James Cook – The Voyages @ the British Library

2018 marks 250 years since Captain James Cook set off from Plymouth on the first of his three epoch-making voyages of exploration to the Pacific. In 1768 most of the coastlines and islands scattered across this vast body of water – nearly 64 million square miles of ocean – were unknown to Europeans. When Cook’s third voyage returned to Britain in 1780, most of the blank spaces had been filled in as a result of his labours.

This exhibition is an excellently curated and imaginatively staged account of Cook’s big three voyages. It:

  1. sets them in the wider framework of European knowledge of the time
  2. shows how each one was received and assimilated by both the elite scientific community and the broader general public
  3. most significantly of all, goes to great lengths to present the other side of the story, the by and large disastrous consequences for the ‘native’ or ‘first peoples’ of Australia, New Zealand and across the Pacific islands not so much of Cook’s visits themselves, but of the consequences – the way these peoples found themselves quickly caught up in the worldwide web of European trade, exploited, marginalised, often decimated by disease and of how their descendants, even today, are fighting to make their voices heard and to re-establish the importance of their culture and their version of history.

Image result for james cook voyages

Voyage One 1768-71

Cook had gained a reputation as a hard working navigator and map-maker during the Seven Years War (1756-63) in Canada, when he had charted the St Laurence Waterway and then, when peace came, made the first detailed charts of the island of Newfoundland off the Canadian coast.

So when the Royal Society approached the Royal Navy for a captain to lead an expedition to the Pacific, to carry scientific equipment and astronomers there in order to observe the transit of Venus across the sun which was due to take place in June 1769, the Admiralty saw an excellent opportunity to combine science with exploration and Cook’s name came into the frame.

The Navy provided the ship, HMS Endeavour which Cook sailed on, and he was under Admiralty orders that, once the transit was observed, he should sail on to try and find the fabled southern land which geographers and explorers of the time were convinced ran along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Cook took along with him Joseph Banks, a charming, privately wealthy botanist, with an extensive retinue of six artists and assistants, plus his servants and pet greyhounds. The huge collections of plants, birds, fish and other life forms which Banks made on the three year journey would later be sent to the new Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and to the Royal Society, for categorisation and study.

The first voyage crossed the Atlantic and touched at Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America, before sailing into the Pacific and on to Tahiti. Here the astronomers got to know the native people, built a fort, and observed the transit of Venus – then the Endeavour sailed on to New Zealand. By sailing right round and charting the two islands in detail, Cook proved that New Zealand was not part of the fabled Great Southern continent.

Cook’s Chart of New Zealand © British Library Board

Cook’s Chart of New Zealand © British Library Board

In April 1770 Cook anchored on a spot which he named Botany Bay, on a long stretch of the eastern coastline of Australia. The north coast had been mapped by the Dutch but this eastern coast Cook claimed for Britain and named New South Wales. Detecting no human habitation he declared it terra nullius i.e. uninhabited – the start of 250 years of ignoring and marginalising Australia’s aboriginal people.

Cook’s ship was holed on the Great Barrier Reef, and after a very dicey few hours getting the ship afloat again, they found a sheltered cove in which to make extensive repairs. After completing the survey of east Australia, they sailed north-west to reach Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies, where a number of Cook’s crew were struck down by malaria and dysentery, and so across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and home.

Banks sent the vast cornucopia of specimens, sketches and descriptions made by him and his retinue to the Royal Society and became what David Attenborough describes as ‘the Great Panjandrum’ of the late-18th century scientific world.

Voyage Two 1772-5

This time Cook was sent with explicit orders from the Admiralty to search for the Great Southern Continent. After a dispute about accommodation Banks didn’t, alas, go on this second trip.

In searching for the Southern Continent, and ultimately proving its non-existence, the expedition would cross the Antarctic Circle three times and, during the winter months, would make two long circuits of the south Pacific, charting a number of islands and island groups not before accurately plotted on European maps.

The voyages among towering icebergs in the southern seas gripped my imagination most, but Cook also made longish stays at Tahiti and Easter Island.

The Resolution and the Discovery in Prince William Sound, Alaska by John Webber © British Library

The Resolution and the Discovery in Prince William Sound, Alaska by John Webber © British Library

Voyage Three 1776-80

Cook was put in charge of the Resolution to be accompanied by the Discovery, captained by Charles Clerke. This time his mission from the Admiralty was to sail via Tahiti to the Pacific North-West coast of America in search of that other great chimera, the fabled ‘North-West Passage’ which sailors, for two centuries – had been hoping would allow ships to sail from the vast Hudson Bay in north Canada, clear through into the Pacific and so on to the Indies.

As no such passage exists, Cook never found it. Instead this voyage was as epic as the others, taking in stops at Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand, Tasmania, Tonga and Tahiti, places they had previously visited.

In January 1778, the expedition called at the Hawaiian islands, which were then unknown in Europe. After taking on supplies here, Cook sailed for the North Pacific coast of Canada. They arrived at the coast of modern Oregon and sailed north around the coast of Alaska looking in vain for some river or channel or outlet which would give access to the fabled short cut around North America.

They landed in the Aleutian Islands to take on water and then proceeded on through the Bering Strait in August 1778, still hoping to find access to a channel. Instead they ran up against a barrier of sheet ice and, following this east, discovered that it extended in an unbroken line from the west coast of North America all the way to the east coast of Asia. In August the expedition reached Russian soil. In other words – there was no way through.

Three Paddles from New Zealand by Sydney Parkinson, 1769 © British Library Board

Three Paddles from New Zealand by Sydney Parkinson, 1769 © British Library Board

The quest was over and Cook now needed to make winter quarters. Rather than stay up in Arctic waters, he decided to return to Hawai‘i. On 26 November 1778 the ships sighted Maui and on 16 January 1779 the ships arrived off Kealakekua Bay on the west coast of Hawai’i. They anchored and resumed friendly relations with the native people, led by King Kalani‘opu‘u, repairing the ship, taking on provisions and resting.

Finally, the ships sailed out of Kealakekua Bay on 4 February to resume their mission. But soon after their departure a storm blew up and the Resolution’s foremast was damaged, forcing them to return. King Kalani‘opu‘u had supervised elaborate farewell ceremonies for Cook and his men and now, according to diarist James Burney, ‘was very inquisitive, as were several of the Owhyhe Chiefs, to know the reason of our return and appeared much dissatisfied with it’.

Overnight on 14 February 1779, the large boat from the Discovery disappeared. As he had done in other places, Cook went on shore with the marines to take a senior figure hostage in order to demand its return. Charles Clerke later recorded that, on finding Kalani‘opu‘u having just woken up, Cook believed him to be ‘quite innocent of what happen’d and proposed to the old Gentleman to go onboard with him, which he readily agree’d to’. As the party returned to the beach, where two or three thousand people had assembled, tensions increased. News may have reached the crowd of the death of a man shot by British sailors who were blockading the harbour. Violence broke out and Cook was killed on the beach alongside four of the marines. Sixteen Hawaiians are believed to have been killed.

Both sides quickly regretted the misunderstanding and violence, but it was too late and – as commentators ever since have pointed out – it was indeed a symbol, a sign, a prophecy, of more misunderstanding and violence to come…

The exhibition

To my mind the British Library sometimes struggles to compete with the other major galleries or the British Museum for the simple reason that whereas the galleries have great works of art and the Museum has fabulous artefacts, for the most part the Library, by definition, is restricted to books and other printed matter, extending to pamphlets, prints, maps and so on, but none of them necessarily that visually impressive.

But the curators have gone to great lengths to overcome this potential drawback and to bring together the widest possible range of sources.

Books Thus, as you’d expect, there are a number of original journals and diaries, of Cook himself, as well as of important colleagues such as Banks and several of the other naturalists, surgeons and scientists who accompanied him.

Maps If you like maps, you’ll love this show. There are European maps from before Cooks’ voyages, maps generated by predecessors like Tasman, and his French contemporary de Bougainville, and then the maps which Cook himself generated.

Cook’s charts It was fascinating to see the very actual maps that Cook himself drew and created. At the end of the day, this was what all this extraordinary effort was about – the charts which were brought back to be used by the Royal Navy and by commercial sailings. These were the core of the project and it is great to have the opportunity to study in real detail the results of Cook’s handiwork, to read the wall labels and have explained to you why there were gaps here or there (for example, a stretch of the Australian coast wasn’t charted in detail because Cook couldn’t penetrate through the Great Barrier Reef to observe it closely), and even his errors. He mistook a peninsula on the South Island of New Zealand for an island, and an island off the North Island for a peninsula. Nobody’s perfect.

Objects But to supplement these obvious selections, the curators have also brought in some interesting objects such as one of the telescopes which was used to observe the transit of Venus and an example of the new timepieces which helped navigators work out longitude and thus establish their position.

Copies of Harrison's chronometer made by John Arnold © Royal Society

Copies of Harrison’s chronometer made by John Arnold © Royal Society

Oil paintings There’s also a handful of big contemporary oil paintings – of Cook himself and Joseph Banks and of the famous Tahiti Islander, Mai, who Cook brought back to Britain and who made a great splash in London society, being painted by William Parry and Joshua Reynolds among others, as well as having books and poems dedicated to him.

Botanical and scenic sketches Banks was a man obsessed with gathering absolutely every specimen of flora and fauna he could get his hands on throughout the entire three-year voyage. Spurred on by his work ethic, the naturalists and artists he had brought with him generated a wealth of sketches and drawings (including the earliest European depiction of a kangaroo!).

The exhibition sets the sketches alongside the finished oil paintings which were later worked up from them, either by the original artist or by a commercial artist back in London. Often the original sketches were ‘improved’ or ‘finished’ for inclusion in one of the many books which were published about the voyages to capitalise on their popularity, and the exhibition quietly points out how the rough and accurate sketches became noticeably westernised i.e. the landscapes became more soft and ‘sublime’ as per contemporary taste, and the sketches of the native people’s sometimes very rough shelters were transformed into noble dwellings, sometimes complete with ancient Greek columns, again to fit in with prevailing Western tastes for the idea of ‘the Noble Savage’.

One of the highlights is the striking drawings of natives and plants by Sydney Parkinson (who made nearly a thousand drawings of the plants and animals collected by Banks and Daniel Solander on the first voyage). There are evocative drawings of native people decorated by elaborate tattoos by William Hodges, beautiful flowers painted by Georg Foster who went on the second voyage, and so on.

Native objects In stark contrast to all these visual images created from within the western artistic tradition, the exhibition also includes a number of original artefacts by the natives, or aboriginals, or first peoples of the many places Cook visited.

These include, for example, a wooden cuirass or piece of armour from Prince William Sound, a bow and arrow, and a flute and drum, and a beautiful Nootka rattle carved in the shape of two birds.

Rattle from Nootka Sound, c. 1778 © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Rattle from Nootka Sound, c. 1778 © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

To quote the press release, exhibition highlights include:

  • Paintings depicting Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia by the Polynesian high priest and navigator Tupaia, which are on display as a group for the first time
  • The first chart of New Zealand by James Cook
  • The first artworks depicting the Antarctic by William Hodges on loan from the State Library of New South Wales, reunited with James Cook’s handwritten journal entry describing the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle, for the first time in 100 years
  • Specimens from the first voyage, including the mouth parts of a squid, on loan from the Royal College of Surgeons
  • Expedition artist John Webber’s watercolour landscapes, including the first European illustrations of Hawai’i
  • Jewellery and musical instruments, including a necklace from Tierra del Fuego, ceremonial rattle from Nootka Sound (Vancouver Island) and bamboo flute from Tahiti, on loan from Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
  • Natural history drawings, including the first European depiction of a kangaroo by Sydney Parkinson on loan from the Natural History Museum

Quite an assembly, going far beyond books and maps – and from a strikingly wide variety of sources.

Staging In terms of staging and presentation, the curators have gone to a lot of trouble to create a marine atmosphere, by painting the walls with sea-inspired colours. The exhibition is in the form of a kind of maze of differently shaped rooms, some painted light blue to display the voyage material, and deliberately contrasted with ‘brown’ rooms, lit by replica 18th century oil lamps to represent the time spent back in London. In these rooms are displayed the paintings, prints and publications of all sorts which the voyages inspired.

It’s interesting to note the number of literary works, with quite a few epic poems, dramas and satires based on the sea voyages or on the character of the new peoples Cook had ‘discovered’, particularly the peoples of Tahiti and Hawai’i.

It’s also notable that a number of these works were openly critical of Cook, of the occasional violence with natives which – despite Cook’s best efforts – broke out, and accurately predict the likely dire consequences for people suddenly thrown into the ‘modern’ world economy with absolutely no preparation or help.

Videos And there are no fewer than eight shortish (three minutes) videos, specially commissioned for the exhibition and dotted throughout the show, which feature not only maps and charts and the art work listed above, but modern day shots of many of the key (and generally quite stunning) locations, plus a range of interviewees explaining what actually happened on each voyage, and their importance.

Among the European interviewees are David Attenborough who enthusiastically describes Cook as probably the greatest maritime explorer of all time, and Australian anthropologist Nicholas Thomas, whose book about Cook is on sale in the well-stocked exhibition shop.

The controversy

And this brings us to what is maybe the dominant thread running through this exhibition. As Thomas says in one of the films, the past 30-40 years have seen a revolution in attitudes towards Cook and white colonial rule generally.

As recently as the 1970s there is footage of the Queen and Princess Anne sitting on a beach in Australia watching a re-enactment of Cook’s landing with his crew, and making his notorious claim that, the land being ’empty’, he claimed it for the British Crown.

Well, attitudes among educated people throughout the Western world have been completely changed since then and now there is widespread acknowledgement of the possible illegality of those claims, and the definitely devastating impact of white colonial contact with native peoples.

From Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, across the scores of small islands of Polynesia and up into the Arctic Circle among the Inuit Indians, the impact of white explorers on native ‘first’ peoples was almost always catastrophic.

‘Inhabitants of the Island of Terra del Fuego in their Hut’ by Alexander Buchan, 1769 © British Library Board

‘Inhabitants of the Island of Terra del Fuego in their Hut’ by Alexander Buchan, 1769 © British Library Board

As the films make clear, it is only in recent decades that the presence of the native peoples has been fully acknowledged, and the voices and experiences of the first peoples of Cook’s time, and of their contemporary descendants, fully heard.

Thus the eight short videos had contributions from a number of qualified white people – from David Attenborough, Nigel Thomas, Australian historian Dame Anne Salmond, from a male author and a woman biologist. But there were at least as many if not more ‘native’ voices heard – descendants of the Australian Aborigines and a number of the Pacific islanders / Polynesians where Cook stopped. I’d like to name them all, but the captions giving their names and titles only appeared very briefly, and there was – well – a lot to see and take in.

What came over in the words of all the native peoples – aborigine, Maori, Tahitian, Hawaiian – was the hurt.

After all these years – after 250 years – their descendants are still very upset about the way that:

  • their lands were taken from them
  • their heritage, their culture, their languages and customs and religions, were ignored, submerged, obliterated
  • their populations were decimated by the many terrible diseases the white men brought (smallpox, syphilis)

Entire peoples found themselves consigned to being second class citizens or not even that – invisible, non-people, with no political or legal rights, no voice, no say.

It is impossible to deny that this was the impact of Cook’s voyages. Without doubt the voyages were themselves heroic endeavours and respect to the men who carried them out. And there is plenty of evidence that Cook himself was a just and fair man, who made efforts to have natives treated fairly, who personally respected the rites and cultures which he encountered, and who rigorously punished any members of the crew found mistreating or exploiting natives.

But even Cook himself was uneasily aware that the technologically backward peoples he was discovering would struggle to survive in the face of Western technology, ships, guns, and trade.

Tupaia Nothing can really make amends for the wrongs which were done to native peoples across the Pacific in the aftermath of Cook’s explorations. The dignity with which the curators treat their often tragic histories is a start. Hearing from their descendants in the eight videos also ensures that the voices of the first peoples will always now be part of the Cook story.

But the exhibition also sheds new light on some specific and named natives. I’ve mentioned Omai – real name Mai – who was befriended and persuaded to travel all the way back to Britain.

Omai by William Hodges © Royal Museums Greenwich

Omai by William Hodges © Royal Museums Greenwich

We also hear about named kings and high priests who Cook and his officers treated fully as equals, giving them gifts, attending their religious ceremonies.

But the exhibition also brings out how vital many natives were to Cook’s success. It was, after all, only with the help and co-operation of the various local peoples that Cook was able to anchor, land, make repairs to the ship, to access vital fresh water and, above all, food.

And communicate. Another Tahitian, Hitihiti, travelled with Cook on to a number of Pacific islands, notably Easter Island, where he was invaluable as acting as an interpreter to first peoples.

Another very notable figure is the Polynesian high priest and navigator Tupaia. He accompanied Cook to New Zealand and Australia and is referenced by many of the aboriginal interviewees in the films as a kind of role model for the power he had and the respect he commanded from the white man.

And now it appears, from evidence in a recently discovered letter of Joseph Banks, that many of the sketches included in the archive of the first voyage were drawn by Tupaia himself, not by British artists. They are shown here for the first time with their proper credit and this knowledge gives them a whole new mystique and poignancy.

Banks and a Maori by Tupaia © British Library Board

Banks and a Maori by Tupaia © British Library Board

Summary

The voyages of James Cook were a great human achievement, displaying stunning bravery, discipline, determination, scientific and artistic expertise. The long-lasting impact on native peoples all over the vast Pacific region was almost always disastrous.

The exhibition makes a very good effort to capture the complexity of the resulting situation – amazement at a great achievement from the Age of Discovery. Difficult, moving and upsetting testimonials to the sorry centuries which followed.

The video


Related links

  • James Cook – The Voyages continues at the British Library until 28 August
  • The British Library microsite contains links off to quite a few good articles about each of the voyages, the natural history, indigenous peoples, the north-west passage, imperial legacy and much more

Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece @ the British Museum

In my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum. (Rodin, 1892)

Rodin and the British Museum

François Auguste René Rodin (1840 – 1917), known as Auguste Rodin, is widely seen as the godfather of modern sculpture. He visited London for the first time in 1841. On a trip to the British Museum, he discovered the so-called Elgin Marbles, the supersize Greek sculptures of men horses and mythical creatures which once lined the Parthenon in Athens – and was immediately captivated by their scale and power.

For this exhibition the Museum has had the strikingly simple and effective idea of borrowing a substantial number of Rodin’s classic works from the Rodin Museum in Paris, and placing them next to and among a generous selection of original Parthenon sculptures. Over 80 works by Rodin in marble, bronze and plaster, along with some 13 of Rodin’s sketches, are displayed alongside major pieces of ancient Greek art from the Museum collection.

Thus the exhibition includes a number of Rodin’s greatest hits, iconic sculptures which are part of the Western imaginarium, such as The Thinker, The Kiss, The Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais.

Years ago, when a teenager, I hitch-hiked to Paris, kipped in the Bois de Boulogne,and spent the days going on pilgrimages to all the art galleries and museums. I remember being bitterly disappointed by the Musée Rodin and that disappointment has lasted to this day. The exhibition was an opportunity to see if my largely negative image of Rodin stood up to the evidence or was just a personal prejudice.

The ancient Greeks

Between 1800 to 1812 workmen employed by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin – British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, or ‘the Sublime Porte’ as it was referred to in those days –  removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, the vast temple to Athena in Athens, as well as sculptures from the nearby buildings Propylaea and Erechtheum. These were shipped to Britain and put on display but, even at the time, contemporaries were critical enough for Parliament to hold an enquiry into his actions. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Elgin sold the marbles to the British Government who passed them along to the recently created British Museum where, despite vocal lobbying by the Greek government, they remain to this day.

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Throughout the nineteenth century the art of ancient Greece, and especially the statuary, was seen as the peak of human creativity and art. Renaissance giants like Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo had attempted to recreate some of their magic in painting, but the Greeks remained the source of artistic ideas of Beauty, which were built around realism – the realistic depiction of the human and animal body, with accuracy, elegance and grace.

The Parthenon figures were carved to fill the triangular pediment at the west and east of the building, as well as to fill the metopes or square alcoves roughly above each of the 46 outer columns. There was also a set of inner columns supporting an inner wall, and above these ran a continuous frieze of figures carved in relief.

There was, in other words, a huge amount of space to be filled by more than life size carvings of gods and heroes and animals (mostly horses being ridden in battle). Hence the fact that, even though the Elgin Marbles only represent a fraction of the originals, they still fill a vast gallery at the Museum.

Because all the statues we have now are worn to a kind of perfect white, people forget that Greek sculpture was originally brightly painted, and sometimes had gold leaf applied. This is a fanciful imagining of how the Parthenon would have looked when new. At this end we can see the pediment filled with freestanding statues of gods, small in the narrow ends, growing larger in size to gesture up towards the King of the Gods at the apex. And underneath you can see a set of 14 metopes above each column, each with an individual carving of an incident from Greek myth.At the Museum the curators tried to recreate the effect of the arched pediment by placing the scattered fragments in their correct positions relative to each other, with the metope carvings placed separately. This is how Rodin saw and was overwhelmed by them.

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum

What is so special about the sculptures from the Parthenon? They were thought, even by the Greeks themselves, to be the peak of their artistic achievement. The sculptor in charge of the works, Phidias, was credited with a godlike power for realism, for his ability to summon the gods from Olympus, and heroes from the Elysian Fields, and place them before the viewer.

For me the important factors are:

  1. They are larger than life. They had to be since they were embedded 30 metres high on walls.
  2. As a result their gestures are clear and distinct. The overall positioning of all the figures creates harmonies and rhythms which are perceivable even at a distance.
  3. Counter-intuitively, maybe, there is a staggering amount of detail in the sculptures. Observed down at eye level in an exhibition like this (as they were never intended to be seen), you can see the amount of effort that has gone in to depicting the muscles, ligaments and veins of, for example, this wonderful horse’s head, with its flared nostrils and bulging eyes. It’s called the Selene horse’s head because it is part of a frieze depicting the moon goddess, Selene.
Selene horse's head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

Selene horse’s head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

There is therefore, to my mind, a kind of super realism about the figures. They are larger than life in both senses – the subjects are gods of heroes of legend, and the figures are all larger than life size – yet they include finely carved details which also work to ennoble, expand and aggrandise the figures. They are images of power, imaginative, political and cultural power.

Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910 Photo: Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910
Photo by Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

By the 1880s Rodin had made his reputation as a sculpture and was gaining public commissions. He had always been fascinated by the sculpture of the ancient Greeks, still in his day held up as the absolute peak of human artistic achievement.

He had already studied Greek sculpture from books, sketches and casts available to him in Paris (he never, in fact, went to Greece). After all the Louvre in Paris has a large collection of ancient Green sculpture. Where possible Rodin collected fragments of ancient sculpture when they became available, placing them around the garden of his property in Meudon. Apparently he moved and repositioned them among the trees and bushes to create changing artistic effects.

Eventually he amassed a collection of some 6,000 fragments and he never ceased sketching and drawing them, from all angles. The result is a vast archive of sketches, drawings, half-finished carvings and completed sculptures.

Rodin’s aesthetic

But Rodin wasn’t slavishly devoted to simply making copies of ancient Greek perfection. He had a more modern aesthetic than that. He came to believe that sculptures had a life cycle of their own, an inner artistic integrity. If many had been damaged, well, that was their fate, and their current damaged state was somehow ‘true’ to their inner destiny. Thus Rodin resisted various suggestions that ancient Greek statues be ‘repaired’. You can see what he’s getting at.

Rodin liked the way that powerful expression was conveyed through the fragmented bodies of the Greek statues. He even removed the heads and limbs from his own figures to make them closer to the broken relics of the past. By doing so, he created a new genre of contemporary art – the headless, limbless torso.

This explains the prominence of process in Rodin’s own work. Many of his pieces seem to be emerging from the stone they are carved in, often with struggle. Similarly his ‘finished’ pieces often betray the work and effort required to make them.

The exhibition displays a massive male torso from the Parthenon next to a similar sized male torso by Rodin. The Parthenon one is smooth (though with pockmarks and gouges caused over time) but the Rodin one has a deliberately knobbly bobbly surface – at its core it is a realistic depiction of the male body, muscles and all, but in Rodin’s hands the sculpture also preserves the sense of effort which went into making it. The statue is not so much an image of Perfection as a symbol of the human effort to create Perfection.

Torso by Auguste Rodin

Torso by Auguste Rodin

On reflection, it is this deliberate favouring of a muddy, impure, less than precise, deliberately knobbly, bulgy, imperfect surface, which I don’t like about Rodin.

You see it in individual works and in his larger compositions.

The gates of hell

In the same year he visited the British Museum, 1881, aged 41, Rodin received his first big public commission, to create the bronze gates for a new museum of the decorative arts in Paris. Inspired by Dante, Rodin decided to create a set of gates on the theme of hell (‘Abandon hope all ye that enter here’ being the motto carved above the gates of hell in Dante’s medieval poetic epic, The Divine Comedy).

To this day I remember the massive build-up given to this piece at the Musée Rodin in Paris, and then my massive disappointment on seeing it. Instead of clarity and order – the clarity and rhythm you see so perfectly achieved in the Parthenon friezes – what I was immediately struck by was what a mess it is.

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

I defy you to figure out what is going on here. Your eye is drawn to the three figures at the top (themselves in a demoralising, broken backed huddle) then to the figure of the Thinker beneath them and beneath him? What the devil is going on in the two panels of the doors? And what is happening on the two columns either side of the doorway? I still find it as muddy and confusing as I did forty years ago.

The exhibition has a large section devoted to the gates. Rodin worked on it for decades, even after the planned museum was abandoned and the commission rendered redundant. He continued tinkering with all the small figures, taking many of them out of the gates and blowing them up into full-scale figures.

The most famous is The Thinker and there is a huge cast of it here. For me it epitomises Rodin’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

On the pro side it captures an archetypally human action in such a profound way that it quickly became an icon of Western art, and is probably among the half dozen most famous art images in the world (along with the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David etc).

But, up close and personal, I don’t like it. It looks lumpy and unfinished. (Alas it reminded me a bit of The Thing from the Fantastic Four comics in the way the surface, though polished and shiny, is ridged and gnarled and patched with what look like strips of clay used to build up the figure, rather than the actual lineaments of cartilage and muscle.)

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

It looks unfinished in exactly the way that the Gates of Hell look unfinished to me – muddy and indistinct.

This, I’m sure, is part of Rodin’s conscious aesthetic, a muscular, sculptural style which makes a virtue of flagging up its own effort, the struggle of creation.

Aesthetic of the unfinished

Among other aspects of this, Rodin encouraged the assistants and students who often helped him to carve his figures (he ran a workshop full of assistants) to leave secondary parts of the sculpture unfinished, and even to emphasise the physicality of the work by marking secondary areas with notches created by claw hammers and chisels.

This is perfectly obvious in Rodin’s other supersonically famous work, The Kiss of 1882. The exhibition curators a) are proud to have borrowed this larger-than-lifesize plaster cast of the kiss from the Rodin Museum. And b) make the ingenious suggestion that the pose of the two lovers (actually a scene from Dante’s Inferno of two adulterous lovers about to be discovered and murdered by the cuckolded husband) is based on the pose of two female goddesses, originally on the East Pediment of the Parthenon, one of which reclines luxuriously in the lap of her companion.

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

But for me the really dominant motif is the deliberately rough unfinished nature of the rock they’re sitting on. On the plus side I suppose the proximity of the gouged and hacked rock emphasises and brings out the luxurious smooth polished surface of the lovers’ two young bodies. But I still don’t like it.

To clarify further, here are two works which are directly related. The first one is a scene from the fight between the lapiths and the centaurs, which takes up a large part of one of the friezes on the Parthenon and is thought to be an allegory of the struggle between reason and animality. Note the clarity, even the stylised nature of the pose, and the clarity of line of each of the figures.

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Next to it the exhibition places a sculpture titled The Centauress (1904), a figure Rodin expanded from a minor position on the gates of hell.

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

I found this object particularly ugly and clumsy. The device of having the figure emerge from heavily-notched stone really doesn’t work for me at all. The way her overlong arms are merging with the pillar strikes me as some kind of horrifying physical deformity or mutation. It is not a very good depiction of either a horse’s body or a woman’s torso, and the less said about the unformed / melting head the better.

To summarise – Rodin’s attempt to assimilate the Greek influence and go beyond it to create a new ‘modern’ aesthetic of fragments which foreground the effort of their own creation has, in my opinion, very hit and miss results. Mostly miss.

His large masterpiece, The Burghers of Calais, is here – as a complete piece showing six larger-than-lifesize statues of the six men, alongside individual preparatory studies of some of the figures.

If you are a student of sculpture or a fan of Rodin this is a really thrilling opportunity to study his sketches, his inspiration, his working practices and the models which go towards creating a masterpiece. But for me, set among the light and clarity of line and design of the Greeks, they felt clumsy and hulking, their postures contrived and awkward.

Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

Phidias

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble © The Trustees of the British Museum

On the cusp of modernism

Rodin lived long enough to see the advent of full-blown Modernism. By 1905 Matisse and Picasso in their different ways were experiencing the influence of ‘primitive’ masks from Africa and the Pacific which were suggesting entire new ways of seeing and thinking about ‘art’.

Within a few years a new generation of sculptors would break decisively with the entire Western tradition and its indebtedness to the naturalism of the ancient Greeks – the ones that spring to mind being Jacob Epstein (b.1880), Eric Gill (b.1882), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (b.1891) and Alberto Giacometti (b.1901).

I suppose it’s unfair to compare Rodin to what came after him, but for me this next generation of sculptors blow the world apart, open the doors to an infinity of possibilities, and are the true creators of modern sculpture.

For me, a piece like Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (c.1913) is worth more than everything Rodin did put together. I like clarity of line and design as against muddiness and vagueness, crisp geometry as against random lumpiness, and energy as against languid kissing, dull thinking and the hapless, demoralised postures of the Calais Burghers.

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

For me the Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is sensuous but with a virile, alert, energetic sensuality, the sensuality of athletic life.

Light and airy exhibition space

By far the most striking thing about the exhibition is that the Museum has opened up the big windows at the end of the Sainsbury Gallery in order to let light flood in.

The partitions between different sections of the show do not extend to the ceiling so the effect is not of separate ‘rooms’ – rather dark and gloomy rooms as they had for, say, the Scythians exhibition – but of light flooding throughout the space, showing the Greek works, in particular, in something more like the fierce Mediterranean light of their homeland.

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

I’m afraid this isn’t a very good photo, but enough to show how the individual statues are staged at the window end of the exhibition, building up to the full cast of the Burghers of Calais in the middle distance of the shot.

The effect of this natural light, and the clean lines and clarity of the modern floor-to-ceiling windows, are wonderfully uplifting. It was relaxing to just sit on the benches conveniently placed next to them, and to enjoy the precise, geometrical architecture of the Georgian houses opposite, and the bright patio space with its carefully tended shrubs and small trees.

The video


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Family Values: Polish Photography Now @ Calvert 22 Foundation

Calvert 22 is the foundation and gallery set up to promote art and culture from the former communist countries of Eastern Europe and the USSR.

The foundation as a whole is currently hosting a season titled Family Values: Polish Photography Now, a season of photography and events examining Polish visual culture from the second part of the 20th century through to the present day.

At the centre of the season sits the first exhibition devoted to Polish photography in the UK. The exhibition showcases the work of six photographers who all explore the themes of family and home and often, by implication, the nature of our familiar and social identities.

Zofia Rydet (1911 – 1997)

Having worked as a photographer in communist Poland since the 1950s, and gained some success, with exhibitions held and books published about her work, it was only in 1978, at the relatively advanced age of 67, that Zofia Rydet embarked on the monumental project that was to consume her until she died and to make her name.

She set out to make a photographic portrait of every person in Poland. (The population of Poland in 1978 was 38 million.)

Over the course of twenty years she photographed 20,000 people in their homes, the pace of the project only limited at the end by her increasing physical frailty. The work is known as the Sociological Record (1978 – 1997).

Installation view of photos by Zofia Rydet at Calvert 22

Installation view of photos by Zofia Rydet at Calvert 22

Much admired in Poland, Rydet is only now coming to wide international prominence. Her work – this vast sociological study – has never been seen in the UK before, and it is fascinating.

Most of the photographs were taken in the villages and towns of Podhale, Upper Silesia, and Suwalki. They are almost entirely portraits of children, men, women, couples, families and the elderly shot in their homes amid their familiar belongings.

She cajoled the participants into place and carefully arranged their belongings and possessions around them, subtle indicators of their everyday lives, random objects picked up on holiday or in shops, alongside religious icons and images which (we guess) have a much deeper meaning and power.

Rydet tended to photograph her subjects straight-on, using a wide-angle lens and a flash. The images are static, revealing, and somehow, at the same time, both bleakly realistic but also mysteriously moving.

Couples from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy The Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Couples from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy the Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Rydet broke the Sociological Record down into various sub-categories: TV Sets, Women on Doorsteps, Windows and Disappearing Professions. As you might expect, a key theme is The Family, and Rydet systematically photographed the family in all its possible permutations: men, women, children, married couples, teenagers, grandparents, babies, multiple generations simultaneously, the elderly and the infirm.

Children and Young People from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy The Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Children and Young People from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy the Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

The exhibition features 35 photos – just 35 from 20,000! – which take you across or through at least three barriers –

  1. into a communist country, with all that implies in terms of low standard of living and shoddy consumer goods
  2. into an East European country, specifically conservative Catholic Poland, with its distinctive culture
  3. back to the 1970s and 80s where TV had only just arrived, and plenty of people still lived in cabins with very traditional furnishings
Women from the Sociological Record series (1978 - 1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy The Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Women from the Sociological Record series (1978 – 1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy the Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Note in this photos the peculiar combination of what looks like an embroidered image of the Polish Pope,  John Paul II, hanging on the wall above tacky, blow-up plastic balloons of Hello Kitty and an inflatable telephone. Are these jokes? Or prized possessions of the relatively poor and unsophisticated?

Rydet presents you with loads of deadpan images which invite you, the viewer, to try and puzzle them out. They raise all kinds of questions and thoughts.

Here’s a YouTube video, entirely in Polish which I can’t understand, but which gives a generous sample of stills from Sociological Record.

Józef Robakowski (b.1939)

Józef Robakowski is a leading Polish artist not least because he was one of the first Poles to work with video. In 1981, the year that martial law was imposed in Poland, he was removed from his post as professor at the Film, Television and Theatre State Academy at Łódź.

Forced back on his own resources, Robakowski developed the idea of film-making called ‘personal cinema’. One of the key works in this genre is From My Window which does what it says on the tin. For over 20 years, from 1978 to 2000, Robakowski filmed what he could see out the kitchen window of his apartment.

Film still from From My Window (1978-1999) by Józef Robakowski. Courtesy AK/BRANICKA

Film still from From My Window (1978-1999) by Józef Robakowski. Courtesy AK/BRANICKA

Looking down into the square below, Robakowski’s camera records the daily activities of neighbours or passersby, as well as stray cats and dogs. His retreat into the world of the everyday represents a resistance to the conformist values imposed on Polish citizens by the communist regime.

But the film is also, fairly obviously, a kind of ‘alternative surveillance’, carried out not by the state but by a citizen with an acute eye for incident and composition. A different kind of surveillance. One which claims to be non-political and innocent but… can the human eye ever be innocent of intention and control?

Presumably Robakowski shot a lot of footage. It is represented in the exhibition by a 20 minute-long video which is both humdrum and strangely absorbing at the same time. If you slow yourself right down to Robakowski Time, it becomes beguilingly enjoyable.

Aneta Grzeszykowska (b.1974)

Aneta Grzeszykowska has been responsible for a varied and interesting body of photographic work. In Album (2005) she took over 200 photographs from her private family archive and used Photoshop to remove her own figure from each picture. In Untitled Portraits she used Photoshop to create detailed colour photos of people who don’t exist but are creations using Photoshop.

Untitled Film Stills (2006) was a homage to Cindy Sherman’s work of the same title, in which Grzeszykowska took 70 self-portraits, in each one made up and dressed to appear as a female ‘type’, from housewife to ballerina.

Black is a 15-minute video which starts with her naked body, in black and white, against a jet black backdrop, and slowly bits of it are painted or become black, so that bit by bit her whole body is blacked out, leaving last of all her face, and mouth and then – pop! – all gone.

Black. 2007, videostills

Black (2007) videostill

As a heterosexual man, it would be hypocritical not to mention the pleasure that the sight of a svelte naked young women gives me. It’s noticeable the way that the women artists who make a habit of stripping off generally are young, trim and svelte. ‘Isn’t this kind of counter to everything feminism stands for?’ I asked my woman friend. ‘No, you idiot,’ she replied. ‘The whole point is that the artist is choosing to do this, on her own terms, and thus is empowered by being naked in her own time and space, at her own volition, for her own purposes.’ Still looks a lot like a pinup to me, I grumbled as I walked on.

Grzeszykowska is represented in this exhibition by works from a series titled Negative Book. This is a further working of the ideas of presence and absence obvious in Album, along with the black and white palette from Black.

In Negative Book, Grzeszykowska has taken photos of scenes from family life – from an apparently random selection of ‘ordinary’ families – and printed the negative – a simple strategy which is, nonetheless, quite haunting. But she’s gone a long step further by including herself in each of the photos, as an interloper.

Negative Book #23 by Aneta Grzeszykowska (2012-2013) Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

Negative Book #23 by Aneta Grzeszykowska (2012-2013) Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

But here’s the real distinctive thing about these photos – whereas the ‘families’ and all their surroundings appear in negative, she herself appears in a strange kind of spectral ‘normality’. Her figure has a kind of spectral glow, but isn’t the same kind of ‘negative’ as the other figures. Takes a while to really register this.

Negative Book #46 (2012-2013) by Aneta Grzeszykowska. Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

Negative Book #46 (2012-2013) by Aneta Grzeszykowska. Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

It was only by reading the wall label that I learned that Grzeszykowska achieves the affect by painting herself black and white – so there’s a direct link with the film Black – but painting the white bits of herself black and the black bits of herself white.

Just in case we don’t grasp the verbal explanation there is a handy film showing her doing just that, once again, starting from complete nudity. ‘But…’ I turned to my friend. ‘God, men,’ she rolled her eyes and walked away.

Thus she paints her white body black, her black pubes and nipples and eyebrows white, wears a white wig as a negative of her own black hair, and so on. If there’s anything to notice about it stylistically it’s that the painting is done deliberately roughly, slapdash – not to create a scientifically precise effect.

Image result for Aneta Grzeszykowska negative process

And the final effect? For me, with an imagination saturated in the conflicts of 20th century history, I saw her negative photos as weirdly glowing, as if from the after effects of some great radioactive disaster. The first of the two from Negative Book, with the man holding a child, seemed to me like shots from a weird alien landscape, the first humans on an alien planet.

There’s a slideshow of images from Negative Book on YouTube.

Adam Palenta (b.1976)

Cinematographer and director Adam Palenta is a graduate of the Faculty of Radio and Television at the University of Silesia, the Academy of Fine Arts, now the University of Arts in Poznań and the Dok Pro documentary film programme run by the Wajda School.

He was awarded a Ministry of Culture and National Heritage Młoda Polska (Young Poland) scholarship in 2010 and has received numerous commendations and awards for his work, including the cinematography for the short feature, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark Room (2009).

He’s represented here by House on its Head. The film shows the family life of Wojciech Zamecznik (1923–1967), an architect, set designer and eminent poster artist, who made an immense archive of black and white home movies of his family life, meetings and trips with friends.

Palenta was given access to this huge archive and edited it together, incorporating graphic works and experimental materials, to complement the documentary material. The film provides not only an interesting perspective on the artist’s everyday life, but also a rare opportunity to watch simple family life in the communist Poland of the 1950s.

You can watch the entire film on YouTube.

Weronika Gęsicka (b.1984)

Gęsicka is a well-established contemporary Polish photographer. She is represented here by a series titled Traces. In her own words:

The project is based on vintage photographs purchased from an image bank. Most of these photos came from American archives from the 1950s and 1960s.

The photos include family scenes, vacation souvenirs, everyday life, all lit, styled and with a slightly washed-out colour palette reminiscent of those ‘Hey honey, I’m home’ 1950s postcards and adverts. Epitomes, in other words, of an idyllic, utopian vision of American suburban life.

Gęsicka has set out to undermine each of them using Photoshop-style technical manipulation, in highly imaginative and often humorous ways. Here is the archetypal American family at prayer before a Thanksgiving (?) Dinner except that… they are fading away.

Untitled #18 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

Untitled #18 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

In other photos the people, but only the people, have turned into jigsaws, or have wooden structures instead of heads. My friend liked this one best, but all of them are very good, very imaginative, done with perfect style and taste.

Untitled #1 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

Untitled #1 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

Gęsicka says:

We know nothing of the actual ties between the individuals in the photographs; we can only guess at the truthfulness of their gestures and gazes. Are they actors playing happy families, or real persons whose photos were put up for sale by the image bank?

This question of identity and purpose may well trouble Gęsicka. ‘Identity’ is one of the buzzwords and buzz ideas of contemporary art.

And if you think for a minute, there is also an obvious influence from Surrealist art – the idea of jarring collages reminding me of no end of works by Max Ernst. Or, at least, Gęsicka’s works are highly reminiscent of Surrealist strategies.

But for the casual visitor and viewer, these ideas and connotations can be set aside. Her images work in themselves, refreshingly quirky, odd, and entertaining. It’s tempting to try and make up captions for some of them.

Gęsicka’s website has a gallery of images from the Traces series, and there’s also a YouTube slideshow.

Which one is your favourite?

Aneta Bartos

Nudes

If you do a Google Images search for Aneta Bartos you immediately discover that she’s taken a lot of soft porn or erotic photos. There’s her standing naked over another naked woman, there’s a suite of shots of a naked man holding his (impressively large) erect penis, two naked women on a bed, two naked women in the corner of a dilapidated room, one lying back against the other while the one behind has one arm across the other’s boobs, the other reaching down to cover her crotch, and so on.

Aneta Bartos online is a festival of nudity.

Self portrait by Aneta Bartos

Self-portrait by Aneta Bartos

As with so many women artists who decide to depict themselves naked, as with Aneta Grzeszykowska above, the woman in question is a) young b) thin c) unblemished, unmarked, perfect. Maybe she is asking questions about the border between art and porn but I’d have thought the answer is pretty simple: these photos are horny.

If we try to put sex out of our minds, the most obvious formal aspect of all these photos is their colour palette and setting. They are very brown and yellow, or sepia. There is little or no white light or black shadow. All the light is yellow, all the shadows are brown. And the locations have a consistent style and feel – dingy. Her nude figures are shot on bare beds, in rooms where the plaster or wallpaper is peeling, the opposite of pristine studio sets.

Naked young men and women, shot in pornographic attitudes, in a soft focus, heavily sepia filter.

Bartos’s dad

So much for Bartos’s internet presence. In this exhibition she is represented by half a dozen or so large prints from her project Family Portrait.

I happened to visit at the same time as a gallery official (a press officer?) was showing a journalist round and explaining each of the photographers’ works. She explained that Bartos’s father was a famous body-builder in Poland, who took part in competitions and publicity and tours.

As Bartos pursued her photographic studies, it dawned on both of them that he himself would make a good subject for study. Hence a series apparently titled Dad on her website which depict Papa Bartos in his jock strap, flexing his muscles in locations around the – presumably – family home, which appears to be in the countryside – here he is posing in fields, opening windows, by a railway track, kissing a sheep.

They have distinctive Bartos characteristics i.e. the isolated human subject is not wearing much, the whole palette is a washed out yellowy colour, and – as far as I can tell from the internet – almost all the photos are out of focus, presumably deliberately. The effect is to make the photos seem old and weathered, antiques, as if hazy memories of distant childhood.

Family Portrait

So, finally, to the dozen or so photos on display here: Family Portrait shows another selection of photos of her father (the solo subject of Dad), but this time with Bartos herself in the shots. It is a series of father and daughter photos. Double portraits.

As usual they are done with that very yellow tone, and all just out of focus. But what gives nearly all of them a rather unsettling tone is the way that Bartos is often as scantily clad as her father.

Mr Bartos the body-builder is just continuing to walk around in his jockstrap, as per normal, this we are used to – and in some shots Aneta is only wearing a bikini because, after all, it looks like summer wherever the photos were shot. Is the problem in your head if you find this a slightly salacious photo?

Lody, from the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

Lody, from the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

But it wasn’t me, it was the gallery official who pointed out to the journalist that many of the photos do seem to carry an unmistakable sexual or sensual overtone. In this one, a self-portrait with muscley Dad, Bartos doesn’t need to be wearing a bra and panties. The choice of clothes is sending a strong visual message.

From the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

From the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

Admittedly, in seven of the 23 photos from the series on her website, Bartos is wearing a traditional Victorian-style dress which completely covers most of her body, and even what is presumably a traditional head scarf, a restrained and ‘folk’ look which creates a completely different vibe. Is she playing the dutiful daughter of traditional Catholic Polish culture?

Scythe, from the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

Scythe, from the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

In which case, are all the other poses similarly play acting, role playing – in this one a sort of gangster’s moll or drunk hooker to Dad’s looming strong man?

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

The more you look, the more disconcerted you become. For me, once I’d become completely inured to the sexual element in the photos, I found myself thinking of them as explorations into the power of the photographic image itself.

Bartos is working with constrained subject matter – self-portrait with father – but creates an astonishing range of images with it. All the commentary I’ve read about them focuses – with lumpen inevitability – on the role of the female, on the way she’s playing with ‘gender roles’ within the ‘traditional family’, with ‘society’s tendency to infantilise women’ and so on.

On this reading the overt sexuality of the photographs is a deliberate challenge to patriarchal ideas of fixed roles, of what a father and daughter should be, of traditional boundaries of behaviour or perception. Fine. I get it.

But I thought there was also something deeper going on. It is not just the question, ‘What does this nearly naked man looming out of the shadow towards the bikini babe swigging from a bottle mean?’, or the way that the image undermines ‘traditional’ ideas of decorum between a father and grown-up daughter.

It is the corrosive way that the series of photos cumulatively undermines your faith in your ability to read any photograph – to ever really know what is going on in a photographic image. It was this increasing sense of uncertainty-of-interpretation, this undermining our confidence that we can interpret anything, which I found the really disturbing thing about Aneta Bartos’s work.

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

Curator

Family Values is curated by Kate Bush.


Related links

The photographers’ websites

Related blog posts (about Polish history)

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

(more…)

I Am Now You – Mother by Marcia Michael @ Autograph ABP

Autograph ABP is a charity that works internationally in photography and film, cultural identity, race, representation and human rights. ABP stands for the Association of Black Photographers.

Originally based in Brixton, ABP moved to a new, purpose-built gallery and offices at Rivington Place in Shoreditch in 2007. It is here that the ABP gallery is currently hosting two FREE exhibitions of photography.

I Am Now You – Mother by Marcia Michael

In I Am Now You – Mother Marcia Michael (b.1973) ‘visualises the act of matrilineage through the body of her mother, Myrtle McKnight.’ In practice, this means she has taken photos of herself and her mother, naked and clothed, sometimes alone, sometimes together.

I Am Now You – Mother, from the series The Object of My Gaze (2015-2017) by Marcia Michael

I Am Now You – Mother from the series The Object of My Gaze (2015-2017) by Marcia Michael

According to the introduction, Michael:

uses photography and oral history to retrieve lost and reimagined narratives of her matrilineal ancestry, creating an intimate dialogue between mother and daughter in order to visualise history from her mother’s memory.

In the artist’s words:

My desire is to recover a visual and aural narrative of my matrilineal history and reunite the present with the past. The body is testament to the refusal to forget. The body, my mother’s body, is all of my histories.

The introduction again:

Adapting call and response as a visual methodology, Michael’s call for historical understanding is met by her mother’s response permitting the search to be mediated through her body. The resulting visual conversation is unsettling in its revelatory rawness, and affirmative in its courageous offering: a ‘dialogue of matrilineage’.

In practice, it is the photos of Michael’s mother’s naked body which are most visually interesting. She’s no longer young and she is quite big, but these are – as I see them – big pluses. A lot of the youngish women artists I go to see take photos or videos of themselves naked (for example, Aneta Grzeszykowska, in the review of Calvert 22 I’ll publish tomorrow). Indeed Michael includes one striking photo of herself reclining in an armchair stark naked in this exhibition.

But most of us are not young and trim, and get quite sick of being bombarded by images of svelte young things in movies, adverts, on the internet, on TV, and even the art world.

Even in the art world, realistic depictions of the older human body, or of fat people, in less than pristine condition, looking less than ‘buffed’, ‘ripped’ and ‘hot’, are relatively rare, photos even rarer. (This is part of the reason I immediately loved the paintings of Jenny Saville when I saw them at the Sensation exhibition 21 years ago.)

So while I quite liked the obvious visual comparisons and connections which Michael’s draws with her mother – like the double portrait in the painting below, wearing the same dress – hopefully you agree with me that the really visually interesting part of the work is the central shot of their bare bodies, skin against skin. It’s not rude or provocative. It is, in purely aesthetic terms, a really interesting composition of curves and contours, a study in human flesh, such as artists from Rubens to Freud have made, shot in a wonderfully intimate way which captures the play of light and shade on brown skin.

In purely visual terms, it is a fascinating and entrancing composition.

And then it has this added layer of meaning, which is that it is the juxtaposition of the bodies of a mother and her grown-up daughter. If you have children of your own, it comes freighted with all kinds of added meanings and memories of your own cuddle time with your kids, evocative of that childhood intimacy, but also marking the distance from it which adult bodies have travelled.

Partus Sequitur Ventrem from the series The Object of My Gaze (2015-2017) by Marcia Michael

Partus Sequitur Ventrem from the series The Object of My Gaze (2015-2017) by Marcia Michael

Many of the photographs’ titles include the Latin Partus sequitur ventrem –  ‘that which is brought forth follows the womb’.

This historical law, which decreed that the social status of the mother is inherited by the child, shapes the mother for Michael as both maker and marker of history.

Some of the works – triptychs or juxtapositions of three images – really drill down into the notion of the body, exploring all the strange and plangent postures it is capable of. I was particularly troubled by this one. As in a religious triptych the left and the right panels are in one style, and act as introductions or pointers towards the central one whose importance, here is emphasised by the way it is in colour, contrasting with the outer panels’ black and white.

Both types of image are unnerving. The one on the right is in shadow and hard to make out, but the image on the left is well lit and this makes the marks on the back all the more striking and obtrusive. What are they? I happen to be reading about slavery in a  history of America so thoughts of whippings and beatings sprang to mind, but these marks cannot possibly be caused by anything like that. Can they? What are they?

And the central image of the two female bodies, intimately linked, entirely stripped of any sexual or sensual connotations, become studies in the shapes the body makes, and – again – almost abstract studies of light and shade, light falling on the central thigh and the buttock above it, contrasting with other darker shadowed areas of the image.

Partus Sequitur Ventrem, from the series The Object of My Gaze (2015-2017)

Partus Sequitur Ventrem, from the series The Object of My Gaze (2015-2017)

What does each of these images do to the mind and the imagination, what do they say? And how much more are your reactions complicated by their placement next to each other?

All the wall labels, the introduction and Michael’s own statements emphasise the theme of the mother and the handing down of identity from mother to daughter – no doubt that was the conscious aim of the project. But the impact of the images, on the viewer less limited or restricted by this perspective, is much bigger, much weirder, much more puzzling and uncanny.

Remembering You Remember Me

There’s also a video, projected onto one wall, titled Remembering You Remember Me. (In this installation photo, you can see the triptych or single photos of Michael and her mother on the left-hand wall, and then how the right-hand wall is covered with a blown-up photo of woodland, trees and tracks; and how it is onto this backdrop that the video is projected.)

Installation view of I Am Now You - Mother

Installation view of I Am Now You – Mother

In this video a very old, white-haired Myrtle McKnight is presented in five simultaneous streams next to each other, in each one each retelling the birth of her child.

The words, and the sounds we all make when speaking (the ers and ums) create a powerful and disorientating effect. It reminded me of some of Steve Reich’s early minimalist works where tapes of human speech are spliced and repeated with variations to produce unnerving and challenging sounds.

Here, the many voices of Myrtle McKnight, set against each other, create a more troubling effect, an unearthly, sometimes angular and discordant, strangely poignant sense of the fragility of human identity.


Related links

Other blog posts about photography

Devotion: A Portrait of Loretta by Franklyn Rodgers @ Autograph ABP

Autograph ABP is a charity that works internationally in photography and film, cultural identity, race, representation and human rights. ABP stands for the Association of Black Photographers.

Originally based in Brixton, ABP moved to a new, purpose-built gallery and offices at Rivington Place in Shoreditch in 2007. It is here that the ABP gallery is currently hosting two FREE exhibitions of photography by black photographers.

Devotion: A Portrait of Loretta by Franklyn Rodgers

For some years photographer Franklyn Rodgers has been taking large-scale portrait photos of the most important person in his life, his mother, Loretta. More recently he has branched out into taking portraits of Loretta’s circle of friends and family. To quote the man himself:

Devotion – A Portrait of Loretta represents the connectivity between faith, family and friends, echoed in the wider social experience assigned to them in their time and location. It is a meditation on strength, resilience, fortitude and the ability to endure. It is an idea through which the connectivity it brokers opens up the reconfiguring of survival, rooted firmly in the legacy of a cultural matriarch. To pay homage, both as Loretta’s son and as an artist, in recognition of a way of thinking that represents a coping mechanism to collectively overcome, forgive and conversely transform: a process of creation through a different lens. Evidenced over time in the cultural landscape that now defines our nation.

The photos are enormous and capture a staggering amount of detail.

Loretta Rodgers, 31 January 2006 by Franklyn Rodgers

Loretta Rodgers, 31 January 2006 by Franklyn Rodgers

Friendships

As the director of ABP, Dr Mark Sealy MBE, puts it:

Loretta and the devoted network of relationships that are presented in the exhibition could, if we so choose, unlock the face of our own humanity. ‘Identity is not only a departure from self; it is a return to self’ (French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas) This unlocking process, however, only becomes possible at the point in which we fully recognise the civil responsibility we have for both Loretta and her friends. The underlying theoretical question with which Rodgers’ photography works presents us fundamentally concerns our understanding of what it means to actually look into the human face.

Installation of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Installation view of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Confrontations

It is certainly true that the size of the portraits, and the way they are cropped very closely so as to be, literally, in your face, is almost forcing a response, coercing you to engage somehow, forcing us ‘to unlock the face of our own humanity’ maybe.

Mrs Iris Simms (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

Mrs Iris Simms (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

Care

Probably the portraits are a mirror and you project onto them your own concerns. Because I cared for both my parents as they died, and have been the main carer for my children, these enormous portraits trigger emotions of care and concern in me. These women look as if they have lived. They look as if they have suffered. I found myself uncomfortably moved by them. Unsettled by their unrelenting gaze.

Sealy again:

Through his photographs of his mother Rodgers invites us to enter the sacred realm of human recognition. In his hands the camera is repurposed as a device that aids the case for greater safekeeping and care across the human condition.

Installation of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Installation view of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Technical fluency

But maybe that’s just me, my life experiences, which I’m projecting onto them.

On the technical front, I am astonished at the pin-prick clarity of such enormous prints. Having recently seen the vast photographic prints by Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery, and the massive photos by Alex Prager at the Photographers’ Gallery, I realise that we are living in an age when photos can now be blown-up and printed on an enormous scale without losing – in fact, enhancing – a tremendous, an almost intimidating, clarity of detail.

But whereas Prager’s and Gursky’s photos are almost entirely staged to capture large groups of people or (in Prager’s case) bizarre scenes, Rodgers’ photos obviously have a completely different feel. I wouldn’t call it ‘intimate’, they’re too big for that. But about as close up as you can get to a human face. And determined to capture every pore and blemish of the skin.

Looking again, I realise that all the faces are completely expressionless. I think it was at the National Portrait Gallery’s 2017 exhibition that I noticed that not a single one of the 70 or so portraits on display showed a single person smiling, let alone laughing i.e. it’s a common trope or convention of 21st century portraiture, to remain completely expressionless..

Maybe smiling or laughing immediately limits a portrait, because the viewer knows what mood the sitter is in. Smiling or laughter defuse the tension between viewer and portrait.  Whereas depicting blank unsmiling portraits makes the face so much more powerful, inscrutable and mysterious.

What, you find yourself asking, is this array of senior citizens thinking? About their experiences of being black in Britain? About the nature of identity in a society mediated by images? About what’s for dinner? Who knows.

Time

As T.S. Eliot wrote a hundred years ago, ‘Time is time and runs away.’

Sealy again:

The act of photographing his mother’s face also marks Rodgers’s awareness of time moving uncontrollably fast. This sense of temporal dis-ease creates the conditions of having to act in the present and take responsibility for the now. Rodgers’ photographs of his mother and her circle of friends are therefore an invitation to look into their faces as part of a self-reflective journey to one’s own humanity, because, ultimately, it is only when we can recognise all the Lorettas of the world that we can then recognise ourselves.

Loretta Rodgers, Crown (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

Loretta Rodgers, Crown (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

It’s a room full of intense, brilliant and powerfully questioning portraits.


Related links

Other blog posts about photography

Shirley Baker: Personal Collection @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Three years ago the Photographers’ Gallery held the first ever solo exhibition of acclaimed street photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014).

Now, downstairs in the Print Sales Gallery of the Photographers’ Gallery, for the next month, there’s a small display of 27 rare vintage and lifetime prints from Baker’s own collection, each one stunning in its own way, and all for sale.

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Slum clearance

Housing was a critical issue after the Second World War. House building had more or less ceased for the six years of the duration, and some 475,000 houses were destroyed or made uninhabitable by German bombing.

But many of the homes which remained – unhygienic and rundown slums – remained a big problem in many cities, especially in the manufacturing towns and cities of the North, where they had been thrown up in a hurry by Victorian developers and then left to decay.

In 1956 the Conservative Government under Anthony Eden passed The Slum Areas improvement and clearance Act 1956. The Act defined ‘a slum’ as:

An area unfit for human habitation because of dilapidated buildings, overcrowding, faulty arrangement and design of buildings, narrowness or faulty arrangement of streets, lack of ventilation, light or sanitation facilities or any other combination of these factors.

The act was one of several measures, along with new funds, designed to encourage local authorities to clear out the old Victorian slums and build bright, new, airy homes fit to live in.

There was much debate among architects, planners and authorities, about how best to rehouse the people whose homes were being knocked down, and one result was the proliferation of new concrete tower blocks across all England’s cities and towns in the 50s, and especially the 60s and 70s.

Manchester 1968 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1968 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Altogether some 900,000 slums were cleared in the 1950s and 1960s and two and a half million people were re-housed.

Shirley Baker

Born in Kersal, north Salford, Lancashire, Baker’s family moved to Manchester when she was two. After school, she studied photography at Manchester College of Technology, and took other courses at Regent Street Polytechnic in London and the London College of Printing.

Baker started working as an industrial photographer for fabric manufacturers Courtaulds before working freelance, as a photographer for other businesses and as a writer and photographer on various magazines, books and newspapers, including The Guardian.

In 1960 she began work as a lecturer at Salford College of Art and it was during the fifteen years that she held this post, that she made a huge collection of unposed, spontaneous photographs of people living in the area in Salford and Manchester during a time of massive slum clearance.

Manchester 1967 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1967 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

According to Baker she didn’t consciously embark on what would turn out to be such a prolonged project:

Wandering the unpicturesque streets of Manchester and Salford with a camera seemed quite crazy to most people at the time.

But she saw it as a kind of duty to be there with her camera, to represent peoples’ experiences in a time of great change and disturbance for whole communities.

Mums and kids

Manchester 1963 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1963 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Around 90 per cent of the images feature women and children. Men are conspicuous by their absence. While the photographer had a particular interest in the role of women as mothers, carers and nurturers, there is also a practical reason: the men were mostly at work during the weekdays, which is when she went a-shooting.

The men you tend to see are those at the end of their lives, sitting around, watching time drift… and a few others who couldn’t get work, who you might call feckless.

The back-to-backs were squalid and crowded, with families often sharing two rooms and few if any green spaces. Deprived of playgrounds and parks, little girls pushed their dollies among the cracked pavements and boys set up cricket games in the rubble-strewn streets.

Time and patience

Baker was frustrated in attempts to find a permanent job in the 1950s, partly because she was a woman in a man’s world. It was only after she married a doctor in 1957 that she gained a measure of financial freedom and, crucially, time – time to wander the streets of Salford and Manchester, time to get to know them intimately, time to set up her camera in good locations and…. wait.

Her photographs have a sense of planned spontaneity. The settings seem to have been carefully chosen and framed, but with the human subjects within these frames acting independently and naturally. Part of the ‘beauty’ or the effect, is in the contrast between the careful framing (generally involving architectural elements, houses and walls) and the unexpected spontaneity of the people who populate and animate each shot.

Her technique was to observe quietly, camera set up, waiting for something to enter the frame and fill it with life. And what life! Again and again her photos demonstrate the triumph of the human spirit over real poverty and deprivation. And cheeky kids. Long suffering mums and cheeky kids up to no good.

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

As she explained in an interview:

Whole streets were disappearing and I hoped to capture some trace of the everyday life of the people who lived there. I wanted to photograph the mundane, even trivial aspects of life not being recorded by anyone else. My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.

Some squatted in old buildings, trying to hang on to the life they knew. They didn’t have much. Things were decided for them…

What happened next

Baker’s photos capture the reality of what it meant when Manchester councils embarked on their programme of tearing down Victorian terraced houses to make room for larger, ‘modern’, low-rise flats in areas such as Salford and Hulme.

She saw the process as a needless attack on the street life of the area’s poor but vibrant communities, reducing the areas families had lived in for generations to smouldering rubble.

Salford 1964 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Salford 1964 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

These new ‘brutalist’ flats and tower blocks (such as the infamous Hulme Estate) were a utopian attempt to solve the housing crisis in the Manchester area at the time, enthusiastically supported by architects, designers, planners and councillors.

However, within 20 years, due to poor construction, high crime rates, and pest infestations, many of these buildings went the same way as their terraced forefathers, only with new layers of urban alienation – rotting windows, broken lifts, smelling of piss, covered in graffiti, crack dens. As one writer commented:

The upper floors had wide walkways which were envisaged as ‘sophisticated streets in the sky’ but which ended up providing handy escape routes for drug dealers and other ne’er-do-wells who could make a quick getaway by bike.

This is why I have an abiding dislike and suspicion of architects and town planners: their forebears sold millions of British citizens down the river, condemning them to live, raise children, and die in dirty, faulty, crumbling, crime-infested blocks of flats.

Baker’s photos aren’t as proselytising as my text. She lets her photos do the talking.

These are my pictures. They are the observations of one person. And they tell only a fraction of the story.

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

For sale

The 27 works by Shirley Baker which are on display in the Print Sales Gallery of the Photographers’ Gallery, many of them rare and vintage prints, are all for sale. Prices range from £750 to £2,500 plus VAT for stamped, annotated and signed prints.

A video

On YouTube there’s a slideshow of Baker’s photos made for an exhibition held at the Lowry a few years ago.


Related links

Other blog posts about photography

Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Silver Lake Drive is a major new exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, the first mid-career survey of American photographer and filmmaker, Alex Prager (b.1979). The exhibition stretches over two floors, tracing Prager’s career especially over the last ten years, bringing together 40 photographs and all six of her films to date.

Be warned: I loathed this exhibition. It epitomises for me almost everything I hate about modern America, modern art and modern culture.

3:14pm, Pacific Ocean, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

3:14pm, Pacific Ocean, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

The end of America

Let’s take a moment to consider, quite literally, where Alex Prager is coming from – the United States of America.

Although it has by far the largest economy in the world ($20.4 trillion, compared to China’s $14 trillion and Japan’s $5 trillion), is at the forefront of the digital revolution, and bombards the world with its cultural products and brands, to the educated outsider it sometimes seems as if America has become, in the past generation or so, in many ways a failing state. Consider:

– America’s war on terror, its invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, its extraordinary rendition, its black op sites, its legalising of torture and its waterboarding, its use of drone warfare to bring death from the skies all across the Muslim world.

– America’s dire race relations, its black men shot on a weekly basis by its racist police, home of the largest prison population in the world (2.2 million), mostly blacks and Hispanics.

– America’s war on drugs, kicked off by President Nixon back in 1971 and a dismal failure, 21 million Americans now battle serious drug addictions, the curator of the Thomas Cole art exhibition was telling me last week how terrifying the scale and destruction of the opioid epidemic is becoming.

– Entire American cities like Detroit, Birmingham and Flint have gone bankrupt, abandoned in smouldering ruins, urban wastelands, blighted generations.

– America’s high school massacres (23 so far this year) are just the most tip of by far the highest rate of murder by firearm in the developed world, some 11,000 homicides involving guns occurred in 2016, but despite this, the pitiful inability of America’s lawmakers to rein in gun ownership.

– America’s shameful healthcare system which condemns scores of millions of citizens (11% of Americans have no health insurance) to misery, unnecessary pain and death.

– America’s grotesque inequality, with 750,000 Americans sleeping rough every night and 21 percent of all children in poverty, a higher rate than any other developed country. In 2011 the 400 wealthiest Americans owned more wealth than the bottom 50% of all Americans combined.

– America’s elephantine consumption of resources, with 5% of the world’s population it consumes 25% of the world’s fossil fuels and creates half the world’s solid waste.

– America’s pioneering place in the forefront of consumer capitalism, vast corporations devoted to the creation of entirely false needs and wants, slick American marketing and merchandising of junk food, junk music and junk movies to screw money out of a glamour-bedazzled population of drones. Fat food and fizzy drinks rich in high-fructose corn syrup have helped just over 40% of Americans to be categorised as obese.

– America’s new wave of digital corporations busy embedding surveillance devices (mobile phones and tablets) in every home in the world, recording every phone call, tracking all your movements, logging every ‘like’, in order to build up data profiles of every human on the planet on a scale the Stasi or the KGB could only dream of.

– America’s rotten political culture which means the two main parties can barely talk to each other, a paralysing political polarisation which regularly prevents the signing-off of the federal budget and so brings the entire government to the brink of collapse. America with its Tea Party and its Moral Majority and its President Trump. Nations get the leaders they deserve and so America awarded itself a bullshit artist, a dumb-ass, know-nothing, braggart, pussy-grabbing bully-boy.

This is America today.

Thank you Lord Jesus for Donald Trump

Thank you Lord Jesus for Donald Trump (Photo NOT by Alex Prager, courtesy of Business Insider)

Why fetishise American culture?

Why on earth would any other nation look up to or respect this toxic, spoilt, inequitable, over-privileged, environment-destroying, resource-stripping, war-mongering, increasingly unhappy and fractured country?

But despite all this, the British cultural élite loves America. Film critics, art critics, literature critics, theatre critics, ballet critics, music critics, photography critics fall over themselves to praise the flood of cultural imports from the land of hyper-capitalism, drug abuse, gun violence and its mindless, debasing, consumer culture which pours over Britain and Europe like mass-marketed, slush-puppie-flavoured effluent (this week’s cultural highlights including Solo: A Star Wars Movie, Deadpool 2, Jurassic World and Ocean’s 8).

Alex Prager’s America

To me, Alex Prager’s photographs and films come right from the core of this drugged-out, unwittingly privileged, terrifyingly shallow and superficial culture. It takes a lot of effort to be this heartlessly narcissistic.

The Big Valley: Susie and Friends (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The Big Valley: Susie and Friends (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The big picture

Americans like big. Big Mac, Big Whopper, extra fries, large Coke, Cinemascope, three-D movies, Technicolor, widescreen, obesity, surplus, excess.

Same here. Prager’s photos are enormous, so big that each one gets a wall to itself.

Installation view of Alex Prager at the Photographers' Gallery

Installation view of Alex Prager at the Photographers’ Gallery

Not only big, but very LOUD – overlit and packed with pin-prick, crystal-clear, digitally-enhanced details, a surfeit, a superfluity, a plethora of minutiae.

There are no out-of-focus backgrounds in Prager’s photos, no receding depths of mystery. Nothing is mysterious, not visually mysterious. There is job lot after job lot of Americans posed and photoed in hyper-real, digital clarity.

Sets and actors

What is the source of this hyper-reality?

Well, from the start of her career Prager’s approach has been to shoot on movie sets, creating carefully staged scenes heightened by hyper-styled costumes, over-makeup, bright lighting and the use of a richly saturated colour palette, all of which are designed to give the images a relentless visual intensity.

There is nowhere for the eye to rest. There are no shadows or out of focus bits to provide light and shade.

Thus, all of the people in this photo are actors, hired for the job, elaborately dressed, made-up, staged and arranged in order to create an entirely fake composition, posing as a slice of reality, while all the time knowingly signposting its own artificiality.

The main strategy of all Prager’s photos (and films) is to draw attention to their own artificiality.

Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach), 2013 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach) 2013 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

That’s it. If you like elaboration, artifice, contrivance, kitsch and camp and fakery, then you’ll love the arch, knowing tone of Prager’s work. You’ll love the way her ‘Americans’ dress in a distinctively off-kilter way: the women generally wearing 1960s hairdos and dresses, many of the men sporting hats as if they’re extras from the Mad Men TV series.

Anaheim, 2017 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Anaheim (2017) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Grist for intellectual theorists

If you’re an intellectual who likes this kind of artifice and contrivance, this is precisely the kind of knowing, self-referentiality which has been celebrated and theorised by (predominantly French) critics for the past 60 years: the names of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault spring to mind and I’m sure appropriate texts can be mined from all of them to pad out descriptions of Prager’s hypertextuality and cultural intersections, with maybe a splash of Deleuze and Guattari thrown in, not forgetting Jean Baudrillard who theorised that reality had ceased to exist since we now live in a world entirely mediated by screens and images.

It is art designed to go straight from cultural producer to cultural analyst without its feet touching the ground.

Installation view of Alex prager at the Photographers' Gallery

Installation view of Alex Prager at the Photographers’ Gallery

And if you’re into film theory, there is literally no end to what you could find to write about Prager’s referencing of her 1960s filmic look and style, her use of actors and scenes and so on. And that’s before you get around to the fact that she has, with a kind of deadening inevitability, herself started making films.

Or, as the exhibition introduction puts it:

Prager’s distinctive works cross the worlds of art, fashion, photography and film, exposing the human melodrama and dark unsettling undercurrents that are threaded through her subject matter. Referencing the aesthetic principles of mid-twentieth century Hollywood cinema and fashion photography, as well as such photographers as William Eggleston, Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman, each of her images is packed with a multitude of emotional layers and narrative possibilities.

Are they ‘packed with a multitude of emotional layers’, though? Do they ‘expose the human melodrama and dark unsettling undercurrents that are threaded through her subject matter’?

Where is the melodrama in a load of actors posing on a set made to look like a beach?

Influences

Picking up on the photographers mentioned in that last sentence, some of Diane Arbus (1923-71)’s magnificent photos of circus ‘freaks’ were featured in the recent Barbican exhibition about Another Kind of Life. I’ve loved Arbus’s work ever since I watched a documentary about her back in the 1970s. She holds an unflinching lens up to a bewildering array of life’s outsiders, freaks and unfortunates. Unlike Prager, Arbus has soul (albeit a troubled, sometimes bewildered kind of soul).

Cindy Sherman seems a much more relevant comparison. Born in 1954, Sherman is known for her ‘conceptual portraits’ i.e. where she or a model dresses up in a persona, generally of a troubled, challenged or weeping woman, before photographing herself.

