Tag Archives: Trafalgar Square

There’s a big blue cock in Trafalgar Square

30 Jul

The days have long gone when we can feel shocked or surprised at what is mounted on the fourth plinth.  Even more so now as the plans to install Hahn/Cock received much opposition before it was even unveiled.  So, the time had gone for exclamations of disbelief at the giant blue cockerel by Katharina Fritsch that now occupies the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square that was originally intended for an equestrian statue.  At 4.7m high, we are invited to laugh at this incongruous bird who has taken prime position in London.

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Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock. Image via www.standard.co.uk

A cockerel can be seen as a leader and a chief – it is a symbol of strength and power.  Amazing really that a chicken can represent so much.  Of course, there’s no avoiding the double entendre and people are sure to be childishly sniggering that there’s now a giant cock standing proudly alongside Nelson’s column.  With his crest erect, this plump breasted bird is waving his tail feathers at all tourists to London.  Fritsch wanted to play with the English sense of humour and laugh with us.  She decided to move the focus away from Nelson atop his phallic column and all the male dominance and power displays for which this area is known.  The carefully placed plumage is intended to echo the folds of Nelson’s uniform while the cockerel’s crest may even mimic Nelson’s hat.  If we read the work in this way, Hahn/Cock is certainly laughing at Nelson and inviting us to join in.  Personally, I don’t feel it is respectful or appropriate to laugh at a national hero but Fritsch is a feminist and she sees this work as a female victory in a male-dominated square.

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Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock. Own photograph.

The humour extends in various directions – this is a work by a German artist in an English square.  But, of course, the cockerel is also the national symbol of France and even its colouring here exemplifies that even though it has been placed next to a monument that commemorates victory against the French.  Fritsch claims she didn’t even realise the French association until she had planned the work.  If that’s true what wonderful coincidental irony to happen upon. Fritsch doesn’t intend the sculpture to be offensive or mocking our history but she sees it has a talking point.

On a simpler level the piece, with its vibrant and unmissable colour, does bring an injection of life into the grey stone works that surround it.  It creates a contrast with the more formal aesthetics to which we are accustomed.  It’s not an incredible work of art by any means but it’s sufficiently imposing and noticeable to satisfy this position and it’s certainly a bit of fun.  Yes, there is meaning behind it but I don’t think Fritsch is all worried about that – it lightens the gravitas and isn’t afraid to laugh at itself.  This cocky sculpture reminds us that the fourth plinth is, among other things, now meant to be a talking point.

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Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock. Image via www.visitlondon.com

Fritsch clearly enjoys being provocative and this work is certainly going to ruffle feathers.  The dialogue with the surrounding area and other sculptures can be read on many levels which I think is part of the joy of public art.  On the whole, it doesn’t have to be academically invigorating.  Ben Lewis notably said of Antony Gormley’s work, which invited members of the public to stand on the plinth, that he had created “public art work that the public like”.  I think Fritsch has done this too and this is an important factor.  The fourth plinth is meant to get the public talking – while it can tackle issues along the way – and the big blue chicken has certainly done this.  This is a site with one of the biggest footfalls in London so we don’t want a work here that alienates viewers or that people don’t understand.  It was absolutely pouring this morning but I could see the sculpture from inside the safety of a taxi where my driver expressed his opinion that it is a ‘bloody eyesore’.

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Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock. Own photograph.

There have been a lot of works on the fourth plinth and this is certainly far from being the worst.  In fact, it’s probably one of the ones that will be most remembered.  My favourites have been Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo and Rachel Whiteread’s Monument.  While not as impressive as either of those works, Hahn/Cock stands proudly in its own right.  Even if you don’t like it and you think the cock is cack, you can’t miss it and it won’t be there forever.

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Here, there and everywhere

26 May

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind – as soon as I seem to be back in London and on top of my to-do list I’m heading off somewhere new.  Of course, I’m loving every minute but it has certainly been chaotic which is why this particular post ranges from France to Sussex and back to Shoreditch and Trafalgar Square.

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Monet’s House at Giverny. Own photograph.

A few days after Berlin Gallery Weekend I was woken up in the very early hours to head over to France for the Bank Holiday weekend.  I’ve always wanted to visit Giverny and, as it was only an hour off route (heaven forbid that I could just relax and enjoy French wine and cheese), we programmed the sat-nav and off we went.  Entry to Giverny provides access to Monet’s house and garden.  This was the second pink house with green shutters in which Monet had lived and the second time his house had been separated from the garden by a road.  Colour is everything here – both inside and out.  The walls of the house are adorned with works – there are Japanese prints everywhere plus his huge collection of paintings including works by Delacroix, Cézanne and Renoir.

