated success) means his landscape works and, indeed, his self-portrait give very little away and so don’t require very long to view. Maybe the less-known works are diminished by the strength of his more recognisable pieces. Maybe they just aren’t as good. Room seven looks at works where he plays with pieces by other artists – his rip off works – and here I saw how he had ruined works by Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and many others. I began to groan.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Non-Objective I, 1964. Image via www.independent.co.uk

Yet, it’s hard not to like his art and the simplicity of the subjects often makes us smile. The works aren’t as simply executed as they appear and required careful calculation and meticulous planning, bringing together his thoughtful techniques with the exact reproduction of found images. He may have repeated the system but he worked continuously to ensure he was exploring new subjects and themes. He was an avid producer.

The show offers a fabulous overview and exploration of Lichtenstein’s career and progression, something we are rarely allowed to see by galleries showing the popular pieces that pull in the punters. My worry at the beginning had been the huge numbers of visitors but actually it was lovely to see so many people engaging with the works. If the crowds weren’t enough of an indication that this show will do well, the shop says it all. It won’t be long before we start to spot tourists wearing Tate’s dotty t-shirts and carrying Lichtenstein canvas bags.

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The Lichtenstein shop. Own photograph.

I, of course, couldn’t resist the catalogue – another beautiful Tate publication – and had to lug it around for the rest of the day. No wonder I have a sore back, it’s carrying all these irresistible books in stilettos.

i5VhtnWvSoHQRoy Lichtenstein, Step-on Can with Leg, 1961. Image via www.bloomberg.com.

A couple of days later I found myself at the National Portrait Gallery for their Man Ray exhibition. We think of Man Ray and we think of dazzling photographs of fashionable people. This exhibition doesn’t disappoint, following him around Paris, New York, Hollywood and London, watching his style transform but never diminish.

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Man Ray, Catherine Deneuve, 1968. Image via www.ultravie.co.uk.

His portraits often reference great painters and known works of art. While he made his living as a commercial photographer for fashion magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar, he was first and foremost an artist, a Surrealist and a Dadist who pushed boundaries to create exciting and exemplary portraits. He was a visual innovator who often stripped scenes or poses right back, the bare bones providing all the beauty he required – narrative wasn’t necessary. Not of all of his works do this however and some just capture a prescribed pose.

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Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924. Image via www.londonist.com.

There can be no doubt that Man Ray’s photographs are beautiful; his photographs of Lee Miller, his lover and muse, are stunning. But she’s certainly not the only lover we see here – before her was Kiki and after her Ady Fidelin, then Juliet Browner who he married and remained with until his death. These women guide us through his life. It’s not just women though – Man Ray’s photographs show us his friends and colleagues; there’s Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Stravinsky, le Corbusier, Hemmingway, Peggy Guggenheim, James Joyce and many more.

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Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, 1933. Image via http://arthistory.about.com.

Man Ray was a photographer who had the gift of being able to capture the life and soul of his subjects. He manages to immortalise these people in the way they wanted to be seen whilst retaining their natural beauty and truth.

Man Ray’s images are so familiar to us that it seems hard to believe that this is the first show of his work at a British gallery. The NPG have included over 150 prints dating from 1916 to 1968, tracing his career. It is well-arranged curatorially in sections that focus on different periods of Man Ray’s life, finishing off back in Paris.

Many of these images are small-scale and it’s hard to appreciate them fully when seen, black and white, en masse. I’ve probably spent longer pouring over the catalogue (yes I bought another one) than I did in the exhibition. Their energy gets somewhat lost in the gallery but the creativity of Man Ray still shines through.

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Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is at Tate Modern until 27th May 2013, http://www.tate.org.uk. Man Ray Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 27th May 2013, http://www.npg.org.uk.

Two in One at Tate

7 Jan

Tate’s current ‘blockbuster’ brings together the works of William Klein and Daido Moriyama, exploring modern urban life in New York and Tokyo from 1950s to the present day.  The exhibition seeks to demonstrate the visual affinity between their urgent, blurred and grainy styles of photography and also their shared desire to convey street life and political protest, from anti-war demonstrations and gay pride marches to the effects of globalisation and urban deprivation.

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Heading into the Tate Modern exhibition.  Own photograph.

The exhibition doesn’t so much juxtapose the two artists as present two completely separate exhibitions that run parallel to each other and interlock in the middle, like a nicely fitted jigsaw.  We are meant to be able to see the influence of Klein on Moriyama.  Yes, there are no doubt obvious aesthetic similarities but wouldn’t the influence be easier to trace if the two artists were shown side by side?  The exhibition fails to present a dialogue between the two – the shows are just too separate but there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that as both, in their own right, are fabulous.

Tate Modern opens William Klein + Daido Moriyama exhibition

Klein + Moriyama exhibition.  Image via http://pcruciatti.photoshelter.com

The exhibition opens with Klein whose work, for me, has a more inherent power.  Maybe this is because I was blown away by him in the first half but I don’t think I’m that fickle.  The several rooms of Klein’s powerful images are mind-blowing to say the least.

Klein’s enormous prints knock us sideways.  They are clear and crisp and the images are juxtaposed one after the other after the other. It’s a beautifully curated exhibition on almost-white walls (thank heavens that Tate’s grey hasn’t reared its head).

Born in New York in 1928, Klein was an art lover from a young age and came to photography after a meandering path where he touched on design and painting (room four of the exhibition includes some of his early abstract wooden panels and it is nice to see his origins).  His early experiments with photography were so impactful that he was offered a job at Vogue and his career as a fashion photographer kicked off with great momentum.  Concurrently, he began documenting the city in a photo diary that eventually formed the basis of his first book.  There was no stopping this man.  Unusually, Klein wanted the viewer to be aware of his own presence at the scene and provoke a response.

William Klein, Candy Store, New York, 1955 from Indy

William Klein, Candy Store, New York, 1955.  Image via www.independent.co.uk

Perhaps because Klein has worked in so many forms, he has always been versatile when transferring ideas from one medium to another and the exhibition progresses to show his experimentation with techniques such as photograms and enlarged photographs graffitied with enamel paint.

Klein is not just a photographer but a documentarian, graphic designer and filmmaker – sections of his film are looped throughout the exhibition.  Klein works in the present.  His works are very powerful and this is an all-encompassing exhibition; this is Klein’s photographs as they are meant to be seen.

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William Klein, Piazza di Spagna, Rome 1960. Image via http://thewomensroomblog.com.    

And then halfway through the exhibition turns to Daido Moriyama. The two artists are so different yet they sit alongside each other seamlessly.  I think this level of harmony is rare.  Tate hasn’t compared or contrasted, they haven’t commented – it’s up to us if we do that.

Moriyama does not go for such a polished aesthetic – his photos are grim and gritty.  They lack the passion that we came to expect from Klein in the first half of this double retrospective.  Moriyama’s works are much more introspective, playing with light and dark, abstracting his scenes so we have to search within the image in a bid to reveal its subject.  He claims his approach was simple – he wanted to show the truth.

Daido Moriyama, TOKYO, 2011 from Indy

Daido Moriyama, TOKYO, 2011.  Image via www.independent.co.uk

His early works can be seen as coming from a Japanese documentary tradition but even at a young age this artist stood out.  He continually questions his subjects and his images explore and seek to understand the very nature of the urban experience.  Many of his photographs present a cross-section of society, looking at anonymous passers-by one alongside the other.  Moriyama uses photography as a form of investigation – both into city life and into the medium itself.  In the third room we see his series Farewell Photography from 1972 where the images are dominated, and often obliterated, by blurs, grains and scratches.  We see a mass of abstract grey.  His images often have deep personal meanings, relating to his own experiences and sense of place.  These grainy grey-scale works appear like fleeting memories that could fade away at any point.

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Looking at Moriyama’s works. Own photograph.

This is Tate Modern’s biggest photography exhibition since its inception but it’s not really one exhibition. There is no evidence that these two artists are properly connected which is possibly why the dialogue fails – it’s unclear how well they knew each other and how much inspiration they took from one another’s work.  But, they are both sensational photographers who produced revelatory work. The monochrome works of both artists push photography to its large-scale limits.  Whether it’s one or two exhibitions, it’s overwhelming and highly enjoyable.

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William Klein + Daido Moriyama is at Tate Modern until 20th January 2013, www.tate.org.uk.

2012 Highlights

27 Dec

When it comes picking my highlights of the last year, I am impossibly indecisive – as ever there have been been the usual disappointments but there have been a fair few stunners in the arts calendar.  I can’t believe how many shows I’ve seen but I also feel I’ve missed a lot – if only there were a few more hours in every day.

As I did last year, I’ve chosen the exhibitions that stand out for me as being remarkable; they include stunning art work, and are interesting and well-curated.  Here we go…

Triumphant at Tate – Way back in February, I visited Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern and I can still vividly picture the exhibition.  Kusama has always been ahead of her time – her work is beautiful, innovative and ground-breaking.  The exhibition worked broadly chronologically with each sequence of rooms studying the emergence of a new artistic stance.

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Yayoi Kusama, I’m Here, but Nothing, 2000. Own photograph.

Radiant at the Royal Academy  – while the rest of the world is still raving about Bronze, the RA’s highlight for me was their exhibition Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed.  I admit that, as an 18th century art historian, I may be slightly biased but through these 60 or so works, the RA successfully argued his importance to the artistic culture and heritage of his time.

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Johan Zoffany, Three Sons of John, Third Earl of Bute and Three Daughters of John, Third Earl of Bute, 1763-4. Own photograph.

Nailing It at the National GallerySeduced by Art is still on show at the National Gallery and is an unmissable exhibition.  This divided opinion but, for me, it was a stunning and enthralling.  Seduced by Art is not a survey, nor a history of photography.  Instead, it offers an argument and dialogue that presents historical painting, alongside historical photography, alongside contemporary photographs. The National Gallery has had a strong year and I feel its Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 (with Wallinger’s Diana in particular) is also worthy of mention.

The Destroyed Room, 1978

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada and via www.ng-london.org.uk.

Leaving LondonEdward Burra at Pallant House was the first major show for over 25 years of the artist’s works in which Burra is finally awarded a smidgeon of the recognition he deserves.  It offered an opportunity to study his extraordinary creativity.

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Edward Burra, The Snack Bar, 1930. Image via www.tate.org.uk.

Also with podium finishes were:

Glistening GoldMondrian||Nicholson: In Parallel, The Courtauld Gallery

This explored the creative relationship between Mondrian and Nicholson, charting the parallel paths explored by these two artists during the 1930s.  It was a far more contemporary show than we would normally expect from The Courtauld and it successfully changed the gallery aesthetic, pairing two artists who many wouldn’t otherwise have realised are connected.

Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue

Piet Mondrian, Composition C (no. III), with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935. Image courtesy of Mondrian/Holtzman Trust and via www.courtauld.ac.uk.

Scintillating SilverNowhere Less Now, Tin Tabernacle

Artangel’s commission by Lindsay Seers, took place in the Tin Tabernacle; Nowhere Less Now was a poignant amalgam of film, photography, sculpture, performance, animation, philosophy and writing.  Its complexities still offer food for thought many months afterwards.

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The Tin Taberacle. Own photograph.

Brilliant BronzePainting from Life: Carracci Freud, Ordovas

Having successfully juxtaposed Bacon and Rembrandt in the past, Ordovas knows how to get its shows right: Painting from Life was a tiny exhibition bringing together head studies by Carracci and Freud.  This was an intimate, simple and stunning juxtaposition.

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Ordovas. Image via www.ordovasart.com.

Last but by no means least – Runner Up  – Alberto Burri: Form and Matter, Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art

Before this exhibition, I didn’t really know who Burri was but he is undoubtedly a master of the 20th century who revolutionised the vocabulary of post-war art.  From the simplest materials, Burri was able to create something monumental and striking, imbued with energy and movement.

6. Burri White Cretto 1975

Alberto Burri, White Cretto, 1975. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com.

But, there was also David Shrigley: Brain Activity at the Hayward Gallery, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist at the Queen’s Gallery, Rothko/Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Secrets at Pace London, Tim Lewis: Mechanisms at Flowers, Doris Salcedo at White Cube and Louse Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed at The Freud Museum and numerous great little shows at Josh Lilley.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten lots of gems.  We are so fortunate to have such varied and high calibre art to admire on our doorstep.  It’s so easy to get from gallery to gallery however precarious your footwear may be and, of course, there’s always a taxi around the corner.

It seems only fitting to include some of my favourite shoe pictures from the past year and to thank my principal shoe photographer (you know who you are).

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Thank you, as ever, for reading Artista.  I hope you had a very Merry Christmas and wish you all a Happy Shoe Year.

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Tate needed to make a Bigger Splash

18 Nov

I don’t enjoy being offensive about exhibitions as I know how much hard work goes into their planning.  It gives me no pleasure to leave a great gallery and be so disappointed and bored by a show that I don’t really have anything to say.  But, Tate’s latest exhibition is so bland and irrelevant that I feel it is one of the worst shows I have seen in years.

A Bigger Splash claims to look at the ‘dynamic relationship between performance and painting from 1950 to the present day’, bringing together artists such as Yves Klein, Cindy Sherman, Nike de Saint Phalle, Wang Peng and Sam Gilliam.  It apparently ‘shows how the key period of post-war performance art has challenged and energised the medium of painting for successive generations’.  I felt the need to include this quote as, without it, I don’t think you’d have a clue as to their intentions.

Sam Gilliam, Simmering, 1970. Own photograph.

The exhibition, of course, opens with David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash – Tate obviously felt they had to include the work around which the exhibition marketing revolves.  After all, this is the title that’s going to pull in the punters.  Make sure to read the subtitle of Painting after Performance as this is not a Hockney show and the painting doesn’t really fit here at all.  Is Hockney’s painting a meditation on performance?  I think not.  Hockney’s work is certainly not the best link to performance art.

Alongside, A Bigger Splash is Pollock’s Summertime and then both artists are shown ‘performing’ in the accompanying films.  Although slightly random, this room seems quite good – it poses questions and it juxtaposes exciting major works.  But, don’t hold your breath, as this excitement swiftly fades away.  In fact, the more we think about this room and the lack of continuity between the works, the more we realise the exhibition is fundamentally flawed.

David Hockney, A Bigger Splash, 1967. Own photograph.

Both Hockney and Pollock look at the action of painting. If we want to call these artists ‘performers’ then surely any artist, in fact any creator, is a performer and then what the hell is the point of the exhibition.  Neither artist was, in my opinion ‘energised’ by performance art.

Pollock’s Summertime seen horizontal as it was painted.  Image via www.independent.co.uk

Most of the works in the exhibition are accompanied by film footage – dreary archive material that cannot make up for the lack of actual performance.  The exhibition is a mess, bringing together every sort of art, performance and media that the curators could possibly cram into one space.  Plus it’s hung on Tate grey – my favourite wall colour!

I’m not going to discuss the individual works as to see them in this context does them a disservice.  There are some powerful works if you have the energy to seek them out but, more often than not, they are lost in the ruckus.

Painting after Performance at Tate. Own photograph.

The exhibition takes a dramatic turn half-way through, concentrating on one artist per room, looking at large-scale installations.  Here, I felt the connection to painting pretty much faded away completely.  The exhibition did improve but not sufficiently to pull me out of the depression that the first six galleries had induced.  It was still pretty lacklustre.

Joan Jonas, The Juniper Tree. Own photograph.

My favourite part of the show was the last room.  Not only because it was the exit but because Lucy McKenzie’s work is thought-provoking and beautiful.  Her paintings make use of trompe l’oeil techniques that mimic architectural surfaces and the gallery becomes an imaginary room with fake walls, the interior of a stylish house.

Lucy McKenzie at Tate. Own photograph.

Even though I hoard books, I didn’t want this catalogue which, from the reviews I’ve read, seems to be an abomination, even worse than the exhibition itself.  A perverse part of me wants to get one just to see how Tate has gone so wrong with this too but, to be honest, I just can’t be bothered.

There are no performers in an exhibition surveying performance art.  It becomes very difficult to engage, difficult to feel invigorated and difficult to spend very much time at all in there.  Tired archive footage heard through headphones cannot capture the spirit of performance.  So, was painting affected by performance art?  I don’t think we leave the exhibition any the wiser.  Tate may ask the question but they certainly don’t attempt to give us an answer.

A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance is at Tate Modern until 1st April 2013, www.tate.org.uk.

Warning: this exhibition is gloomy, dull and depressing

29 Jul

Edvard Munch was unfortunate to say the least.  He suffered from depression, alcoholism, agoraphobia and misogyny but I personally have a feeling that he was one of those people who perversely enjoy the afflictions that life in their paths.  There can be no doubt that he had a tragic life but this exhibition has a tragic start.  For me, his works don’t explore his torment in an artistic way.  Rather, his gloom and misery just emanate from the canvases and rub off on us.  The show (with walls painted in depressing Tate grey) doesn’t grab us immediately.

Munch, Red Virginia Creeper, 1898-1900. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Aesthetically, there’s an improvement from room two where both the works and the exhibition become slightly more vibrant.  This room looks at Munch’s fascination with repetition as many versions of his works exist.  In particular there are several versions of all his main compositions, some separated by as much as three decades.  Munch once said that ‘a great idea never dies’ and, rather than copy the works exactly, he created variants reinterpreting his initial ideas.  But, often the works weren’t good enough or the ideas strong enough to merit these constant re-workings.  Instead we are presented with one shoddily painted work after another obsessed with ideas of death and suffering.

Munch’s repetition. Own photograph.

The exhibition does make interesting light of his relationship with photography and film and his photography is used to guide us through the different sections of his artistic life.  As with the camera, Munch became addicted to cinematography (more than two thirds of the works here are photographs plus there are two films).  This understanding and experience helped refine his painterly skills and technique.  Entitled The Modern Eye, the exhibition aims to show that Munch was a modern thinker with modern concerns.  Fair enough, but he is certainly not a modernist which is one of the theses presented here.

Munch, Self Portrait Naked in the Garden at Asgardstrand, 1903. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Munch’s oeuvre is very varied with limited progression and because of this he doesn’t always come off well as an artist. The absence of The Scream does force us to concentrate a bit more on the rest of his output.  I’m not convinced this is a good thing though.  Although multiple copies of it exist, it would have been practically impossible for Tate to organise a loan for the exhibition.  The Scream recently sold at Sotheby’s New York for £74 million after an incredible 12 minutes of telephone bidding.  It is one of the most famous paintings in art history although not that many people could name any of his other works.  To be fair, I’m not sure I could have done.  The anguish, however, of the screaming figure is omnipresent.

Munch’s The Scream sells at Sotheby’s.  Image via http://fineart.about.com

It is a bland show.  Maybe I shouldn’t have visited on a grey and rainy day or maybe it comes down, once again, to lighting levels that are slightly too low.  The catalogue, however, is brilliant and I’d recommend buying this rather than traipsing over to Tate Modern.  The first essay begins not with discussion of his origins and his birth but with the date of his death – death after all pervades everything that Munch did.  His sister died of consumption when she was only 15 and death and sickness haunt the majority of his works.  Six versions exist of The Sick Child – through this reinvestigation Munch was perhaps able to experience a sense of cathartic release.

Munch, The Sick Child, 1907. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition begins and ends with his self-portraits.  Those in the final room are perhaps the most powerful works in the whole exhibition, following Munch’s self-destruction and the terrifying course of his own dark despair.  Munch had always had a poorly sighted left eye and, in 1930, he suffered a haemorrhage in his right eye.  Rather than consider this a reason to stop painting, he focussed (!) on painting the progression of the haemorrhage; the blind spot in his vision meant that he was able to dedicate himself completely to ill health and the subjectivity of his vision as his sight became further confused and images blurred.

Visitors to the Munch exhibition. Own photograph.

