Tag Archives: snow

Don’t Dwell on Death – the Wellcome Collection

22 Jan

I don’t get down to the Wellcome Collection nearly enough yet it’s a gem.  So, having battled through the snow to make it into town I decided to pop in after brunch on Saturday.  How I was walking round with one boot cuff turned up and one down is still slightly beyond me – no-one mentioned it so perhaps people thought I was making a new fashion statement!

Death: A self-portrait is an exhibition showcasing the collection of Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer based in Chicago.  The exhibition itself is an unusual portrait of Harris’s collecting and includes approximately 300 objects from his strange and unique collection devoted to death.  It is incredibly diverse – there are paintings, drawings, artefacts, sculptures, photographs, anatomical illustrations and much more.  His entire collection comprises over 2,000 objects and I’d love the opportunity at some point to get to see the whole of it.  The collection is growing all the time and Harris regularly finds and commissions new items.  It’s probably even expanding as I write this piece.

death

Advertising Death.  Image via www.londonist.com

This is a truly fabulous collection showing comic portrayals of death alongside the more serious and harrowing.  The Wellcome hasn’t been precious about separating out the categories and they have celebrated its diversity.  Rare prints by Rembrandt, Dürer and Goya are displayed alongside anatomical drawings, war art and antique metamorphic postcards; human remains are juxtaposed with Renaissance vanitas paintings and twentieth century installations celebrating Mexico’s Day of the Dead.  There’s a group of Incan skulls alongside Jodie Carey’s In the Eyes of Others, a chandelier made from 3,000 plaster-cast bones.

In-The-Eyes-of-Others-by-Jodie-Carey-2009_Death

Jodie Carey, In the Eyes of Others, 2009.  Image via www.happyfamousartists.com

One room focuses on the art of violent death communicating the dehumanising effects of war and the brutality of death on a gargantuan scale.  Here, we find Goya’s The Disasters of War displayed alongside Otto Dix’s The War.  Dix’s memories of fighting as a soldier provided the source material for these 51 prints, showing the depravity of war.  He was wounded a number of times and the horror he illustrates is no doubt in part related to his own experiences.

1924_012-StormtroopersAdvance

Otto Dix, Stromtroopers Advance under Gas, 1924.  Image via www.ottodix.org

The John Isaac sculpture was getting a lot of attention – a life-size sculpture of a semi-dissected man missing both arms and one leg sitting on a packing case.  In a room that focuses on our fascination with the disturbing or morbid, this work seeks to highlight the rawness of anatomical investigation and, coupled with some of the surrounding anatomical studies and engravings, reminds us that doctors first learnt about prolonging life through the study of death and the dead.

Death: A Self-portrait collection at Wellcome Collection

John Isaac, Are you still mad at me?, 2001.  Image via www.huffingtonpost.co.uk

The whole exhibition is a giant cabinet of curiosities.  Harris never intended this to be a private collection and always planned for everything to be exhibited to ‘capture the essence of Death through its iconography’.  I gave up writing down which works particularly intrigued me as the list grew and grew and we’d have never got out of there.  There was a series of anonymous photographs from the 20th century showing people, in backyards, classrooms and studios, posing with macabre artefacts that perhaps foreshadowed their destinies.   They are certainly worth very little commercially but together they make a wonderful and fascinating group – some comic, some serious, all engrossing.  Three of these photographs conclude the catalogue – a beautifully produced small album of objects in the exhibition.

photograph

Unknown photograph, 20th century.  Own photograph.

The thing that’s really great is that this exhibition isn’t morbid or depressing.  Maybe I am alone in this opinion but, strangely, the exhibition didn’t make me dwell on death – of course this is the subject the objects all relate to but they’re so absorbing that we don’t have time to ponder our own morbid curiosities.

Ironically, my only criticism highlights the strength of the show; there’s actually too much to take in and I would have needed a good couple of hours to study everything properly.

Green+Table+skeleton+man

June Leaf, No stomach for death: Gentleman on Green Table, 1999-2000.  Image via www.standard.co.uk

I don’t think the exhibition is trying to say anything particularly poignant.  It’s not trying to look at what we think about death or about the experience of death.  If they’d wanted to do that then this exhibition wouldn’t be a self-portrait of Harris.  Maybe it’s making us think.  Maybe it’s showing us the different ways in which death can be portrayed and considered.  Or perhaps, as the pamphlet claims, it’s investigating the value of art in communicating ideas about death and the body.  Whatever it’s up to, I’m on board.

boots

Death: A self-portrait is at the Wellcome Collection until 24th February 2013, www.wellcomecollection.org.

Advertisements

An Intoxicating Edge – Picasso and Modern British Art

13 Feb

February is over-saturated – more snow than London can cope with, hearts filling every shop window display (no matter how tenuous the connection) on every street and more blockbuster exhibitions than we have time to see.  This week alone I have four major openings marked in my diary plus a smattering of smaller ones that may well have to wait for a later date.

Picasso & Modern British Art at Tate Britain explores Picasso’s lifelong connections with Britain through a series of dialogues with the heroes of Modern British Art, examining his critical reputation and acclaim as both a figure of controversy and celebrity.

Pablo Picasso, Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, 1932. Image via www.tate.org.uk

The exhibition can be split into two – one strand that documents the exhibition and collecting of Picasso’s art in Britain which is interleaved with ‘conversation’ rooms showcasing the British Greats responding to Picasso’s work – Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland and David Hockney.  This is a veritable treasure trove for any Modern British lover like me.  Picasso’s own versatility, in part, explains the range of these responses but the exhibition also seeks to show how these artists were responding to Picasso well before he had been embraced by the British public.

Picasso first exhibited in Britain in 1910 in an exhibition organised by Roger Fry.  After explaining this, the exhibition moves straight into a room looking at his influence on Duncan Grant who adopted African inspired figures and decorative patterns and later began to respond to Cubist collages.  Grant’s work does little for me; Tate don’t even dedicate a whole room to him and he shares wall space with Wyndham Lewis.  Although Lewis was a harsh critic of Picasso throughout his life, it’s not actually known if they ever met but his work suggests that he saw Les Demoiselles.

Wyndham Lewis room at the exhibition. Own photograph.

Throughout, the exhibition looks at Picasso’s trips to London with a stunning section on the scenery and costume designs he produced for Diaghilev and Ballet Russes in 1919 when he resided at the Savoy.  During the first few weeks of this stay, Picasso sat in the corner of the Ballet Russes rehearsal rooms, drawing away while they danced.  The Three Cornered Hat was the largest ballet that Picasso worked on and his designs were not just limited to costume and set – they even extended to the accessories and make-up, which, when possible, he applied himself.

Pablo Picasso, The Three Cornered Hat, 1919-20. Own photograph.

This is not an exhibition to be taken lightly; it includes some extraordinary works many of which are loaned from private collections.  Most works have hefty wall labels – I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but this is not a show to flit through during your ten minute lunch break.  It is altogether a more serious exhibition.

Obviously, there have been more responses to Picasso than the seven studied here but those included here illustrate variety and quality over a period of more than seventy years.  It is rare to have the opportunity to view these alongside the original Picasso’s that may have influenced them.

Inside the exhibition. Own photograph.

Ben Nicholson first encountered Picasso in Paris in the 1920s and recalled a specific Picasso of 1915 which he saw as the benchmark for the qualities in his own work.  In the following decade, he developed his own distinctive version of the Cubist composition where he adopted decorative patterning, intersecting forms and made use of materials such as sand to create a more physical presence.

Ben Nicholson, 1933 (coin and musical instruments), 1933. Own photograph.

Moving on, Sutherland acknowledges his debt to Guernica; he made several works where natural objects metamorphose into figurative presences – tortured anxious works reflecting the state of England at the time.  Sketchbooks throughout the exhibition allow us to see some real gems and we are teased here with some fabulous Sutherland studies.  I only wish Tate made more use of their technological ability, offering turning pages on a screen as they did in the Vorticism show last year.

Graham Sutherland, Thorn Head, 1946. Own photograph.

The exhibition includes some fabulous and intriguing early works by Bacon and Moore.   The Bacon’s are particularly remarkable and, if you are a fan, this room if worth a visit in its own right, bringing together seven of only nine works that are known to have survived Bacon’s attempts to destroy all his pre-1944 works.  Bacon said that ‘[Picasso’s work is closer] to what I feel about the psyche of our time [than any other artist]’; it was after he saw an exhibition of Picasso’s in the late 1920s that he abandoned interior design and began painting.  It was seeing Picasso’s representations of the body as a biomorphic structure that inspired him with the possibilities this medium could offer.  It would be a pleasure to write a whole piece on this one room looking at how Bacon’s works on the theme of crucifixion echo Picasso’s The Three Dancers (which Bacon may have seen a reproduction of in 1930 in Documents) or looking at his triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.  As Bacon’s style developed and became more distinct, the debt to Picasso became more embedded.  The two artists shared an approach that would forever tie them together.