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Inside Monet’s House. Own photograph.

Even on an overcast day, the garden cannot help but make you smile with its full-to-the-brim flowerbeds and radiant colours.  Monet had started gardening while living at Argenteuil but not on a scale that would suggest the passion he imbued into the gardens at Giverny.  His garden was designed with his paintings in mind – he planted what he wanted to paint so, in a sense, he created the scene that resided in his imagination.  When Monet arrived at Giverny there were no ponds but it had always been his dream to have them and it is, of course, his water lily ponds and the Japanese bridge that have become synonymous with his name.

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The Japanese bridge. Own photograph.

Monet was severely afflicted by cataracts despite two operations towards the end of his life.  As his sight worsened, his works turned from fresh, bright colours to a heavier palette, almost certainly as a result of his blurred colour vision.  Whether or not his gardens became lost to him is hard to say but what can be certain is that his pronounced choices of colour infused his world with light and life for many years and helped to create some of the scenes we remember him for today.

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Monet’s garden. Own photograph.

After settling in at Nogent-Le-Rotrou, it was irresistible to visit the Chateau Saint-Jean as it was only two minutes away.  Built around 1020 on the site of an earlier castle, the building has suffered a lot of intervention over the years and much of what remains is of a later period.  It is an imposing and impressive fortress perched on a point with a vantage over the entire area.  Inside there is a museum dedicated to the history of the town and, strangely enough, a contemporary art gallery with an exhibition of works by Patrick Loste, evoking the often crude portrayals of cave paintings.  I can find art anywhere!

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Chateau Saint-Jean. Own photograph.

It was a flying visit to France but, on the way back home, there was just time to stop in at the Holy Trinity Abbey in Vendôme enabling me to indulge my love of the Gothic period.  The feature of most note has to be the 12th century frescoes that were discovered behind the 14th century chapter house walls.  The sections that remain are badly fragmented the sections but have been preserved remarkably well and one scene showing the Miraculous Catch after Christ’s Resurrection is still strikingly clear consider its age.

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Holy Trinity Abbey, Vendôme. Own photograph.

Back in the UK, it was time for the opening of the opera season at Glyndebourne, the wonderful opera house in Sussex founded in 1934.  As tempted as I am to do so, I will resist touching on the opera but do have to mention their art programme.  As many of you will know, I am very into public installations and making the most of outdoor spaces through art.  Glyndebourne are very much on the same page and this season is marked by an exhibition of works by Sean Henry who does exactly this, creating monumental works in bronze for the urban landscape.  His works capture the mundane, subjects caught in a moment of introspection with which we can identify.  Glydnebourne don’t have the strongest selection of his sculptures but they are unavoidable in the picturesque landscape of the house.

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Sean Henry, Catafalque, 2003. Own photograph.

Finally, it seemed I was back in London for long enough to get around some exhibitions here.  The Catlin Art Prize is a highlight of the calendar and the brilliant eye of the curator means that we can normally expect great things from the nine chosen graduates who have had to produce new work for the exhibition.

Catlinexterior2013 The Catlin Prize takes over Londonewcastle. Image courtesy of Peter Hope and via www.artcatlin.com

The winner Terry Ryu Kim forced the visitor to become part of her installation – manipulating the viewer’s path through architecture and technology.  The work explores how structures can exert power, the installation becomes a stage that dictates our actions.  It is haunting and beautiful, both intimate and evasive at the same time.

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Terry Ryu Kim, Screening Solution I,II and III. Image courtesy of Peter Hope and via www.artcatlin.com

Juno Calypso who won the visitor vote has garnered a lot of attention, using the more traditional medium of photography.  Calypso staged scenes in which she performs as a character called Joyce, always obscuring her face and thereby forcing us to focus on other elements of the scene.  The narrative of the unsettling seems to be a theme in this year’s award.

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Juno Calypso, 12 Reasons You’re Tired All The Time. Image via www.artcatlin.com

All of the finalists deserve mention but I think praise must be given to Nicky Deeley.  Of course, performance art is common now but for a young graduate to produce a work of such maturity is impressive.  The piece sits deftly on the line between creepy, cute and fascinating.  Admittedly I only saw one costume change but the crowds of people gathered around the work certainly suggested everyone was hooked.

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Nicky Deeley performing Island Year. Own photograph.

I can often be hard to please and so regularly gallery spaces rest on their laurels.  One may think this is more true of traditional spaces that are guaranteed the crowds come what may.  Well, The National Gallery is currently shaking things up.  Michael Landy’s Saints Alive is a result of a two year residency with an in-house studio.  Many artists in the past have failed this challenge but Landy has risen to it.  He wasn’t scared of the esteemed regard in which everyone holds the National Gallery’s collections.  Everything that made him seem the most inappropriate person for this position has actually made him the best.

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Saints Alive at The National Gallery. Own photograph.

Asked my thoughts on The NG I would normally name it as a place of calm, a space where one can think and admire some of the most wonderful art in London.  It was the first gallery I visited as a child and somewhere I still regularly visit.  As I approached the Sunley Room I could hear crashes and bangs, normally such noises would have the guards running to find the source of the disturbance.  But the disturbance is, in fact, part of the exhibition.  Landy has subverted the serenity.

Walking in I was met by Saint Apollonia, a nine-foot sculpture made of fibre glass, recalling a sculpture painted in a Lucas Cranach work.  I nervously edged towards the pedal at her feet, balancing precariously on a stiletto and pressing it down.  At this point the pliers she was holding smashed persistently into her mouth.  There’s a spare head ready for when this one becomes a tad too battered.  She is not the only one who is bringing to life the suffering the saints endured.

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Saint Apollonia in the Sunley Room. Own photograph.

Landy has been inspired by the stories of the saints – stories which were once known by everybody yet today have fallen into obscurity. Towering over visitors are seven large-scale kinetic sculptures that swivel and turn, evoking the torment of each saint’s life.  These sculptures are interactive; there are buttons to press, a handle to crank and foot pedals to push. There are T-shirts to be won and a Saint Francis of Assisi donation box activated by coins.

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One of Landy’s kinetic sculptures. Own photograph.

Landy doesn’t intend to cause offence with these sculptures; his research into the works in the collection and his retelling, through these kinetic beasts, of the saints’ stories is remarkable.  Each saint has a symbolic attribute that makes him or her instantly recognisable.  Landy has transformed the saints from objects of spiritual devotion into artworks, made from pieces of junk that play on his interest in destruction.  Landy brings the saints from the walls of the gallery to life.  They are fascinating.  We want to press the buttons again and again – are they unnerving or are they funny?  I don’t think anyone was quite sure.  The legends themselves are often ridiculous and Landy has captured this with his own unique magic, comedy and an enticing undertone of the macabre.  The awful and gruesome ordeals these saints underwent were meant to show their patience and endurance.  As the sculptures break under the strain there is a certain irony here.  And don’t think that’s not fully intentional either.  Landy’s past works have always been about selflessness, generosity and virtue so he wasn’t actually as far removed from these topics as many thought.

Alongside the sculptures are his drawings and collages made from cut-up reproductions of works in the collection.  I’d urge you not to get so distracted by the sculptures that you miss these.

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Saint Jerome in action. Own photograph.

As I turned back to take one last look at the exhibition Saint Jerome was still quivering behind me.  Legend tells that he used to beat himself with a rock to prevent him from having impure sexual thoughts.  But as he stands there quivering you can’t help but wonder what is going on beneath the excessive drapery around his legs.  However, before there was a chance to cast any aspersion onto the virtue of the saint, someone else had crept towards the pedal and Saint Jerome had returned to whacking himself.

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Michael Landy’s Saints Alive is at The National Gallery until 24th November 2013, www.nationagallery.co.uk.

Rocking and Rolling: the fourth plinth, Hauser & Wirth and Sadie Coles

26 Feb

I didn’t manage to make it to Trafalgar Square for the 9am unveiling of Powerless Structures, Fig. 101 last Thursday but I did amble along in the afternoon while they were clearing away from the pomp and circumstance of the morning.  Tourists were giving the work a casual glance as if it had been there for years, nobody seemed too perturbed by the latest fourth plinth sculpture, shining resplendent in the sun.

This, the 8th commission, by artists Elmgreen & Dragset, is a 4.1m high, golden bronze sculpture of a boy astride a rocking horse.

Elmgreen & Dragset, Powerless Structures, Fig. 101, 2011. Own photograph.

The fourth plinth was originally intended for a bronze equestrian statue and the installation of this new work directly engages with the history of the plinth itself, taking it back to its roots.  The planned sculpture in the 1840s was of King William IV but now a child has been elevated to the status of the other heroes honoured in Trafalgar Square.  The work celebrates heroism – the heroism of youth and of growing up, asking us to look at events in our life that we often skip over without due reflection.  The child plays on his horse, conquering the world and leading his imaginary army to victory.

Elmgreen & Dragset, Powerless Structures, Fig. 101, 2011. Own photograph.

I don’t think the designers of the fourth plinth ever envisaged an equestrian statue like this.  Elmgreen & Dragset are gently mocking tradition but, at the same time, they have modernised it without being patronising, successfully engaging with past purpose and intention.  The monument cannot honour the figure’s history as he is only a child so it honours his future.  Cheeky?  Yes.  Derogatory?  No.  With a raised arm referencing classical works of the past, the work is both contemporary and historical.

Trafalgar Square. Own photograph.

It’s not my favourite piece to adorn the plinth and I do now rather miss Yinka’s boat but Powerless Structures is not offensive and I see why the Mayor’s Office may have wanted a relatively tame piece up for the Olympics.  The public are able to instantly engage with this work.  It’s obvious, it’s eye-catching, it’s pretty.

After a refreshing cup of tea, I headed over to Hauser & Wirth to catch their two new exhibitions, the openings of which I had missed a couple of nights previously but I hear that their brass band caused quite a stir and a distraction.

Michael Raedecker, pretence, 2012. Own photograph.

The North Gallery is showing a selection of works by Michael Raedecker who pushes the boundaries of his medium, exploiting texture using embroidery interwoven with the painted canvas.  The subject matter isn’t the most exciting – abstracted scenes of suburban architecture and everyday domesticity such as chandeliers and curtains – but the paintings explore the combination of fine art and craft, of a male painter enlivening a feminine craft.  There is something melancholic and unsettling about some of his scenes, shimmering worlds on distressed, punctured canvases where his use of silver paint adds a new dimension to the works.  The paintings seek to evade a specific interpretation or genre; they pull you in but they don’t quite have the required emotional intensity to keep you there.

Michael Raedecker, detail of strip, 2012. Own photograph.

People seemed to be using Hauser as a resting place and, at times, the window ledge was busier than the gallery.

Hauser & Wirth’s window ledge. Own photograph.

In Hauser’s South Gallery are works by Mary Heilmann – paintings, ceramics and her distinctive chairs.  Heilmann’s paintings conjure a diverse range of moods and atmospheres; they tell her on-going life story, recalling long road-trips or her visits to the sea, watching the wild waves break on the shore.  Rather than seeing her works as individual entities, Heilmann views the entire show as an installation piece and visitors are incorporated in the work.  This explains the chairs!  Ironically, no-one had stopped for a rest in these.  Heilmann wants people to sit down, relax and enjoy the work but the chairs didn’t look particularly stable and, although the security guards encouraged me to do so (with wry smiles) I didn’t fancy the chances of lowering myself into them wearing these boots; I had visions of rolling across the entire gallery.

Mary Heilmann at Hauser & Wirth. Own photograph.

Neither of these Hauser exhibitions has that ‘je ne sais quoi’ to keep me in the galleries very long.  I headed further down Savile Row to Situation, a new gallery at Sadie Coles HQ.  Devoted to the work of Sarah Lucas, Situation (just above the normal gallery space but accessed through a separate door) will show her new installations in February, May, August and November of this year.  The space is intentionally shabby – a disused office that has been transformed.

Entering Situation. Own photograph.

The opening exhibition is signature Lucas and recalls her once highly provocative works from the 1990s – sculptures using found domestic objects where fried eggs and a chicken reference her early works about sexual stereotyping.

Sarah Lucas at Situation. Own photograph.

Her new works use the same things we’re used to and stuffed tights play a strong role in Viz. Nice Tits where concrete casts of thigh-high boots stand on the floor.  Above them hangs a metal grill filled with stuffed tights in the shape of boobs and phalluses.

Sarah Lucas, Viz. Nice Tits, 2011. Own photograph.

The space is only small but I get the feeling Lucas is reeling us in and will expand over the year.  What will she do in May?  Make a bigger bang, I imagine.

Sarah Lucas in MumMum, 2012. Courtesy of Ben Springett.

In the conventional gallery space, there is an exhibition of new glazed ceramics by Paloma Varga Weisz.  Upstairs is quite calm and the works are small, muted and could be mistaken for decorative whereas downstairs is more overt.  Mother shows a figure in a shroud lying on a table, captured ambiguously in sleep or death, either emerging from or receding into the slab beneath.

Paloma Varga Weisz, Mother, 2011. Own photograph.

I had hoped for some more excitement but nothing that afternoon really enlivened me.  My sore feet needed a taxi to carry on to the tunnels for week three of VAULT.

Michael Raedecker: volume and Mary Heilmann: Visions, Waves and Roads  are both at Hauser & Wirth, Savile Row until 5th April 2012, www.hauserwirth.com.  Situation is on the first floor of 4 New Burlington Place for all of 2012, www.sadiecoles.comPaloma Varga Weisz is at Sadie Coles HQ until 25th February 2012, www.sadiecoles.com.

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.

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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.

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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.

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