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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.

Double Exposure: National Portrait Gallery and Hamiltons

7 Jul

Glamour of the Gods at the National Portrait Gallery is a celebration of Hollywood stars from 1920-1960.  Over 70 vintage photographs are on display here, many of which have never been shown before, from the amazing archives of the John Kobal Foundation.

The studios used these photographs to transform their actors and actresses into style icons and heartthrobs.  These iconic images helped to shape incredible personalities, acting as powerful ‘posters’ to publicise new films and draw in audiences.  Not only is the range of stars overwhelming (James Dean, Joan Collins, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, and many others) but the range of photographers is also impressive including George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Bob Coburn and Ruth Harriet Louise.

Marlon Brando for A Streetcar Named Desire (1950) by John Engstead. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition records decades of film history.  John Kobal began collecting film photographs in the 1950s. Over time, his passion burgeoned and he tracked down many of the photographers behind the portraits, arranging exhibitions, publishing books, and seeking to give them the recognition they deserved.  Luckily for us, Kobal was an obsessive, realising the importance of these artists when no one else did and bringing them to the forefront, together with the stars they were photographing.

Whereas today we like our ‘celebs’ to be real people, the Hollywood film studios of this era chose to depict the actors as glamorous, mysterious and inaccessible.  With no paparazzi, these were the photographs seen and admired by the fans.   Appallingly, to enable the photographs to be reproduced as widely as possible, they were stamped ‘copyright free’ meaning many of these important photographers remained uncredited for their timeless works.

Rita Hayworth (1939) by Gene Kornman. Own photograph. 

I know I always commend or criticise slightly strange things – here, I have heaps of praise for the wall labels; they are brilliantly concise with information about both the works and the stars who appear in them.  They are informative and interesting – just right.  It was fascinating to be able to read the real names of these Hollywood icons – Joan Crawford, for example, was born Lucille Fay Le Sueur.

The exhibition is two-tone with walls of light cyan and deep purple – a bold and unusual choice.  Whilst the cyan walls bring out the tonal qualities of the monochrome photos, the purple doesn’t work as well.  These sections are a confusing mass of colour – purple walls with an injection of black (as described by the curator), black wall labels and brown flecked frames.

Own photograph.

There’s no denying that these works are beautiful but, in a way, there are slightly too many here.  The reflections in the glass from the opposite wall are awful and it would be better without these distractions.  A bulk order of non-reflective glass would have been useful.

Alfred Hitchcock with MGM lion (1958) by Clarence Sinclair Bull. Own photograph.

The gorgeous James Dean photo near the entrance/exit is spoiled by the reflection of Rock Hudson vying for your attention.

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It’s a very easy exhibition to walk around – look at the gorgeous photos and admire the beauty of the stars who appear in them.

The works themselves are exciting but the exhibition itself isn’t, other than for bringing these great works together.  Maybe that’s enough though and maybe it doesn’t need to do anything more than this.

I struggled across Trafalgar Square, where people were camping in their thousands to see today’s world premiere of the last Harry Potter film, The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, to the National Gallery.   Ever since I was taken on my first-ever school trip, aged 3, I can’t go past without popping in to visit my favourite paintings.  As I continued across the square towards Yinka’s Fourth Plinth, I came across the National’s incredible living wall.  Over 8,000 plants have been used to recreate Van Gogh’s A Wheatfield with Cypresses mimicking the strong bands of colour in the painting.  It’s gorgeous and such a great idea.  This is the sort of innovative thinking that we should see more of.

Own photograph.

Although I had planned to go to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, with time being tight, I decided to have a photography day instead and tottered over to Hamiltons for their Herb Ritts’ exhibition.  The gallery is dangerously close to a certain shop that sells certain special shoes with red soles but I managed to resist walking down Mount Street for a peek.

As well as working for Vogue and Vanity Fair, Ritts created hugely successful advertising campaigns for the likes of Calvin Klein, Chanel and Gap.  Many of these photographs, coming directly from Ritts’ private archive, have never been exhibited before.  They are images that Ritts particularly liked and saved for his own personal collection.

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This is a beautiful exhibition with clean-cut, striking works displayed in a crisp uniform fashion.  When I came home and looked back at my notes, I saw I had written an endless list of superlatives.  What else can you say about them but wow?  Aesthetically pleasing with perfectly executed compositions, these are a photographic delight.

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Also included are Ritts’ more well-known works such as Fred with Tires ­– this is the biggest ‘wow’ of them all.  It’s now very well-known and very gorgeous.  Girls, go and swoon to your hearts’ content.

Herb Ritts, Fred with Tires II, Hollywood, 1984. Own photograph.

Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 23rd October 2011, www.npg.org.uk.

The National Gallery’s Living Wall can be seen in Trafalgar Square until the end of October 2011, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

Herb Ritts is at Hamiltons Gallery until 12th August 2011, www.hamiltonsgallery.com.

Buy the Catalogue: René Magritte at Tate Liverpool

23 Jun

Last time I visited Tate Liverpool was in 2007 to see their Chapman Brothers’ exhibition and I was excited to return to have another look in the gallery.  René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle confirms my previously mentioned opinion that Tate bought a bargain job-lot of grey paint and is going mad with it.  The opening room is so dark and gloomy that you don’t actually want to look at these masterpieces.  Instead, you want to hurry through to find the light.

Own photograph.

Magritte’s works are iconic.  His interest in evoking mystery dominates most of his works, exploring the disturbing effects of depicting recognisable and familiar objects in unfamiliar environments.  The works make use of visual repetition and the paintings themselves are also repetitive.  Magritte regarded that his role as an artist was to confuse and displace; he often makes it hard for viewers to know what they are looking at, a method enhanced by his sometimes bland painting and commercial expressionless, advertisement style.

René Magritte, The Listening Room, 1958.  Own photograph.

I am normally a firm believer in the importance of seeing works first hand but Magritte himself did not think this was necessary saying there is ‘very little difference between seeing a work in reproduction and looking at the real thing.’  That is usually not the case but it is for Magritte’s where I think the concept is more important than the paintings themselves.  He often churned out many of the same works; when seen individually, whether ‘in the flesh’ or in reproduction, they are amazing but when seen in bulk they blur into each other and lose significance.

This is the most comprehensive Magritte exhibition ever staged in the UK with over 100 loans from private and public collections, including works that have never been exhibited before.  The paintings are arranged thematically, showing different elements of Magritte’s practice but I found some sections to be disjointed.

His Vache paintings are silly works with a strange humour (Vache, literally meaning cow, was a pun on Fauve or ‘wild beast’ and was the name given to artists associated with the Fauvist movement at the beginning of the 20th century).  Ellipsis is the strongest in this section, showing a green headed man, wearing a Magritte-style bowler hat (with an eye staring out from its crown) – his nose is a rifle, his left hand is detached from his arm, his eyes are cartoon-like and the colours are garish.  Magritte’s Vache works are flamboyant in their caricatured style and uncharacteristic in his oeuvre; the artist utilises his paint in an unusually sloppy and painterly fashion, challenging conventional expectations of taste.

René Magritte, Ellipsis, 1948.  Own photograph.

The exhibition includes such well-known paintings as: The Lovers (1928) whose shrouded heads perhaps recall the horror of Magritte’s own mother’s suicide when the young Magritte witnessed his mother’s drowned body being pulled from a river, her face veiled by her nightdress; Threatening Weather (1929) bearing the hallmarks of an unsettling, possibly erotic dream; Time Transfixed (1938) where a train travelling at full speed emerges from a fireplace and; The Treachery of Images (1935), more familiarly known as Ceci n’est pas une pipe, (don’t miss it, it’s hidden by a doorway) of which he made many versions, all of which have received an inordinate amount of study and analysis.  The pipe, in fact, became the most emblematic of Magritte’s banal images.

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1935.  Own photograph.

The sheer quantity of the loans does mean there are some exciting works with which I wasn’t familiar.  The Secret Player (1927) is one of his first truly Surrealist works, establishing many familiar techniques: depicting objects in contrasting sizes, the metamorphosis of the inert into the living, the suggestion of staged performance behind a curtain and the presentation of the ordinary in extraordinary circumstances.  Here, it is a cricket match amongst skittle-like bilboquets which evolve into trees.  The work is unsettling and confusing – why is that turtle floating overhead?  There is a lot of misery and unpleasantness in Magritte’s world, it’s not all jolly transformations of fruit.

René Magritte, detail of The Secret Player, 1927.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

My favourite work is a piece I hadn’t seen before.  Crouch down in the corner of the first room and spend some time with The Cut-Glass Bath (1949).  I’m not going to ruin its elegant simplicity with words – it’s beautiful but, of course, the subject of capture and imprisonment is not.

René Magritte, The Cut-Glass Bath, 1949.  Own photograph.

I am ashamed to admit that half way through the exhibition I gave up on my heels and had to change shoes, shrinking several inches in the process.  I had gone up to Liverpool for meetings at the Contemporary Urban Centre (a wonderful space) and having already walked for most of the day, my feet had had enough.  There is only so much one person can take and the greyness of the walls made me feel drained.  Awful I know!  Don’t worry, I was back clacking today.

The exhibition does improve drastically in the second half.  ‘The Pictured Picture’ room playing with the idea of hidden visibles holds some gems.  The sketches are interesting and unusual to see, as Magritte proposes a three-way relationship between text, image and reality.  There are also some rarely seen photos by Magritte as well as a room devoted to his commercial works – advertising posters and the like.

The Pictured Picture.  Own photograph.

The exhibition was far bigger than I had expected, too big in fact.  You go round wanting not only to see the famous pieces but they’re famous for a reason and, amidst this confusing mass of work, you find yourself easily drawn to the familiar.

Now, it may not come as a surprise if I reveal I have a thing for the Thomas Crown Affair.  Of course, this is entirely due to the inclusion of my favourite Magritte painting and nothing to do with Pierce Brosnan!  Although reproductions of the man in the bowler hat recur frequently in the shop, The Son of Man (1964) is in private ownership and not included in the actual
exhibition.  Other Magritte paintings in the exhibition include very similar imagery and the act of partly covering the face is a common Magritte technique – we want to see the thing that is hidden by the thing the artist shows us, we are left in flux, in conflict.  But, the work itself isn’t here.  This wouldn’t have been a problem for me if they hadn’t plastered the image all over their merchandise!  (This is a common gallery marketing tool but it is misleading and people don’t appreciate being misled.)  I had to come home and watch the film to make up for it (swoon).

René Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964.  Image via www.wikimedia.org

Something Tate Liverpool has produced very well is the catalogue.  Not a traditional exhibition book of essays and images, this cute little A-Z begins with A for absence and finishes with Z for zwanzeur with sections on themes, individual paintings and other people.  OK, I won’t leave you in suspense; a zwanzeur is a joker in Brusseleer, a dialect spoken in the Marolles district of Brussels.  Also the little exhibition guide you take round with you, is a chronology rather than the usual repeats of the wall blurbs and it works really well.

René Magritte: A-Z.  Image via www.tate.org.uk

One of the main problems with this show (as with so many) is that it claims to do things that it doesn’t.  Tate Liverpool thinks they offer a fresh look at this popular artist.  They exhibit rarely seen works and bring a large body together but I don’t think they offer any valuable new research, there’s nothing fresh.

If you live near Liverpool or you’re there for the day then it’s definitely worth a visit.  If you’re not, then depending on where you live, it could be quite a trek (it took me 3 hours each way on the train).  It is a good exhibition but that is just because the works are fantastic and maybe you can enjoy them just as much by buying the catalogue.

René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle is at Tate Liverpool from tomorrow (24th June) until 16th October 2011, www.tate.org.uk.

Same Old, Same Old: Tracey Emin at The Hayward

27 May

I think I picked the worst day weather-wise to visit this exhibition. Yesterday, disregarding the weather forecast, and with eternal optimism, I hadn’t dressed for what was to come – after all it hadn’t rained for ages.  The wind blew my dress like Marilyn’s in The Seven Year Itch and I tried hard not to flash the whole of London. As I ran through London’s streets, squelching around in my stilettos, avoiding flooded drains, the driving rain made me look like a drowned rat.

What better refuge than the Hayward, or so I thought.  I have always been an Emin fan.  I remember writing at school about the re-emergence of feminine crafts in the visual arts with an in-depth discussion of Emin’s quilts so now that she is a ‘grande dame’ I was eagerly anticipating this mid-career retrospective, the biggest show of her work to date.

The show starts strongly, opening with 12 of Emin’s quilts, hung two deep on the lofty Hayward walls.  If you aren’t altogether familiar with Emin’s work, you’ll quickly get the idea – they are real, dirty, rude and explicit.  In my opinion, these are the best works on display, the beautiful blanket stitch framing the sordid content surrounded by delicate appliquéd pattern work. 

Emin’s appliquéd quilts.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The room is dominated by Knowing my Enemy (2002), a derelict wooden pier with an unstable hut at the end; the structure seems precarious, reminiscent of the Kent coast line, teetering in a by-gone era.  The room is illuminated by a pink glow from one of her neons, Meet me in Heaven and I will wait for you.  Alas, the strength of this spectacular installation was not to continue. 

Own photograph.

Next, her amassed neon works create a corridor of smut.  Neon is commonly associated with advertising – indeed, Emin first used this media to advertise her own shop. Now she uses it to advertise those things that are unadvertisable, gesturing to clubs and amusement arcades –  a barrage of abuse attacking the Margate she left behind and now claims to love. This method no longer shocks; it has become staid and kitsch.

Neon works.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

Music from the film The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, accompanying one of Emin’s video works, resonates around the entire gallery.  Sadly, I do indeed mean entire.  At first this is effective but, after a while, when the theme is drumming in your head around the whole exhibition, it becomes annoying, and apparent that it is far too loud. 

Tracey Emin has never been one to hold back, in fact we know everything about her life – her art is about revealing herself.  Through this exhibition, however, we swiftly realise that Emin has never been able to cast off the negative shackles of her youth.  Her film Why I Never Became A Dancer (1995) recalls her bid to leave Margate by winning the British dancing championship.  While she danced, a gang of local boys she had slept with began chanting ‘Slag Slag Slag’ so loudly that she ran from the dance floor – her dancing career finished, she became an artist.  This video ends with Emin dancing triumphant saying ‘Shane, Eddy, Tony, Doug, Richard…this one’s for you’.  But there’s nothing triumphant about the work or this dedication.  In fact, it’s rather sad.

Why I Never Became A Dancer, 1995.  Image via www.loveiswhatyouwant.com.

In whichever of the many media that Emin has worked, she has always been self-absorbed, self-obsessed and self-pitying.  In the works of her masturbating she is even self-satisfying.  Emin’s spindly drawings, watercolours and embroideries are dotted throughout the exhibition, the majority featuring her favourite subject of a woman (most probably herself), legs spread-eagled, masturbating.  For me, one work takes her self-aggrandisement a step too far.  Presented in glass cases are a series of hospital nametags, pregnancy tests, plasters pills and…old tampons.  Emin herself has said that she’s a little bit embarrassed by this work and now thinks she should have cast them.  Maybe this would have helped but, as it remains, these disgusting memorials to Emin’s troubled journey bear more comparison to an over-flowing sanitary bin in the ladies’ loos than art works to gaze upon and contemplate. 

The History of Painting, Part I, 1999Image via www.dailymail.co.uk

The second half of the show, upstairs and outside at the Hayward, presents works from the last decade and these are particularly weak with no real impact. 

Sculptures on the outside terraces.  Own photograph.

There can be no doubt that Emin is a pioneering female artist but she’s made her point.  This mish-mash of work may have once been shocking but repetition has weakened the effect.  We’ve seen photos of Emin touching herself, we’ve seen the intentionally badly-spelt and hurriedly-scrawled expletives, we’ve seen all of Emin before.

Emin wants the show to focus on love but the only love we see is her narcissism.  The exhibition acts as a confessional, looking at the young slutty girl from Margate who became a celebrity, the queen of the British art world, suffering abortion, rape, alcoholism and various other trials along the way.  We have been there throughout.

Tracey Emin. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Individually, some of her works are exciting and controversial but putting them together like this makes you sigh at their repetitive nature.  Has Emin only had one idea in the past 20 years?  There is nothing more to many of these works than shock and shock is a quick reaction, one without long-lasting resonant impact. 

No doubt most people will love this exhibition; Emin is a celebrity artist and people will flock to it.  I wanted to like the show but I left disappointed by this boring exhibition.  Tracey Emin’s work is about Tracey Emin.  It is about revealing herself.  But sadly, she revealed herself long ago and doesn’t seem to have done much with her time since.

Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want is at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre until 29th August 2011, www.southbankcentre.co.uk.

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