Francis Bacon, Crucifixion/Figure, 1933 and Composition (Figure), 1933. Own photograph.

The curators decided to stop at Hockney, feeling that after this point Picasso’s influence just becomes too universal and never-ending.  The exhibition finishes with Picasso’s The Three Dancers of 1925, taking us back to the Picasso we know and love and, in turn, slightly losing the dialogue which has been so excellently explored throughout.

Peering through to Pablo Picasso, The Three Dancers, 1925. Own photograph.

The sooner Tate finish their job-lot of grey paint the better; it’s a brilliant show often dulled by the monotonous, gloomy wall colour.  The works are all so sensational that the exhibition comes together despite the somewhat tenuous nature of some of the links and comparisons.

Picasso’s climb to fame in the UK was not easy and he received much criticism along the way – in 1949, Churchill even said he would like to kick the artist up the backside.  Yet when in 1960 Tate finally mounted its first Picasso retrospective, it attracted more than 460,000 visitors in two months.  The exhibition made a profit and received positive reviews.  It appeared we had at last embraced Picasso’s Cubist ways and we’ve never really let go.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman, 1924. Own photograph.

This exhibition is extensive but the works here are something to behold.  Tate really shows off some Modern British masterpieces; somewhat ironically, it is these that stay with me most and they are what I recommend you go to see.  Don’t get me wrong, the Picasso’s are brilliant but the Modern British story has an intoxicating edge aided by the influence of the Spaniard.

Walking through… Own photograph.

It’s easy to get lost in the academia of the exhibition.  I wouldn’t advise reading all the wall text or you may never get out.  Instead, admire the paintings and let the excellent catalogue tell the story in depth at a later date when you’re able to sit in the warm by a fire and not having to stand up.

This is an exhibition to allow time for; an hour and a half felt like I’d only scratched the surface.  It doesn’t have the gloss or jazz of the RA’s Hockney or the NPG’s Freud (although Hockney is, of course included here).  Instead, it is quietly brilliant.

Picasso & Modern British Art will be at Tate Britain from Wednesday until 15th July 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

The Disorientating Diversity of Kusama and Some More Shrigley

12 Feb

Last Tuesday morning during our cold spell (which doesn’t seem to be abating) I battled it through the snow to Tate Modern where I was greeted by a number of over-sized polka-dot inflatables.  Yayoi Kusama has arrived in the UK.

The 4th floor at Tate Modern. Own photograph.

Now aged 82, Kusama, whose work spans six decades, is one of Japan’s best-known living artists.  Outside art circles, her work is not widely known but Tate is rightly propelling her into everyone’s consciousness.  This grand old lady of the visual arts travelled to the UK for the first time in 12 years to see her Tate show; she arrived at the exhibition, glowing in a polka-dot dress and red wig (matching the balls outside), laughing with a bright red lipstick smile.

Yayoi Kusama visiting her exhibition. Own photograph.

Even today, she is still innovative and ground-breaking and this broadly chronological unfolds with each sequence of rooms studying the emergence of a new artistic stance, showing off Kusama’s extensive and diverse body of work.  It allows us to learn about the artist; Kusama’s creative career can be divided into sections – beginning and ending in Japan, it includes a substantial period in New York where she was one of the forerunners on the alternative scene.  There is a natural dialogue between East and West in all of her work – sometimes subtle, sometimes more obvious.

The first two rooms show her rarely-seen early work as she moves away from her Japanese origins into a heavily-influenced Western style.  Her works on paper from the 1950s use abstracted forms that suggest natural phenomena with carefully worked, highly-detailed surfaces encompassing her own unique vocabulary.

Yayoi Kusama, early works on paper. Own photograph.

Kusama’s Infinity Paintings are breathtaking.  Seemingly endless scalloped brushstrokes of a single colour on a contrasting background have a calming effect on us yet are emotionally loaded with themes of obsession and compulsion.  They have a hypnotic quality with the same use of textured surface seen in her Accumulations.  This leads us into the middle part of the exhibition where Kusama’s obsession with sex comes to the surface.

Yayoi Kusama, detail of No. White A.Z., 1958-9. Own photograph.

While in New York, she appointed herself ‘High Priestess’ of the emerging hippie scene beginning a series of provocative performance pieces.  Chameleon like, she has always adapted to her surroundings.  Her Sex Obsession series includes phallus-covered chairs, tables and other day-to-day objects, mocking the macho nature of the US art scene.  This is complemented by her food obsession works that use macaroni to show her revulsion at the overabundance of food in the US.

Yayoi Kusama’s Sex Obsession works. Own photograph.

Her decision to return full-time to Japan from the US took a number of years as she see-sawed between the two countries; this was a difficult period of time in which her early hallucinations returned with a vengeance.  She admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital where, since 1977, she has voluntarily lived on an open ward.  This confined living gave her a sense of safety and ease and, once again, her approach to her art changed; she began creating small objects that were part of large, multi-faceted installations such as The Clouds (1984) which consists of one hundred sewn and stuffed cushions.  Although these are white for purity, they create a constellation and installation that is far from pure.  The phallic and sperm-like forms of her early years began to return.  Once again, her work is in dialogue with itself as Kusama uses her illness to make her art, channelling her warped energies to create her pieces.

Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern with The Clouds, 1984. Own photograph.

Much of her art has a near-hallucinatory effect, triggered by her early use of polka dots that show her unique vision and outlook on the world.  This disorientation is closely intertwined with all Kusama’s work where nothing is straightforward and nothing is at it seems.  The polka dot, a seemingly pretty and decorative motif, actually relates to the troubling hallucinations of her childhood.  Her immersive installations illustrate this with particular intensity as dark, mirrored walls discombobulate, throwing the viewer off balance, causing confusion and disorientation.

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

Kusama has always been ahead of her time.  Her art varies so much across her career that often you wouldn’t know it was by the same artist.  She was there before everyone else with performance art, wallpaper and installations.  The sheer diversity of her art is overwhelming; it’s easy to lose track of who Kusama is and her lack of a signature style is evident in the catalogue (which is, by the way, excellent).  She has never stayed in one place, in one genre, for long enough to make a mark on the public awareness.  Maybe now it’s time that she does.

Yayoi Kusama, detail of Flame, 1992. Own photograph.

One of the final works is stunning – Infinity Mirrored Room – filled with the Brilliance of Life which has been made specifically for this exhibition.  Lights flicker on and off, illuminating and hiding the room in a repetitive cycle.  The walls are clad with mirrored panels and a pool of water covers the floor.  Hundreds of lights, with endlessly changing colour sequences, are suspended from the ceiling.  It is not as disorientating as we expect and we quickly adapt to the coloured environment.  Maybe that is the point.  I think Kusama intends us to share her path as she has always adapted to her way of living and her confusion is now part of her life.  This work is pretty.  No doubt people will queue to walk through the glittering, mirrored maze.  It seems fun but there’s a deeper message; as we enter these installations we lose ourselves, joining Kusama on her journey of self-obliteration.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – filled with the Brilliance of Life, 2011. Own photograph.

Kusama is a brand as the new merchandise in the shop shows.  But what a brand!  If any artist could achieve half of what this incredible woman has I imagine they’d be ‘well chuffed’.

I’m spending a lot of my time in Waterloo at the moment, working on Heritage Arts’ VAULT – an incredible festival in a new section of the Old Vic Tunnels.  This means that rather than being in Mayfair all day, I can often be found at Scooterworks on Lower Marsh – my new temporary ‘office’ where the lovely Stanley keeps me company.

Stanley the cat at Scooterworks. Own photograph.

I can’t, however, keep away from Mayfair for too long, and that evening I popped to the opening of yet another David Shrigley exhibition at Stephen Friedman – Arms Fayre.  A bucket of beers was waiting for guests outside the gallery.  They needn’t have bothered with the ice though.  Even in gloves, my fingers could have chilled a bottle quite adequately.

David Shrigley, new works on paper at Stephen Friedman.  Own photograph.

Bringing together three strands of Shrigley’s work, the exhibition is essentially an extension of the current show at the Hayward.  Bombs captures the archetypal image of a missile commonly found in cartoons.  This element of destruction and hurt is transformed in ceramic by Shrigley into something simple, fragile and alluring.

David Shrigley, Bombs, 2011. Own photograph.

The sculpture here had a stronger impact than the drawings.  All in all, it’s a small but good exhibition and one that they had to put on to complement the exhibition across the river.  It works well and helps to further illustrate the endlessness of Shrigley’s work.

Yayoi Kusama is at Tate Modern until 5th June 2012, www.tate.org.ukDavid Shrigley: Arms Fayre is at the Stephen Friedman Gallery until 10th March 2012, www.stephenfriedman.com.

%d bloggers like this: