Quentin Blake: From the Studio @ the House of Illustration

Sir Quentin Blake is arguably the UK’s most famous book illustrator, as well as a fine artist, designer and writer in his own right. He was a leading spirit behind the establishment of the House of Illustration, the only gallery in the UK devoted entirely to the work of illustrators, which opened in 2014, and is housed in a restored Victorian building spitting distance from King’s Cross station.

The House has three galleries. In the main one (three rooms and a small video room) at the moment is a retrospective of work by cartoonist and graphic novelist Posy Simmonds. In the second gallery (one biggish room) is an exhibition of works by the Taiwanese artist YiMiao Shih. In between these two is a really small, L-shaped room. This is the permanent Quentin Blake gallery, tribute to the nation’s most popular illustrator and a pay-off we presume for leading the campaign to set up the gallery.

The Quentin Blake gallery hosts a changing display of works by the great man on different themes, for example last Valentine’s Day it featured a set of twenty or so very funny cartoons on the theme of love and cupid’s arrow.

The current exhibition is titled ‘From the studio’ which allows Blake to tell us a little about his working practices. He tells us that for the past forty years most of his works have been produced in a room overlooking a tree-lined London square. He stands with his back to the French windows and balcony, pen in hand. The room contains four ‘plan chests’ and two tables and a litter of drawings.

The exhibition allows him to share with us some works in progress, first drafts of illustrations which he is currently working on.

Sheffield Children’s Hospital

Sheffield Children’s Hospital opened a new wing opened last year, containing has four wards which, alongside beds also offers therapy and treatment rooms, a patient dining room, a parents’ relaxation room, a social room for teenagers, and a ‘play tower’ installation, for younger children.

Blake was commissioned to create artworks for the walls of corridors in three of the wing’s wards, and as larger-scale murals in communal areas. The designs were drawn on paper, then scanned, enlarged and printed in large scale onto washable wall coverings.

Mural by Quentin Blake at Sheffield Children’s Hospital

The King of the Golden River

In 1841 the critic John Ruskin published this children’s story as a parable about the impact of human actions on the environment. This year the book was republished by Thames and Hudson with illustrations by Blake. Blake tells us that he went about illustrating it ‘the old-fashioned way’, cutting up the text to stick it into position, then drawing in rough illustrations around it.

From The King of the Golden River © Quentin Blake

Moonlight travellers

Blake’s series of paintings of people travelling through bleak moonlit landscapes began as a personal project in 2017, as an experiment in pure imagination. Later this year they will be published alongside a ‘response’ by author Will Self. He is quoted as saying ‘made them up as I went along, almost like a performance’.

Moonlight Travellers © Quentin Blake

Mouse on a Tricycle

This wordless book opens with a tiny picture of a mouse on a tricycle. It imagines the public’s response to the fact of a cycling rodent. Some cheer it on, some are outraged, some are scared, some deliver hectoring sermons. I loved this picture. It says so much about human nature.

Mouse on a Tricycle © Quentin Blake

It is incredible how just a handful of drawings and paintings can fill your heart with happiness and delight!


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Posy Simmonds: A Retrospective @ the House of Illustration

‘The humour tends towards the wry rather than laugh-out-loud’

I hadn’t realised she was so posh. Rosemary Elizabeth ‘Posy’ Simmonds (MBE) was born in 1945 in the Royal County of Berkshire and educated at the independent, fee-paying Queen Anne’s School in Caversham before going on to study art at the Sorbonne in Paris, and then returning to London to attend the Central School of Art & Design.

In the video interview included in the exhibition, she remembers growing up in a house full of books which included leather-bound volumes of Punch magazine, which she loved looking through from a very early age.

The exhibition includes a display case of some of the earliest sketches and drawings she did, while still a child, spoofs of 1950s glamour magazines and so on.

In 1969 Simmonds began her first daily cartoon feature, Bear, in the Sun newspaper, and she also contributed to The Times and Cosmopolitan magazine. But it was her move to the Guardian in 1972 that fully established her as an artist and social commentator.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Simmonds entertained readers and won critical acclaim with her low-key but bitingly satirical comic strips, commenting on the changing face of the English middle classes. She has worked on other newspapers and magazines, but it was her Guardian work that made Simmonds’s name.

The Silent Three

After years of contributing ad hoc and topical cartoons, in May 1977 Simmonds started drawing a weekly comic strip for The Guardian. It was initially titled ‘The Silent Three of St Botolph’s’ as a tribute to the 1950s comic strip ‘The Silent Three’ by Evelyn Flinders, and parodied the tradition of the harmless adventures of girls at precisely the kind of jolly hockey-sticks private school which she had herself attended.

The strip quickly focused on three girls in particular and contrasted their school adventures with the ongoing tribulations of their grown-up, adult selves, set in the contemporary world of the late 70s. They were:

  • Wendy Weber, a former nurse married to polytechnic sociology lecturer George Weber and struggling to look after a large brood of children
  • Jo Heep, married to alcoholic whisky salesman Edmund Heep, with two rebellious teenage sons who form a punk band
  • Trish Wright, in an ‘open marriage’ with philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, and their small baby

The Silent Three by Posy Simmonds

Posy

The strip eventually dropped the references to ‘St Botolphs’ and became known simply as ‘Posy’. It ran for ten years, from 1977 to 1987. During that period the cast of characters was expanded, as the children grew up and developed characters of their own. The strips don’t tell a consecutive narrative: each one focuses on an issue or event or slyly comic theme, and Simmonds gave herself the freedom to depart from the well-known cast altogether, as well as experiment with format and layout.

Periodically, the strip was collected into a number of books, namely:

  • Mrs Weber’s Diary (1979)
  • True Love (1981)
  • Pick of Posy (1982)
  • Very Posy (1985)
  • Pure Posy (1987)

The three families are distinct middle-class ‘types’; they each occupy a specific niche within the broad sprawling category we English refer to as the middle classes and the humour, such as it is, comes from the precision of Simmonds’s depiction of all the aspects of each group and their ‘set’ of friends.

But although the strip sometimes left all the known characters behind to experiment with purely political or satirical commentary, at its core were the couple of Wendy and her husband George – epitomes of the popular conception of the Guardian reader – intellectual, ex-hippie, bookish, left-wing, vegetarian and wracked by a whole raft of liberal causes – anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-nuclear and so on.

The point is that the humour is often at their expense, Simmonds gently satirising ‘the furrowed brow of liberal guilt’, showing the thousand and one ways in which they fall short of their own high ideals. In particular, many of the strips mock the high-falutin’ modishly French intellectual ideas George is liable to bring to completely inappropriate situations, such as the choice of new kitchen blinds dinner party chat.

Consumers, a George and Wendy Weber comic strip by Posy Simmonds

The five books listed above were eventually brought together into hefty omnibus hardback edition comprising some 480 pages (Mrs Weber’s Omnibus) which makes up a fascinating and revealing social history of the bien-pensant liberals of its time.

Feminism

Alongside the regular Posy strip, Simmonds produced topical cartoons and illustrations for other publications and for one-off occasions. According to the wall label:

In her newspaper strips and graphic novels, Simmonds returns regularly to the experience of women. An affirmed feminist, she has been advocating for women’s rights since the 1970s, challenging the injustices of male privilege and sexism in the home, at work and in wider society. Simmonds’ regular contributions to The Guardian newspaper’s women’s page have enabled her to make comment on issues ranging from the judgement women face when breastfeeding to the portrayal of ‘femininity’ in advertising.

So the exhibition includes a wall of narrative cartoons satirising women’s experiences of being harassed in pubs, or walking down the street, or by leery bosses, and so on. Take this satire on the way women only ever appear in the cartoon genre as foxes, babes and sex dolls, with all other periods of women’s lives completely ignored by the genre.

Seven Ages of Woman by Posy Simmonds

Children’s books

Also during the 1980s, Simmonds turned her hand to writing, and in particular to writing children’s stories. Thus began the sequence of illustrated children’s books including:

  • Bouncing Buffalo (1984)
  • Fred (1987)
  • Lulu and the Flying Babies (1988)
  • The Chocolate Wedding (1990)
  • Matilda: Who Told Lies and Was Burned To Death (1991)
  • F-Freezing ABC (1996)
  • Cautionary Tales And Other Verses (1997)
  • Mr Frost (2001)
  • Lavender (2003)
  • Baker Cat (2004)

The exhibition includes original artwork from most of these children’s books. The illustrations to Hilaire Belloc’s classic cautionary tales show a sketchy, washed-out style a little like Edward Lear. But it was the intensely coloured illustrations of a book like Fred which I liked most.

Illustration from Fred by Posy Simmonds (1987)

Text heavy

Comparing Simmonds’s children’s illustrations with the adult ones revealed one single, central, massive difference – the amount of text.

The children’s books have almost no text and, as a result, feel light and airy. The adult strips, on the other hand, are packed with text. I thought it revealing that, at the start of the Mrs Weber Omnibus there is an extensive cast list which gives not only names but information about each of the characters’ lives, careers and interests, right down to the number of A-Levels the older children are taking.

I think this may explain why I found hardly any of the hundred of more strips on show here very funny. Certainly none of them made me laugh out loud, it’s not that kind of humour. A few of them made me smile. And it wasn’t just me: there was no audible response from any of the other visitors who shuffled around the rooms in respectful silence. The humour, as another online reviewer points out, ‘tends towards the wry rather than laugh-out-loud’.

More than that, I’d say you have to pay a lot of attention and read the text very carefully, in order to ‘get’ many of the strips – in order to notice the very slight nuances, and digs and satirical swipes at the affluent middle-class types who she so likes mocking.

The graphic novels

This becomes evident in Simmonds’s graphic novels. In 1981 she published True Love, which is an extended parody of sensational romance comics. In it the plain and mousy young Janice Brady – who we first met in the Weber strips – is working in a male-dominated publishers office and mistakenly imagines that tall blonde handsome Stanhope Wright is in love with her. In reality he is juggling at least two other love affairs which he is trying to keep hidden from his wife – but in her naive innocence Janice dreams that, if she applies enough make-up and wears the right glamour clothes – Mr Wright can be hers!

True Love by Posy Simmonds (1981)

True Love is now generally acknowledged to be Britain’s first ‘graphic novel’, although I’m not sure the genre really existed when it was written and it’s certainly not what you associate with the walls of graphic novels you can find in any bookshop nowadays.

In fact the narrative is pleasingly ‘unstable’ in the sense that it is still made up of self-contained ‘strips’ and some of them wander away from the central plot altogether to show characters from the main strip, e.g. the ever-agonising liberal George and Wendy at the cinema, and the tiresomely cheery Edmund Heep also makes some appearances.

There is a central event of sorts, which is an advertising shoot out in the country which requires the hiring of some sheep to make it look more scenic. Janice overhears Stanhope on the phone to what she thinks is his mistress, and his mention of ‘sheep’ sets off a broadly comic misunderstanding in which Janice wonders if they’re into perversion and bestiality.

On the day of the filming, Janice is sent by the crew filming the ad to find Stanhope and discovers him having a little ‘picnic’ with his pretty mistress. From her hiding place in a copse of trees Janice rolls down downhill towards the spooning couple the tin of cheese which Stanhope gave her at the firm’s Christmas party (and which has become a sort of comic totem of their love). Unfortunately the tin bounces off a tree root and hits Stanhope on the head, giving him concussion and forcing a trip to the local hospital, which he then struggles to explain to his long-suffering wife Trisha.

Anyway, from a visual point of view, Simmonds enjoys counterpointing the freckly, bong-nosed young heroine with impossibly glamorous images of gorgeous pouting dollybirds from 1950s and 60s romance comics, and the entire book mimics the genre’s exaggerated glamour, overblown prose, capital letter fonts, and the liberal use of glamour magazines’ tell-tale colour – hot pink.

It is without doubt clever, and full of subtle references (like this copying of the form’s visual style), but I rarely really found it funny. It all seemed too predictable to me. It is exactly the kind of rather obvious satire you’d expect an exasperated feminist to make. And mocking 1950s glamour magazines for being unrealistic… it’s not a difficult or novel target for satire, is it? By the 1980s.

Gemma Bovery (1999)

In the late 1990s Simmonds returned to the The Guardian with the first of what has turned into a series of graphic novels, Gemma Bovery.

Gemma Bovery is a modern, comic-strip reworking of Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel Madame Bovary. In Simmonds’s hands this becomes a satirical tale of English expatriates in France, enmeshed in divorces, whining exes, needy children and ghastly rich banker neighbours. It was published as a graphic novel in 1999 and was made into a feature film in 2014.

Given that the wall labels emphasise what a feminist Simmonds is, and how she has spent her life campaigning against sexist stereotypes, I was surprised that this long graphic novel is devoted to a fabulously slender, attractive and sexy young woman who has numerous ‘affairs’ (i.e. super-idealised, glamorous sex) with a succession of tall, handsome, slender young men. Here she is, getting it on with the tall, slender, good-looking aristocrat Hervé de Bressigny.

A lot has happened in the 18 years since True Love. Simmonds’s drawing style is infinitely more sophisticated: she can draw anything now, and the arrangement of pictures and text on the page is far more professional and effective. True Love felt like an extension of the weekly comic strip consisting, in effect, of a series of gags and comic scenes – Gemma Bovery really feels like a graphic novel.

Nonetheless, moving a few yards along the exhibition wall from one to the other, I couldn’t help being puzzled by the apparent contradiction. In 1981 true romance was despicable, unrealistic, sexist stereotyping – in 1999 it deserves a long, intensely imagined novel.

Tamara Drewe (2006)

This apparent contradiction was emphasised by the frames on display from Simmonds’s next graphic novel, Tamara Drewe. It also depicts a wide range of middle class characters who are, as usual, skewered for being pretentious, rich, snobbish, hypocritical and so on and yet, once again, the story focuses on a strikingly tall, statuesque, slender, shapely, nubile young babe, the eponymous Tamara.

The homely clunkiness of the Webers and of freckly, dumpy Janice Brady seem light years ago. The fusty little world of George and Wendy fussing about lentil soup or fretting about the introduction of business studies at the polytechnic where he teaches, have been replaced in both these graphic novels by tall, streamlined young sex goddesses living wonderful lives of affluence and foreign travel.

Tamara Drew makes her first appearance in the revised graphic novel, 2007 by Posy Simmonds

Both these novels features sexy heroines and they are about love affairs and sex and emotions. The women in them have careers, of sorts – Gemma is an interior decorator – but seem to define themselves by their relationships with men. For all the feminist rhetoric of Simmonds’s own cartoons, and of the curators’ wall labels, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed, as if earlier thoughts and beliefs had been abandoned.

Tamara Drewe debuted in the Guardian’s Review section on 17 September 2005 and ended, with episode 109 and an epilogue, on 2 December 2006. It was published as a book in 2007 and was also made into a film, starring tall, nubile young actress Gemma Arterton.

On the upside, both these graphic novels really do read like novels. I borrowed Gemma Bovery from the library, read it in one sitting and was slowly entranced. The characterisation initially felt thin and the satire of ghastly rich Brits abroad was irritating, but slowly, something deeper and more tragic genuinely emerged, and by the book’s last few pages I was absolutely gripped.

Cassandra Darke (2018)

Most recently – and in a relief from this succession of nubile young heroines – Simmonds has produced a much darker graphic novel, about a disgraced art dealer, Cassandra Darke. She’s caught selling dodgy fakes to the rich clients she despises, sentenced to community service, and then emerges almost penniless into a dark, gritty London just at Christmastime which is when the genuinely threatening sub-plot kicks in, concerning the young daughter of a friend who she lets her basement room to and who’s gotten involved with some seriously violent people, guns and drugs.

There are only three exhibition rooms in the main gallery of the House of Illustration and the entire third room was devoted to Cassandra Darke, with a book-size strip running continuously right around the wall and a set of display cases showing original artwork for the book, including early sketches of the characters, the initial paste-up sheets showing rectangles of paper with the text printed on them, glued onto the drawings – all this giving insights into how the book progressed from conception to completion.

What interested me was how distinctly darker and more pessimistic the story and the images are than anything else Simmonds has done. The Webers, back in the late 1970s, inhabited a safe and cosy world, cosy in the sense that they felt confident that good people everywhere shared their values. They were at home in what felt like a relatively benign society, everyone turned out for the annual street party or went on CND marches.

Now, forty years of feminism, identity politics, mass immigration, and neo-liberal right-wing economics later, the world feels a lot, lot, lot less friendly. It feels dark, rundown and dangerous, with vandalism, graffiti and the threat of violence on every corner.

Cassandra Darke goes to the rundown East End of London looking for clues as to the identity of the murdered young woman at the centre of the plot

What an immense distance we have travelled from the jolly hockey-sticks girls of St Botolphs. And it feels like Simmonds’s laser-sharp satirisation of changing middle-class mores has reflected every step of those socio-economic changes.

Social history

All in all, then, there are a few smiles but no laughs – I found this more of a thought-provoking exhibition than I expected.

The feminist stuff from the 70s and 80s reminds you what a horrible hairy, drunken, lecherous world it was back then. The Weber strips remind you of a whole type of knit-your-own yoghurt, ‘concerned’ and caring moustachioed polytechnic lecturers blabbing on about the nouveau roman and structuralism, who don’t seem to exist any more.

In fact the first half of the exhibition reeks of a world which is long gone. When True Love satirises the glamour images of the 1950s you can see Simmonds taking revenge on the sexist bilge she was fed as a girl, but, as a parent struggling to bring up my own teenage girl in 2019, not only the 1950s originals but also Simmonds’s 1980s satires on them, have a massively dated feel. The Weber strips feel like they could contain the threat. Satirise her characters as she did, you still had the sense their values were good, were the right ones, and would triumph.

But they didn’t. They were squashed and obliterated. Thatcherism confronted organised militant left-wing politics but what really killed that entire world of earnest, moustachioed left wingers was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc in the early 1990s. The demise of actual socialism around the world left a huge intellectual, ideological and imaginative hole. Suddenly the underpinning for everyone on the soft or hard left just disappeared. Into this vacuum rushed Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s Third Way, slowly acclimatising all of us to the soft form of neo-conservative capitalist economics and consumer culture which we have inhabited ever since.

Thus it is that the graphic novels seem to come from a completely different world from tut-tutting George and Wendy Weber. You can see that Simmonds ceased drawing them not only because she was bored of doing the same old thing, but because their world was fading into insignificance compared to the bright and brash, shiny consumerist paradise which the 1990s promised everyone.

Gemma and Tamara – as the names suggest – come from the heart of the shiny, comfortably-off 1990s when old-style Labour politics had been obliterated and people were now making immense amounts of money ‘in the City’ or in advertising or in TV or in publishing – where the rich were buying up holiday homes around Britain and in France (where Gemma and Tamara are set) and beyond.

Certainly all of the characters in the graphic novels are comfortably off and well-heeled in a way the make-do-and-mend Weber family never was. They inhabit different imaginative universes.

So that’s why I liked the Cassandra Darke section of the exhibition most – because it is fascinating to see posh 1950s public schoolgirl Simmonds’s take on the world most of us now live in – not slender sexy heroines bonking in French chateaux – but the grisly streets of modern British cities, filled with closed-down shops, odd-looking people from all around the world speaking a babel of languages, the sense of public decay and dereliction, all contrasted with the comfortably-off art world which Cassandra inhabits and which gives her a window onto yet another world, that of the really genuinely super-rich international art collectors, the American and Russian and Arab billionaires who buy up art like they buy London properties, to add to their investment portfolios. And lurking beneath all this glitter, in the main plot of the novel, the threat of serious violence from white working class hard men.

It is a modern world where everyone is on their mobiles phones all day long, locked into their own little Facebook universes, consuming music, TV, movies and American culture like there’s no tomorrow, utterly heedless of the careful, caring values which George and Wendy devoted their lives to.

George and Wendy worried about their children showing the tiniest signs of becoming a bit materialist, and quoted French cultural critics to make snide, knowing criticisms of ‘consumer culture’. Their world has been obliterated, buried, drowned in an unprecedented global tide of mass consumption, and it is the unbridled greed and heartlessness of the modern world which Cassandra Darke conveys so well.

Illustration from Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds

So reading about the everyday trivial hypocrisies of the 1980s lower middle-classes, of competitive gossip in the playground – the difficulty of telling your childminder what to do without offending her, or the frustrations of stay-at-home mums or the even worse frustrations of mums who go out to work – all this was mildly entertaining. But as my cruel teenage kids would say, ‘Yeah, so what, grandad?’ They don’t give a monkeys what happened ten, twenty or thirty years before they were even born.

So I think the curators were right to devote the last room entirely to Simmonds’s most recent book. Satire, or observational cartooning like this, is at its most powerful when it is about the now. And I found the rich colouring and the depth of texture of the illustrations to Cassandra Darke as interesting, as new, and as up-to-date, as its gritty, violent storyline.

And lastly, what a relief that the central character, Cassandra, is a grumpy, frumpy, older woman, well into her 60s, maybe 70-something, what a relief and a pleasure. After the nubile heroines Gemma and Tamara, it felt good to see Simmonds being true to the critique she herself made all those years ago in that ‘Seven Ages of Women’ cartoon, and depicting a woman who is not young and lithe and sexy and obsessed with bonking, but is nonetheless just as interesting and rewarding a character and easily meriting a book of her own.

Hooray for frumpy, grumpy Cassandra Darke, and hooray for Simmonds’s detailed, deep and discomfiting cartoons!

Preparatory character studies for Cassandra Darke (2014) by Posy Simmonds


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Faith Ringgold @ the Serpentine Gallery

‘I can’t get through the world without recognizing that race and sex influence
everything I do in my life.’ Faith Ringgold

Cycle through London’s diesel-polluted streets to the Serpentine Galleries for the launch of the second of two exhibitions showcasing the art of American woman artists. This one is a ground-breaking survey of the work of African-American woman artist Faith Ringgold.

Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow #1: Somebody Stole My Broken Heart (2004) by Faith Ringgold © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

Faith Ringgold’s biography

The press release includes a potted biography of the artist, thus:

Faith Ringgold was born in Harlem, New York in 1930 (so she is currently 88 years old).

Faith Ringgold is an artist, teacher, lecturer and author of numerous award-winning children’s books.

Faith Ringgold received her BS and MA degrees in visual art from City College of New York in 1955 and 1959.

A Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of California in San Diego, Ringgold has received 23 Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees.

Ringgold is the recipient of more than 80 awards and honours including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, The American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and recently the Medal of Honour for Fine Arts from the National Arts Club.

In 2017, Ringgold was elected a member into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston.

Ringgold’s work has been shown internationally, most recently:

  • in the group exhibition Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, London (2017)
  • We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965 – 85, Brooklyn Museum (2017)
  • Post-Picasso Contemporary Reactions, Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Spain (2014)
  • American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960’s, the Neuberger Museum, Purchase, New York (2011)

Ringgold’s work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums in the United States including:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Museum of Modern Art
  • Whitney Museum of American Art
  • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
  • The Brooklyn Museum
  • The Studio Museum in Harlem
  • The National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC
  • The Art Institute of Chicago
  • The Boston Museum of Fine Art

Politics

Ringgold’s art is drenched in politics, specifically American race politics, from the Civil Rights Movement through Black Power to Black Lives Matter. And in feminism, the women’s movement, from women’s liberation through to the #Metoo movement. Almost all her works have a subject, and that subject is political in intention, either publicly and polemically political, or more subtly personal, implicit in the stories of her extended families and their experiences as black people in America.

The Flag is Bleeding #2 (American Collection #6) (1997) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As the press release puts it:

For more than five decades, Ringgold has consistently challenged perceptions of African American identity and gender inequality through the lenses of the feminist and the civil rights movements. As cultural assumptions and prejudices persist, her work retains its contemporary resonance.

Hence she has produced series of works with titles like ‘Slave Rape’ and the ‘Feminist series’, and ‘Black Light’, and works like ‘Woman Free Yourself’.

Protest and activism have remained integral to Ringgold’s practice since she co-founded the group the National Black Feminist Organization in 1973 along with her then 18 year-old daughter, Michele Wallace.

In her earliest works in the 1960s, the ‘American People’ series (1963-67), Ringgold took ‘the American dream’ as her subject to expose social inequalities.

By the 1970s, Ringgold, along with her daughter, was leading protests against the lack of diversity in the exhibitions programme at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Forty years later her work was included in an exhibition at the same museum, on the subject of protest.

Fifty years after her earliest work, she published in 2016 We Came to America, a children’s book that celebrates cultural diversity. From start to finish her art is concerned with the political implications of black life in America.

And as a white man viewing the exhibition, I have no doubt African Americans were horribly oppressed – through centuries of slavery, the inequities of the Reconstruction period, the Jim Crow laws, lynchings, segregation in the Deep South which lasted well into my own lifetime – and that Ringgold’s work is testimony to the enduring hurt and trauma of the suffering of the black experience in America right up to the present day.

But… well… I feel I have watched so many documentaries, been to so many exhibitions, watched so many movies and TV shows and read so many books about the suffering of African Americans that, horrible and true though it all is… well…The subject is certainly not new.

And also, although her treatment of it is sometimes harsh and explicit, more often it is oblique, with a lot of emphasis on Ringgold’s own personal experiences and the stories of her extended family.

And also the nature of the art itself – the use of soft and even luxurious fabrics – tends to soften and mediate the impact of a lot of what she’s saying.

The art

What I’m struggling to define is that I found the subject matter of many of the works less interesting than the form and the variety of experiments in form and presentation which Ringgold has made throughout her career as an artist rather than as a political activist.

Rather than shaking my head at the atrocities of slavery and institutional violence against African Americans, I more often found myself nodding my head at the inventiveness and exuberance and optimism of much of her art.

Roughly speaking, the works came in four shapes or styles:

  1. Paintings
  2. Posters
  3. Tankas
  4. Quilts

These four can be divided into a simpler binary division – before and after the tankas.

1. Paintings

Her earliest works appear to be fairly traditional paintings, mostly of people, contemporary Americans, done in a naive, kind of cartoon Modernism. The earliest works here come from the ‘American People’ series, which mostly depict white bourgeois figures with more than a hint of irony or satire.

As such, some of them sort of reminded me of Weimar satire from the 1930s. The reduction of this woman’s neck and boobs to circles and tubes, and the deliberately garish unnatural colouring reminded me of 1930s Picasso.

American People #9: The American Dream (1964) Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There are about ten or so of these early paintings and their feel for design and layout, and their type of super-simplified, Henri Rousseau-style, naive figuration is extremely beguiling.

American People #15: Hide Little Children (1966) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

As the 60s progressed Ringgold created a series titled ‘Black Light’ which took the same kind of stylised human faces, but experimented with casting them in varying shades of black and brown. Literally investigating the changing effects of blackness and brownness in painted portraits.

2. Posters

By the later 1960s the social situation in America had become revolutionised, not least for African Americans, with the much more aggressive Black Power and Black Panther groups replacing the peaceful, early 60s, Christian activism of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. Also, the Women’s Liberation movement was inaugurated and spread like wildfire through a generation of frustrated, intelligent women, impatient at being pigeon-holed, stereotyped, objectified and held back in every area of civil life.

Ringgold responded to this explosion of activism by creating banners and posters with stark textual messages, such as ‘Woman Free yourself’, ‘Woman Freedom Now’, ‘United States of Attica’ (a response to the uprising at Attica Prison in New York State where 2,000 prisoners seized hostages and held out for four days till the state police took back control in a pitched battle in which 43 people were killed [10 staff, 33 prisoners]).

The posters use cut-out paper to create vibrant text against jangling colours, as well as offset prints and silkscreen techniques. Text, colour, patterns and shapes.

Woman Free Angela (1971) by Faith Ringgold

Next to the posters are hung a series of images from the same period (1970-72) depicting the American flag – ‘The People’s Flag Show’ as well as ‘United States of America’ – a map on which has been written every instance of anti-black police brutality. Politics, black anger.

There’s one titled ‘Judson 3’ which refers to the following event:

In 1970, there was a Flag Show that took place at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park, for which Faith designed the poster. The show, after massive participation on the part of artists in New York, was closed by the Attorney General’s office. Faith, Jon Hendricks and Jon Toche were arrested and charged with Desecration of the Flag. As a consequence, they were dubbed the Judson 3. They were subsequently vindicated of all charges on appeal by lawyers who were assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union. It was an important case for Freedom of Speech among artists.

So Ringgold herself was directly, personally, physically involved in the kinds of protests and events she celebrates.

The urgency of the commitment to political issues at the end of the 60s, which found expression in posters, placards, banners, mottos and logos, reminds me of the banners and posters being made at exactly the same time by the nun-turned-artist Corita Kent, who was recently the subject of an eye-opening exhibition at the House of Illustration at King’s Cross.

3. Tankas

So far so bold, brash and colourful. But her career takes a massive and decisive shoft with the discovery of fabrics. 

The story goes that Ringgold was on a visit to Europe and in a museum in Amsterdam looking at the venerable art of the Old Masters, when someone suggested she take a look at a nearby display of tankas.

tanka is a Tibetan hanging tapestry made of cotton or silk which contains or frames a painting of Buddhist deities, scenes, or a mandala. Tankas are generally portrait-shape and very, very big.

In a flash Ringgold realised this represented a liberation from the western white male tradition of the Oil Painting.

Here was something which broke with traditions of painting, of a discrete privileged image contained in and defined by a heavy gold frame and hung on a wall to be admired by millionaire owners.

Here was a way of presenting images within a much more populist, accessible, craft setting – and in a way which created a much more complicated interplay of fabrics and textures and mixed surfaces.

Almost immediately after the trip, in 1972-3, Ringgold made a series titled ‘Feminist series’ which explores this new medium. The oriental origin of the form appears to be reflected in:

  • the tall narrow format
  • the impressionistic treatment of trees and forests
  • and the use of text (as in the posters) but written vertically, in the Chinese style, completely against the western tradition

In the example below, note the way a) the main image is painted in acrylic but b) embedded in a fairly complex surround of fabrics c) the way it is designed to be hung and so has a loop of fabric at the top allowing a metal bar like a curtain rail to go through it and d) there are braided tassels hanging from each end of the curtain loop. (N.B. There is some text in the blue sky at the top of the painting, descending vertically as I mentioned, and conveying a feminist message – but too small to be legible in this reproduction.)

Feminist Series: We Meet the Monster #12 of 20 by Faith Ringgold (1972) Acrylic on canvas framed in cloth

A door had opened. From this point onwards, all of Ringgold’s work right up to the present day involves greater or lesser amounts of fabric.

A few years later (in 1974) she produced a series titled ‘Windows of the Wedding’, experiments with using the fabric surround of the tanka to frame purely abstract geometric shapes. In just a decade she’s come from the semi-Weimar satire on white people in America through to these multi-textured, abstract and fabric experiments. A hell of an odyssey.

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

The five examples of the series in the exhibition take up one wall and create a restful, if complicatedly decorative effect. But they appear to be quite unique in her oeuvre in being the only works on display here which do not depict the human face or figure. It was nice to sit and watch them for a while. Ringgold is known – perhaps over-known – for her black consciousness and feminist messages but I’m glad the curators showed that there is also this other, purely decorative side to her output.

In the final room we jump forward nearly 40 years to 2010, when she produced another series of tankas, each of these ones centring an iconic black figure, painted in a faux-naive style in the centre and surrounded with relevant text from a sermon or speech or text by the figure (too small to see in this photo).

Each portrait is embedded in a decorative arrangement of flowers, or just zoomorphic shapes, and this square it itself embedded in a luxurious velvet fabric which really makes you want to reach out and stroke them. As you can see each tanka is suspended from a green wooden rod at each end of which hangs a couple of golden tassels. Made me think of Muslim prayer mats or rugs… Certainly a tradition very different from Rembrandt in a gold frame.

From left to right, they are:

  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Martin Luther King Jnr Tanka #3 I Have A Dream (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Sojourner Truth Tanka #2 Ain’t I A Woman (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Harriet Tubman Tanka #1 Escape To Freedom (2010),

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

4. Quilts

And then there are the quilts. Melissa Blanchflower, the show’s curator, explained that Ringgold’s great, great grandmother Susie Shannon, who was born into slavery, was made to sew quilts for plantation owners. On the slave plantations slave women were often set to sew and create quilts for the master’s family. It was collaborative work, many women working on the same quilt. The quilts might bear all kinds of images, from Christian imagery, through to fairy tales or folk stories, as well as improving mottos. The women might also sew in coded messages.

The skill was passed down the female line of the family to Ringgold’s mother, who was a fashion designer, so that Faith grew up with the sight and smell and touch and shape of all kinds of fabrics, and a feel for what goes with what, what compliments, and what jars and offsets – for the world of effects which can be created by pre-designed fabrics.

The difference between the tankas and the quilts is that the former are designed to be hung while the latter end up being hung but can also be laid flat. The real innovation is in the use of the apparently passive ‘feminine’ format of the quilt for all kinds of vivid, angry and emotive social messages.

Take the emotive series titled ‘Slave Rape’. In this photo you can see:

  • Slave Rape #1 of 3: Fear Will Make You Weak (1973)
  • Slave Rape #2 of 3: Run You Might Get Away (1973)
  • Slave Rape #3 of 3: Fight To Save Your Life (1973)

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

If you described the subject and the figure’s facial attitudes and postures in words, your auditor might expect them to be dark and harrowing but, as you can see, they are brightly coloured, and the figures done in Ringgold’s characteristic faux-naive style are almost (I hate to say it) pretty.

Only the titles bespeak the atrocities they commemorate. And, after I’d looked at the human figures, and enjoyed their interplay with the jungle foliage around them, my eye tended to forget the ostensible subject matter and wandered off to enjoy the fabrics – the use of variegated fabrics in the surrounds, materials which could easily be offcuts of curtains or sofa coverings, but which, sewn together in subtle asymmetries, provide a pleasing counterpoint to the central narrative figures.

In later quilts Ringgold revived the use of texts from her poster days to weave together her personal stories and writings with the history of African Americans. ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ from 1983 was her first ‘story quilt’, made up of alternating squares containing schoolgirl-style depictions of members of her family, and numbered squares of text, which tell the story of her early life.

Installation view of ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ by Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

There are half a dozen or so of these story quilts from the later 1980s and they combine a complex interplay of hand-written text with painted imagery, embedded in patchworks of fabric, to create a profound impact – a sophisticated, politically alert reworking of a time-honoured, and family tradition.

Works from the 1990s, such as the ‘American Collection’ series (with titles such as ‘We Came To America’ and ‘The Flag is Bleeding’ [the second image in this review, above] combine all the techniques she has mastered, to create images of greater violence and intensity. After the hope of the 1960s, life for many urban American blacks seems to have become steadily bleaker, more drug addicted and violent, and the experience of immigrants to America more fraught and dangerous.

And yet the same period saw the far more relaxed, vibrant and optimistic series ‘Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow’ (first image in this review).

Ringgold has reflected her times, and the rise and cultural spread of the two great social movements of black power and feminism over the past fifty years, but there is also – within her voice or brand or oeuvre – a surprising variety of tone and style.

Arriving back at the ‘American People’ series from the 1960s you are staggered at the journey she has been on, and by all the things she has seen and felt and expressed with such confidence and imagination. She did it her way. She did it with style. Inspiring.

Interview with Faith Ringgold

A conversation between Faith Ringgold and Serpentine Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist.

In fact, being a grand old lady of American art means there are scads of videos about Faith Ringgold and many illuminating interviews with her.


Related links

  • Faith Ringgold continues at the Serpentine Gallery until 20 October 2019

Books by Faith Ringgold

Shes quite a prolific author, too.

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

The World Exists to Be Put On A Postcard: artists’ postcards from 1960 to now @ the British Museum

Last year the writer and curator (and sometime expert on The Antiques Roadshow) Jeremy Cooper donated his quirky collection of 1,000 postcards designed by artists from the 1960s to the present day, to the British Museum.

This FREE exhibition presents a selection of 300 works from the collection, and features a wide range of artists and artist collectives from the past five decades including Gilbert & George, Richard Hamilton, Yoko Ono, Guerrilla Girls, Tacita Dean, Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, Dieter Roth, Carl Andre, Claes Oldenburg, Gavin Turk, Rachel Whitehead and many more.

The collection – which took 10 years to assemble – now means that the British Museum has one the world’s leading collections of this rather unexpected art form. I, for one, certainly hadn’t realised how widespread and flexible an art form ‘the postcard’ had become.

Dada Land (1975/1977) by Bill Gaglione and Tim Mancusi. Reproduced by permission of the artists

The idea is that, since the radical conceptual and political breakthroughs of the 1960s, artists have found the postcard to be a cheap, flexible, democratic, accessible and fun format to present a whole range of ideas, whether satirical, subversive, silly or surreal.

Hence, if only at the level of invitation to an art show, many of the most famous artists of the past years have used the format, while others have gone to town with whole conceptual explorations of its possibilities.

The exhibition is divided into the following categories or headings:

Richard Hamilton (1992-2011)

In an early work such as Whitley Bay 1996, Hamilton used details of commercially produced postcards in his pop collages. Two years later he produced a concertina, ‘pull-out’ postcard. You unclipped it and eight postcard-sized unfolded, each showing a commercial image of Whitley Bay, which was progressively blown up larger and larger until the image became just an abstract blur of dots and patches.

Dieter Roth (1930-1998)

Swiss-born Roth produced various postcard art. He collaborated with Richard Hamilton on paintings made in Spain, and then produced postcards depicting the paintings, but conceived of as artworks in their own right. In a series titled 120 postcards Roth overpainted and reworked a clichéd tourist image of Piccadilly, to create a set of independent artworks.

Fluxus

The Fluxus art movement drew in a large number of artists, composers, designers and poets during the 1960s and 1970s who engaged in experimental art performances. Japanese artist On Kawara made a series titled ‘I GOT UP’ in which he simply sent postcards to hundreds of friends around the world marked with a date stamp declaring ‘I got up at…’ and then the time and date. He continued the series from 1968 to 1979.

An example of the I Got Up series by On Kawara (1979)

These postcards now fetch extraordinary sums at auction. The one above, sent in 1979, was part of a lot of On’s I GOT UP postcards which sold for £162,500. Wish I’d known him and he’d sent me one! As with so much ‘subversive’ art which was going to change the world, it is now bought and sold by Russian oligarchs and Chinese billionaires for sums you and I can only gawk at.

Ben Vautier created a postcard titled The Postman’s Choice with an address box and stamp space on both sides, so you filled in two addressees. Who should the post office send it to?

I liked the extended-size postcard, Beached, by Lawrence Wiener (b.1942). It was made to publicise a video he made in five sections of himself throwing, pulling, lifting, dragging, and levering natural materials to make a sculpture on a beach in Holland.

Beached by Lawrence Weiner (1970)

Feminism

Postcard art was a way for women artists of the 1960s and 70s who felt excluded from the male art world to bypass the traditional gallery system.

From 1971 to 1973 American artist Eleanor Antin (b.1935) sent fifty-one postcards of her hundred-boots project to a thousand people in the art world. During a two-and-a-half year roadtrip round California she placed the hundred boots in various incongruous settings and photographed them. What a brilliant idea!

Four details from 100 Boots (1971-73) by Eleanor Antin

Lynda Benglis (b.1941) and Hannah Wilke (b.1940) made postcards of themselves naked.

Lynda Benglis nude postcard

They were working to ‘challenge the idea of female objectification, often using their own bodies to explore sexuality in their work’.

Ponder-r-Rosa series by Hannah Wilke (1977)

I always find that pictures of naked young women help me to stop thinking about women in terms of their appearance or sexuality. Male gaze duly obliterated.

Performance

Stelious Arcadiou (b.1946) grew up in Melbourne, Australia, changed his name to Stelarc in 1972, and specialised in self-inflicted performances in which his body was suspended from flesh hooks. And his preferred way of promoting these performances was via photos on postcards distributed to other artists, galleries and critics.

Stelarc, Event for lateral suspension (1978)

In 1979 artists Chris Burden gave a performance in which he described his relationship with a truck named ‘Big Job’, while clutching a gigantic wrench, and sent out postcards recording the event.

Big Wrench by Chris Burden (1979)

Conceptual I

This category includes Carl Andre – who made postcards of bricks or sections of concrete arranged in urban and landscape settings – landscape art by Richard Long, showing photos of places he’s visited and sculptures he’s made from natural materials in remote locations – and quite a few by Gilbert and George in a variety of settings and with text subverting their own status as artists and the whole point of art. Silly but oddly compelling, as usual.

Gilbert and George in a rural setting (1972)

Richard Long’s postcards of artworks he’d made as part of his long treks, in places as different as rural Devon and Mongolia, struck me as clever use of the medium. Some of  his artworks were temporary, made of mud or stones which would decompose or be assimilated back into the landscape. Some resulted in no tangible work whatever, just the record of the walk. Long’s postcards were, therefore, postcards from nowhere, mementos of things which never existed or would soon cease to exist. One of the things I’ve loved about Richard Long’s walking art since I first came across it is the way he captures the spooky, empty, vanishing nature of long-distance walks. You are intensely here, now, in this place. And yet half an hour later you are a mile away, over hill and dale, and the hereness and the nowness… are just memories… or photographs… or postcards…

Conceptual II

American artist Geoff Hendricks (b.1930) made a series of seven postcards depicting beautiful photographs of clouds. He styles himself a ‘cloudsmith’. Very relaxing.

Sky Post Card #7 by Geoff Hendricks (1974)

Endre Tót

Born in Hungary in 1937, Endre Tót trained as a painter but became involved with the Fluxus group. He is represented by possibly the best works in the exhibition, a 1974 series titled One Dozen Rain Postcards.

In these Tót made Xerox copies of photos from newspapers, printed them in purple, and then typed dots and dashes onto the surface of the copies in order to give the effect of rain. Each variation of the rain motif is deliberately humorous: some show heavy rain falling in just one place, or it raining indoors, and so on.

One of the One dozen rain postcards by Endre Tót (1971-1973)

These were all very witty – with other subjects including horizon rain (the dashes all running horizontally parallel to the horizon of a sea postcard) and new rain/old rain – but they also struck me as a genuinely innovative use of the size and shape of the postcard format.

Paradise regained

American photographer Duane Michals (b.1932) made a series of six postcards which starts out with a fully clothed couple in a modern office and, in each one, items of clothing are removed from the people while the office becomes more full of pot plants and foliage, until they are naked in an apparent forest.

Paradise regained by Duane Michals (1968)

Graphic postcards

Some of the most innovative postcard art comes in graphic form i.e. text only, or text over minimal imagery. Hence the bold declarative text The World Exists To be Put On A Postcard by Simon Cutts which gives the show its title. Personally, I liked the extreme minimalism of this graphic postcard, made all the funnier by that fact that it required not one but two modern artists to create it, Peter Doig and Matthew Higgs.

There’s a painting on the wall by Peter Doig and Matthew Higgs (1996)

Postcard invitations

In a more normal use of the format, artists often sent out invitations to art exhibitions (or happenings or performances) in the shape of postcards, detailing the location and time of the exhibition. Many of these were treated like ephemera and lost, only years later did collectors start to value them.

Invitation to Holy Cow! Silver Clouds!! Holy Cow! (1966) by Andy Warhol © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London

There’s the original invitation card for the now legendary Freeze exhibition organised by Damien Hirst which introduced the world to the (YBAs) (Young British Artists), and a funky 3-D postcard Julian Opie sent out as an invitation to his 1996 exhibition Walking Dancing Undressing Smoking showing the cartoon of a trim woman in his trademark strong black outlines, but done in that process where, if you shift your point of view, the figure appears to move.

Political postcards I

Because they are cheap and, by their very nature, designed to be distributed, postcards have been an appropriate format for all kinds of artists promoting their political agendas. Using the postal system they can easily be circulated thereby evading traditional gallery and museum networks, which is why many postcard artworks were often politically subversive or carried a social message. Images satirising and lambasting Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher abound.

Thatcher Therapy Dot-to-Dot Puzzle No. 1 (1984) by Paul Morton. Reproduced by permission of the artist. Courtesy Leeds Postcards

There’s a post-card designed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono with the simple text WAR IS OVER. Its optimistic innocence is counterpointed by a completely different pair of postcards by photo-montage artist Peter Kennard of a) some cruise missiles plonked on the back of the hay cart in Constable’s painting The Haywain and b) the super-famous montage of Tony Blair taking a selfie against the backdrop of Iraqi oilwells going up in flames.

There’s another really vivid one with the big angry text I DON’T GIVE A SHIT WHAT YOUR HOUSE IS WORTH (by Leeds Postcards, 1988).

Political postcards II – Feminism

Back  in the gritty 1970s artist Alison Knowles and composer Pauline Oliveros published a set of cards commenting on the outsider status of women in the world of classical music. The idea was to take photos of women composers and to attach a big text describing each classical male composer with the kind of derogatory comment they felt women composers were all-too-frequently dismissed with e.g. she’s a lesbian.

Beethoven was a lesbian by Pauline Oliveros with Alison Knowles (1974)

Similar outsider anger is the unique selling point of the Guerrilla Girls collective with their well known poster slogans such as ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?’

But best of all is the set of works by Jill Posener who, in the 1980s, sprayed witty graffiti ‘with political, feminist, lesbian and anti-consumerist themes’ onto billboards, defacing irritating, sexist and patronising advertising campaigns with hilarious jokes.

Saw his head off by Jill Posener (1981)

Altered postcards

Because they’re so cheap and cheerful artists have felt free to manipulate, transform, burn, cut up, deface, collage, paint over and generally muck about with postcards. Yoko Ono published a white postcard with a little hole in the middle for you to look through at the sky. Ray Johnson cut up, pasted and wrote over whatever printed material he could find. Genesis P/Orridge made a series of postcards in which the same black and white images of his mum and dad were positioned closer and closer to each other, until they merged.

In the 1980s Michael Langenstein (b.1947) made a series titled Fantasy and Surreal Postcards, collages of commercial postcards in which iconic images are made to do funny things, for example the Statue of Liberty is shown on her back in the Hudson River apparently dong the backstroke, or Concorde is shown having flown into and got stuck half-way through one of the great pyramids at Giza.

Excalibur by Michael Langenstein (1986)

Excalibur by Michael Langenstein (1986)

Portrait postcards

Portraits often appeared on exhibition invitations, for example there’s one of David Hockney inviting to an exhibition in the 1960s. American artist Carolee Schneeman (1939-2019) and Anthony McCall made their own Christmas postcards. Again, the best of the bunch was, for me, the funniest one, which showed British artist Peter Hutchison (b.1930) being showered with foot-high letters in a work titled Struggling with language from 1974.

Struggling with language by Peter Hutchison (1974)

Recent postcards

Despite being overtaken by digital technology, emails, texts and numerous forms of social media, the postcard continues to thrive, in the real world out there, as well as in the art world. This last section showcases recent postcard art by Tacita Dean and Frances Alÿs, by Braco Dimitrijevic and Alison Wilding, Gillian Wearing and Jeremy Deller.

Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin are pictured wearing scruffy anoraks and each holding a pair of big balls, in the tradition of the smutty seaside postcard. Meanwhile, Rachel Whiteread – an avid collector of postcards, apparently – has punched holes into innocuous scenic postcards thus turning them into miniature sculptures.

Untitled (2005) by Rachel Whiteread. Photograph © 2018 Rachel Whiteread

Thoughts

Who knew so much work existed in this area, who knew that ‘the postcard’ was a modern art genre in itself. Sceptical to being with, I am now totally converted. The categories I listed above aren’t exhaustive: there were quite a few one-off creative and experimental projects which come under no particular category but are also included.

A test of an exhibition is whether, at the end of it, you want to go round again, and I did. Having gone round once carefully reading the labels, I then went round again, just for fun, stopping at the ones which made me smile or laugh out loud (smiling at the rain postcards, guffawing at Jill Posener’s brilliant anti-sexist cards from the 80s).

It’s fun and it’s FREE. Pop along for an entertaining and enlightening experience.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn @ the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

This is a really wonderful exhibition. I thoroughly enjoyed it and had a struggle dragging myself away. And it’s FREE!

Luchita Hurtado has had the most extraordinary life and career. She was born in 1920, in Maiquetía, Venezuela, and is still working and painting, 98 years later! In fact the last section of the exhibition features a dozen or so works from just the past twelve months. But let’s start at the beginning…

The 1940s

Untitled (1949) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Private Collection. Photo by Genevieve Hanson

This is Hurtado’s first solo exhibition in a public institution, which seems amazing given the quality of everything on show.

The 95 or so works featured here are arranged in a straightforward chronological order to help the visitor make sense of the astonishing range and variety of styles and approaches to making art which have characterised her career.

Very broadly her career seemed to me to break down into two parts: in the 1940s and 50s she experimented with the type of abstraction which was very much in the air, a kind of post-war, atom-bomb modernism.

I can’t put into words how attractive I found many of these works, which are dated but in a good way, deeply evocative of the period, and executed with just the right quality of roughness and exuberance. The oil paint which is applied roughly, in dabs and swathes barely filling in the angular abstract compositions, so you can see the canvas through it, with a casualness which bespeaks its own process of creation, which captures the post-war mood of ruins and survival.

Joropo (1947-49) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

Moving to California

Hurtado moved from Venezuela to the United States in 1928, first freelancing as a fashion illustrator for Condé Nast in New York, before relocating to Mexico City, where she joined a group of renowned artists and writers who had emigrated from Europe in the wake of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War and who were working under the banners of Surrealism and Magical Realism. By the late 1940s, Hurtado had moved to Mill Valley, California, where she was closely associated with the Dynaton Group.

The work from this early period reminds me of the artists featured in a book about Mexican artists of the 1940s and 50s which I reviewed a few months back, particularly the work of Carlos Mérida and Gunther Gerzso.

These first couple of rooms reek of the visual world of the soft-modernist 1950s, but in a good way. I found lots of paintings to really like here, I really liked the combination of abstraction with the rough, pastel-sketch kind of finish. In 1951 Hurtado moved to Santa Monica, California, where she has lived and worked ever since.

Untitled (c. 1951) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo by Genevieve Hanson

Strip paintings

It’s in the next section, titled ‘Experimentation’, that you see her start to flex her wings, ready to establish her own identity. I especially liked a number of works where she painted an abstract design then cut it up into ‘strips’ and rearranged it. The effect is compared by the curators to a film strip, which is not untrue, but doesn’t convey what I felt to be the terrific dynamism and energy of some of the results.

Untitled (1967) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

It’s a little further along this gallery that Hurtado suddenly springs beyond abstraction with a series of paintings which incorporate depictions of the body – in a kind of rough, naive style: sometimes chopped up, sometimes reduced to Matisse-like cutouts silhouettes, sometimes morphing into Georgia O’Keeffe-style landscapes. There’s one (Untitled, 1965) where two sandy-brown mountain peaks run smoothly down to a mound which has three or four blue rivers flowing out of it, and between the peaks is descending an equally sandy-brown protuberance, which you don’t have to be an art critic to see as a pair of parted legs, revealing a mound of Venus which is being approached by a male member. It was the 1960s, after all, and sex was bold and new.

The ‘I am’ works

By about 1970 this interest in the body had led her to totally abandon the complex abstraction of the previous decades in favour of a highly simplified and figurative depiction of her own body. To be precise, she produced a whole series of works as she looks down over her own naked body.

Her body appears as a highly simplified, Caramac-brown pair of breasts, with the tummy and tummy button beneath and maybe the thighs or knees or feet also peeking out. What a complete change of style from the dirty expressionism of the 1940s, 50s and early 60s!

The most distinctive of these idiosyncratic self-portraits also feature one or other of the native American rugs which Hurtado collected. And, adding a peculiar, Surrealistic touch in almost all of them, there is a fruit – most often an apple or a pear – floating in this hyper-real, abstract space.

The result is highly distinctive and visually impactful and extremely beguiling.

Untitled (1971) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Jeff McLane

‘Sky skin’ paintings

In the mid-1970s she took this same stylised figurative approach and turned it outwards and upwards, into a series which feature skyscapes, blue blue sky and clouds, but framed by simplified rocky terrains which may, or may not, refer to the human body. Just as the downwards ‘I am’ paintings often feature a fruit incongruously floating in mid air, so the Sky skin paintings more often than not feature bird feathers, floating in almost identifiable patterns.

The Umbilical Cord of the Earth is the Moon (1977) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Jeff McLane

The way a vista of objects gives on to a startlingly blue sky suddenly reminded me of Magritte and his stylised use of the sky. And then I thought of the famous painting of the man in a bowler hat with an apple in front of his face, and saw a strong connection between this series and the work of the earlier Surrealist. (In fact that painting by Magritte, Son of Man, is from as late as 1964.)

Word paintings

Meanwhile, in a separate room, is displayed a series of canvases from 1973 and 1974 which are BIG and which return to a language of abstraction, but radically simplified from her 1940s and 50s work. You wouldn’t guess it if the wall label hadn’t told you, but in all these works, the abstract compositions, the expressive lines and the geometric shapes are in fact fragmented lettering.

First of all she chose a text. Then she generated an abstract composition from the word or words. And then she cut the canvas up and rearranged the sections into a new pattern, which deliberately disrupts the original composition.

Thus Self Portrait from 1973, actually conceals the words ‘I live’, rendered in a half abstract style, then cut up.

Self Portrait (1973) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

It’s a simple enough approach, but one which grows organically out of all her earlier interests, from the 1950s abstracts, through the 1960s strip paintings and then her growing sense of her ‘self’, and her subjective consciousness, as the subject of her art. It also confirms – if it wasn’t obvious already – her interest in seriality i.e. in making series of works which systematically explore a new idea or approach.

This serial approach gives each individual work added resonance and interest, and because the curators line up half a dozen or more works in each series, it lets you a) share the sense of fun and experimentation and trial and error which has gone into them b) gives you the simple pleasure of deciding which one from each series you like best.

White word paintings

In the next room along is another recognisable series, this time crated by applying white acrylic paint to raw, unprimed canvas, with the focus of each work being one or two resonant, highly meaningful words. Thus entire works are made out of the words EVE, ADAM, WOMB or WOMAN.

I have a soft spot for art works which are still fragmentary, unfinished, minimalist 1970s art or Italian Arte Povera, made from industrial leftovers, art where you can see the canvas, or is rough and unfinished. I think it’s partly because I warm to the fundamental idea that artworks only emerge from a troubled world with great effort. I like to see the sculpture emerging from the stone, a few lines beginning to create volume and shape, sketches and half-finished artifacts.

Anyway, that might be one reason why I really, really liked all the works in this room.

Untitled (WOMAN/WOMB) (c.1970s) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

Feminist art

Obviously there are vast tracts to be written about Hurtado’s feminist consciousness, and about her feminist journey from the early entirely abstract work which (possibly, arguably) was made in the shadow of the more famous American Abstract Expressionists and male Mexican artists of her day – through the breakthrough in the mid-1960s where she suddenly dropped abstraction in order to produce a series of very simple self-portraits – then all those simplified paintings looking down at her own boobs and tummy – through to these works of the feminist 1970s, which use big female concepts, rallying cries and credos, as the basis for artworks.

Or, in the words of American art writer and curator Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer:

Hurtado’s word-subjects tend to foreground a woman’s subjectivity (at least partly self-referential as verbal self-portraits) and echo her figurative strategies in the pulsation of line, pattern, and evocation around the perimeter, once again expressing an allegiance to looking at and living in relation to the periphery, the margin, the recesses, the acute edge of things.

Eco art

The final section of the exhibition is devoted to a series of new paintings produced by Hurtado in the last twelve months and displayed here for the first time. These are deliberately rough and ready placards, poster art, protest art, political art, devoted to raising awareness about the environment and the world we are destroying.

Installation view of Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I will Be Reborn showing some of her environmental placards and art works © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

To be honest, I liked these the least of all the works on display. I joined the World Wildlife Fund in the 1980s. My flatmate became a leading figure in the green movement, campaigning to save the rainforest in the 80s and 90s, another friend works for the European Development Bank, channeling Western investment to environmentally-friendly development schemes, Mrs Books and Boots helped to launch the Forest Stewardship Council in the mid-1990s, and I myself worked for the UK Department for International Development from 2008 to 2009.

In other words, I’ve been plugged into environmental activism for over thirty years and have got pretty tired of people crapping on about global warming and the environment and doing absolutely nothing whatever to improve the situation.

Become a vegetarian, sell your car, never fly again, review all your investments and divest from any which are involved in carbon industries – these are just the basic steps everyone needs to take, but I know no-one who, in the past 30 years since we first started hearing about global warming, has made any of these elementary changes to their lifestyle.

We were told that Luchita Hurtado had flown to London specially to attend this exhibition, as had at least one of the curators, who was American, accompanied by who knows how many assistants, PR and gallery people. And the pictures themselves, of course. Which were all shipped to London. In airplanes.

This is why we are doomed. Everybody talks the talk, everybody agrees this is a world-shattering crisis, everyone paints placards, wears t-shirts, goes on marches – but nobody, nobody at all, is prepared to get out of their car and walk away and never use it again. To forswear meat and dairy for the rest of their lives. To vow never to catch another airplane, never to take another foreign holiday. Nobody.

Pretty much everyone attending the press launch was tapping away on their mobile phones, mobile phones which contain rare and irreplaceable metals, are manufactured in the suicide factories of China, and then shipped half way round the world in gas-guzzling super-tankers, and which use a global digital infrastructure which now produces more greenhouse gases than the entire aviation industry.

How easy to give a Facebook ‘like’ to Luchita Hurtado’s worthy eco-art, or to retweet about it. How impossible to give up your mobile phone, all your other hi-tech gadgets, your car, your barbecue, and your next foreign holiday.

Which is why we’re going to burn the world.

That’s what I feel about the subject of environmental art. But I also just didn’t like Hurtado’s eco art as art, that much. The sentiments seemed to me trite and obvious and the execution, although I can appreciate that it is deliberately rough and home-made and in the style of handheld placards, just didn’t pull my daisy.

Installation view of Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I will Be Reborn showing some of her environmental placards and art works © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

All that said, on the upside, don’t you think it is absolutely remarkable that a person can be this engaged with a very contemporary issue at the age of ninety-eight!

Although these pieces didn’t do it for me, I was still awestruck by her ability to be open to the modern world, and engage with it, this vividly and vehemently, at such a very advanced age. The sentiments and the handmade placards perfectly chime with the activism of Greta Thunberg and all the other schoolchildren who’ve come out on strike against climate change, holding home-made banners and placards very like Hurtado’s.

If not as actual art, then as tokens of Hurtado’s lifelong commitment to being alert and alive and exploring and expressive, I couldn’t help being deeply touched by this final display.

Conclusion

This is a fabulous exhibition. There are lovely works to savour and enjoy from every part of her long and varied career – from the 1950s abstractions, through the 1960s film-strip pieces, the floating apple and caramac boob period, the sky paintings, the abstract hidden word paintings, and then the white feminist word works, as well as several other series I don’t have space to describe.

But it was, on reflection, the late 1940s, early abstract work which rang my bell most. As you walk in the door of the Sackler Serpentine Gallery this is the first work you see, and this is the work I found it hard to tear myself away from, a classic example of her early abstract period which I just found beautiful beyond words.

As usual, a photographic reproduction doesn’t do it justice. In the flesh you can go right up close and appreciate and enjoy the supreme confidence with which she has painted and etched and scratched and roughed in the colours of the wonderfully weird and evocative sci-fi, Juan Miro-esque, zoomorphic design, in order to create something which I found utterly compelling and persuasive.

Untitled (c.1947-49) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Franz West @ Tate Modern

Franz West (1947-2012) is best known for his unconventional objects and sculptures, installations and furniture work, which often require an involvement of the audience.

This is a big exhibition, taking up no fewer than ten rooms at Tate Modern and the overwhelming impression you get is that West relished amateurishness, the cack-handed, graceless elevation of the everyday into ambiguous and intriguing objects – like this set of sculptures made out of bottles and baths and rolls of carpet and toilet seats and plates stacked on each other in no particular order and covered in papier-mâché and painted a horrible vomit-brown.

Redundanz by Franz West (1986)

His works’ determined lack of grace and finish ought to be off-putting but I came out of the exhibition really liking them.

Deliberate amateurishness

A modern artist like Jeff Koons gets his kicks by making objects and sculptures which are manufactured to a technicolour-bright, smooth, hyper-real perfection. Their gleaming finish satirises the impossible perfection of airbrushed models, movie stars, and adverts. His sculptures are satires on, ahem, modern consumer capitalism.

West makes the same general point (i.e. isn’t capitalism, advertising and consumer culture awful?) but with the diametrically opposite strategy.

From the start of his career in the late 1960s, through to the end – as an award-winning showstopper at the Venice Biennale and numerous other international art festivals – West set out to undermine the shiny world of western consumerism with determinedly hand-made and amateurish artefacts, where you are meant to see the joins and the glue and the shabby lack of professional finish.

Big papier-mâché sculptures

Thus the most characteristic – and memorably enormous – works here are huge, hand-made, hand-built, wonky, papier-mâché sculptures which look like they could have been made by enterprising schoolchildren.

Installation view of Franz West at Tate Modern 2019. Photo by Luke Walker

The exhibition builds up to a climax in the last couple of rooms which contain vast, pastel-coloured, abstract sculptures all made out of wood and cardboard and gauze and papier-mâché. Are the bright but gentle pastel colours symbolic of something, packed with artistic meaning? No. In a typically off-hand, deliberately unpretentious way, West is quoted as saying he got the idea for the colours of these big works from children’s pajamas 🙂

Epiphanie an Stuhlen (2011) by Franz West. Photo by Luke Walker

Early drawings

The road towards these monster sculptures began in the late 1960s, when West (born in 1947) was a well-known alcoholic and trouble-maker on the periphery of the Vienna art scene. He was arrested a couple of times, and took part in friends’ ‘happenings’ and installations in those far-gone, heady days of revolution and sticking it to the bourgeoisie. Only slowly, and relatively late (around the age of 26) did he begin to make anything like ‘art’ himself, in the early 1970s.

Initially these consisted of really bad, amateurish drawings. There are several walls covered with them, sets of human figures drawn with breath-taking gawkiness. Some are funny, most are notable for a kind of confident ineptitude.

Untitled (1972) Private collection © Estate Franz West © Archiv Franz West

Many of his pictures and collages satirised contemporary pornographic magazines. Apparently, he made the images ‘absurd’ by ‘decontextualising’ them – as you can see by this one, a penetrating study of the wickedness of contemporary pornography.

West was, according to the wall labels, keen to satirise the Freudian theory that human behaviour is based on sexual drives. Hence lots of crudely drawn images of men with erect penises about to penetrate women with crudely drawn breasts.

Frohsinn (1974) by Franz West

The Passstücke

But West’s real breakthrough came when he invented the Passstücke (Adaptives), abstract papier-mâché pieces which were intended to be picked up and played with. These are as rough and amateurish as his drawings, but it was the contexts he put them in that began to make them interesting. For example, there are a handful of replicas of the early hand-pieces and visitors are encourage to mess about with them in what look like department store dressing rooms.

Passtucke mit box und video (1996) Photo Luke Walker

There are several very rough, amateurish video films and lots of photos of West’s friends in Vienna’s 1970s underground art scene putting these funny, odd papier-mâché shapes on their heads, wearing them like clothes, or – in one striking scene – there’s a topless woman using a plate-shaped piece of papier-mâché to lift and move her naked bosoms while a fully dressed man sits nearby and plays improvised jazz on a trumpet. A naked woman! With boobs! Improvised jazz!

You can still smell the wild, crazeee, avant-garde vibe of these subversive rebels 40 years later. I bet they smoked pot. I bet they stayed up all night talking about philosophy and the meaning of life. Crazeee.

Friedl Kubelka. Graf Zoken (Franz West) still, 1969. Courtesy Friedl Kubelka © DACS, London 2018

Bigger, brighter, and with added furniture

After two or three rooms acclimatising you to West’s relatively small and amateurish early art, and to the 1970s world of flairs and slacks and beards and long hair and bare boobs which it came out of – the visitor walks through a doorway into the first of a series of far larger, much more open spaces, in which Franz is suddenly making much, much larger sculptures and installations.

There’s a big one comprising four walls made of papier-mâché which create four office booths, each of which contains home-made furniture. For Franz had started to make furniture.

Wegener Räume – an installation of four gouaches, four sculptures on wooden bases, four seats, wooden walls, paper, cloth, gauze, plaster and metal by Franz West (1988)

The office furniture was, originally, meant to be sat on and used, just like the Passstücke are meant to be handled, twirled round your head, worn on your wrist or whatever.

West wanted to make art that was functional – art and furniture at the same time.

BUT – I couldn’t help smiling to read, on a whole succession of wall labels that – unfortunately, regrettably, sadly – this or that piece of furniture or hand-held sculpture was now too old and fragile to be touched. Please don’t touch the interactive art. Ne touche pas. Nicht tasten.

Some furniture by Franz West, namely: Caseuse (1989), Untitled (1989) and Untitled (Stuhl) (1989)

Furniture usable and unusable

One of the wall labels says that West was interested all his life in blurring the border between art and the useful, sculpture and the everyday, which involved interrogating the notion of the gallery as th enly place where are could be displayed, etc etc.

An intention which, you can’t help thinking, must be judged a complete failure seeing as a) you are not allowed to touch any of his interactive art b) this entire exhibition is taking place in an, er, very traditional art gallery and c) that the exhibition costs a fairly steep £13 to enter.

As long as you don’t take the po-faced wall labels too seriously, this is a very enjoyable exhibition. It’s full of silliness.

In 1987 West made Eo Ipso, for a survey of sculpture in Münster. It’s made from his mother’s old washing machine which he unravelled into a twisted approximation of a bench and then painted a dire lime green. And then photographed his artist mates sitting on it (not for very long, I imagine).

Eo Ipso by Franz West (1987)

Here are some big papier-mâché heads he made out of plaster, gauze, cardboard, iron, acrylic, foam and rubber.

Lemurenköpfe by Franz West (1992)

According to the wall label:

In Roman mythology lemurs are tortured spirits living in limbo because they were never buried or because they committed crimes during their earthly life. At the beginning of the 20th century the term Lemurenköpfe was coined by the Viennese intellectual Karl Kraus to describe the Social-Democrat political group, who did not manage to prevent the rise of extremism. When they were first presented at documenta [an exhibition of contemporary art which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany] West invited visitors to fill the mouths of the Lemurenköpfe with garbage, creating sculptures with ‘bad breath’.

Satirising the art world

The same childish simplicity is on evidence throughout. In a darkened room there’s a projection onto a big screen of a characteristically amateurish film titled Vier Gellert Lieder. According to the guide:

West show this video with Bernhard Riff between 1992 and 1996. they recorded several meetings with artists and curators at openings and dinners, often giving artists absurd instructions to talk to camera. They then set the images to the music of Beethoven’s Six Lieder which had themselves used the texts of poems by Christian Furchtegott Gellert. When editing, they cut up and repeated clips of dialogue, slowed and speeded up the footage, and distorted colours. The video is a surreal portrait of the art world as a clique of weirdos and obsessives, rather than a place for the refined creation evoked by Beethoven.

What’s sweet about the film and the guide text is the touching belief that most of the world doesn’t already think of modern art as rubbish and modern artists as con-men and art dealers as slimy crooks.

Watching some of the leering, goonish, freakish artists and their simpering dealers and curators, and comparing them with the old-fashioned but pure and graceful music, had the – presumably – intended effect on me, which was to ponder how far, how very, very far, modern Austrian, German and, by extension, European art has fallen in the past century.

A Franz west living room

The final room features a number of bookcases holding the typically modish books Franz liked to read (Freud, Nietzsche, Sartre, Benjamin, all the usual suspects), some relatively small papier-mâché sculptures, and a couple of sofas on which you’re meant to sit and watch another, really amateurish film recording West and a bunch of mates assembling ‘The Hamsterwheel’, an unofficial group show that took place during the 2007 Venice Biennale.

British artist Sarah Lucas has worked with West on a number of projects – in fact she designed the plinths and backgrounds and the design of a lot of this exhibition – and was involved in the Hamsterhweel project and features in the film. Of the Hamsterwheel she’s quoted as saying:

We all spent a couple of weeks together, knocking things up, and nobody what it was going to be, really. It all seemed a bit chaotic, but by the time it was done, it had a sublime quality – everything worked and it had this amazing elevated feel to it.

And next to the bookshelves, hanging on the wall, is the poster West made for this show. It recycles one of the deliberately crude and graceless drawings from his 1975 series, Sexuality. Has a kind of amazing, elevated feel to it, don’t you think?

The Hamsterwheel by Franz West (2007)

Post-war Austria

Walking among the many posters West has created, and amid the steadily more enormous papier-mâché sculptures, enduring the terrible videos, and reading solemn references in the wall labels to West’s use of imagery of penises and turds… you can’t help feeling you’re walking amid the ruins of a once-great civilisation.

It is as if a great holocaust, a vast devastating event, has ruined western civilisation forever, destroyed old beliefs in traditional forms and genres and ideas, and left its survivors like children scurrying amid the ruins, filming women’s boobs, drawing men with penises, creating coiled turds and melting, grungy, barbarous shapes out of papier-mâché.

And of course, it did. West was born in 1947 into an absolutely ruined Vienna, one time stronghold of Nazi sentiment and now divided between the four victorious allies, setting of the grim Graham Greene story, The Third Man. For anyone with a soul, an imagination and a conscience, it must have seemed like the old traditional values in art and life had been broken forever.

West’s posters

But then I looked up and saw another one of his overgrown baby toys and told myself to stop feeling so tragic. A lot of his work is fun and inventive and colourful and interesting. Looking back on the exhibition afterwards, I realised I had under-appreciated the long line of posters he produced, initially publicising small art events or friends’ music concerts, eventually he developed a recognisable brand or style of poster which he used to publicise his numerous exhibitions. As the curators put it:

West showed at major museums and large galleries, and would always produce collages and posters to accompany his exhibitions. He loved to combine photographic images with paint, and to use kitschy and crass typography. In this way, he refused the elegant design so often used to brand art institutions.