This approach, of dressing up and performing for the camera, in its knowing artificiality, in its arch mockery of any genuine feeling or emotion, seems to me a direct precedent for Prager.

Dazed women in the photos of Alex Prager

About half the time Prager’s photos focus on women, often in distress or with the blank ‘so what’ look of Valiumed-up housewives.

Here a characteristically thirty-something woman, dressed in a characteristically retro, 1960s dress and jacket, is having trouble coping with a flock of pigeons. A reference to Hitchcock’s The Birds, by any chance? Fancy writing an essay about Hitchcock and Prager? Go right ahead. Hundreds already have. Thousands will…

The empty road and dominating power lines (along with the comedy knock knees) emphasise the sense of abandonment, alienation and helplessness. Help me, help me.

The Big Valley: Eve (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The Big Valley: Eve (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Crowds

Prager’s best-known series is probably Crowd which depicts crowds on the beach, in airport lobbies, in seats at the theatre, each figure presented in isolated poses with a kind of hyper-realistic, super sharp focus. The curators think that these photos draw:

attention to individual characters and stories and hint at interior lives, separate from outward appearances.

Personally, I found them contrived, artificial and intensely irritating. Note the late 1950s/early 1960s clothes and haircuts in this photo, reminiscent, in its fake homeliness, of the Back to the Future movies.

Orchestra East, Section B (2016) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Orchestra East, Section B (2016) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The only upside to looking at some of the photos was that, after a while, I noticed the recurrence of certain faces, presumably the same actors dressed and set up in different scenarios.

In particular, I began to hope that the light-brown-haired woman dominating this shot, and who appears in a number of other photos, was really Matt Lucas who might at any moment start to mutter catchphrases from Little Britain. ‘Computer says no,’ maybe, or, ‘Want that one’, which would be particularly suitable for American gluttony.

But no. My puerile sense of humour is way out of place. There is no humour, no warmth, no emotion, not a flicker of irony or sparkle in any of these photos. Just digitally print-perfect robots dressed as people, sometimes in crowds (on the beach, in the theatre, drowning in the sea) sometimes solitary women having breakdowns, sometimes in deliberately bizarre and contrived situations.

3:32pm, Coldwater Canyon, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

3:32pm, Coldwater Canyon, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

For fans and devotees of Prager, I can see how there is not only masses to write about her artful ‘intersection’ of Hollywood, consumer culture and the artifice of everyday life but, also, and inevitably, with a feminist perspective on the role of women in her photos (and films).

American feminism that is, feminism drenched in American cultural values i.e. a particular type of rich, white entitlement. (‘Hillary should have won. It’s our time. Me too. I want more. Give us more.’) Thus the curators:

The female figure functions as a central protagonist in Prager’s tableaux and is singled out for attention through composition, camera angle and costume. The women in her frames are often shot in extreme close-up to capture exaggerated emotion, wear highly styled and codified clothes and sport elaborate, improbable hairstyles.

The Big Valley: Desiree (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The Big Valley: Desiree (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Does this photo of a woman capture her ‘exaggerated emotion’? I’d have thought that that is exactly and precisely what all of Prager’s photos do not do. Surely that should read ‘exaggerated indifference’.

Dehumanised

On a different floor of the Photographers’ Gallery there’s currently a wonderful exhibition of black and white photos by English photographer, Tish Murtha, a documentary photographer who took quick, on-the-hoof but nonetheless beautifully composed and deeply moving photos of the unemployed, the poor and wretched of her hometown Newcastle, during the 1970s and 80s.

In almost every one of her photographs the humour, the cockiness, the indomotable charm of her subjects leaps out, alongside her own empathy, her compassion, her concern and her tremendous artistry.

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha and The Photographers’ Gallery

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha and The Photographers’ Gallery

All these human qualities – care, compassion, empathy, humour, fun, larking about, playing, joking, being in real trouble, helping each other out, community and concern – every faculty and emotion which make human existence worthwhile, rich and full, seem to me to have been surgically removed from Prager’s artificial pictures of artificial people leading artificial lives.

It is as if someone has rewritten Ira Levin’s horror classic The Stepford Wives to celebrate the transformation of human beings into emotionless, perfectly made-up, lemon-dress-wearing zombies.

They are like photographic accompaniments to David Byrne’s many songs about rich white Americans having nervous breakdowns.

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? (Once in A Lifetime by Talking Heads, 1980)

Alex Prager’s films

Having spent so much time working with actors, sets and make-up it was pretty inevitable that Prager would take the small further step into the ‘medium of film’ itself. According to the gallery:

In her films, (which draw upon film noir, as well as the work of Maya Deren and Alain Resnais), women take centre stage in open-ended narratives, portraying a range of sharply contrasting emotional states – often with the camera trained in extreme close-up on their faces.

Her first film, Despair starred Bryce Dallas Howard, while her second short La Petite Mort (2012) starred French actress Judith Godreche, with narration from Gary Oldman. Prager sees these immersive film installations as ‘full-sensory versions’ of her photographs; an attempt ‘to show the before, now and after of one of my images.’

Indeed, the exhibition presents Prager’s entire filmic oeuvre on various monitors and in darkened rooms around the gallery, her oeuvre to date consisting of six films, namely:

2010 Despair starring Bryce Dallas Howard
2011 Touch of Evil
2012 La Petite Mort starring Judith Godreche, Gary Oldman
2012 Sunday
2013 Face in the Crowd starring Elizabeth Banks
2015 La Grande Sortie starring Emilie Cozette, Karl Paquette

Some of them are on YouTube. Judge for yourself.

Despair (2010)

The use of Bryce Dallas Howard, star of the unnecessary Jurassic World (2015, box office $1.672 billion) and the just-released Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Jurassic World but with an exploding volcano) says it all.

When Howard throws herself out of the window it isn’t as a result of any realistic emotion or psychology, but as emptily as a fashion statement. And she doesn’t fall, she floats elegantly, dreamily down as you might float on Valium or opioids, floating high in American La La Land where nothing means anything, where any human not on a screen or the cover of a fashion magazine fills you with stress and anxiety and the wish to escape.

‘Portraying a range of sharply contrasting emotional states’? Really? Surely it’s the opposite.

La Petite Mort (2012)

A student friend of mine, very stressed about his degree course, one night made a list of all the books he’d have to read in order to get the good degree everyone expected of him. He left it on his study table and walked down to the railway station. It was late at night, no one around, so he climbed down onto the line and walked it a bit, before carefully laying down with his neck precisely on the rail. A train came along and decapitated him.

Compare and contrast the messy, deeply upsetting reality of death-by-train with the opioid dream of Prager’s female character in this pretentious film. Hit by a joke train from a Keystone Cops movie, she flies cartoon-style through the air and lands in a pond from which she emerges with her hair totally untouched by the water, Valium-open-eyed at the whole experience.

I can hear a brainless Valley Girl, film studies student cooing over it: “It was like so totally, you know, like completely random, like so crazee, it’s just such a cool film, don’t you think she looks so cool when she comes out of the water, it’s like such a great idea, I totally love her films.”

For me films like this represent the death of film, the death of psychology, the death of intelligence, the death of culture.

Broadly speaking American culture reflects American society and American politics, which are all in a kind of life-after-death situation. The entire reason for there being a nation called America as a refuge from troublesome Europe, as a place to go and build a new life, as a place to live out the American Dream –

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

has evaporated. It is dead, defunct. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. The Wild West frontier was closed a century ago, there is nowhere left to emigrate to, no escape. Americans are all locked in with each other now, with the result that they over-eat, take vast quantities of mind-numbing drugs, and go on shooting sprees at their local schools or shopping malls.

America voted for a leader whose Big Idea is erecting huge walls to keep them at bay – them, the outsiders, the Mexicans, the Muslims, the enemies – and hunkering down in a paranoid Fortress State, making the misery more bearable by munching opioid painkillers and watching Alex Prager movies.

No reason left to exist and yet 325 million people are condemned to go on living in the wreckage of all those historical illusions and expectations, they don’t know why – taking mind-suppressing drugs to cope with the suburban accidie, staring blankly at their multiplicity of screens – toneless, affectless, incapable of communicating with other people, staring in bewilderment at each other as if they’re magazine adverts come to life.

Still from Despair by Alex Prager

Still from Despair by Alex Prager. Help. Help me.

Do any of the people in Prager’s films actually talk? You know, like, maybe talk to another person, to another human being? Speak? Communicate?

No. Because they are each trapped within the doped-out prisons of their own consciousnesses. Trapped in the solipsistic nightmare which is contemporary America. Lost, in every sense.

La Grande Sortie (2015)

Paris. Style. Fashion. The ballet. The stage. Performance. Artifice. Parting lips of sexual arousal. The uncanny. The sinister. The face in the audience. Help. HELP!

The unhappy country

Pity the Americans. So rich, and so unhappy.

“Over a broader time frame, our subjective well-being has declined across the board in each and every state, even as the economy has sprung back to life. America is growing increasingly unhappy.”

For me, Prager’s photographs and films – highly professional, carefully contrived and immaculately finished as they undoubtedly are – are at the same time blank-faced symptoms of America’s epic cultural and social decline.

Through them an entire nation is crying, ‘Help us. We don’t know how to talk to each other, how to communicate, how to feel anything any more. We don’t know how to live. Please, please help us.’

The neediness of all these rich white Americans made me want to puke.

But then again, maybe you like it. I’ve tried to present enough evidence a) for you to make your own mind up, and b) to explain my own, personal, rather extreme, anaphylactic abreaction to her work.

1970s album art

I had a strong sense of déjà vu all the way through the show’s two floors, a sense that I had seen its slick, gimmicky, elaborate heartlessness somewhere before.

It was only later, scanning the Intertubes, that I realised Prager’s photos remind me of rock album cover art from the 1970s, which was also designed to convey a sense of alienation, contrivance and cynicism by creating apparently realistic scenes offset by jarring details.

For example:

On the Beach by Neil Young

On the Beach by Neil Young (1974)

Or:

Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd, cover art by Hipgnosis

Wish You Were Here (1975) by Pink Floyd, cover art by Hipgnosis

These albums are both over forty years old. Nothing, it seems, changes in southern California, land of rich white people in therapy and on tranquilisers and, like, God, so depressed.


The book of the exhibition

Thames and Hudson are publishing a hardback survey of Prager’s work, Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive to coincide with the exhibition. It contains 120 photographs summarising Prager’s career to date.

Curator

Silver Lake Drive is curated by Nathalie Herschdorfer and produced in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts Le Locle.

Related links

Other blog posts about photography

Tish Murtha: Works 1976 – 1991 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

This is an absolutely brilliant exhibition, full of fantastically acute, beautifully shot and desperately moving photos of urban poverty in the England of the 1970s and 80s.

Patricia ‘Tish’ Murtha, born in 1956, was surely a street and documentary photographer of genius. Look at these photos! As inspired, vivid and alive as her chaotic, unpredictable subjects.

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha and The Photographers' Gallery

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha and The Photographers’ Gallery

Works 1976 – 1991 is a major exhibition of Murtha’s work being held at the Photographers’ Gallery, a retrospective of an exceptionally talented photographer who sought out and recorded the social deprivation and instability of 1970s and 80s Britain through a series of blistering black and white photographs.

Using both vintage and contemporary prints, the exhibition reviews the six major bodies of work or projects which Murtha undertook during her working life, namely:

  • Newport Pub (1976/78)
  • Elswick Kids (1978)
  • Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979)
  • Youth Unemployment (1980)
  • London by Night (1983)
  • Elswick Revisited (1987 – 1991)

Newport

In 1976, aged 20, Tish Murtha left her native Newcastle-upon-Tyne to study at the influential School of Documentary Photography at Newport College of Art, in Wales, under the guidance of Magnum photographer David Hurn.

Hurn contributes memories of Tish to the exhibition catalogue. Apparently, he and a colleague interviewed candidates for the course not by looking at their portfolios but by asking why candidates wanted to train as photographers. Murtha gave the pithiest reply – ‘I want to learn to take photographs of policemen kicking kids’ – and was offered a place on the spot. It was the right-on 70s, man.

The earliest series in this show, Newport Pub, dates from this period, Murtha went to photograph the realities of everyday life for the regulars of a typical public house, the oddly named ‘The New Found Out’, in a characteristically deprived area of the town.

Newport - Ex Miner - New Found out pub (1977) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

Newport: An ex-miner in the New Found Out pub (1977) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

Murtha felt an obligation to the deprived communities of her home in the North East, and had deliberately chosen a course of study which would make her a more effective photographer, one who could highlight the social disadvantages that she herself had suffered. This was to remain her lead motivation.

Elswick Kids

On returning to the North East, Murtha created a set of photos titled Elswick Kids, documenting the children playing on her local streets. Though not exhibited at the time, it led to her getting hired as a community photographer by the Side Gallery in Newcastle, as part of a government-funded scheme.

Even if there’s the suspicion that the sweet little things in this photo were posed or arranged, the kids running round in the background weren’t, and all of the Elswick Kids sequence, like all of the photos she ever took, are just stunningly composed, with an extraordinary gift for bringing out the humanity and life of kids and people, even in the most wretched and abject circumstances. Note the natural framing of the two rows of terraced houses out of focus but securing the composition. And just enough of the brick wall to give a base line and explain what the sweet little things are sitting on.

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

For me her eye for composition, for the way she frames the subjects, her impeccable feel for the correct angle of attack and the beautiful lines and geometry latent in the world around her, are breathtaking.

Juvenile jazz bands

Murtha produced two bodies of work while on the scheme. One was Juvenile Jazz Bands which does what it says on the tin, documenting the children’s marching bands which were an important part of life in the North East.

Initially made with the backing of the band organisers, Murtha defied their expectations of glamorous images and instead produced a more critically-engaged imagery, focusing on the regimental drills and militaristic nature of the bands.

She was also drawn to the impromptu and unofficial Jazz Bands that sprung up, self-organised by the children who had been rejected from the official troupes, and Murtha paid them equal attention in the series.

The background of this photo reminds me of the crappy tea rooms in the shitty new town I grew up in. Plastic furniture, peeling paint over rotten wood. Streets lined with fag ends and chewing gum. Old dears with cheap hairdos shuffling along supported only by their worn out shopping trolleys.

The salient detail, what Roland Barthes called the punctum, ‘that accident which pricks, which bruises me’, the slight incident which brings the image alive, is the white shoe of the lady in the window. But there is much to savour in the way the marching baton has been caught at the moment it exactly parallels the rotting wooden lintel of the shop; the majorette’s left arms raised to create an angle between left and right arms. The stern look on her podgy face. And the extraordinary array of badges across her uniform.

Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979) Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979) Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

Youth Unemployment

Murtha’s interest in unemployed youth grew out of her own experiences and an earlier project she had created in Newcastle for the housing charity Shelter. In any case, it was all around her.

Shot in west Newcastle, Youth Unemployment combines dazzling images of poverty and boredom, a wonderfully alert sense of the subjects’ humanity, as well as her ever-present sense of architectural form i.e. her sense of the built environment as a stage set, her ability to line up the right actors against the right backdrops, backdrops which match the dereliction of place to the abandonment of people.

Murtha saw the dereliction of young lives up close and the people that populate her series were often friends, family and neighbours, living in an economy devastated by the closure of the North-East’s factories and mines.

Youth Unemployment (1981) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

Youth Unemployment (1981) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

Youth Unemployment is Murtha’s most celebrated body of work. It even made it to the level of real working politics: on the 8th February 1981, Murtha’s work was raised as a subject for debate in the House of Commons.

The Guardian’s photography critic Sean O’Hagan wrote about it:

There is much grittiness and poverty on display here… and, everywhere you look, class rears its divisive head. Tish Murtha’s black-and-white portrait of a couple lounging on a bed, watched from an adjacent cot by their curious child, is a study in enervation . . . [it] was taken in 1980. It could, though, be 1930.

Could photos like this be taken in 2018?

London by night

After the Youth Unemployment exhibition in 1981, Murtha moved to London where she was commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery to create a series on the sex industry in Soho for the group exhibition London by Night (1983).

Alas, sex. Favourite subject of newspaper and magazine editors, film-makers and curators everywhere.

Murtha gave her contribution a fillip by collaborating with one of the sex workers she met, Karen Leslie, who worked as a dancer and a stripper and supplied pithy, pungent texts for the final photographs, for example:

As far as most strippers and peep show dancers are concerned, audience is too elevated a term for the men who watch. They are punters and bloody wankers to boot.

The unavoidable glamour of professional photography

I found the text and photos a bit disjunctive, in the sense that while Leslie’s words are consistently jaded, cynical and disenchanted, Murtha’s photographs are cool and stylish.

Because, in my opinion, photographs – photographs of almost anything – are always glamorous. Not in a Vogue, 1930s glamour shoot kind of way. But ever since the 1930s there has been an ever-growing alternative definition of glamour, which (in the work of Weegee, for example) takes in gangsters and organised crime, speakeasies, dingy side alleys and so on. All those films noirs from the 1940s helped to invent the aesthetic of ‘the city by night’. The Naked City TV show from the 1950s shed a seedy-glamorous light on ‘the eight million stories in the naked city’. Raymond Chandler and a million other pulp fiction authors.

In Britain there had been a long tradition of gritty black and white photos of working class, with dingy back alleys and Hamburg strip joints featuring in the photos of Bill Brandt going back to the 1930s. The strip clubs of Soho had been attracting photographers for decades.

Anyway, my point is that city lowlife, especially nightclubs and the sex industry, had been lent a sort of glamour for decades before 1981. The subject matter is old. The new thing, the thing to savour, is Murtha’s brilliant talent for composition.

From the series ‘London by Night’ (1983) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

From the series ‘London by Night’ (1983) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

Thus when the curators would have you believe that the image, below, together with Leslie’s text, ‘still stand as a powerful critique of the sex industry’, I think they’re wrong. I think they’re wrong to think there was anything very new or innovatory about commissioning a set of photos of Soho strip clubs. Seems like a very clichéd idea to me. And the selection of photos here don’t seem to me to provide much of ‘a powerful critique of the sex industry.’

Instead I found Murtha’s photos of Soho, of dark alleys, nightclub doorways, half dressed women hanging round under smashed streetlights, incredibly glamorous in a well-established, trashcan kind of way.

As evidence, look at this photo. Is it ‘a powerful critique of the sex industry’? I don’t think so. I think it is something far more interesting and powerful.  Karen Leslie looks fantastic in this photo. Louche, wild, threatening, full of power, a feline animal, a woman-tiger about to pounce on the grubby men who’ve paid to see her tits and are now finding themselves uncomfortably intimidated and threatened by her naked presence.

'Karen with Punters at the Sunset Strip Club’ from the series ‘London by Night’ (1983) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

‘Karen with Punters at the Sunset Strip Club’ from the series ‘London by Night’ (1983) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

I don’t think these photos are an ‘indictment’ of the sex industry – I think they’re a celebration of the power of the women who work in it. Like all Murtha’s other works, they celebrate the human spirit, the ability of imagination and humour to overcome even the most wretched, deprived and sordid of environments.

Elswick Revisited

The final series in the exhibition, Elswick Revisited, touches on racism and the impact of increasing cultural diversity in the area she knew so well i.e. Asian families were beginning to move in among the white working class, introducing new layers of disorientation, puzzlement, resentment and fear for all concerned.

These last photos capture the beginning of a transition from an entirely white working class culture to the contemporary multi-cultural society we all live in, with all its benefits and problems.

Admired by photography students, lionised by the Guardian

Although Murtha’s photos are obviously driven by a very strong social conscience and a desire to publicise the poverty she saw around her in order to get something done about it, they exist, nowadays, in up-market galleries and expensive art books. As soon as these scenes became photographs they exited the ‘real’ world and entered the domain of photography professionals, art, galleries and magazines (and blogs like this one).

In that respect Murtha’s pictures remind me of the fate of the brilliant photos of 1930s dustbowl farmers taken by Dorothea Lange. Taken with the obvious intention of publicising the chronic poverty of their subjects, the photos, or at least the original prints, have ended up becoming prized possessions in collections put together by people like multimillionaire glam rock musician Sir Elton John. His fabulous exhibition of vintage black and white photos was the basis of a massive exhibition at Tate Modern, The Radical Eye, two years ago.

Is that what Dorothea Lange would have intended for her work, for her conscience-searing images of rural poverty? To be hung on the living room walls of Britain’s most flamboyant and fabulous, multi-millionaire gay couple?

And so with Tish Murtha’s photographs. The curators think that:

Parallels to contemporary living conditions, austerity politics and growing social inequality, bring a timely urgency to viewing Murtha’s work

But do they? Will her photos change anything, will they help ameliorate ‘contemporary living conditions, austerity politics and growing social inequality’, will they do anything particularly urgent?

No. They will contribute to the aesthetic delight of the Photographers’ Gallery-going classes (including me, maybe you), and readers of the Guardian and other right-on publications, where they will no doubt be reviewed in tones of indignation and righteous anger, with an obligatory nod towards present-day issues like food banks and immigration.

Karen on overturned chair (1980) Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

Karen on an overturned chair (1980) Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

Amid these voices, the photographs’ original motivation melts away. Their incorporation into contemporary matrices of art historical discourse – picked up and used as evidence for the culture of complaint and anger and victimisation we live amidst – will proceed effortlessly but also without result or effect.

But I think that Tish Murtha’s photographs, although they a) come from that particular time and impoverished place, and b) easily fit into contemporary discourse about austerity and inequality, although they encapsulate that era and empower that kind of discourse, also transcend them.

Because those claims to interpretation and meaning are built on the subject matter of the photos.

But I think her art – her eye and technique, her brilliant knack for composition and framing, her use of light and shadow, her ability to catch ordinary street people on the wing, the depth of field she creates so we are consistently drawn deep in in into the images – all of this bespeaks a critical talent which far outlives her time and place.

She was a photographer of genius.


Related links

Other blog posts about photography

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet and Architecture @ the National Gallery

This is a staggeringly brilliant exhibition for a number of reasons.

1. It is about an aspect of Monet’s work – the importance of all kinds of buildings to his art throughout his career – which has never been explored before but turns out to shed fascinating light on his art.

2. It brings together 78 works loaned from an astonishing variety of galleries across America and Europe to create a unique opportunity to see so many, and so varied, Monets together in one place. Sometimes big exhibitions are based largely on a gallery’s own collection, but not here: I counted over forty galleries and collections that works have been borrowed from. And not only that; almost a quarter are loaned from private collections. This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see so many works – from all round the Western world – all in one place.

3. Monet really was a genius. The first three or so rooms are interesting and contain good things, but the last two rooms, full of the works of his maturity, are quite stunning – spaces in which you feel you should be on your knees praying to the more-than-human brilliance of this complete master of oil painting.

4. They’ve really gone to town on the extras for the exhibition, with not only a fascinating audioguide but in the cinema room off to one side, a long film explaining the importance of architecture in Monet. The free printed guide contains not only a detailed timeline of Monet’s life but maps of France, Italy, London and Venice showing the precise locations where many of the paintings were made.

And the gallery has co-operated with Google Arts to produce a dedicated website / online experience which allows you to see the paintings in digital clarity, alongside text explaining their creation, all playfully titled Monet Was Here.

Seven rooms

There are seven rooms. The first three look at different ways Monet used rural and village buildings, buildings set in landscapes, to point and focus the composition. The next two look at his depictions of Paris and the Paris suburbs, from the smoky railway station of the Gare St Lazare, to the new bridge being built at Argenteuil, to busy scenes at seaside resorts, to some wonderful street scenes in Paris.

Then the last two, the Temples of Monet – the penultimate room has a wall of paintings depicting the facade of Rouen cathedral in changing light with, opposite them, a wall of wonderfully atmospheric paintings of London, Waterloo bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

And the final room is devoted to ten shimmering, magical paintings of the queen of the Adriatic, Venice.

The village and the picturesque

At the start of his career Monet used strong designs, powerfully constructed. In this example, bright colours (green grass, aquamarine sea) boats and distant smoke, but all crystallised by the hut in the foreground.

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

In the 1870s Monet visited Holland where he played with the influence of the great 17th century Dutch painters of landscapes and interiors. This is a rare example of a Monet where the viewer is entirely enclosed by buildings.

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Thus the first few rooms explore numerous aspects and experiments with buildings, in townscapes, by the sea, amid fields, from close up, seen on a shimmering horizon, playing with the impact and focus they bring to a composition.

By the sea

All through his life Monet painted sequences showing the same view, or different views of the same subject, like a chemist repeating the same experiment, trying to get at the core of a reaction.

Monet spent a lot of 1882 on the Normandy coast and painted a number of works which feature a modest custom officer’s cottage on the cliffs. Sometimes centre stage, sometimes tucked away or almost hidden, the exhibition includes three of these works to show how Monet took a building as the central focus around which he could experiment. In two of them it dominates the composition but – can you see it in this picture?

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

In 1888 Monet travelled to the south of France, staying at Antibes which he painted from the spit or ‘cap’ across the bay. This vantage point allowed endless experimentation with the effect of the shimmering sunlight on the blue Mediterranean.

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

These Antibes paintings include recognisable landmarks – the tower of the cathedral and the medieval castle of the Grimaldi family – but the commentary points out how, in many of his paintings, Monet very deliberately chose not to include more modern elements. For example, there’s a cluster of paintings he made of the picturesque Italian town of Bodighera, which he visited and painted in 1884, and from which he quietly excised newly built holiday homes or the new railway line.

Mist and snow

But Monet isn’t all Mediterranean sunlight. One very vivid painting is a depiction of his home village of Giverny, a few miles west of Paris, in the snow.

Monet is always conscious of the effet, the effects of changing light and weather and even of the clarity or mistiness of the air. In this snowscape it is the dimly visible buildings of Giverny, the architectural elements, which give the painting a sense of depth and volume, and the composition a focus for the eye, while the paint does the work of creating a mood.

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Impressions not precision

At about this point I should mention that Monet isn’t a particularly accurate painter of architecture. His buildings are not mathematically precise renditions of the squares and angles which modern buildings and bridges must necessarily consist of.

I recently visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s excellent exhibition of Edward Bawden and I very much enjoyed the way that, whether he’s doing a watercolour of his back garden or a linocut print of Covent Garden market, Bawden’s lines are all clearly defined and mathematically precise.

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Monet’s buildings are never this precise, even when he is painting bridges or railways stations or other highly engineered structures.

Monet’s buildings, like his trees and other elements, are created by shimmering and often vague daubs of paint, overlaid and juxtaposed to create an atmosphere, a mood, an impression, rather than efforts at precise delineation.

Because I, personally, tend to like clear defined lines, I felt ambivalent about the series of big paintings Monet did of the new Gare St Lazare in Paris in 1877, a cluster of which hang here.

The commentary makes the clever point that they are a subtle subversion of the landscape genre, with a metal and glass roof replacing the sky and the shimmers of steam replacing the foliage of trees.

Maybe so. But after looking for some time I realised that I actively dislike the inaccurate draughtsmanship of the engineered roof, lamps and above all of the beautiful and ornate steam engines. All this is a kind of lost opportunity to show gleaming metal, precisely engineered structures, rivets, pistons and coupling rods. They seem to me a kind of acknowledgement of modernity which somehow misses the point of modernity.

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

Monet’s use of urban motifs

Monet’s use of contemporary urban subjects in a manner more appropriate to his style is demonstrated in The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris painted in 1873.

The commentary makes the interesting point that the painting captures the view from the first floor of the building where the first ever Impressionist Exhibition was to be held the following year, and where this very painting would be exhibited. Always interesting to learn snippets of art trivia.

And I couldn’t help thinking that there’s a large amount of L.S. Lowry in the way Monet paints his people, or at least his crowds of tottering nine-pin-like figures.

But the real visual interest is obviously in the shadow which casts a great diagonal line across the composition. It is the contrast between light and shade which really pulls Monet’s daisy, the drama it gives to the composition, the way your eye is pulled in by the great diagonal and then wants to explore the different effets of shade and direct sunlight.

So much so that if you look closely at the big buildings on the opposite side of the boulevard, you notice that they are leaning backwards – they are not accurately and strictly vertical. Architectural accuracy is not what he’s about.

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

This slight wonkiness is a feature of many of the paintings. It was apparent in one of the earlier seaside paintings where an enormous white cliff seemed to be bulging out and threatening to collapse onto the beach below. The walls of the rural buildings in a number of the early village scenes seemed to meet at odd angles as if about to topple over. There’s a striking early painting of rural houses with Dutch gables reflected in the river (Houses on the Banks of the Zaan, Zaandam) where the wall of the left is leaning outwards at a perilous angle. In all of them the lines are wonky and unvertical, hazy, not ‘true’ in the engineering sense.

The point is – who cares, when he paints like this?

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

In this, as in several other seaside paintings shown side by side, the point is not the mathematical precision of the booth on the left, or the hotels on the right, of the steps down to the beach or of the planking of the boardwalk – these are all elements which go to create the overall effet.