In 2005, the Royal Academy mounted a show of Munch’s self-portraits but few are held in public collections in the UK.  Tate doesn’t seek to engage with Munch’s key works, nor is this a retrospective exhibition.  Instead, it has been designed to illustrate the curators’ arguments and theses.  This is not an exhibition that is meant to be palatable to the public but to art historians with a strong interest in Munch – a narrow window indeed when you consider the gloomy outpourings of this depressive and one that I think is far too limited.  This isn’t normally a problem we encounter with Tate.  Such an institution should be seeking to engage more actively with all its public in a more inclusive way.

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye is at Tate Modern until 14th October 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

Tate’s Tanks: Did they tank or triumph?

21 Jul

The build-up for the opening of Tate’s Tanks has been immense as this is the first major stage in the opening of the new section of Tate – The Tate Modern Project.

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

The galleries will be permanently dedicated to exhibiting live art, performance, installation and film – the first spaces in the world to have these objectives as their focus.  This is a hugely important moment in the progression of the art world; one day in the not too distant future the Tanks will be part of the Survey course at the Courtauld, included in an introduction to art history and we are witnessing this at its inauguration.  It is all part of the evolution of Tate Modern, as Nick Serota cornily said the Tanks are a “new instrument in the orchestra that is Tate Modern.”  Tate wants the tanks to challenge the arts, they aren’t simply white cubes or black boxes, they are a new zone that falls somewhere in between.

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

To kick-start this space Tate has launched, Art in Action, a fifteen week programme that will allow visitors to explore these art forms.  Originally designed to hold one million gallons of oil, the tanks are found industrial spaces of a particular shape.  I must say that I expected something more spectacular, the three interlinking spaces that attach to the Turbine Hall are beautiful but not domineering.  These are not neutral spaces, there is a lot of history associated with the tanks and all artists are responding very differently.  But, the reopened Tanks, for me, don’t connect strongly enough architecturally with their antecedents.

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

The Turbine Hall has always felt as if it is the heart of the power station; the space is often compared to that of a cathedral in its proportions, the cavernous architecture lending power and majesty.  We know what this was and we know what it has become.  It perfectly gestures to its past while acting as one of London’s most well-known and best-loved public art spaces.  The Tanks are too austere to beckon to their heritage.  Whilst they use concrete and an industrial language, Herzog & de Meuron could have taken this further to better effect.  However, it’s great to see the spaces of hidden London being utilised.

The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.  Image via www.powerinspace.org

At the press preview, we were able to watch a dance performance, Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker with Ann Veronica Janssens.  The piece explores the relationship between music and dance, outlining the principles of music composition rather than just dancing to music.  As they closed the doors to this tank, the space became appropriately claustrophobic for this hugely repetitive piece of structured dance.  The audience watch from around the dance floor, enclosing the dancers and creating the walls of the room with their bodies.  Although Fase didn’t really grab me, it is a very accomplished performance linking the genres of dance and art and Tate has produced some very interesting programme notes to accompany the whole series that are well worth a read.

Fase in the Tanks. Own photograph.

The next stage in expanding Tate’s orchestra (ick!) will use the foundations embedded in the Tanks to support the creation of ten new storeys that radically reinterpret the brickwork of the original power station.  Due to the amazing pace that this project is unfolding, Tate has been fortunate enough to work again with Herzog & de Meuron for this extension.  The new part of Tate will use the same language with a literal twist.  Herzog & de Meuron have ensured that the Tanks seamlessly open from the Turbine Hall (which will remain as the building’s backbone), showing that they intend to maintain the integrity of the building with a continuous flow.  Due to these ambitious plans, the Tanks won’t yet remain open full time but they are giving us a taster of what is to come.  By 2016 we should have access to it all.

The plans for the next stage.  Image via www.hughpearman.com.

The Tanks are currently quite confusing.  We didn’t really know what was where, the labels are outside the galleries and don’t guide people satisfactorily and generally we weren’t sure what was going on.  But I imagine these are all teething problems and by the end of the fifteen weeks when over 40 artists will have performed, the Tanks will be an integral part of the London art scene and we’ll be starting the countdown to the opening of the next section of Tate.

Fifteen Weeks of Art in Action will be in Tate Modern’s Tanks until 28 October 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

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