They’re deliberately scrappy, messy, amateurish and anti-polish… but oddly effective, strangely more-ish.

Plakatentwurf (Die Aluskulptur) 2000. Franz West Privatstiftung/Estate Franz West, Vienna © Estate Franz West © Archiv Franz West

Every rebel becomes a darling

What started out as anti-Establishment rebellion in the late 60s had turned into the art for a new kind of freewheeling post-modern Establishment by the later 1980s, certainly by the 1990s.

So that, in West’s final years, all his themes and tendencies came together in a series of large, brightly coloured and absurdist sculptures designed to adorn galleries and public spaces. In the right environment, some of these look strangely apt and appropriate. As so often, big bright modern art looks great in American cities.

Mostly West, an exhibition of Franz West’s sculpture outside the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts, New York, 2004 © Estate Franz West © Archiv Franz West. Photo by Reinhard Bernsteiner / Atelier Franz West

But in other contexts – like the horrible rear entrance to the Tate Modern extension – they look a bit more spooky, like the incomprehensible relics of a ruined civilisation, or like the baubles of demented giants or – more precisely – like the grimly desperate attempts of modern architects and planners to persuade us poor victims of their heartless designs that we don’t live in a barren, loveless, windswept world of brutalist car parks and soulless shopping centres.

Some Franz West sculptures round the back of the Tate Modern extension on a grim, grey London day (photo by the author)

Do West’s big sculptural statements enliven and brighten up civic life? Or make it all too obvious that we live in a world of brightly coloured tat?

Promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Van Gogh and Britain @ Tate Britain

Before I went I’d read some disparaging reviews of this exhibition – but I found it really interesting, thought-provoking, full of wonderful paintings and prints and drawings, and making all kinds of unexpected connections. And big, much bigger than I expected.

The premise is simple: Vincent van Gogh came to live in England at the age of 20 in 1873, He lived in London for nearly three years, developing an intimate knowledge of the city and a great taste for English literature and painting. The exhibition:

  1. explores all aspects of van Gogh’s stay in London, with ample quotes from his letters to brother Theo raving about numerous aspects of English life and London – and several rooms full of the paintings and prints of contemporary urban life which he adored
  2. then it explores the development of van Gogh’s mature style and the many specific references he made back to themes and settings and motifs he had first seen in London, in London’s streets and galleries
  3. finally, the exhibition considers the impact van Gogh had on British artists
    • as a result of the inclusion of his pictures in the famous 1910 exhibition Post-Impressionist Painting
    • between the wars when van Gogh’s letters were published and fostered the legend of the tormented genius, the man who was too beautiful and sensitive for this world
    • and then how van Gogh’s reputation was further interpreted after the debacle of the Second World War

Gustave Doré

The first three rooms deal with the London that van Gogh arrived in in 1873. Among the highlights was a set of seventeen prints from Gustave Doré’s fabulous book London, a pilgrimage, which had been published only the year before, 1872. All of these are marvellous and the first wall, the wall facing you as you enter the exhibition, is covered with an enormous blow-up of Doré’s illustration of the early Underground.

The Workmen’s Train by Gustave Doré (1872)

Frankly, I could have stopped right here and admired Doré’s fabulous draughtsmanship and social history, as I could at the wall covered with seventeen of the prints from the book which we know van Gogh owned and revered. It’s the basis of the first of many links and threads which run through the show because, many years later, when van Gogh had developed his mature style but had also developed the mental illness that was to plague him, during his confinement in a mental hospital, he was to do a faithful copy of Doré’s depiction of inmates in Newgate prison to express his own feelings.

The prison courtyard by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Social realism

Van Gogh had come to London because he had got a job at the art dealer Goupil, which was part of the fast-growing market for prints and art reproductions which were informally referred to as ‘black and whites’. Van Gogh ended up with a collection of over 2,000 of these English prints, and admired them for their realistic depictions of contemporary urban scenes, especially among the poor. I was fascinated to learn that there was a set of socially-committed artists who all drew for The Graphic magazine, including Luke Fildes, Edward Dalziel, Frank Holl, and Edwin Buckman. The exhibition includes quite a few black and white social realist prints by artists from this circle and, as with the Doré, I could have studied this stuff all day long.

A London Dustyard by Edwin Buckman, from the Illustrated London News, 1873

The curators related these blunt depictions of London life back to the novels of Charles Dickens, who we know van Gogh revered (in this instance the rubbish dump motif linking to the dust yard kept by the Boffin family, the central symbol of his last, finished novel, Our Mutual Friend). As Vincent was to write during his first year as a struggling artist:

My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes and these artists draw.

But these illustrations by numerous London artists are also here because Vincent copied them. Next to the Buckman image of a dustyard is a graphite sketch of dustmen by Vincent. Next to a Luke Filde image of the homeless and poor, is a van Gogh drawing of a public soup kitchen.

A Public Soup Kitchen by Vincent Van Gogh (1883) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Other images include one of surly roughs waiting for the pub to open and a hooligan being arrested. Next to them all are van Gogh’s own earliest sketches and drawing, including a series he did of a homeless single mother begging on the streets, Sien Hoornik, who he took in and fed and had model for him (fully clothed) in a variety of postures of hopelessness and forlornness. And variations on the theme of tired, poor old men.

This is the Vincent who set his heart on becoming a vicar and did actually preach sermons at London churches, as well as crafting skilled sketches of churches in the letters he sent to brother Theo, and which are displayed here.

The example of old masters

But it wasn’t just magazine and topical illustration which fired Vincent’s imagination. The curators have also included a number of big classic Victorian paintings – by John Constable and John Millais among others – to give a sense of what ‘modern’ art looked like to the young van Gogh.

He was not yet a painter, in fact he didn’t know what he wanted to be. But the curators have hung the sequence, and accompanied them by quotes from letters, to show that, even in his early 20s, he was an acute observer of other people’s art, not only Victorian but other, older, pictures he would have seen at the National Gallery.

The Avenue at Middelharnis by Meindert Hobbema (1689) © The National Gallery, London

Several of these classic paintings depict an open road between a line of trees and, as the room progresses, the curators have hung next to them van Gogh’s later depictions of the same motif, showing early versions of the motif done in a fairly rudimentary approach, the oil laid on thick and heavy and dark…

Avenue of Poplars in Autumn by Vincent van Gogh (1884) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

And then next to these, suddenly, we have the first works of his mature style in which his art and mind have undergone a dazzling liberation.

Path in the Garden of the Asylum by Vincent van Gogh (1889) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

The triumph of distortion

One of the things you can see evolving is his depiction of faces. Early on, he’s not very good. There’s a set of faces of what look like jurymen, as well as individual portraits of working men and women, and often they are either expressionless blocks, or a bit cack-handed, a bit lop-sided. Even the numerous sketches of Sien Hoornik are better at conveying expression through the bent posture of her body, than through facial expressions which are often blurred or ignored.

Similarly, you can’t help noticing that the early landscapes like the avenue of poplars, above, very much lack the suave painterly finish and style of his models (Constable, Millais).

But what happens as you transition into room four – which covers his move to Paris to be near his brother in 1885 – is a tremendous artistic and visual liberation, so that the very wonkiness and imperfections in his draughtmanship which were flaws in the earlier works, are somehow, magically, triumphantly, turned into strengths. The blockiness, the weakness of perspective, the lack of interest in strict visual accuracy, have suddenly been converted into a completely new way of seeing and of building up the image, which feels deeply, wonderfully emotionally expressive.

Sorrowing old man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’) by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Room four makes fleeting reference to the community of like-minded artists he found working around Paris, and in particular to Pissarro, exponent of what was being called neo-Impressionism.

It seems quite obvious that van Gogh was very influenced by the Frenchman’s experiments with chunks and blocks, and spots and dabs and lines of pure colour. The painting above combines the strong formal outlines redolent of the black and white Victorian prints he revered so highly, with a new approach to filling in the outlines – not with a consistent smooth finish à la Millais – but a completely new idea of filling the space with disconnected lines of paint, the artist quite happy to leave blanks between them, quite happy to let us see them as isolated lines all indicating colour and texture.

The curators link this technique back to the cross-hatching used to create volume and shape by the Victorian print-makers and illustrators. So one way of thinking about what happened is that Vincent transferred a technique designed for print making to oil painting. What happens if you don’t create a smooth, finished all-over wash of colour, but deliberately use isolated lines and strokes, playing with the affect that basic, almost elemental short brushstrokes of mostly primal colours, create when placed next to each other.

It has a jazzy effect, creates a tremendous visual vibration and dynamism. the image looks like it is quivering or buzzing.

The Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition

To be honest, by this stage my head was buzzing with the fabulous images of Doré and Fildes and the other British illustrators, and van Gogh’s similarly social realist depictions of the poor, the old, prostitutes and so on and the way the early social realist paintings had morphed into a series of paintings of outdoor landscapes. I felt full to overflowing with information and beauty. But there was a lot more to come.

Suddenly it is 1910 and room five is devoted to the epoch-making exhibition held in London and titled Manet and the Post-Impressionists by the curator Roger Fry. As with Doré’s underground image at the start, the curators have blown up a page from a popular satirical magazine of the time, depicting the dazed response of sensible Britishers to the outlandish and demented art of these foreign Johnnies and their crazed, deformed, ridiculously over-coloured paintings. A number of Vincent’s paintings were included in the show and came in for special scorn from the philistine Brits.

This amusing room signals the start of part two of the show which looks at van Gogh’s posthumous influence on a whole range of native British artists.

This second half is, I think more mixed and of more questionable value than the first half. We know which British artists and illustrators van Gogh liked and admired and collected, because he gave their names and his responses in some detail in his letters.

As to the influence he had after his death, this is perforce far more scattered and questionable. Thus room six introduces us to paintings by Walter Sickert, leader of the Camden Town school (whose work I have always cordially hated for its dingily depressing dark brown murk), to Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (bright Bloomsburyites), and to Matthew Smith, Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman.

The Vineyard by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

It’s impossible to place any of these artists on the same level as Vincent. Amid the sea of so-so also-rans, the scattered examples of works by van Gogh ring out, shout from the walls, proclaim the immensity of his genius, the vibrancy of design, colour and execution. Like an adult among children.

That said, there’s quite a lot of pleasure to be had from savouring these less-well-known British artists for their own sakes. I was particularly drawn to the works of Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore. Here is Gore’s painting of Gilman’s house. It doesn’t have a lot to do with van Gogh, does it, stylistically? Apart from being very brightly coloured.

Harold Gilman’s House at Letchworth, Hertfordshire by Spencer Gore. Courtesy of New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester Arts and Museums Service

Similarly, I really liked Gilman’s picture of the inside of a London caff, focusing on the decorative wallpaper and bright red newel posts, and a sensitive portrait titled Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, 1917. The curators relate this latter painting back to Vincent’s vivid, warts-and-all portraits, which also contain highly decorative elements and stylised wallpaper, a garish brightness which scandalised critics of the 1910 show.

Maybe. It’s a good painting, he conveys the old woman’s character in a sober, unvarnished way and the use of decorative elements is interesting. But only a few yards away is hanging one of five or six drop-dead van Gogh masterpieces of the show, the Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889), and there is absolutely no competition.

Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Hammer Museum collection

Good God, hardly anything you’ve ever seen before explodes with such power and vibrancy as this painting. The brown earth, the green grass, the writhing trees and the very air seem to have burst into flames, to be erupting and leaping with energy, fire, ecstasy, fear, manic force.

Although there are a number of other, milder, more discreet landscapes by Vincent, when he is in this manic mood he wipes everybody else off the table, he dominates the dancefloor, he takes over the room, while the others are playing nice tunes on their recorders, he is like a Beethoven symphony of colour and expression, full of tumult and vision.

The impact of sunflowers

Emotionally and intellectually exhausted? I was. But there’s more. A whole room devoted to sunflowers. Pride of place goes to one of his most famous paintings, the sunflowers of 1888, and I was fascinated to learn from the wall label that van Gogh’s still lifes contributed to a major revival of the art of painting flowers. There are ten or a dozen other paintings of sunflowers around this room, by a whole range of other artists (of whom I remember Winifred and William Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Frank Brangwyn and Jacob Epstein). One of the Brits is quoted as saying that the painting of flowers had been more or less dismissed by the moderns, as having come to a dead end in Victorian tweeness and sentimentality. Until Vincent’s flower paintings were exhibited in the 1920s.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh (1888) © The National Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s flower works showed that flowers could be painted in an entirely new way, blazing with colour and passion, wildly undermining traditional canons of beauty, revealing the passionate secrets implicit in the shapes and patterns of nature.

In a work like this you see a pure example of his exploration of colour for its own sake, a post-Impressionists’ post-Impressionist, the sunflowers not only being a blistering depiction of the flower motif, but a highly sophisticated and daring experiment with all the different tones of yellow available to the artist in 1888. So much to do, so much to paint, so much experience implicit in every fragment of God’s beautiful world!

Van Gogh’s reputation between the wars

By the 1920s van Gogh’s works were being exhibited regularly in Britain and snapped up by private collectors. He became famous. The process was helped hugely by the publication in English translation of his vivid, passionate and tormented letters. The life and the works became inextricably intertwined in the myth of the tortured genius. The curators quote various writers and experts between the wars referring to Vincent’s ‘brilliant and unhappy genius’.

However, this room of his last works makes a simple point. For a long time it was thought that the painting he was working on when he shot himself on 27 July 1890 was ‘Wheatfield With Crows‘. Forests have been destroyed to provide the paper for oceans of black ink to be spilt publishing countless interpretations which read into this fierce and restless image the troubled thoughts which must have been going through the tormented genius’s mind on his last days.

Except that the display in this room says that the most recent research by Vincent scholars have conclusively proven that it was not his last painting. the painting he was working on when he shot himself was a relatively bland and peaceful landscape painting of some old farm buildings.

Farms near Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh (1890) © Tate

The point is – there’s nothing remotely tormented about this image. The aim is – to debunk the myth of the ‘tortured’ artist and replace it with the sane and clear-eyed artist who was, however, plagued by mental illness.

Phantom of the road

This point is pushed home in the final room which examines van Gogh’s reputation in Britain after the Second World War. All his works, along with all other valuable art had been hidden during the war. Now it re-emerged into public display, including a big show at Tate in 1947.

In the post-war climate, in light of the Holocaust and the atom bomb, the legend of the tormented genius took on a new, darker intensity. The curators choose to exemplify this with a raft of blotchy, intense self-portraits by the likes of David Bomberg which, they argue, reference van Gogh’s own striking self portraits.

But this final room is dominated by a series of paintings made by the young Francis Bacon in which he deliberately copies the central motif of a self-portrait Vincent had made of himself, holding his paints and easel and walking down a road in Provence.

Bacon chose to re-interpret this image in a series of enormous and, to my mind, strikingly ugly paintings, three of which dominate one wall of this final room.

Study for portrait of Van Gogh by Francis Bacon (1957) Tate © The Estate of Francis Bacon

They are, in fact, interesting exercises in scale and colour, and also interesting for showing how Bacon hadn’t yet found his voice or brand. And interesting, along with the Bomberg et al in showing how the legend of tormented genius was interpreted in the grim grey era of Austerity Britain.

And they show what a very long journey we have come on – from the young man’s early enthusiasm for Charles Dickens and Gustave Doré right down to his reincarnation as a poster boy for the age of the H-bomb.

A bit shattered by the sheer range of historical connections and themes and ideas and visual languages on show, I strolled back through the exhibition towards its Victorian roots, stopping at interesting distractions on the way (some of Harold Gilman’s works, the big cartoon about the Post-Impressionist show, some Pissarros, the Millais and Constable at the beginning, the wall of Dorés), but in each room transfixed by the one or two blistering masterpieces by the great man.

Even if you didn’t read any of the wall labels or make the effort to understand all the connections, links and influences which the curators argue for, it is still worth paying to see the handful of staggering masterpieces which provide the spine for this wonderful, dazzling, life-enhancing exhibition.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1888) Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo © RMN-Grtand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski

Promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

AI: More than Human @ Barbican

What a fabulously enjoyable funfair of an exhibition, even if it isn’t quite the searching investigation or revealing insight into its subject which the curators hoped it would be.

Do you remember the science fiction exhibition the Barbican put on two years ago, Into The Unknown? It filled the long, narrow, curving exhibition space they call The Curve with loads of sci fi books, magazines and screens showing clips from classic sci fi movies and TV shows (Star Wars, Star Trek etc), along with models of the spaceships, and some of the actual outfits and spacesuits worn by famous sci fi characters. It was geek heaven!

Well, now that whole exhibition looks a bit like the introduction, the part one, to this exhibition’s part two. Where Into The Unknown romped through retro visions of the future, from Jules Vernes and H.G. Wells to 2001 and Blade Runner, AI: More than Human, packs out the same curving exhibition space with a jamboree of interactive gadgets which explore sci fi aspects of the present and the near future, in particular the notion of artificial intelligence or AI for short.

The exhibition space is absolutely crammed with robots large and small, classic movie clips looming down from overhead screens, videos showing the latest AI research in agriculture or undersea exploration, plus a dozen or more games and touch screen programs you can get involved in – the whole busy funfair of exhibits claiming to be an investigation of how artificial intelligence dominates our current existences and will do so more and more in the near future.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing Alter 3: Offloaded Agency (Photo by the author)

For example, there’s a photo booth just like the ones you traditionally get your passport photos from, except that in this one you have to type a word of your own choosing into the instruction pad, then pose for the photo. The booth then generates – from your one word – a unique ‘poem’ which it prints out over the photo it’s taken of you. Prints the pic out for you to show your friends. Emails it to you, if you want to share your email address. The idea is the program running it will slowly build up a database of people’s key words and this will influence the evolution of its poetry-writing skills.

Each section of the long curved exhibition space is marked off with translucent white hangings. One little section is devoted to the fact that a computer program, DeepMind recently beat the world champion at Go, the Chinese board game (it was in 2016). the space includes a big video screen showing the world champion pushing through throngs of admirers while, at waist height is a table containing several monitors showing a Go board and counters. One of these monitors showed the fatal move which stunned the Go champion and the Go world with its unexpected brilliance. On others, I think you were meant to have a go at Go against the computer, if you wanted. Personally, I’ve no idea what the rules of Go are and not much interest in finding out.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing the Go section: a tense Go fan on a screen hanging above the table into which are embedded several monitors showing games of Go. Note the translucent white curtains used through the exhibition (Photo by the author)

In another little alcove I was surprised to come across a couple of two- or three-foot-wide Lego boards. In front of them were a number of ‘wells’ containing Lego pieces of different sizes and colours and behind the bases were screens showing a series of metrics. The idea is to ‘build a city’ using the Lego pieces, and the computer would then sense the design and layout you’ve created and assess its social parameters, such as Quality of Life, Employment, Percentage of Highly Educated and so on. Difficult to see how this information could be generated from a few toy bricks positioned at random. Not easy to see how this would be applied in real-world situations where, presumably, there would already be existing measurements of quality of life, employment rate etc. The whole thing was titled Kreyon City.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing the Kreyon City installation  (Photo by the author)

In a self-contained alcove was an artwork by Stephanie Dinkins which consisted of a black pot with ‘Do not touch’ written on it. being human and not a robot, I immediately wanted to touch it. Behind it, on the wall, was a large video screen showing, when I strolled in, a big picture of a row of ladies’ hats in a hat shop. The visitor assistant manning this little stall apologised and said the installation was broken, so I wandered round the pot and out again, none the wiser.

Paradox 6554 by Stephanie Dinkins at AI: More than Human at the Barbican

Another stand featured a play area a few yards wide on which a cute little robot ‘puppy’ was trotting across till it bumped into one of the raised edges, turned round and trotted off in a other direction. A French TV presenter was very excitedly explaining the point of this cute little toy to his viewers and rolled a red ball towards the puppy which ignored it.

Just beyond the main exhibition space is a row of four black leather chairs set in front of immersive, split computer games screens. You put on headphones and take the console in your hands and then navigate through a computer-generated image based on the architecture of the Barbican itself. As you go downstairs you enter increasingly futuristic fictional environments. Personally, I have never seen the point of computer games and watching my son fritter away a lot of his teenage years holding just such consoles while he eviscerated vast numbers of enemy warriors in Rome Total War or League of Legends has put me off computer games for life. There didn’t appear to be any guns or swords in this game so my son wouldn’t have been interested.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Early on in the show there was a timeline on the wall showing key moments in mankind’s quest to create artificial intelligence, starting sometime around the writing of Frankenstein and carrying through early computer pioneer Ada Lovelace, the famous Alan Turing, through the women who worked at Bletchley Park during the war and on into the modern age of computer research, increasingly carried out in America and Japan, and then onto contemporary digital technology.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing the timeline of computers and AI technology (Photo by the author)

Probably the most dramatic attraction came towards the end and was a life-size robot with a prosthetic head which waves its arms around in front of a large screen showing atmospheric shots of Japanese technicians interacting with it, giving the whole installation a very filmic vibe.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Throughout the exhibition there was a wealth of wall labels briefly addressing issues surrounding artificial intelligence. I give a flavour of these in the précis of the press release, below.

None of them really told me anything I didn’t already know. None of them really told me what artificial intelligence is. I didn’t read all of them, but nowhere did I come across a memorable definition. Instead we were eased into the idea by the opening section which described the medieval idea of the golem, a medieval legend of a human-shaped creature which is created from inanimate matter. its story was told through some Marvel and DC superhero comics and I was immediately distracted by a set of big video screens showing clips from classic 1920s and 30s silent sci fi and horror films.

The whole exhibition felt a bit like that. Consecutive thought was everywhere sacrificed to pop culture and flashy effects. But as I marvelled at the big rack of cogs which was part of one of the decoding machines at Bletchley, or admired the role of women who are often overlooked in official histories of computing, or watched a middle-aged man in what appeared to be a simulator of a racing car, or looked at a miniature greenhouse in which plants were growing whose temperature and humidity etc were all controlled by computer — what began to really forcefully impress itself on me was that possibility that there is no such thing as artificial intelligence.

Sure enough the digital world is now full of algorithms which can predict what you want to buy next or your personality type and so on (if you let them access enough of your personal data). Personally, I don’t have a smart phone and don’t use Facebook, twitter or any other social media, for precisely this reason.

But none of us are likely to escape the increasing use of facial recognition programs and one feature seemed to be able – if you stood in the right position – to do a full body scan of you and tell you what kind of fabric clothes you’re wearing. Right at the entrance to the Barbican was an enormous video screen and, if you stand on a circular manhole-cover-sized pad and jig around, then abstract shapes on the screen perform exactly the same movements, as if a piece of modern sculpture had come to life.

But absolutely none of these clever gadgets has a mind, has purpose or intention or agency. None of these devices can choose what they’re doing, or is in the slightest bit aware that it is a machine performing a function.

Programs which are designed to monitor the data they’re processing and change the program itself in light of that data – self-correcting or improving algorithms – can have dramatic effects, but… none of them amount to anything even remotely resembling intelligence.

They are just very thorough face recognition, or clothes recognition, or Lego recognition, or word recognition programs. In the same way that the big robot at the end which can wave its arms about is a million miles away from being human, from being a self-conscious, aware being.

I wondered if my reaction was just me being jaded and cynical but then I happened to get into conversation with a BBC science journalist and a friend of his, who both know a lot more than me about this area.

They referenced the classic 1974 paper by the philosopher Thomas Nagel titled ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ which, apparently, says that even if bats have something we might call ‘intelligence’, it would be of such a completely different type, evolved to perfectly suit bats and their batty situation, that we wouldn’t recognise it anyway, hopelessly programmed as we are to think solely in terms of human values and goals.

The BBC guy’s friend then referenced the philosopher Peter Singer’s work on animal rights to argue that, even if we ever did manage to create a self-starting, self-directed form of intelligence, would we not then be guilty of slavery? If we created something that genuinely had heart and soul and emotions and yearnings – would we not be immediately duty bound to ‘set it free’?

But even thinking about it like this makes you realise how absurdly far we are from a situation like that. Programs and machines and devices which can mimic our movements and project them up onto video screens – these are fabulous as artworks, but in the end, all I saw at the exhibition was toys, glorified toys.

Mimic (concept), 2018, by Universal Everything. Image courtesy of Universal Everything

I was relieved by this little conversation which confirmed my opinion that the exhibition contains lots of fun fairground attractions, eye-catching news snippets (computer beats Go champion, Steven Hawking signs a petition warning governments against weaponising artificial intelligence), and distracting movie clips (right at the start there’s a screen showing a montage of pretty much every movie in which an android or robot turns on its human makers, from Blade Runner to Ex Machina), and lots of featurettes about self-guiding robots which can explore the bottom of the oceans, or monitor growing conditions in greenhouses — but somehow all this gallimaufrey of festival fun manages not, in the end, to be that penetrating or insightful.

I got talking to one of the curators of the exhibition and asked what one thing she’d learned from the year or more they’d been preparing it. She said, ‘Not to be afraid of AI’.

She said here in the West, there’s a long tradition of fear of robots and computers (fears not allayed, it must be said, by the numerous movie clips of robots strangling people which greet you as you walk in).

But by contrast, she said that one of the curators was Japanese and it had been a real eye-opener for her to see the completely different approach the Japanese have to new technology. Possibly it is because of their Shinto traditions, according to which the world is full of spirits, but the Japanese seem to be more open and receptive to the idea that we are on the verge of developing new types and forms of intelligence. For us in the West, this immediately prompts headlines about Frankenstein. For the Japanese, she said, these new developments are to be welcomed into a world already full of various types of technology.

That was an interesting insight into Japanese culture. But I couldn’t help noticing how she, like all the wall labels and exhibition promo material, said that we are on the verge of a brave new world where there will be trans-humans incorporating digital technology, or cities will run themselves, cars drive themselves and so on and so on.

I was a big fan of science fiction in the 1970s, I watched Tomorrow’s World every week, and they told us then that robots were about to take over all the boring chores of life, that soon cities would be run by computers and that this would usher in The Leisure Society – an age where everything was done for us by smart bots and so the biggest struggle people would have would be finding ways to fill all their leisure time. Everyone would become poets and playwrights and artists. It would be utopia. And what followed all this technological utopianism? The 1980s of Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Robot technologies were introduced in some car manufacturing plants, but they were a drop in the ocean compared to the mass unemployment, social crises, to the Miners Strike and the Poll Tax riots. The failure of the technological utopianism of the 1970s innoculated me for life against believing a word of the prophets of Shiny New Societies until I actually see them.

Meanwhile what I see is the destruction of countless ecosystems, the extermination of species at an unprecedented rate, the irreversible heating of the atmosphere, the poisoning of the oceans, and the new digital technology being used by China to control its population and Russia to launch cyber-attacks on its enemies.

That is the actual existing world which we live in and no sweet little robot puppy or booth which prints rubbish poems over your passport photo or big monitor screens on which shapes dance around mimicing your movements, are going to change it.

What a Loving and Beautiful World

Just like the Into The Unkown exhibition, elements of the show are scattered beyond the Curve, in the entrance space and foyer – where a film is running of a dancer whose movements are copied by sensors and where there’s a tall pulsing sculpture called Totem. But the best thing is downstairs in the space they call The Pit.

Here, in a big square room, a Japanese art collective called teamLab have installed a wonderful thing – projected onto the four walls is a continual slow flow of colour washes, down which move large images of Chinese characters i.e. letters from Chinese script. If you reach out your hand and the shadow of your hand touches one of these characters it gently explodes releasing a plume of images. Thus I reached out and the shadow of my hand touched a Chinese character as it slowly moved down the wall and – it disappeared in a puff of smoke and a covey of brightly coloured birds appeared and started flying round the walls!

If someone else happens to have touched the character for ‘tree’, the birds you’ve released will fly round the walls and go and roost in the tree. Touching another character released a flourish of butterflies which fluttered round the wall. All this is accompanied by a soundtrack of very chilled Oriental music consisting of just a flute and maybe a cymbal or two, very soft, very mellow, very calming.

I’ve been subjected to many interactive installations in my time, but I think this might be the most genuinely interactive, and certainly the most mellow and blissful, I’ve ever experienced. I couldn’t for the life of me, though, see what it had to do with ‘artificial intelligence’. Rather it is just (i say ‘just’ – it is the immensely impressive) use of advanced but still non-conscious, non-self-correcting computer programming.

Installation view of What a Loving, and Beautiful World, part of AI: More than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Thoughts

I went round the exhibition twice and nothing I read on any of the wall labels and none of the interactive exhibits really explained artificial intelligence to me, or the current state of research into artificial intelligence. Instead I was distracted from distractions by more distractions. It was decades ago – 1996 – that IBM’s computer DeepBlue beat world chess master Gary Kasparov at chess. Did it rock my world? Now DeepBlue has beaten the world Go champion. Somehow I can’t get excited.

I couldn’t help thinking that if a metal robot waving its arms around and a cute little plastic puppy are the best that contemporary robotics can come up with, the rest of us have nothing to fear. And, if playing with Lego is the best that AI can offer contemporary architecture, isn’t that rather pitiful?

A major risk with creating an exhibition like this, most of which seems to consist of funky digital art works, is that the artworks hugely distract from the actual, intellectual questions we should be asking.

For example, I saw one little monitor tucked away in a corner with a short wall label describing in a superficial way China’s use of digital and social media to define and control its entire population. This is a massive issue, an absolutely enormous development, with huge ramifications for the way the same kind of system of total digital control might possibly be introduced into the West. But it wasn’t explored or followed through.

There was footage of some researchers who’ve developed some kind of deep sea fish robot which learns about its environment. That’s sweet, but news last week revealed that

A retired naval officer dove in a submarine nearly 36,000ft into the deepest place on Earth, only to find what appears to be plastic waste.

We are, in other words, destroying the planet, laying waste to entire ecosystems, burning up the atmosphere and poisoning the oceans far faster than we can develop any kind of technology to stop it.

Downstairs on the other side of the Barbican from the main show was a bar which has been set up with a robot barperson i.e. a robotic arm, which can mix any cocktail you want from a row of liquor bottles in front of it. Is… is that the best they can do? Are the pubs round where I live ever going to have robot bar staff? No.

One of the exhibits showcases the following project:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), Australian Center for Field Robotics, and NASA present pioneering research that took place in Costa Rican waters on Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Research Vessel Falkor, using the deep sea as a testbed for exploration of Europa – one of Jupiter’s moons.

Do you really think we are ever going to ‘explore’ Jupiter’s moons? And why would we? We are burning up this planet. Shouldn’t absolutely every scrap of scientific research imaginable be going towards devising non-carbon ways of generating energy, storing energy, non-carbon ways to travel and transport food and goods?

I react to projects like these as I react to Elon Musk’s announcements that he is going to fund a manned expedition to Mars, which is: Why? Is he mad? Why isn’t he spending billions trying to save this planet, the one we all live on?

Another exhibit:

With the consequences of climate change growing in scale every year, MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative looks at ensuring our food security for the future with their AI-driven ‘personal computer farms’ that optimise the development of crops in tabletop-sized growing chambers. It hopes to bring controlled agriculture into the household, by gathering crop-growing data from a network of farms and sharing it with the wider public.

‘It hopes to bring controlled agriculture into the household’! In my household we can’t even grow cacti on the windowsill. This is never going to be affordable or practical. Those who are interested already grow vegetables in windowboxes or garden beds or their local allotment.

If this is the best contemporary technology has to offer us, we’re doomed.


A précis of the press release

There is so much to see, and the exhibition itself is just part of a wider Barbican season about life in modern technology, that, in the name of spreading information and enlightenment – and also to give the full, official explanation of some of the exhibits I’ve mentioned above –  I here give a summary of the press release. I’ve highlighted in bold the exhibits I’ve referred to in my review.

AI: More than Human is part of Life Rewired, the Barbican’s 2019 season exploring what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.

It tells the rapidly developing story of AI, from its ancient roots in Japanese Shintoism through Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage’s early experiments in computing, to AI’s major developmental leaps from the 1940s to the present day.

The exhibition features some of the most cutting-edge research projects in the field from DeepMind, Jigsaw, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Computer Science Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (MIT CSAIL), IBM, Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Google Arts and Culture, Google PAIR, Affectiva, Lichtman Lab at Harvard, Eyewire, Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Wyss Institute and Emulate Inc.

The exhibition also features commissions by artists, researchers and scientists Memo Akten, Joy Buolamwini, Certain Measures (Andrew Witt & Tobias Nolte), Es Devlin, Stephanie Dinkins, Justine Emard, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Stefan Hurtig & Detlef Weitz, Hiroshi Ishiguro & Takashi Ikegami, Mario Klingemann, Kode 9, Lawrence Lek, Daito Manabe & Yukiyasu Kamitani, Massive Attack & Mick Grierson, Lauren McCarthy, Yoichi Ochiai, Neri Oxman, Qosmo, Anna Ridler, Chris Salter in collaboration with Sofian Audry, Takashi Ikegami, Alexandre Saunier and Thomas Spier , Sam Twidale and Marija Avramovic, Yuri Suzuki, teamLab and Universal Everything.

The exhibition includes digital media, immersive art installations and a chance for visitors to interact directly with exhibits to experience AI’s capabilities first-hand, to examine the subject from multiple, global perspectives and give visitors the tools to decide for themselves how to navigate our evolving world.

The exhibition asks the big questions: What does it mean to be human? What is consciousness? Will machines ever outsmart a human? And how can humans and machines work collaboratively?

Section 1. The Dream of AI

The exhibition charts the human desire to bring the inanimate to life right back to ancient times, from the religious traditions of Shintoism and Judaism to the mystical science of alchemy.

Artist and electronic musician Kode9 presents a newly commissioned sound installation on the golem. A mythical creature from Jewish folklore, the golem has influenced art, literature and film for centuries from Frankenstein to Blade Runner. Kode9’s audio essay adapts and samples from many of these stories of unruly artificial entities to create an eerie starting point to the exhibition. Stefan Hurtig & Detlef Weitz also look at the golem as well as other artificial life forms and how they are imagined in film and television.

This section explores Japanese animism philosophy, including Shinto food ceremonies and a selection of ancient anthropomorphic Japanese cooking tools, shown for the first time outside Japan. Sam Twidale and Marija Avramovic also look at AI through the lens of Japanese Shinto beliefs to explore notions of animism and techno-animism in Sunshowers.

Doraemon – one of the best known Japanese manga animations – will also be on display, exploring its influence on the philosophy of robotics and technology development.

Section 2. Mind Machines

This section explains how AI has developed through history from the early innovators who tried to convert rational thought into code, to the creation of the first neural network in the 1940s, which copied the brain’s own processes, going on to show how this has developed into machine learning – when an AI is able to learn, respond and improve by itself.

It includes some of the most important moments and figures in AI’s history:

  • computing pioneers Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage
  • Claude Shannon’s experimental games
  • Alan Turing’s groundbreaking efforts to decipher code in World War II
  • Deep Blue vs chess champion Garry Kasparov
  • IBM’s Watson, who beat a human on US gameshow, Jeopardy! in 2011
  • DeepMind’s AlphaGo, which became the first computer to defeat a professional in the complex Chinese strategy game Go in 2016, including an in-depth explanation of the surprising Move 37 – a turning point in the history of AI, that shocked the world

This section also looks at how AI sees images, understands language and moves, as artificial intelligence developed beyond the brain to the body. Projects on display include MIT CSAIL’s SoFi – a robotic fish that can independently swim alongside real fish in the sea and Sony’s 2018 robot puppy, aibo, who uses its database of memories and experiences to develop its own personality.

Google PAIR’s project Waterfall of Meaning is a poetic glimpse into the interior of an AI, showing how a machine absorbs human associations between words.

Artist Mario Klingemann’s piece Circuit Training invites visitors to take part in teaching a neural network to create a piece of art. Visitors will first help create the data set by allowing the AI to capture their image, then select from the visuals produced by the network, to teach it what they find interesting. The machine is constantly learning from this human interaction to create an evolving piece of live art.

In Myriad (Tulips), artist Anna Ridler looks at the politics and process of using large datasets to produce a piece of art. Inspired by ‘tulip-mania’ – the financial craze for tulip bulbs that swept across the Netherlands in the 1630s, she took 10,000 photographs of tulips and categorised them by hand, revealing the human aspect that sits behind machine learning. Her second piece Mosaic Virus uses this data set to create a video work generated by an AI, which shows a tulip blooming, an updated version of a Dutch still life for the 21st Century.

Myriad (Tulips) by Anna Ridler atAI: More Than Human. Image credit: Emily Grundon, 2019

Section 3. Data Worlds

At the heart of the main exhibition in The Curve is Data Worlds. This section examines AI’s capability to improve commerce, change society and enhance our personal lives. It looks at AI’s real-life application in fields such as healthcare, journalism and retail.

Affectiva, the leader in Human Perception AI, will demonstrate how AI can improve road safety and the transportation experience, through a driving arcade game during which Affectiva’s AI will track drivers’ emotions and reactions as they encounter different situations.

In Sony CSL’s Kreyon City, visitors plan and build their own city out of LEGO and learn how the combination of human creativity and AI could represent a promising tool in major architecture and infrastructure decisions.

Lauren McCarthy’s experiment to become a human version of a smart home intelligence system explores the tensions between intimacy vs privacy, convenience vs the agency they present, and the role of human labour in the future of automation.

Qosmo’s sound artwork creates a dialogue between human and machine by inviting visitors to make music together with AI.

Nexus Studios have produced a series of interactive works that demonstrate how AI works. Visitors can opt to be classified by an AI, revealing how the computer interprets their image. Nexus Studios have collaborated with artist Memo Akten to present Learning to See, which allows visitors to manipulate everyday objects to illustrate how a neural network trained on a specific data set can be fooled into seeing the world as a painting. It can see only what it already knows, just like us.

Data Worlds also addresses important ethical issues such as bias, control, truth and privacy.

Scientist, activist and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, Joy Buolamwini, examines racial and gender bias in facial analysis software. As a graduate student, Joy found an AI system detected her better when she was wearing a white mask, prompting her research project Gender Shades. This project uncovered the bias built in to commercial AI in gender classification showing that facial analysis technology AI has a heavy bias towards white males. In parallel to this, Joy wrote AI, Ain’t I A Woman – a spoken word piece that highlights the ways in which artificial intelligence can misinterpret the images of iconic black women.

Joy Buolamwini /The Algorithmic Justice League at MIT Media Lab, part of AI: More Than Human. Image credit: Jimmy Day/MIT Media Lab

Section 4. Endless Evolution

The final section of the exhibition looks at the future of our species and envisions the creation of new species, reflecting on the laws of ‘nature’ and how artificial forms of life fit into this. A newly commissioned set of interviews will discuss themes of the future through the eyes of visionary thinkers.

Massive Attack mark the 20th anniversary of their landmark album Mezzanine by encoding the album in strands of synthetic DNA in a spraypaint can – a nod towards founding member and visual artist Robert del Naja’s roots as the pioneer of the Bristol Graffiti scene. Each spray can contains around one million copies of Mezzanine-encoded ink. The project highlights the need to find alternative storage solutions in a data-driven world, with DNA as a real possibility to store large quantities of data in the future.

Mezzanine will also be at the centre of a new sound composition – a co-production between Massive Attack and machine. Robert Del Naja is working with Mick Grierson at the Creative Computing Institute at University of the Arts London (UAL), students from UAL and Goldsmith’s College, and Andrew Melchior of the Third Space Agency to create a unique piece of art that highlights the remarkable possibilities when music and technology collide. The album will be fed into a neural network and visitors will be able to affect its sound by their actions and movements, with the output returned in high definition.

This section includes Alter 3, created by roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro and Kohei Ogawa with artificial life researcher Takashi Ikegami and Itsuki Doi. With a body of a bare machine and a genderless, ageless face, Alter learns and matures through an interplay with the surrounding world.

Justine Emard’s piece Co(AI)xistence explores a communication between different forms of intelligences: human and machine. Through signals, body movements and spoken language, she created the interaction between Alter and Mirai Moriyama, a Japanese performer. Using a deep learning system, Alter learns from his experiences and the two try to define new perspectives of co-existence in the world. (So this explains the film running on the big screen behind the robot waving its arms around.)

Stephanie Dinkins’s new work Not The Only One is the multigenerational memoir of one black American family with which visitors can have conversations and ask questions, continuing her ongoing dialogue around AI and race, gender and aging. As society becomes more reliant on artificial intelligence, many voices are left out of the creation of these systems and bias and discrimination can be encoded in AI systems. In Not The Only One, the AI is trained with the needs and ideals of races which are under-represented in the tech sector.

Architect, designer and MIT Professor Neri Oxman presents ongoing projects from her research lab, The Mediated Matter Group at MIT.

The Synthetic Apiary explores the possibility of a controlled space in which seasonal honeybees can produce honey all year round. A large scale investigation into the cultivation of bees and their behaviour has huge implications for the future of the human race, due to the massive decline in bees worldwide over recent years.

Mediated Matter Synthetic Apairy Honeybee Hive in the Synthetic Apiary environment, part of AI: More Than Human at Barbican © The Mediated Matter Group

In an era when we can engineer genomes and design life, Vespers, explores what it means to design (with) life. From the relic of the ancient death mask to the design and digital fabrication of an adaptive and responsive living mask, the project points towards an imminent future where wearable interfaces and building skins are customised not only to fit a particular shape, but also a specific material, chemical and even genetic make-up, tailoring the wearable to both the body and the environment which it inhabits.

For the first time in the UK, Japanese media artist Yoichi Ochiai presents projects from his research lab, Digital Nature, including an artificial butterfly.

Resurrecting The Sublime by Christina Agapakis of Ginkgo Bioworks, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, and Sissel Tolaas, brings back the smell of flowers made extinct through human activity. The creation of these smells asks questions about our relationship with nature and the decisions we make as a species.

Japanese art and technology specialist Daito Manabe from Rhizomatiks and neuroscientist Yukiyasu Kamitani present Dissonant Imaginary, a research art project that investigates the relationship between sound and images. Using brain decoding technology facilitated by fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to generate imagery visualised from brain activity data that changes according to sound, the project seeks to recreate the vivid emotional imagery that can be conjured when listening to a film soundtrack or nostalgic music and foresees a future in which music and visuals may directly interact with the brain as a new medium.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), Australian Center for Field Robotics, and NASA present pioneering research that took place in Costa Rican waters on Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Research Vessel Falkor, using the deep sea as a testbed for exploration of Europa – one of Jupiter’s moons.

With the consequences of climate change growing in scale every year, MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative looks at ensuring our food security for the future with their AI-driven ‘personal computer farms’ that optimise the development of crops in tabletop-sized growing chambers. It hopes to bring controlled agriculture into the household, by gathering crop-growing data from a network of farms and sharing it with the wider public. Strategic design firm Method display their own take on the concept by using upcycled materials and a modular design to build a durable DIY Food Computer.

This section also looks at the research labs using AI to revolutionise healthcare. Lichtman Lab at Harvard and Eyewire both look at mapping the brain in their research projects and the implications this could have for our health. Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is engineering tissues and organs made from human cells in the lab. Wyss Institute and Emulate, Inc. present their human Organs-on-Chips technology that contain tiny hollow channels lined with living human cells and tissues, opening up new understanding of how different diseases, medicines, chemicals, and foods affect human health and potentially changing the way drugs are developed forever.

The exhibition ends with a short film produced by Mark Gorton, Visionaries, which lets thinkers and experts Danielle George, Amy Robinson Sterling, Kanta Dihal, Yoichi Ochiai, Francesca Rossi and Andrew Hessel speak about their vision of singularity and the future.

Installation view of AI: More Than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Level G

A series of new commissions run across the Barbican’s Level G spaces throughout the exhibition.

Digital art and design collective Universal Everything take over the Barbican’s main Silk Street entrance hall to create a new installation, Future You, where visitors can interact with an AI version of themselves. Large digital avatars mimic visitors’ movements onscreen. When the exhibition opens, the character begins in primitive, childlike form and evolves throughout the exhibition’s run, as it learns new ergonomic abilities.

Chris Salter’s piece Totem, in collaboration with Sofian Audry, Takashi Ikegami, Alexandre Saunier and Thomas Spier, is a large-scale, dynamic installation that uses sensing and machine learning to inform its patterns, rhythm and behaviour that will give the installation a feeling of a living, breathing entity.

Lawrence Lek’s open-world video game 2065 is set in a speculative future, when advanced automation means that people no longer have to work and can spend all day playing video games and art is indistinguishable from gaming. Integrating the architecture of the Barbican Curve into the virtual world, players are invited to play the role of an AI to imagine what life might be like in future years.

Artist and designer Es Devlin’s PoemPortraits is a social sculpture that brings together art, design, poetry and machine learning; it has been created in collaboration with Google Arts and Culture and Ross Goodwin. Each visitor will be invited to donate a single word to the piece. This word will be instantly incorporated into a two-line poem generated by an algorithm trained on 20 million words of poetry. This poem will form the photographic flash that illuminates each unique PoemPortrait. The work is cumulative; each poem will also include a word donated by another visitor. At the end of the exhibition, a collective PoemPortrait will be generated from everyone’s contributions: a trace of this transient social sculpture.

Inspired by Raymond Scott’s Electronium machine, Yuri Suzuki’s Digital Electronium gives visitors the chance to input sounds to create a changing soundscape through AI and algorithms.

A Machine View of London, a video work by Certain Measures (Andrew Witt and Tobias Nolte), presents an AI categorising and mapping the shapes of the one million buildings in London. This project is one of their series of FormMaps, an ongoing architectural research project that aims to compare and create a complete catalogue of building patterns from cities around the world.

The exhibition chatbot

To support the exhibition and widen the conversations around artificial intelligence, the Barbican worked with marketing technology agency, Byte, to create a chatbot aimed at stimulating conversations around the role of AI within society. Appearing on the Barbican’s website and Facebook page, the chatbot gives people the chance to engage further with the role of AI tech within different cultural arenas. Opening with a definition of AI, the chatbot develops the conversation around four themes reflected in the exhibition – Why are you afraid of AI? Does data discriminate? Who’s driving the car? And What makes us human?

Curators

The exhibition was created and produced by Barbican International Enterprises, with guest curators Dr Suzanne Livingston and Maholo Uchida.


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich (1988)

Viscount Norwich

As his own website explains:

John Julius, 2nd Viscount Norwich, was born on 15 September 1929, the son of the statesman and diplomat Alfred Duff Cooper (1st Viscount) and the Lady Diana Cooper. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer.

Could it be possible to be more posh? Norwich died  last year. He had written or edited about thirty books, the major ones being histories of the Mediterranean, of Sicily, of Venice and of Byzantium. The volume under review is the first of the trilogy of popular histories which continues with Byzantium: The Apogee (1992) and Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (1995).

Byzantium: The Early Centuries is divided into 18 action-packed chapters, which take us from the family background of the Emperor Constantine (reigned in the 320s and 330s) through to the Empress Irene (775 to 802) i.e. up to about the time of Charlemagne whose coronation in Rome on Christmas Day 800 marks a watershed in European history.

The book comes with handy extras like maps of all the relevant territory, family trees of the complex imperial families, a list of emperors and – nice touch, this – a list of sites in present-day Istanbul which date from the Byzantine Empire and which tourists can still visit today.

Highlights

It was the Emperor Diocletian who decided to split the empire in two, appointing a fellow emperor to rule the West in 293 while Diocletian concentrated on the East, securing the whole of the current Middle East round to Egypt against attack from the Persian Empire, while also guarding the frontier along the river Danube.

It was the Emperor Constantine who founded the new eastern capital of Constantinople, basing it on the existing small Greek town of Byzantium. By the late 300s the Roman Empire was under pressure from barbarians pushing at all its borders, leading to a complex series of wars, alliances, betrayals and defeats. In the 390s the western emperors had moved their court to Milan in northern Italy, closer to the centre of western Europe, and in 402 moved on again to the town of Ravenna, thought to be more defensible because it was situated behind a network of marshes which could only be crossed by a couple of narrow causeways.

The scholar Emperor Julian reigned for 18 months during which he tried to reinstitute paganism across the Empire, closing Christian churches, subsidising the great temples, attending countless pagan ceremonies, all with little effect, until he died from a spear wound incurred during his fruitless invasion of the Persian Empire, in 363. With his death went the last hopes of reviving paganism and, during the reign of Theodosius (379-395), the old religion was banned, temples closed and Christianity made the official and compulsory state religion.

The various barbarian incursions led up to the reign of terror of Attila the Hun (434-453). During this period the Empire suffered a series of military blows and by the time of Attila’s death, Britain had been abandoned (410), the Franks had taken over Gaul, Gothic tribes had settled in Spain and the western half of north Africa – the Empire’s breadbasket – had been seized and settled by the Vandals. Norwich gives a relatively brief account of Attila, which can, however, be supplemented by reference to Christopher Kelly’s recent book.

The next major figure is the Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 to 565, and launched expeditions to reconquer North Africa, then to seize back Italy, before being distracted by incursions from the newly warlike Persian Empire, as well as reeling from major outbreaks of plague which decimated the population from the 540s onwards. All his clever schemes came to nothing and he left the Eastern Empire bankrupt.

Norwich devotes more space to Justinian than any other emperor (pages 190 to 263) in an account which I found profoundly depressing. Specifically, as regards the career of his top general, Belisarius, who slaved away for the emperor devotedly but was hampered at every turn by the scheming of the Empress Theodora. It is profoundly lowering to see such a talent so hamstrung, and gives a powerful sense of the self-defeating futility of palace intrigues which raged on while the empire was collapsing around them.

But, on a different level, it is also depressing to see in some detail how Justinian’s ‘noble’ campaign to reclaim Italy from the Gothic rulers who had overthrown the last Western emperor in 476 (the so-called Gothic Wars which lasted a generation, from 535 to 554) was also in the end so self-defeating.

Belisarius’s military campaign amounted to besieging most of the major cities and devastating the countryside his troops had to live off; but when he was recalled to Constantinople, management of the country was handed over to a cabal of greedy incompetents who taxed Italy to the hilt, continued plundering all available settlements while turning tail and running every time the Goths threatened to counter-attack.

The upshot was that most Italians came to hate the Greek Byzantine army and its rapacious administrators much more than the Goths, and both were happy when a new tribe, the Lombards, swarmed into the peninsula in the 560s, eliminating both their predecessors and quickly establishing kingdoms throughout Italy.

Heraclius

There is a similar tragic, or just depressing, downward spiral to the reign of Heraclius (610-641). Heraclius was appointed exarch (ruler/manager) of Carthage in the comprehensive reorganisation of the Eastern Empire carried out by the Emperor Maurice (582 to 602). Maurice (a wise and efficient ruler, according to Norwich) was overthrown and executed along with six of his sons in a coup carried out by a general, Phocas. Their heads (and this happens over and over again in this history) were impaled on spikes and put on display in Constantinople.

Phocas was a populist, but when he met resistance he responded with brutality. Under his rule the Danube borders were breached by Avars (yet another barbarian tribe) while the ruler of Persia, who had concluded a truce with Maurice, used Phocas’s rebellion as an opportunity to relaunch the semi-permanent Persian War and seize territory round to Egypt in the south and as far into Asia Minor as Antioch.

It was this growing chaos around the Empire which prompted Heraclius to raise the standard of rebellion against Phocas in Carthage and sail slowly to Constantinople, securing his supply routes and islands along the way. By the time Heraclius arrived at the capital, the army, politicians and religious leaders were all ready to abandon the tyrant. Phocas was dragged before Heraclius and then, rather rashly, insulted him to his face. So Heraclius had Phocas beheaded on the spot, his body was mutilated, paraded through the capital and burned.

After this grim start Heraclius settles down to become a great emperor, reorganising the Empire’s finances and defences, seeking a solution to the endless problem of the monophysite heresy which plagued and divided the Empire, and latterly embarking on a spectacularly successful campaign against the Persians, scoring a series of decisive victories which eventually led to the overthrow of the latter’s great leader, Chosroes II. If Heraclius had died in 628, he would have gone down as one of the great emperors for administrative reforms and military successes.

However, he lived into the first decade of the Rise of Islam. In 622 Mohammed had fled from Mecca to Medina, marking the start of the Muslim era. In 633 Mohammed died and his followers, tightly organised and enthused with fanatical fervour, swept out of Arabia to conquer the Middle East. Part of the reason for their early success was that twenty years of gruelling warfare had shattered the region and exhausted its two great powers, Byzantium and Persia. Into this vacuum swept the Muslims.

Just as importantly, most of the region’s inhabitants were ‘monophysites’. This was the Christian heresy which believed that Jesus Christ had only one ‘nature’, that the godhead and the human being were united. Taken to a logical extreme, this implied that God actually died on the Cross, which is an obvious theological nonsense. This explains why a series of Church Councils declared ‘monophysitism’ to be a heresy, and affirmed the ‘Catholic’ position that Jesus had two distinct ‘natures’, united in one ‘person’ i.e. the human who died but the godhead which remained eternal. But these were subtle differences, difficult for many people to grasp. And it’s a consistent thread of the book that there was a big difference in theology between the Latin West and the Greek East of the Empire.

For the East was a hotbed of theological debate, packed with fiery bishops, monks, preachers and heretics all disputing a wide range of subtle variations of Christian belief, and it took centuries to hammer out an ‘orthodox’ creed, and try to put down the opposing ‘heresies’.

And this is why, historians argue, on the level of personal belief, the Arabs’ extremely simple, practical monotheism (‘There is only one god, Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet’) appealed to much of a population exhausted by centuries of conflict caused by Christian heresies. The Muslims swept north to Damascus and south through Egypt, conquering vast areas which were never to be Christian again.

So Heraclius’s last decade was spent watching everything he had planned and fought for – territory reclaimed from the Persians and Christian unity – destroyed before his very eyes. Prematurely aged and sick, he began to deteriorate mentally, developed a phobia of water and brutally punished those he suspected of conspiring against him (ordering the noses and hands of his nephew Theodosius and his bastard son Athanaric to be cut off) before passing away, a senile and disappointed old man who’d lived on into a new era.

The Middle Ages

Historians like drawing lines and defining eras. This book is no exception and joins the host of others which variously claim that the Middle Ages started with the death of Theodosius the Great (395), with the Sack of Rome (410), with the overthrow of the last Western Emperor (476), with the death of Justinian (565), and so on.

For me, the lesson of this book, as of Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, is that it is the arrival of the Muslims on the world stage which marks the decisive break. All the other moments are part of a continuum of Roman rule or semi-rule or detached rule or vicarious rule (i.e. allowing barbarians to rule ‘in the name of’ the emperor etc).

But when the Middle East, Egypt and the entire African coast were lost to Islam that was it. A clean and definitive break had been made with the cultural unity of the Mediterranean, which lasts to the present day. Surely it is the advent of Islam which decisively marks the start of the Middle Ages.


Thoughts

1. Great men

This is a beautifully written, very fluent and entertaining account but it is very much a history of emperors. It takes for granted that a history of this subject will be a history of Great Men. That there are other perspectives is demonstrated by Peter Brown’s history of Late Antiquity which features the emperors, of course, but also captures a lot about the changing economic and social scene, or a book like Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity which gives a thrilling sense of the changing political and social background of the period.

2. Murder and massacre

Not just about Great Men but about their Great Quarrels. The history of Byzantium is presented as a succession of power struggles and features an extraordinary amount of double-dealing, treachery and murder. And that’s just in Constantine the Great’s family – e.g. in 326 Constantine had his eldest son, Crispus, and then his own wife, the Empress Faustina, executed, no-one quite knows why, maybe to impress on his underlings that he had no hesitation whatsoever about keeping complete control of the empire in his own hands. (An incident which later Christians, who wanted to declare Constantine a saint, found tricky to explain away.)

The book includes a family tree of the families of Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian and Theodosius, and I struck out in pencil the name of everyone in the trees who died an unnatural death (murder, execution, assassination, forced ‘suicide’) and it turns out to be by far the majority. In fact I made a pencil mark in the text wherever someone eminent met with an unnatural death, and there’s one on every page.

One of the clichés of later Byzantine history is the idea that it is dense with convoluted palace politics, plots and poisoning – but this book demonstrates very clearly that this culture was simply a continuation (and maybe an intensification) of established Roman imperial practice. When I was young I think I found all the poison and bloodshed thrilling, but now I find it a depressing indictment of human beings’ endless capacity for cruelty and deceit.

3. A clearer understanding of key events

It’s difficult to pick out themes in a 400-page book so dense with historical incident, but I was grateful to it for giving a detailed account of at least two events which, as a result, I properly understood for the first time: Alaric and the Visigoths’ Sack of Rome (410 AD) and the overthrow of the last Roman Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus (476 AD) both of them dates which every ‘schoolboy’ is supposed to know by heart, though I wonder how many modern schoolboys have even heard of them.

The sack of Rome

The thing to grasp about the barbarian leaders is that they rarely wanted to seize or overthrow Imperial power: they generally wanted recognition and high rank within the Roman system, and land for their followers to settle on.

Thus the king of the Visigoths, Alaric I, began his career leading his Goths as mercenaries within the Roman army. In 394 Alaric led a Gothic force of 20,000 that helped the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius defeat the Frankish usurper Arbogast at the Battle of Frigidus. But disappointed at getting little recognition or reward, Alaric left the Roman army and marched toward Constantinople. He was confronted by Roman forces and so decoyed southward into Greece, where he sacked Piraeus and destroyed Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta. A bit belatedly, the Eastern emperor Flavius Arcadius appointed Alaric magister militum (master of the soldiers) in Illyricum and Alaric stopped his rampage. Like Attila and Odoacer after him, the ravaging was a form of negotiating strategy.

In 401 Alaric invaded Italy but was defeated by the Roman general (of Vandal descent) Stilicho at Pollentia in 402. A second invasion that same year also ended in defeat at the Battle of Verona, though Alaric forced the Roman Senate to pay a large subsidy to the Visigoths. Stilicho had emerged during this decade as the most powerful man in Italy, which is why it was a fatal mistake when the Western Emperor Flavius Honorius had Stilicho and his family executed, on trumped up charges of making secret deals with Alaric.

Honorius then did something even more stupid and caved in to many Romans’ pent-up frustration with the way their country was held to ransom by so many barbarian tribes. Honorius ordered a co-ordinated massacre of tens of thousands of wives and children of the foederati (allied) Goths serving in the Roman military. As a result some 30,000 Gothic soldiers defected to Alaric, who now marched on Rome to avenge their murdered families.

In classic style, Alaric sacked Aquileia and Cremona and ravaged towns along the Adriatic Sea before arriving to lay siege to Rome in September 408. Alaric blocked off all points of entry to the city which quickly began to starve. As Christmas approached the first cases of cannibalism were reported. Finally the Senate granted him a substantial subsidy of (i.e. bought him off with) 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 hides of dyed scarlet and 3,000 pounds of pepper.

Alaric ended the siege of Rome and marched north to Rimini where he met envoys from Honorius and demanded the Roman territories of Venetia, Dalmatia and Noricum in which to settle, plus subsidies to feed his people in exchange for which Alaric pledged loyalty to the emperor and to defend Italy against any enemy. These were generous terms but Honorius like an idiot refused them. Alaric reduced his request to just the (ravaged) province of Noricum on the Danube. Once again Honorius refused and so, incensed, Alaric marched his army back to Rome and invested it for a second time, making clear that his aim wasn’t the sack of the city but the removal of Honorius.

The Senate quickly agreed, opened the gates to Alaric and he entered Rome in peace. The Senate declared Honorius (who all this time had been holed up in well-defended Ravenna in the north) no longer emperor and replaced him with the Prefect of the city, one Priscus Attalus, who promptly appointed Alaric his magister militum.

The first thing on Alaric’s mind was the control of North Africa – the breadbasket of Rome – by Heraclian. Alaric wanted to despatch an army to Africa to seize the province. But Attalus insisted on diplomacy and sent an envoy to Heraclian who was promptly murdered. Alaric badgered Attalus who refused to give a Goth army permission to invade a Roman province, and the Senate backed him up. At this point Honorius, who had been sending panic-stricken letters to Attalus asking to be given official control of Ravenna, received an unexpected boost in the shape of ships from Constantinople carrying some 40,000 troops sent by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Emboldened, Honorius announced his intent of marching against the Visigoths.

Infuriated at being blocked and threatened at every turn, Alaric summoned Attalus to Rimini and ritually stripped him of the imperial diadem and purple cloak. Then he marched on Rome for the third and final time determined to make his supremacy and will absolutely clear. After a brief siege he forced a gate and entered Rome, giving his troops license for three days of looting and pillaging.

Although the Visigoths plundered Rome, they treated its inhabitants humanely and burned only a few buildings. They were –  it is worth emphasising, as were most of the so-called barbarians – actually devout Christians themselves, albeit of a variety – Arianism – which had been declared heretical in the previous century.

(Arius was an Alexandrian priest who lived from around 250 to 336. He took Jesus’s teachings that he was the son of God, literally, asserting that the son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither ‘coeternal’ nor ‘consubstantial’ with the Father. This makes Jesus a more human figure, and his story more tragic, but fatally undermines the orthodox doctrine of the equality of the three persons of the Trinity. The orthodox view that the three parts of the Trinity are eternally co-valent and consubstantial was hammered out at the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), and hence is sometimes referred to as Nicene or Chalcedonian Christianity. Early missionaries to the barbarian tribes beyond the border happen to have been Arians and so converted the majority of the tribes to this ‘heresy’. When the Arian barbarians overran parts of the Western Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries, they brought their Arian beliefs with them, though they were generally tolerant of the Nicene inhabitants of the lands they conquered. It has been suggested that, for some time – centuries – the Arian heresy helped differentiate between Gothic overlords and Roman inhabitants. Whether this was so or not, the strength of the orthodoxy of the church of Rome and the Eastern Empire eventually overcame Arianism and the last Arian kings in Europe were Grimwald, King of the Lombards 662 to 671, and his young son, Garibald, 671.)

After pillaging Rome, Alaric marched his men south, planning to take ship to Africa and deal once and for all with Heraclian in order to gain control of Italy’s grain supply. At Cosenza he was taken with a fever and was dead in a few days.

So:

a) The sack was the result of a very complicated series of diplomatic and military manoeuvres, involving, by the end, three emperors – Honorius, Theodosius II, Attalus – as well as the military strong-men Stilicho and Heraclian.

b) To a surprising extent the sack was the Romans’ own fault:

  • the stupidity of Honorius in executing the only man who could hold Alaric at bay – Stilicho
  • Honorius’s refusal to grant Alaric’s demands when they were eminently reasonable
  • the refusal of Attalus or the Senate to let Alaric sail off to Africa (which would, at the very least, have got him off Italian soil and bought them time)

c) All of which underscores a remark Norwich makes somewhere in the first half about the quality of the Roman army. The Empire equalled the army: strong army, strong empire. None of the books I’m reading on the subject really tackle this issue head on. Why did the Roman army deteriorate? Why by the 390s and 400s was it incapable of confronting and beating Alaric? The same but worse occurred during the time of Attila the Hun (430s to 450s) when all the Roman army could do was shadow Attila’s rampages. What changed between, say, 200 AD and 400 AD which made the Roman Army so fatefully weak?

(As a footnote, Alaric’s death so soon after sacking Rome became a useful tool to later protectors of the Holy City. Priscus reports that when Pope Leo I rode out to meet Attila the Hun who was rampaging south to take Rome in 452, the superstitious barbarian only had to be told/reminded of the fate of Alaric to decide to call off his assault.)

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

The overthrow of ‘the last Roman Emperor’ (in the West)

The last generation of emperors in the West make for a sorry story as one barbarian overlord after another sponsored puppet ’emperors’ in what had become the Western Imperial capital, at Ravenna, in north-east Italy.

In 474 the Eastern Emperor Leo I appointed Julius Nepos Western Roman Emperor. This was to replace the ruling emperor Glycerius, who Leo regarded as a usurper. (Julius is called ‘nepos’ (nephew) because he was married to Leo’s wife’s niece.)

When Julius arrived in Italy in June 474, Glycerius promptly surrendered, was spared by Julius and packed off to become bishop of Salona. But Julius only ruled over what was left of the Western Empire (now more or less reduced to mainland Italy) for less than a year. In 475 he appointed magister militum (leader of soldiers) the experienced general, Orestes. (Orestes in fact has a fascinating backstory: having been born and bred in Pannonia, he remained when the territory was ceded to Attila the Hun in the 440s and found himself appointed Attila’s secretary and ambassador.) This turned out to be a mistake, for in August 475 Orestes marched on the Western capital, Ravenna, prompting Julius to flee to Dalmatia (modern Yugoslavia) where he carried on regarding himself as the legal emperor until (typically for the times) he was assassinated in 480.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Orestes didn’t claim the imperial crown but appointed his 12-year-old son Romulus, emperor. Technically this gave him the title Romulus Augustus, which cynics at the time changed to Romulus Augustulus i.e. ‘little Augustus’. The Eastern emperor Zeno, unsurprisingly, refused to recognise Romulus as Western Emperor – although there was little he could do about the situation, since he was himself engaged in a full-scale civil war with his own Eastern rival, Basiliscus.

Romulus himself ‘ruled’ i.e. did what his father told him, for just ten months, for Orestes turned out to be as unlucky / stupid as Julius. The army he had led to Ravenna mostly consisted of barbarian mercenaries. When Orestes refused their demands for up to a third of the land area of Italy to settle in, they simply mutinied against him, appointing the Germanic Odoacer their new king, on August 23, 476.

Odoacer led the barbarian army on a rampage through every town and village in northern Italy, pursuing Orestes to Pavia, where the bishop gave him sanctuary, but he had to flee again when the Germans broke through the city defenses and ravaged the church, razing many of the city buildings to the ground.

Orestes rallied the remnants of a Roman army and engaged the barbarians outside Piacenza, where the Romans were slaughtered, Orestes captured and executed. A few weeks later Ravenna was captured and Romulus Augustus was deposed. Legend has it that Odoacer’s heart was softened when he had the young boy brought before him, so he spared his life and sent him into permanent retirement in the Campania. Nothing more is known of lucky Romulus Augustulus.

More interestingly – and counter-intuitively, but something which these barbarian conquerors repeatedly did – Odoacer was then happy to submit to the authority of the Eastern Emperor Zeno, asking to be granted the official status of patrician of Rome and to rule as administrator of Italy in Zeno’s name. Although we see them, with hindsight, fatally undermining Roman authority, the major players of the time all still saw themselves acting within the Empire and seeking ultimate authority for their rule from it.

(History doesn’t stop. The overthrow of Romulus looks to us like a hugely significant event, but the rulers of the day carried on fighting each other as if nothing had changed. Julius Nepos continued styling himself the Augustus of the West from his stronghold in Dalmatia, and when he was murdered in 480 Odoacer used it as a pretext to invade Dalmatia and punish the murderers (and annex the territory). Odoacer then foolishly decided to ally with the Eastern general, Illus, in the latter’s attempt to overthrow the Eastern Emperor Zeno in 484. Zeno retaliated by appointing the Ostrogoth ruler, Theoderic the Great, who had been menacing Constantinople, King of Italy, thus motivating him to attack Odoacer. Theoderic invaded Italy in 489 and by August 490 had captured almost the entire peninsula, forcing Odoacer to take refuge in Ravenna. The city surrendered on 5 March 493. Theoderic invited Odoacer to a banquet of reconciliation and promptly killed him by, according to our sources, walking up to him at the banquet table, drawing his sword and cleaving his body in two, from collarbone to waist. And thus perished the man who showed mercy to Romulus.)

Conclusion

These two stories (just two from hundreds of similar events) give a good flavour of this long, beautifully written history, which can only be described as ‘entertaining’ if you find the relentless description of high-level power politics, military strategy, court intrigue and endless battles entertaining.

As it happens, I do – but I can also see how the inexorable saga of conspiracy, war and violent death on almost every page could put a lot of people off.

The Biggest Idea

In the 670s a Muslim fleet under the Caliph Muawiya laid siege to Constantinople and tried for five years to break into the city from the sea. They persisted despite repeated Greek counter-attacks which deployed the secret weapon known as Greek fire (a kind of napalm). After five long years of losses, the Caliph admitted defeat and ordered his fleet home (and the fleet was caught in a storm on the way, and further depleted). At the same time his land forces had been harassed by the so-called Mardaites, freebooting Christian marauders who spread south from Syria to wage a relentless guerrilla war against Muslim forces, as far south as Jerusalem. Demoralised by the combination of these setbacks, in 679 the Caliph accepted defeat and made terms with the Emperor Constantine IV, handing back the Aegean islands he had seized and agreeing to pay the emperor an annual tribute.

Thus, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV had halted the Muslim progress into Europe, the first real setback in the hitherto unstoppable spread of Muslim forces. It was a decisive moment, and in reward he received grateful thanks from many former enemies: the Khagan of the Avars, the Slav tribal leaders in the Balkans, the Lombard and Frankish princes of the West.

By holding the line at Constantinople Constantine IV ensured the Muslims would only be able to enter Europe via Spain, forcing them to stretch their lines of communication to breaking point along the whole north coast of Africa, then up across Iberia so that their progress via this route would be halted at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. These far-off and, to most people unknown, events had vast historical significance. As Norwich comments:

Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – and America – might be Muslim today. (p.325)


Related links

Other early medieval reviews

The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

It is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the classic locus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The fall of the damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the way the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to eat and torture. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but absolutely all of them are banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters of the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made as copies of newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case of a man’s shoulder.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated.

The founding motif in this subject is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and there is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to disagree with the curators’ interpretations

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one, is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is is just a cooked animal or something worse? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them is a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Northern painter Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons and accurate musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity – they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography – the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches supposedly exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their patrons and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, this late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition, by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, surprisingly, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way he shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in the books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists workshops, the kind of thing you find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker.

I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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