In both boardwalk paintings the important thing is not the precision but the tremendous dynamism given by the plunging perspective of the boardwalk itself, which draws you quickly right into the heart of the painting which is all about vibrant colour, space and life.

Rouen, London, Venice

The previous five rooms have contained 50 or so good and sometimes outstanding paintings – for me the Trouville paintings and Giverny in the snow stood out, and there’s a painting of the Japanese bridge over Monet’s world-famous lily pond for fans of his garden paintings – all accompanied by fascinating and insightful commentary.

But walking into the last two rooms is like walking into a different world. Here you are brought face to face with half a dozen examples each of his famous series of paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral, opposite a selection of the series of paintings he made of the Thames in London, before you enter the final room devoted entirely to his late paintings of Venice – and it is as if you have died and gone to art heaven.

I have rarely felt so overwhelmed and awed by such an array of astonishingly beautiful artworks.

Rouen

By the 1890s Monet had perfected his technique of having multiple canvases of the same view on the go at once, and painting each of them at a specific time of the day, switching to the next one at the clock moved on, the sun rose, and the play of light and shadows changed.

Cities were easier to do this in since he needed the space to house quite a few wet canvases and all his equipment, somewhere he could leave it all overnight. The three cities represented here – Rouen, London, Venice, were all tourist resorts famous for their great architecture.

Monet painted some 30 canvases in Rouen, between February and April 1892 and the same months of 1893. He rented various rooms from shop owners opposite the cathedral which explains why there are two distinct points of view. The five massive paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral show that slight difference in vantage point but above all Monet’s godlike ability to capture the changes in light and colour on this elaborate and detailed architectural facade, with quite stunning results.

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

London

Monet first stayed in London in 1870-71 to escape from the violence of the Franco-Prussian War and the civil war in Paris which followed (a historical moment documented by the recent Tate Britain exhibition Impressionists in London).

In September-October 1899 he returned and stayed on the 6th floor of the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames Embankment, returning for another visit in January to April 1902. In total Monet made an impressive 100 canvases of London.

He painted the view from the Savoy he painted the view west towards Waterloo Bridge. Later he got permission to paint the houses of Parliament from the newly built St Thomas’s Hospital on the opposite bank of the Thames. In both views what interested him was the play of light.

This was made much more interesting but sometimes frustrating, by the high level of pollution in London’s air not to mention the erraticness of the English weather which made capturing exactly the same light at the same hour on successive days a challenge.

This section about London included one of the many half-finished canvases Monet made, a strikingly vague sketch of the Embankment including Cleopatra’s Needle. The commentary points out that with his London paintings, as with those of Rouen cathedral and Venice, Monet developed the paintings up to a certain point, alongside extensive sketches and notes, and then finished the paintings back home at Giverny.

Two of the Parliament paintings really stood out for me, one where the sun is flaming red and the Thames is on fire. Right next to it the exact same view at night with the moon a divided into fragments by cloud and reflecting shivers of silver all over the river surface.

But the one I really couldn’t tear myself away from was this stunning painting of an orange sun struggling through the London smog to glimmer and fleck red-gold highlights on the Thames. The painting is all about light and colour, it is a masterpiece of what oil painting can do to fill the visual cortex with pleasure – and yet the vague architectural structure of London Bridge with its neat arches, just barely visible through the smog, is a vital part of the composition in the way it enables the light to exist, to function, to perform.

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Venice

Monet visited Venice in 1908, staying for two months in apartments on the Grand Canal. The floating city under a Mediterranean sun was crying out to be depicted by the greatest impressionist of all. He produced 37 canvases, of which nine are on show here.

No people. No human activity is portrayed. Just the play of unearthly pink and eggshell blue in this watery paradise. (On a practical note, observe how the buildings on the right have the characteristic Monet lean; to my eye all of them look out of ‘true’, bulging out slightly over the water – but, as mentioned before, who cares.) they are quite staggeringly, luminescently transcendent works of art.

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Scholarly conclusion

The rational, historical, art scholarly conclusion is that Monet used a very wide range of buildings, more than has previously been recognised, as motifs in his paintings:

  • as the basis of designs and patterns and compositions
  • as symbols of modernity and the bustling city
  • or to emphasise rural tranquility or isolation

In all cases using buildings to create, point and highlight his subtle emotional and psychological effects. Then, later in his career, he uses buildings as the subjects of some of his most dazzling, experimental and awe-inspiring works, the London, Rouen, Venice paintings.

Emotional conclusion

Often by the end of an exhibition I’m full to overflowing with facts and impressions and a little relieved to walk back out onto the street, but I found it genuinely difficult to leave this one, in particular to leave the room full of Monet’s London paintings.

I spent a good ten minutes looking from one to another and back again, walking out the room then finding myself drawn back in, to marvel all over again at Monet’s unprecedented handling of paint and the breathtaking creation of gorgeous, transcendent, shimmering works of art.

I’ve rarely encountered such a feeling of pure, unalloyed beauty and wonder in an art exhibition.

Exhibition videos

This is an introduction to the role of architecture in Monet’s life by Christopher Riopelle, The Neil Westreich Curator of Post 1800 Paintings at the National Gallery in London.

And here is Richard Thomson, exhibition curator and Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh, introducing The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Print! Tearing It Up @ Somerset House

This is a funky, fascinating and sometimes very funny exhibition celebrating the longstanding tradition of independent British magazine publishing over the past fifty years or so. And it is FREE!

Past

There’s a nod to older, historical magazines at the start of the show, where the curators display a couple of copies of Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticist magazine, Blast!, from 1915 – a quite extraordinary typographical and editorial irruption into the sedate world of Edwardian gentlemen’s magazines – and a copy of Peace News from the 1930s — but overall this isn’t a historical exhibition, its focus is very much on the modern (post-1960s) tradition of alternative and right-on magazines, with a special interest in the reflowering of indie magazines in the last decade or so.

Things really get going in the late 1960s with the birth of counter-cultural and the founding of critical magazines like Spare Rib (1972-93), Black Dwarf (1968-72), Oz (1967-73) and Private Eye (1961 to the present). The exhibition then traces the evolution of small, independent, counter-cultural, as well as fashion and music and art and architecture magazines, from then to the present day.

Spare Rib 1972 © Angela Phillips

Spare Rib 1972 © Angela Phillips

Several gallery walls are covered with a massive wire grille on which have been hung scores and scores of magazines, with a dazzling variety of photographic, typographical and design styles, to admire and enjoy, with titles like international times, Beaver, Mole, Frendz, Shrew (‘the suppressed power of female sexuality’), Pink, Gay Left, Squatters and so on. The funniest title was Prada Meinhof (bright green, in the centre right of the photo below) which bears the text ‘Only way to change things – is to shoot the men who arrange things’. Right on, sister.

Installation view of Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House, photo by Doug Peters

Installation view of Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House, photo by Doug Peters

Alongside these wall displays are a number of glass cases focusing on the stories of particular magazines or themes.

For example, on Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop Sex in the King’s Road which received coverage around 1976 in sex-related mags like Forum and Gallery International as well as the giveaway magazine West One, edited by a young Janet Street-Porter.

Another case focuses on Gandalf’s Garden, the official publication for the collectively run ‘head shop’ for hippies also in the King’s Road, which issued six copies from 1968 to 1969.

Contemporary art and graphics have been publicised in a tradition of small magazines like ApolloArt Line in Newcastle, Modern PaintersFrieze, Arty, Garageland and Pavement Licker.

Satirical artworld writing could more recently be found in titles like Sleazenation (1996-2004), Vice, and the attractively titled Shoreditch Twat.

In one case the show draws links between the 1935 art magazine Axis launched by writer Myfanwy Jones, and the art and politics magazine Mute, founded in 1994 and still going strong.

Private Eye Issue 815, 12 March 1993 © Private Eye

Private Eye Issue 815, 12 March 1993 © Private Eye

In 1977 Peter York wrote a defining article for Harpers magazine about the independent magazines of the day, mentioning such obscure productions as Emma Tennant’s literary quarterly Bananas, lifestyle mag The New Style and Nick Kimberley’s reggae pamphlet, Pressure Drop.

And a whole display case is devoted to the worldwide publishing and digital success which is Time Out, launched in 1968 and overseen for most of the time since then by publisher Tony Elliott.

Alternative music mags have included Freakbeat, Zigzag, Echoes, Rough Trade, Flexipop!, SFX with more modern publications emerging from grime and dub-step like Woofah, Push and Trench.

And so on and so on.

The mindmap

Confused? You should be – the last fifty years have witnessed wave after wave of new, small, independent, radical magazines catering to an ever-expanding list of issues and constituencies.

One entire wall of the exhibition is devoted to a vast mind-map which shows the links and interconnections  between all these independent magazines. If you buy the exhibition booklet (£4.50) you get a free fold-out version of it (though not quite this big!).

Mind map of British magazines

Mind map of British magazines

… and present

Only a little way into the show does its origin and motivation become a bit clearer, specifically the motivation of exhibition curator Paul Gorman.

In 2011 Gorman finished writing a history of The Face, the cultural magazine published from 1980 to 2004. In doing so, in comparing the Face to its current equivalents and looking for its lasting legacy, Gorman had become aware of the raft of indie mags emerging from the wreckage of the economic crash of 2008. In an interview with The Drum (see second video, below) Gorman says:

Around 2011, 2012 I noticed these magazines emerging – like The Gentlewoman and Mushpit – and I was quite encouraged by the fact they were being published mainly by young women. They were anti-corporate, and they had all those values that appealed to me.

It inspired Gorman to take stock of the magazine culture of our times and he realised that, although some high-profile magazines had recently gone to the wall (Glamour, Look), sparking an outbreak of gloom among high-end publishers, we are actually living amid a resurgence of cheaply produced, anti-establishment, freethinking publications.

A little like the revival of vinyl records and just as counter-intuitively, print magazines are going from strength to strength in the digital era.

Garageland Issue 19 2015 SELF © Paul Gorman Archive/ Photography: Milly Spooner

Garageland Issue 19 2015 SELF © Paul Gorman Archive/ Photo by Milly Spooner

So mixed in among the older examples from the 60s, 70s and 80s in the exhibition, is a rich selection of mags from just the past decade or so, which address 21st century issues.

As I walked round, admiring all this visual energy and creativity, I reflected that although Gorman and the other curators might find it inspiring and exciting that there are so many mags celebrating ‘alternative views’ on lifestyle, leisure and architecture or addressing topical issues including diversity, gender, sexuality and media manipulation… us older visitors might instead notice the surprising continuities between the concerns of 1968 and those of 2018 and draw different conclusions.

My take would be that, although gender, sex and race continue to be as reliable money-spinners as ever they were – expressing black anger, women’s anger, the newer range of LGBT+ anger, Asian anger and so on – and are enthusiastically snapped up by guilty young white students, meanwhile the ideas which seemed dominant in my youth – socialism, communism, Marxism, and working class politics – seem to have largely disappeared.

The white working class communities that I thought I was helping when I joined the Young Socialists in 1977 have been redefined into union jack-waving, Tommy Robinson-supporting, Brexit-voting chavs, recategorised as patriarchal racists. Now all the liberal press tells us we should be supporting female BBC presenters, Hollywood actresses and illegal immigrants everywhere.

The lads who empty my bins every week? No one writes about them or gives a damn about their lives. I suppose they just don’t live at the intersection of style, fashion, gender and race.

Thiiird Issue 1 COMMUNITY © Thiiird/Photography: Turkina Faso

Thiiird Issue 1 COMMUNITY © Thiiird / Photo by Turkina Faso

To quote the exhibition text:

The debate surrounding gender and sexuality has been reflected in the success of hugely popular magazines launched in the past decade, from The Gentlewoman, which can chart its evolution from Spare Rib, the seminal feminist magazine founded in the 1970s, to Ladybeard, Ablaze! and D.I.Y zines created by teenage feminist collectives in 1990s-2000s, among many more showcased.

Similarly, the exhibition celebrates the rise in titles dedicated to ethnic minority communities and concerns, with examples including gal-dem, Thiiird and Burnt Roti, which showcases South Asian creativity.

Positive News Issue 90 Third Quarter 2017 NEW MASCULINITY © Positive News Magazine/ Paul Gorman Archive/Photography: Theo Jemison

Positive News Issue 90 Third Quarter 2017 NEW MASCULINITY © Positive News Magazine / Paul Gorman Archive / Photo by Theo Jemison

If it ain’t black, queer or about women it doesn’t seem to have any purchase, any traction, any validity.

That said, there are plenty of other contemporary magazines which are not directly political, all manner of magazines out there which I’d never heard of, such as Real Review and Eyesore which promote new writing on architecture and the urban environment, Little White Lies focusing on film, and The Gourmand on food.

Read, listen, watch

The last room in the exhibition is devoted to this very pink pop-up newstand bearing a variety of bang up-to-date mags which you are invited to browse through.

The pink pop-up newstand at Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House. Photo by Doug Peters

The pink pop-up newstand at Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House. Photo by Doug Peters

Could have done with some chairs or a couple of sofas to really kick back in.

Podcasts

The pop-up newstand is next to a row of equally pink booths each with a set of headphones for you to slip on and listen to podcasts i.e. brief interviews or monologues by key figures from the recent history of independent magazines.

It would have been interesting to find out more about the impact of digital technology on magazine and news culture:

How much has digital supplanted print magazines? Are there particular reasons why some magazines have gone out of print and out of business, while others are successfully making the move to an online-only existence? Is it luck, or something to do with the subject matter, or the audiences?

And what does it take to succeed in setting up an alternative mag in the current climate? A good business plan? A clear proposition for your advertising department to promote?To what extent does the need to sell adverts undermine or negate any claim to ‘radical’ thought?

The exhibition prompted all these thoughts and more, but didn’t really address any of them. Where should I go to understand a) the current state of play among radical mags b) the direction of travel?

Activities

The exhibition is accompanied by a rash of activities including all-female activist lines-ups, explorations of self-education, acknowledgment of architectural anarchy, plus a PROCESS! Festival co-curated by Somerset House Studios artists OOMK (One of My Kind).

The PROCESS! Festival will run from Saturday 21 to Sunday 22 July and will celebrate independent media and making, bringing together established and emerging designers, artists, activists and publishers to explore, interrogate and share approaches to creative and collaborative processes.

Videos

There is, of course, a promotional video.

And this useful video report on the show by The Drum.


Related links

Reviews of other Somerset House exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: