AOP50 at Canary Wharf

The Association of Photographers was formed in 1968 as the Association of Fashion and Advertising Photographers and has grown to be one of the most prestigious professional photographers’ associations in the world. To celebrate its 50th birthday the Association is holding a FREE exhibition in the lobby of 1 Canada Square, the enormous office block at the heart of Canary Wharf.

One Canada Square, Canary Wharf by me

One Canada Square, Canary Wharf (photo by the author)

The exhibition’s full title says it all – AOP50: Images that Defined the Age – Celebrating 50 years of the Association of Photographers. The lifts for the building form a core in the centre of the square lobby. THis means you can freely walk through the space surrounding this square and see some 55 photos in total, hung on the walls or hanging as freestanding posters.

The photos are chosen to be among the best produced by the association’s members; to represent breadth and variety of subject matter; and to give a sense of changing styles, looks and subject matter over the period.

Twiggy (1966) by Barry Lategan

Twiggy (1966) by Barry Lategan

Obvious fashion-related images include a group of models arranged on the scaffold of a building being built, as well as stunning shots of Twiggy (above) the wondrously beautiful Jean Shrimpton. Others are famous images from advertising campaigns, like the slash in purple silk which was used to advertise Silk Cut cigarettes. Some are newspaper-sized prints, some are big prints, some have been made into enormous prints and a handful into wall-sized posters hanging in mid-air.

Installation view showing (from top left) A Fresh Perspective by Andy Green, Pregnant Man by Alan Brooking, L'Enfant by Spencer Rowell, and Being Inbetween by Carolyn Mendelsohn

Installation view showing (clockwise from top left) A Fresh Perspective by Andy Green, Pregnant Man by Alan Brooking, Mothercare image by Sandra Lousada (the black hands holding a white body), L’Enfant by Spencer Rowell, and two smallish portraits titled ‘Being Inbetween’ by Carolyn Mendelsohn

Beneath or next to each group of images there are wall labels giving detailed background to each of the images, generally an interview with the photographer and – if it was an advertising shoot – the creatives involved in the commission.

I counted 10 women photographers and about 45 men. Being well-intentioned liberals, many of the photos ‘investigate’ familiar issues of our time, namely the environment and feminism. Three or four images are concerned with disappearing habitats, the barbarity of whale hunting, or species which we’re wiping out.

Alan, 1 Day Old (2017) by Rory Carnegie

Alan, 1 Day Old (2017) by Rory Carnegie

The feminist ones included one about anorexia, something about female empowerment, and this image by Clare Park, which became well-known because it was on the cover of Naomi Klein’s 1990 classic feminist text, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women.

Installation view showing (clockwise from the top) The Beauty Myth by Clare Park, Jimmy the Quiff Phgura and his Chevy Impala by Amit Amin and Naroop Jhooti, and Shay by Laura Pannack

Installation view showing (clockwise from the top) The Beauty Myth by Clare Park, Jimmy the Quiff Phgura and his Chevy Impala by Amit Amin and Naroop Jhooti, and Shay by Laura Pannack

Whether referencing the Beauty Myth in an exhibition which features glamour shots of stunning models and several shots from Vogue is meant to be ironic or not I couldn’t figure out.

The other major issue of all bien-pensant people – race – was covered with some striking portraits of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and probably the most venerated man of my lifetime, Nelson Mandela – both photographed by Jillian Edelstein.

Nelson Mandela (1997) by Jillian Edelstein

Nelson Mandela (1997) by Jillian Edelstein

The exhibition was curated by leading photography expert Zelda Cheatle. She’s quoted as saying she didn’t try to slavishly find a picture from each year, but loosely grouped together images under the headings of Advertising, Editorial, Still Life, Portraiture, Fine Art and Landscape.

About 20 of the 55 images are in black and white i.e. colour is more dominant. About 20 photos don’t feature human beings, suggesting the way we are inexhaustibly interested in images of other people. I spent five minutes totting up numbers for each decade and came up with:

  • 1960s – 7
  • 1970s – 3
  • 1980s – 7
  • 1990s – 11
  • 2000s – 9
  • 2010s – 19

tending to suggest that, as so often, the 1970s are the decade that taste forgot, while the figures also suggest how we are unconsciously drawn to the recent past.

Given that we live – according to a recent exhibition at the Imperial war Museum – in the Age of Terror, there was surprisingly little about armed conflict, in fact I could only see three: Jonathan Olley’s b&w image of a disused British Army tower in Northern Ireland, a mine or bomb blowing up in (I think) Mexico or Colombia, titled Cocaine Wars, and Tim Hetherington’s amazingly composed shot of a doctor treating a wounded soldier in Afghanistan.

Medic 'Doc' Old treats specialist Gutierrez, injured during an attack by Taliban fighters on the 'Restrepo' outpost, Afghanistan (2007) by Tim Hetherington

Medic ‘Doc’ Old treats specialist Gutierrez, injured during an attack by Taliban fighters on the ‘Restrepo’ outpost in Afghanistan (2007) by Tim Hetherington

Hetherington was himself killed in 2011, by a mortar round, while covering the Libyan Civil War.

But while we’re doing our best to destroy the environment and kill each other, much of the world still remains stunningly beautiful and the show includes a handful (I counted five) of stunning landscapes, maybe my favourite of which was Abraham Lake, Alberta, Canada (2011) by Paul Wakefield.

Abraham Lake, Alberta, Canada (2011) by Paul Wakefield

Abraham Lake, Alberta, Canada (2011) by Paul Wakefield

Comment

At the end of the day this isn’t a formal exhibition space which makes it sometimes a little hard to concentrate – plenty of people walking to and fro into the neighbouring restaurants and shopping centre. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble to make the images different sizes (from prints to vast wall hangings, as I mentioned above) but the lack of a chronological, conceptual or aesthetic framework made the selection seem, well, a little random.

L'Enfant (1986) by Spencer Rowell

L’Enfant (1986) by Spencer Rowell

All in all, AOP50 is not quite worth making a ‘pilgrimage’ to, as you might to one of the blockbuster exhibitions at one of London’s big-name galleries – for example, the massive exhibition of Photography on the Margins, currently in its last week at the Barbican.

But if you are in the area, or if you have a special interest in commercial photography, then it’s worth popping along to see this impressive collection which includes some truly stunning images.


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A Brief History of Superheroes by Brian J. Robb (2014)

Robb has previously written biographies of Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. This volume is one of a series titled ‘A brief guide to [or history of] …’ which includes guides to Stephen King, ghost-hunting, the Roman Empire, Star Wars and any other topics they thought would sell.

No illustrations

At 340 pages, including notes and index, it’s quite a long book, but its most obvious feature is that there are no illustrations, none, nada, zip – which is a big drawback seeing as comic books are a largely visual medium. When it gives descriptions of the early artwork for Superman, or how Batman’s look was refined over time, or the visual makeover of many comic book heroes in the 1960s, the reader is crying out for illustrations to show what he’s talking about. But you have to turn to the internet to do your own research…

So the book is solely prose, made up of thumbnail profiles of the writers, artists and publishers who created comic book superheroes, along with a dense account of how they developed and evolved over time.

Superman 1938

Comic Superhero history starts in May 1938 when Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1. In other words, Superman is 80 years old this year, in fact this month!

He was the creation of two schoolfriends from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist). Everything before this date is the pre-history of superhero comics; everything afterwards is the complex unfolding of superhero comic history.

Cultural forebears of superheroes

The prehistory is entertaining because Robb (like many others writing on the subject) feels compelled to give a brisk popular history of the wide-ranging role of ‘the hero’ in myth, legend, history and folklore (the word ‘hero’ is itself of Greek derivation).

Thus a man gifted with magic powers to protect his people can be made to include Moses and Aaron and the Biblical hero Samson. It can include the pantheon of Greek gods and mortal heroes like Heracles, Perseus and Theseus. Robb quotes Joseph Campbell on the importance of ‘the Journey’ in numerous ancient stories about heroes, and references the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey and the Mahabharata as cultural forebears of Batman and Robin. This is both fun and a little pompous.

Folklore forebears of superheroes

More persuasive is the notion of a lineage from more folklore elements of ‘the hero’ through to the popular fictions of the late 19th century. Robin Hood and Dick Turpin are two prime examples. Robin Hood is not only an epitome of schoolboy morality (stealing from the rich to give to the poor) but he wears an early version of the superhero costume: tights and a distinctive cap, all in bright primary colours (Lincoln green with some red thrown in). Dick Turpin concealed his face behind a neckerchief and a pulled-down hat, and wore a cloak or cape.

Pop culture forebears of superheroes

But in fact, historians have no idea what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin wore. The images I’ve described above derive from movies, and it is Hollywood which is probably the prime factor in the origin of the superhero look.

Superheroes didn’t derive from scholarly study of ancient mythology and folklore: they came out of the extraordinary rich, bubbling swamp of popular and pulp culture of the 1920s. If Jerry and Joe knew about Sherlock Holmes or the Scarlet Pimpernel it wasn’t from reading the books about them (Sherlock had debuted in 1887, the Pimpernel in 1905). It was from paying a few cents to sit in the cheap seats of the local movie house, chomping on popcorn and watching the adventure films of a movie star like Douglas Fairbanks, who starred in a movie about Zorro (created 1919, turned into a movie in 1920), Robin Hood (1922) or the Black Pirate (1926).

In a sense superheroes began in the movies before, in our time, returning to the movies.

Like other historians of the subject, Robb pays special attention to characters with dual identities, a standard feature of most comic book superheroes – the classic example being Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

(Although if you stop and think about it for a moment, a dual identity is a basic element of almost all detective, spy and crime fiction of the kind that was growing more and more popular at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. Many thousands of detective stories take their time working up to the grand ‘reveal’ of the ‘true identity’ of the criminal, of the dope dealer or jewel thief or murderer etc caught by Sherlock Holmes or any one of the hundreds of copycat detectives invented in the 1890s and 1900s. (See my review of The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes a collection of stories about fictional detectives inspired by Holmes.) Spy stories, are by their very nature, about people concealing their true task and intentions.

Anyway, Robb’s book becomes really interesting when it gets to the extraordinarily dense jungle of popular culture which flowered in the 1890s and then just got denser and denser in the decades that followed, proliferating in penny dreadfuls, shilling shockers, pulp magazines, newspaper supplements and then in the new format of moving pictures and related magazines and merchandising.

Robb dwells on two Edwardian doers of good deeds who hid their true identity:

  • the Scarlet Pimpernel (real name Sir Percy Blakeney) who rescues aristocrats from the guillotine, leaving a calling card with a picture of the pimpernel flower
  • Zorro, who wears a black face mask and cape, protects the poor of California, and leaves a distinctive ‘Z’ carved into various objects with his stylish swordplay

Just as important for a superhero is the fiendish villain, and these were prefigured by – among many – Holmes’s opponent, the ‘Napoleon of crime’, Professor Moriarty, or the diabolical criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (1913).

British hero fiction included John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay who debuted in 1915, followed by the more thuggish Bulldog Drummond, who appeared in 1920. Lesley Charteris’s crime-fighting hero, the Saint, first appeared in 1928. Biggles the heroic fighter pilot first appeared in 1932. All these heroes were morally unambiguous fighters against Crime and Fiendish Plots.

In America the spread of radio gave rise to a florid variety of heroic fighters against crime: the Shadow, a masked crime-fighting vigilante (1930), the Spider (1933) and Doc Savage (1933), a kind of ‘peak human’, reared to have perfect abilities, who had a base in mid-town Manhattan and a rich armoury of state-of-the-art gadgets, funded by money from a secret Mayan goldmine, to help him fight crime.

In 1936 the Green Hornet, another crime-fighting, masked vigilante was created specially for radio. Also in 1936 appeared The Phantom, who wore a skin-tight bodysuit and a ‘domino’ eye-mask to fight crime.

Off in another part of the rich jungle of popular and pulp culture which exploded around the time of the Great War, was the more unrestrained world of science fiction and fantasy. Important forebears were John Carter of Mars (1912) and Tarzan (1912), both created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip Francis Nowlan’s hero Buck Rogers (1928) and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (1932), soon joined by Alex Raymond’s newspaper strip hero Flash Gordon (1934).

What these numerous figures have in common is that they are modern, pulp versions of ‘the hero’, who always outwit their fiendish opponents after a string of exciting adventures, and that they appear in series or serials: once invented they can appear in almost limitless numbers of adventures (as Conan Doyle, who came to hate his invention, Sherlock Holmes, knew all too well).

By now you might share the feeling I had that the first appearance of Superman in 1938 was maybe not quite the dazzling innovation I thought it was; in fact reading about this proliferation of heroes might make you wonder why it took quite so long to come up with what seems to be the logical conclusion of all these trends.

Robb tells the story of how two teenagers from Cleveland conceived the idea, developed it over many years, were repeatedly rejected by newspapers and comic publishers, and were forced to work on other characters and projects, until finally given their big break in 1938.

I found the two most interesting things about Superman were:

1. His descent not so much from all these detectives and crime fighters, but from the Victorian circus strongman. These popular performers generally wore tights and pants, a figure-hugging suit to highlight their musculature which was strapped in with an impressive belt, and often stylised boots.

Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the 'superhero look'

A Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the ‘superhero look’

2. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the exclusive rights to their then-new character, Superman to DC (short for Detective Comics) Publishing for just $130 (split between the two of them). Superman was an instant hit and not only went on to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the publisher and the film company that eventually bought it, but to inspire an entire genre of superhero fiction across all media.

As they watched this happen Siegel and Shuster continued to work as a comic book writer and illustrator, respectively, but made repeated attempts to sue for a share of the vast revenue generated by their invention. In fact their heirs are still locked in litigation with DC’s parent company, Time Warner, to this day.

The development of the comic strip

Robb gives a brief and fascinating recap of how the comic strip itself evolved. As far back as the record stretches, human beings have always told stories. Bas-relief carvings on Greek and Indian temples capture moments from religious or legendary narratives. (Robb doesn’t mention it but I’d have thought the 12 Stations of the Cross which appear in tens of thousands of Catholic churches are an early example of a story told through snapshots of key moments.) He does mention the use of ‘scroll speech’ in medieval and Renaissance art work, where a scroll unfolds from a figure’s mouth, containing their speech (something I’m familiar with from my readings of the British Civil Wars).

17th century cartoon with speech scroll

17th century Civil War cartoon with speech scroll

Robb says the next step forward was marked by the popular engravings of the 18th century artist William Hogarth, famous for the series of pictures which depict The Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress. These popular engravings showed the decline of the eponymous rake and harlot with plenty of humorous detail. They gave rise to similar pictorial sequences by Rodolphe Töpfler later in the century, and by the Victorian artist Gustave Doré, among others. Throughout the 19th century Punch in Britain and similar magazines across the Continent used cartoons, often with speech captions, to convey narratives with punch lines.

Capitalist competition creates comics

But all these sometimes dubious historical antecedents are there simply to pave the way for the real start of popular comic books which, as with most things American, came out of ferocious competition to make money.

Starting in 1887 a newspaper war was waged between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empires. One among many fronts in this war was the innovation of cartoon strips with catchy titles and populist characters. In 1892 The Little Bears was created by Jimmy Swinnerton for Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, probably the first cartoon strip anywhere which featured regularly recurring characters.

In 1895 Pulitzer debuted a strip titled The Yellow Kid for his paper The New York World, drawn by Richard Felton Outcault, which pioneered the use of speech text to indicate dialogue. In 1897 the paper added a supplement featuring just Outcault’s strips and expanding it to describe an array of characters from the yellow kid’s neightbourhood – titled McFadden’s Row of Flats – and a new term, ‘comic book’, was invented to describe it.

As a direct response to all this, Hearst’s New York Journal commissioned their own strip, The Katzenjammer Kids, created by Rudolph Dirks. Dirks developed Outcault’s device of speech balloons and invented the ‘thought balloon’, indicated by a series of bubbles leading up to the text balloon itself. The same year saw the first use of colour printing (as the name, The Yellow Kid, indicates).

These kind of narrative cartoons featuring recurring characters proved tremendously popular (nicer, after all, than reading the depressing news) and spread like wildfire to every other newspaper which could find a decent illustrator. By 1912 Hearst was devoting an entire page of the New York Daily Journal to comic strips, a feature which became known as the ‘funny pages’, the ‘funny papers’, or simply ‘the funnies’.

It was quickly realised that the strips which appeared during the week could be repackaged into a bumper weekend supplement. Rather than broadsheet size, it made financial and practical sense to publish them in magazine format, which was easier for readers to handle and read. The comic book was born.

Superhero history

So much for the multi-stranded prehistory of the comic superhero.

The publication of Superman in 1938 transformed the landscape, inventing a whole new genre of superhero. From this point onwards Robb’s book becomes a dense and fascinating account of how numerous newspapers and publishers sought to cash in on the fad by creating their own superheroes. He describes the complicated evolution of the two publishing houses which would eventually become known as Marvel and DC, and reading his book gives you a good sense of the difference between them.

Basically, DC owned Superman (1938) and Batman (1939) who spawned hundreds of imitators but managed to remain ahead of the pack. Through the war years the superheroes performed their patriotic duty with a strong sideline in film noir-style violence against all manner of crime or fantasy baddies.

In the 1950s there was a moral backlash against comics, with a nationwide panic in America that they were one of many influences turning teenagers into ‘juvenile delinquents’. This resulted in 1954 in the establishment of The Comics Code Authority (CCA) which forced comic books to abandon much violence and all references to drugs and sex, tending to replace hard 1940s stories with softer, romance elements.

Marvel began existence in 1939 as ‘Timely Publications’, and by the early 1950s was generally known as Atlas Comics. The Marvel branding began 1961 with a rack of superhero titles created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others. Robb describes the period 1961-62 as a kind of annus mirabilis, during which Lee oversaw the creation of The Fantastic Four and their nemesis Dr Doom (November 1961), Ant-Man (January 1962), the Incredible Hulk (May 1962), Spider-Man (August 1962), the Mighty Thor (August 1962), Iron Man (March 1963), the Avengers (September 1963) and the X-men (1963).

Even if you think comic books are rubbish, this is by any measure still an incredible outpouring of creativity, the creation of characters which would go on to have multi-billion dollar futures in popular culture.

Although other artists and writers were involved, Stan Lee is commonly associated with this outburst of imagination and the key element of it seems to have been his conviction that superheroes must be flawed – realistic characters who often struggle with their own superpowers. Thus Spider-Man is deeply confused about how to use his skills, the X-Men bicker amongst themselves, the Fantastic Four are riven by rivalries, and the Hulk considers committing suicide he is so upset by the scientific accident which has turned him into a monster.

It was this troubled psychology which set them completely apart from DC’s untroubled hero Superman and made them feel more contemporary than their older cousins (although, admittedly, DC’s Batman is a much darker creation).

In a second nod to contemporary concerns, Lee’s Marvel creations were nearly all connected to contemporary paranoia about the atom bomb and atomic energy. It is radioactivity which messes up the DNA of almost all these superheroes, a paranoia about the potentially damaging impact of modern science which remains relevant right down to the present day.

It is this more ‘modern’ way of conceiving superhero psychology, as well as the more modern concerns about science, which possibly account for the relative success of the Marvel characters in the movies, and the rather staid, static quality of the DC movies.

The difference between the Superman era and the Fantastic Four era is recognised by comic book historians who have divided the past eighty years into a series of ‘ages’.

The golden age of comic books was from 1938 to about 1950, when waning interest in superheroes was capped by the baleful influence of the Comics Code Authority.

The silver age of comic books is dated from DC Comics’ new character Flash, introduced in Showcase #4 in October 1956. This led up to the Marvel outburst in the early 1960s which spawned a great sprawling cast not only of heroes but of baddies and enemies. This era also another important Marvel innovation, which was introducing one set of heroes into the adventures or ‘universe’ of another set. As the 1960s progressed, the interactions of heroes from different narratives became not only more complex in itself, but led to the notion of parallel worlds in which the various characters might have different superpowers, fight each other and even die.

The bronze age of comic books runs from about 1970 to 1985. The bright, Pop optimism of the 1960s turned into a nitty-gritty concern with social ‘issues’, such as the environment, feminism, racism and drugs, along with more realistic depictions of alcoholism, addiction, urban decay and so on.

Alongside the two giants of Marvel and DC there arose a new wave of independent comic book publishers who took a whole new approach to the superhero genre. This was crystallised in the epoch-making Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, which set out to deconstruct the entire mythos of superheroes.

Superheroes in movies

Although Robb doesn’t quite make this point, his book ends where it began, with the movies. Not with the distant antecedents of Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, but with the fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster loved the movies and were influenced by what they saw, by the sight of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way across the screen and that now, we in our time, queue up to watch the Amazing Spiderman, Thor and Iron Man swing across our multiplex 3D screens.

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Radio Robb’s last few chapters give a bewilderingly dense account of the way superheroes were adapted to other media beyond comic books. Radio was the first, and it’s interesting to learn that radio developed catchphrases, plot lines and even new characters, which hadn’t existed in the original comics but which the comics then co-opted.

Television From the 1950s various television series portrayed superheroes, probably the most memorable being the camp classic Batman of the 1960s.

Animations Movies were slower to adapt superheroes because of the technical challenges of portraying superhero action. It was easier to do this in animations, so there have been scores of animated TV shows and movies about superheroes.

The Modern Age of Superhero Movies starts with Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman in the film of the same name, directed by Richard Donner in 1978. Although the special effects look creaky to the modern eye, they were a quantum step up from all previous attempts and made superhero film-making a real possibility. there were three sequels released in 1980, 1983 and 1987.

The next benchmark was the pair of Batman movies directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton. Robb is great on the showbusiness gossip and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring which accompanied these films, for example the way that Keaton, previously known for light comic roles, was widely opposed by fans who mounted a campaign to prevent him taking the role. In the event, Burton’s two Batman movies (Batman, 1989 and Batman Returns 1992) were seen as a triumph.

Robb details the ongoing attempts to stage other superhero movies which met with mixed success, and a fair share of dazzling flops. Along with most fans he considers the last two Reeve Superman movies (Superman III, 1983 and Superman IV, 1987) and the Val Kilmer and George Clooney Batmen (Batman Forever, 1995, and Batman and Robin, 1997) to be disasters.

The modern age of superhero movies

The Current Age of Superhero Movies was launched with the X-Men directed by Bryan Singer and released in 2000. With an intelligent script, with the steadying presence of two top class British actors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) and with state-of-the-art, computer-generated graphics, X-Men inaugurated the modern age.

It cost a lot to make, but it:

a) made a fortune
b) spawned a host of sequels (there are now no fewer than 10 films in the X-Men series)
c) as well as numerous television spin-offs

And so helped to create the superhero cultural, film and TV universe that we now inhabit. This is a list of the main superhero movies of the last 18 years, excluding various flops and failures, with an indication of their costs and revenues.

2000 X-Men ($296 million gross on $75 million budget)
2002 Spider-Man ($821 million on $139 million)
2003 Daredevil ($179 million on $78 million)
2003 X-Men 2 ($407 million on $125 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million on $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million on $200 million)
2005 Batman Begins ($374 million / $150 million)
2006 Superman Returns ($223 million / $223 million)
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand ($459 million / $210 million)
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($290 million / $130 million)
2007 Spider-Man 3 ($890 million / $258 million)
2008 Batman: The Dark Knight ($1 BILLION / $185 million)
2008 Iron Man 1 ($585 million / $140 million)
2008 The Incredible Hulk ($263 million / $150 million)
2009 Watchmen ($185 million / $138 million)
2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($373 million / $150 million)
2010 Iron Man 2 ($624 million / $200 million)

2011 Thor ($449 million / $150 million)
2011 X-Men: First Class ($353 million / $160 million)
2011 Captain America: The First Avenger ($370 million / $140 million)
2012 The Amazing Spider-Man ($757 million / $230 million)
2012 Batman: The Dark Knight Rises ($1.08 BILLION / $300 million)
2012 Marvel’s The Avengers ($1.5 BILLION / $220 million)
2013 Iron Man 3 ($1.2 BILLION / $200 million)
2013 Man of Steel ($668 million / $225 million)
2013 Thor: The Dark World ($645 million / $170 million)
2013 The Wolverine ($414 million / $120 million)
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($709 million / $293 million)
2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million / $177 million)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million / $232 million)
2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past ($747 million / £205 million)
2015 Ant-Man ($519 million / $142 million)
2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4 BILLION / $444 million)
2015 Fantastic Four ($168 million / $155 million)
2016 Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 BILLION / $250 million)
2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($874 million / $300 million)
2016 Deadpool ($783 million / $58 million)
2016 Doctor Strange ($678 milllion / $165 million)
2016 X-Men: Apocalypse ($544 million / $178 million)
2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million / $200 million)
2017 Superman: Justice League ($658 million / $300 million)
2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million / $175 million)
2017 Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million / $180 million)
2017 Logan ($619 million / $127 million)
2018 Ant-Man and the Wasp
2018 Avengers: Infinity War
2018 Black Panther ($1.334 BILLION / $210 million)
2018 Deadpool 2

Quite a few, aren’t there?

The first superhero movie to gross over a billion dollars was Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight and six other superhero movies have grossed over a billion since then. The X-Men movies between them have generated $5 billion.

In 2010 Marvel produced the first in a carefully planned sequence of movies designed to maximise revenue from their stable of characters, and which has become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is divided into ‘phases’ of six movies each, the first five of each phase devoted to individual Marvel heroes, the sixth bringing the previous five altogether into a grand finale which ties together plotlines from the previous movies.

As I write we are approaching the end of Phase Three, which has just seen the phenomenal success of Black Panther (phase 3, movie 5) which grossed over $1.3 billion, and paved the way for the sixth in this phase, Avengers: Infinity War which has just opened in the States to the usual mass marketing and hype.

Summary

VAST amounts have been written about every one of these movies, alongside the TV spin-offs, the comics which adopt their plotlines, the novelisations, as well as a world of merchandising, toys, t-shirts, video games, and so on.

Despite having no illustrations at all, Robb’s book is an eminently readable and very enjoyable overview of the entire history of the superhero comic book phenomenon, which puts it in the context of popular culture, twentieth century history, the evolving media of radio, TV and film, all told in a light, accessible prose style and a sure sense of the interesting anecdote and fascinating fact.

Great fun, and a very useful introduction to a cultural phenomenon which is bigger than ever, and set to dominate our movie and TV screens for the foreseeable future.


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Andreas Gursky @ the Hayward Gallery

I only pursue one goal: the encyclopedia of life. (Andreas Gursky)

Andreas Gursky was born in 1955 in Leipzig, in what was then East Germany, before he and his family escaped to West Germany, settling in Düsseldorf, where he grew up.

Gursky’s father was a commercial photographer and young Andreas spent hours in the treasure trove of his father’s studio, absorbing the power and persuasiveness of strong, clear images, and becoming highly literate from an early age in the technical complexities of photography.

The aesthetic standards of advertising photography were burned into my way of seeing at an early age.

I first became aware of Gursky’s work when I went to the big retrospective held at the Serpentine Gallery back in 1999.

He is best known for his enormous, panoramic, colour prints of scenes which convey the complexity of late-twentieth century life, often teeming with people or indicative of huge and complex technologies. At that point, in the late 1990s, his approach could be epitomised by his photographs of stock exchanges, especially the Chicago Board of Trade photo he took in 1999, which became widely known.

London’s Hayward Gallery has been closed for nearly three years. It is marking its re-opening with a major retrospective of Gursky’s work, which now covers forty years and features 68 stunning colour photographs, eight of which are being exhibited for the first time. The exhibition puts the famous panoramic photos into the broader context of his career, showing how his style evolved from simpler beginnings towards the aesthetic summed up by the the stock exchange shots, and has continued to evolve in the twenty years since then.

Pyongyang VII 2007/2017 by Andreas Gursky © Andreas Gursky/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018. Courtesy Sprüth Magers

Pyongyang VII 2007/2017 by Andreas Gursky © Andreas Gursky/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018. Courtesy Sprüth Magers

This photograph of the opening ceremony to the Arirang, a massive annual gymnastics festival in North Korea, typifies many aspects of Gursky’s work.

  1. It is enormous, the height of a door and about one and a half doors wide
  2. It is taken from very high up, from a commanding vantage point far from the subject
  3. It is emblematic or symbolic of a certain kind of modern life e.g. display in a totalitarian regime
  4. It features people, lots of people
  5. Technically, it is all in focus – he doesn’t use focus to create a more blurred background and therefore give a sense of depth and perspective: everything is present

This last point leads to what I found the most insightful comment on his works, which is that – all the details are of equal importance. Usually, in any of the thousands of images we see all day long – newspaper photos, magazine photos, billboards and hoardings and adverts, posters, stills on TV or on any one of millions of websites and phone apps – usually a photographic image has a focus, a subject, it promotes and foregrounds something (most often, when you think about it, a person – a politician in a news outlet, a film or pop star, sometimes a product in an ad etc).

On the contrary, in a classic Gursky shot, all the details are treated equally. This is so contrary to the normal practice of ‘the image’ and so contrary to our trained habit of ‘looking for the subject’ that I find this by far the most striking and unsettling aspect of his work.

Amazon, 2016 by Andreas Gursky © Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017. Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

Amazon, 2016 by Andreas Gursky © Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017. Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

The result is that you tend to be overwhelmed not only by the size, but by the intensity of detail everywhere in his photos – for example, in this 2016 photo of an Amazon warehouse.

And this psychological response is appropriate to his subject matter because the classic Gursky is a panoramic view of scenes which are emblematic of the modern consumer economy – scenes like the Amazon warehouse, a hectic stock exchange, desolate plains covered in plastic in Spain where much of our fruit is grown, a huge shot showing the zigzag route of the Tour de France down a mountain which is littered with human spectators, their cars, media vans, an oppressively tacky Wal-Mart supermarket in America, or the huge panorama showing the complete departure board at Frankfurt airport completely dwarfing the handful of impotent little humans at its feet.

Frankfurt 2007 by Andreas Gursky

Frankfurt, 2007 by Andreas Gursky

That is the ‘classic’ Gursky look, if you like, and it is difficult not to be awed by the sheer scale, the fullness of detail and the classic square-on composition of the images, as well as amazed, dismayed, startled etc by the scale of some of the subject matter – like another photo of vast fish processing plant where workers are slaving away in orange overalls, or one of an enormous network of cattle pens on a ranch in Texas.

But what makes this exhibition more than impressive is the full context it gives to Gursky’s development and this means exhibiting quite a few photographs from early in his career, back in the 1980s where he hadn’t yet developed his signature approach. These are, for a start, smaller, and often of simple landscapes.

There’s a normal size black and white photo of a glacier, a photo of a handful of cyclists who’ve stopped on a Sunday outing to lean against the fence of an airport and watch planes taking off and landing, titled Düsseldorf airport, Sunday walkers (1988). This latter typifies his early habit of shooting people from quite a distance, so that they are dwarfed by natural or man-made scenery, and also from behind, so we don’t see their faces, but they become deindividualised mannekins.

One or two have what you could call a focus, what Roland Barthes called a punctum, a small detail which draws the eye towards it, like in this shot of a cable-car eerily disappearing into the mountain fog of the Dolomite mountains.

Dolomites cable car 1987 by Andreas Gursky

Dolomites, cable car 1987 by Andreas Gursky

Then there is the ‘mature style’ of the monster panoramas of the late 80s and through the 90s, but the exhibition then continues on to more recent work in which Gursky has experimented and branched out. This became clear (to me, anyway) with a characteristically enormous photo of rooftops of a suburb of Tokyo. What was new was that the foreground was blurred and, the wall label told me, Gursky had deliberately inserted blurred elements sporadically throughout the image, to experiment with the effect.

It was only at this point that I really registered what the wall labels had been pointing out for a little while, which is that many of the most iconic panorama shots are in fact heavily doctored in post-production. Many of them are in fact made up by splicing together a number of smaller in-focus shots or, as the commentary puts it:

Over the past three decades Gursky has increasingly made use of computer-enabled post-production techniques to make photographs whose scale, precision, composition, and complexity are unprecedented and have critically expanded the possibilities of the medium.

Thus I was a little staggered to learn that the dramatic F1 Pit Stop (2007) whose symmetry and colour contrasts look a little too be good to be true, is in fact way too good to be true: not only are certain elements of the scene touched up and transposed to create a clearer composition, but the two pitstop teams were actually photographed in different cities and brought together via sophisticated post-production. And there are some people who still say ‘the camera never lies’ – the camera does nothing but lie.

This aspect of post-production manipulation of images became really the more overt in the final room which shows Gursky experimenting with the new(ish) technology of mobile phone cameras.

Instead of the high vantage point panoramas, a number of shots in the final room are designed to convey the sense of blurriness and speed experienced looking out the window of a train or a car, as in this photo of Utah.

Utah (2017) by Andreas Gursky © Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

Utah (2017) by Andreas Gursky © Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

It’s still big, it’s still of the human influence on the landscape, but the style is significantly different with its deliberate use of blurring and the horizontal lines along the top of the rocks signifying the blurry effect of the frame of a car or train window.

There’s more, a lot more, including several stunning photos of light reflected on the oily black water of the klongs in Bangkok, a powerful shot of the ship container port at Salerno, which contrasts the landscape painting-type beauty of the hills in the background with the enormous wasteland of rusty containers and vans parked in a huge car park in the foreground.

Taking the high vantage point theme to extreme limits there are some examples of the Ocean series he made in 2009 and 2010 which splice together satellite images of the world’s oceans, using up to date digital post-production techniques, not least some awe-inspiring views of Antarctica from 35,000 kilometres up, which gave me vertigo.

Or this work, Bahrain I taken in 2005, a typically panoramic view of the Bahrain International Circuit built to host Formula One motor races.

Bahrain I by Andreas Gursky © Courtesy Monika Sprueth Galerie, Koeln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2018

Bahrain I by Andreas Gursky © Courtesy Monika Sprueth Galerie, Koeln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2018

Gursky’s photos are works of wonder in their own right – they capture and record all kinds of aspects of our modern environment-destroying, wasteful consumer culture with often terrifying clarity – and this exhibition sets them within a fascinating overview of the development and evolution of his style and approach.

This is a great exhibition with which to welcome the shiny new refurbished Hayward Gallery back to the front rank of London art galleries.

Installation view of Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery

Installation view of Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery

The promotional video


Related links

Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins @ the Barbican

Scale and scope

This is a big exhibition. It showcases the work of 20 leading photographers from around the world and brings together an impressive, almost overwhelming range, of material, with over 300 works from the 1950s to the present day, including vintage and contemporary prints, archival material, specialist magazines, rare audio recordings, films and photo books.

The theme is ‘outsiders and rebels’. As the press release explains:

By recording and documenting those on the edges, or outside of the mainstream, the images in Another Kind of Life bear witness to how social attitudes change across time and space, charting how visual representation has helped shape current discourse in relation to marginalised or alternative communities.

The rebels and outsiders come in roughly two forms, social and sexual. By ‘social’ I mean rockers, bikers, street gangs, criminal gang members, Teddy boys and so on. By ‘sexual’ I mean the pronounced thread of work which focuses exclusively on transvestite and transgender people, people of ‘unorthodox’ or outside sexuality, often prostitutes.

It struck me as I went round the show that you could categorise these as rebels-by-choice and rebels-by-sexuality.

Broadly speaking the pictures in the downstairs rooms are from the 1960s, by photographers born in the 1930s and 40s, who are American or European, and the pictures are in black and white. Up in the first floor galleries, the photographers are younger, the prints are in colour, a lot bigger and from a wider geographical reach (Russia, India, Chile, Mexico, Nigeria).

Each of the photographers has a room dedicated to their own work and for this purpose the normally fairly open gallery space of the Barbican has been converted into a warren of smallish rooms. The walls partitioning off the display areas are black and arranged in such a way that there are ‘dummy’ or empty spaces between them, converting the downstairs area into quite a maze. Indeed, they hand out a map with arrows to help the visitor find their way through it. If I’d had small children it would have been quite a good layout to play hide and seek in.

First a thumbnail sketch of the photographers and their work, then some thoughts.

The photographers – 1. Downstairs

Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971) American. Arbus became famous for taking photos of marginalized people – dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers, and people stricken by what ‘normal’ standards might be called ugliness. Pictures of what we used to call ‘freaks’. She is quoted as describing the way she tried to go from being an outsider to the strange worlds she recorded, to going ‘inside’. The wall label explains that her work underwent a significant transformation when she started using a square format camera. Maybe she’s here at the beginning because she introduces many of the themes the exhibition will pursue.

The next room contains works by legendary American photographer Bruce Davidson (b.1933), specifically from the series The Dwarf and Brooklyn Gang. These were taken in the late 1950s and feature skinny youths in jeans, white t-shirts with rockabilly hairstyles on the beach at the cheap seaside resort of Coney Island, or hanging out in the streets and stairwells of New York.

Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama (b.1938) is famous for his seminal work, Japan Photo Theatre (1968). This features shots of ordinary people captured in candid moments, in bars, restaurants, drinking heavily, smoking, as well as shots of prostitutes and transvestites in Tokyo, belying Japan’s reputation for propiety and and conformity.

Japan Theatre from the series Japan Photo Theater by Daido Moriyama. Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, UK Courtesy of Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation

Japan Theatre from the series Japan Photo Theater by Daido Moriyama. Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, UK Courtesy of Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation

Danny Lyon (b.1942) is an American photographer and film maker who works on the immersive principle. The works here record him becoming accepted in the mid-60s by the ‘hard-drinking’ motorbike gang, The Outlaws. Lots of photos of these tough guys wearing sleeveless denim jackets to showcase their tattoos, riding their rigs, smoking tabs and kissing their women.

The second Japanese photogrpaher in the exhibition is Seiji Kurata (b.1945) represented by starkly lit images from Flash Up (1975–79), a work depicting the seedy, often violent underbelly of gang culture in the notorious Ikebukuro and Shinjuku districts of Tokyo, featuring ‘leather-boys and bargirls’. The young toughs in Danny Lyon or Bruce Davidson are dead proud of their tattoos but they have nothing on these Japanese gang members who are covered from head to foot with intricately-drawn tattoos, often containing violent and threatening imagery.

Another American, Larry Clarke (b.1943) is a director, photographer, writer and film producer who is best known for his photography book Tulsa, in which he recorded in black and white photos (and in a rough and ready b&w film, on show here) the dead-end, semi-violent, drug-influenced world of his twenty-something schoolmates, shown smoking, drinking, snogging girls, driving cars, shooting up heroine.

Untitled (1963) from the series Tulsa, 1962 - 1971 by Larry Clark. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and Simon Lee Gallery, London

Untitled (1963) from the series Tulsa, 1962 – 1971 by Larry Clark. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and Simon Lee Gallery, London

Igor Palmin was born in Russia in 1933. The commentary explains that during the 1960s and 70s going on an ‘archaeological expedition’ was a good way for dissident youths to get away from the stifling conventions and social spying of home. Through these trips Palmin discovered scattered communities of young people trying to copy the western ideal of becoming hippies and ‘dropping out’. This resulted in the two works on show here, sequences of black and white photos set in the grungy post-industrial landscape of Southern Russia, The Enchanted Wanderer (1977) and The Disquiet (1977). The first one features numerous shots of the same long-haired, bell-bottomed hippy wandering round what looks like an abandoned gravel works; the second features a few more hippies, complete with flower power hair bands, playing guitars in abandoned buildings or smoking joints in a scruffy caravan.

Untitled XVI, Stavropol Krai, USSR, 1977 from the series The Enchanted Wanderer, 1977 by Igor Palmin. Courtesy of the artist © Igor Palmin

Untitled XVI, Stavropol Krai, USSR, 1977 from the series The Enchanted Wanderer (1977) by Igor Palmin. Courtesy of the artist © Igor Palmin

The Swiss Walter Pfeiffer (b.1946) emerged on the peripheries of documentary photography in the 1970s and now flourishes in the mainstreams of contemporary fashion and style bibles. He’s represented by his body of work about his young transsexual friend Carlo Joh, from the Zurich gay scene. Partly inspired by Lou Reed’s recently released album Transformers (1972), Pfieffer took a whole series of black and white and colour photos and films of Joh over a few months in 1973, showing him in various states of undress, with or without wigs and make-up, playing with gender imagery.

Untitled from Carlo Joh, 1973 by Walter Pfeiffer. Courtesy Fotomuseum Winterthur © Walter Pfeiffer

Untitled from Carlo Joh, 1973 by Walter Pfeiffer. Courtesy Fotomuseum Winterthur © Walter Pfeiffer

Born in 1959, Frenchman Philippe Chancel is best known for his work documenting Paris street gangs in the 1980s, specifically the Panthers and the Vikings. The commentary describes the gangs as being ‘in thrall to an idealised version of 1950s American youth culture’, and explains that they treasured vintage U.S. Air Force jackets and listened to hot jazz. The Vikings were named after the Del-Vikings, the first American rock’n’roll group to include both blacks and whites; The Panthers are named after the Black Panthers. Note both the American-ness and the datedness of these influences.

To my eye it was just another set of young dudes, wearing jeans, with rockabilly quiffs, smoking tabs, showing off their tattoos, dancing in nightclubs and getting off with girls. Far from being ‘outsiders’ I was struck by how much they were just copying what, by the 1980s, had become the international conventional look of youth ‘rebellion’. Some of them packed baseball bats and one had a gun. As sure as night follows day, we see all this revelry leading to street fights and then to some of les jeunes being carted off by les flics.

Untitled, 1982 from the series Rebel’s Paris 1982 by Philippe Chancel. Courtesy of Melanie Rio Fluency, France

Untitled, 1982 from the series Rebel’s Paris 1982 by Philippe Chancel. Courtesy of Melanie Rio Fluency, France

Casa Susanna is not a person but a collection of around 400 prints taken during the mid-50s and 60s at a private retreat for transvestites, a safe haven in upstate New York where they posed for the camera in glamorous dresses, playing cards, eating dinner and having drinks by the fire. This treasure trove of old prints was recently discovered at a Manhattan flea market and here it is, now a treasured part of gender-bending social history.

Susanna at Casa Susanna, 1964-1969 attributed to Andrea Susan, from the Casa Susanna Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario

Susanna at Casa Susanna, 1964-1969 attributed to Andrea Susan, from the Casa Susanna Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario

The last room on the ground floor showcases black and white photos by Chris Steele-Perkins (b.1947) who was commissioned by the Times in 1976 to do a feature on contemporary Teddy boys. First time around in the 1950s, Teds were so named because they adopted the style of Edwardian dandies, with Brylcreemed quiffs, three-quarter length drape jackets and beetle crusher shoes. Steele-Perkins captured the lives, loves, music and fashion of the Ted revival of the mid-70s, with the usual cast of pimply youths hanging out in pubs and clubs, smoking tabs, showing off their hard man tattoos, dancing with stockinged girls, and showing respect to some of the wizened elders of the movement. I took a particular fancy to ‘Tongue-Tied Danny’s Wedding’, partly because of the title alone.

The photographers – 2. Upstairs

The exhibition continues upstairs in the nine rooms on the first floor, and the mood here feels distinctively different. The American photographers here come from a markedly younger generation than the ones downstairs, and there is a much wider range of nationalities.

You are immediately arrested by the work of Jim Goldberg (b.1953) and the selections from his harrowing work, Raised by Wolves (1987-93). This details the life of street kids Goldberg befriended in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1980s, including Tweeky Dave and Echo. There are plenty of photos but also physical objects including what appears to be the actual denim jacket covered in scrawls which one of the kids wears in the photos, FUCK OFF etched repeatedly in biro. And there are ‘photo-texts’ where a print of one of the street kids is accompanied by a white sheet with their scrawled, hand-written messages on them, such as:

I’m Dave who the fuck are you?

Or:

My mom was a junkie slut
My old man is a biker asshole from hell
the fucked-up asshole shot me in the gut when I was 10

These kids are really, really damaged. Another big print of a teenage boy with grazes on his face is accompanied by a text describing how sleazy old men pay to jerk off in front of him for money and how only taking drugs makes it bearable.

In some of the carefree biker photos of Lyon or Davidson, among the denim-clad young men lounging around smoking fags of shooting up or handling half-dressed women, there are babies. You can’t help thinking that Goldberg’s photos show what happened to those babies. Or what happened to the children of those babies. A couple of generations on from the original rebel chic of the late 50s to mid-60s, much of America is an urban wasteland of abandonment and dereliction and drugs.

This message is rammed home by the work in the next room of New York photographer Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015). She worked on a long-term project, Streetwise (1983) recording her time spent with Erin Charles, a street kid known as ‘Tiny’, who she first met as a 13-year-old surviving on the streets of Seattle. In the last of these brutal photos teenage Tiny is crying, blurring her mascara.

Having consumed more than their fair share of American TV and movies through the magic of the internet, both of my teenage kids think America is the most fucked-up country in the world. Hard to disagree on this evidence.

Lillie with her rag doll. Seattle, Washington from the series Streetwise, 1983 by Mary Ellen Mark © Mary Ellen Mark/ Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery New York

Lillie with her rag doll. Seattle, Washington from the series Streetwise, 1983 by Mary Ellen Mark © Mary Ellen Mark. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery New York

Then again – Putin’s Russia :).

Boris Mikhailov (b.1938) specialises in brutally realistic colour photos of the bedraggled, ugly, poor inhabitants of his native Kharkov. The homeless have a special name, the bomzhev, and the Mikhailov room is devoted to a particularly humiliating sequence of two ugly old bomzhev preparing for their marriage, the ugly dwarfish woman, often topless, showing her haggard body and flat breasts, the bearded husband playing around with a twelve-inch dildo. Here are the happy couple:

Untitled, 2005 – 2006, The Weddding © Boris Mikhailov courtesy Sprovieri Gallery

Untitled, 2005 – 2006, The Weddding © Boris Mikhailov courtesy Sprovieri Gallery

Some light relief came in the form of a room of photographs by Chilean photographer Paz Errázuriz (b.1944). General Augusto Pinochet headed a military dictatorship in Chile from 1973 and 1990. Any form of political, cultural or religious non-conformity was punished with arrest, torture and executions. Errázuriz created a series depicting the community of transgender sex-workers working in an underground brothel in Chile, which was gathered together in the book Adam’s Apple (1982-87). The photos here focused on the transgender brothers Pilar and Evelyn, the latter a particularly handsome man, who makes a fine-looking woman. I needed cheering up so I was relieved that some of the photos show Evelyn, apparently with other, straight, members of his family, laughing and joking. One of them catches a moment of real love and affection. Phew.

Evelyn, Santiago from the series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple), 1983 by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz / Courtesy of the artist

Evelyn, Santiago from the series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple), 1983 by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz / Courtesy of the artist

By now the visitor might be forgiven for being overwhelmed, both by names and biographies of the photographers and the histories of their various projects, and by the rather exhausting emotional response some of the more harrowing photographs provoke. But there is still quite a lot more to see and process.

So it’s perfect timing that the visitor is taken by surprise in the next room which is devoted to five or so giant colour prints taken by Pieter Hugo. Hugo, born in 1976, is South African, and the selections are from the series named The Hyena and Other Men (2005–2007). This records members of the Nigerian gang of ‘debt collectors’ who go around with tamed hyenas to collect their debts. Yes. Tamed hyenas. I’d pay up pretty quickly, wouldn’t you?

Just as you’d begun to forget how wrecked America is, there’s a room of photos by Katy Grannan (b.1969) depicting what the Yanks themselves describe as ‘trailer trash’. There are some black people in there, too, but mostly it’s poor whites, economically and socially downtrodden.

Anonymous, Modesto, CA, 2010 by Katy Grannan from the series The Ninety Nine © Katy Grannan, courtesy the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Anonymous, Modesto, CA, 2010 by Katy Grannan from the series The Ninety Nine © Katy Grannan, courtesy the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

As sudden and unexpected as the hyena men is the next room which is devoted to a big screen showing of a film of Mona Ahmed, a eunuch from New Delhi. This is by Indian photographer Dayanita Singh (b.1961) who met Mona in the 1980s and formed a lifelong friendship with her. Mona was born a boy, castrated when young, and grew up to assert her identity as a member of a ‘third sex’. Beside the film is a series of stills of Mona which include her own ‘honest and frank words’ as accompaniment.

Born in 1969, Alec Soth, another American, by chance came across a guy living in the wild, completely detached from modern life, the state and so on, and this led him to uncover the whole sub-culture of American men (it is mostly men) who live ‘off the grid’ as the modern saying has it. The result is not only enormous colour prints of these haunting, solitary monks, survivalists, hermits and runaways but a number of documents, including wills, letters and manuals on ‘how to disappear from Amerika’. One photo was of a ruined wall in a derelict-looking house, peeling plaster etc, and scrawled on it:

I love my Dad – I wish he loved me

Which bathetically echoed the sentiments of the abandoned children in Jim Goldberg and Mary Ellen Mark. By this stage America really has been painted as the country of loss and abandonment.

The final room in the exhibition is devoted to the even bigger colour prints of Teresa Margolles (b.1963). These huge full colour works depict transgender Mexican sex workers, each one portrayed in a very styled and composed way standing amid the ruins of one-time nightclubs. Very very different from the rough and ready, snap and go, catching the moment black and white shots of Japanese bars and American bikers which we started the show with…

Dance floor of the club 'Arthur's', 2016 by Teresa Margolles. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Switzerland.

Dance floor of the club ‘Arthur’s’, 2016 by Teresa Margolles. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Switzerland

Thoughts

Big It’s big, a very big exhibition. Given that there’s a hefty chunk of text introducing each photographer, and a lot of the pictures themselves tell stories, featuring individuals who themselves require a bit of introduction, plus the films and the survivalist books – it’s a lot of information to take on board. And it gives rise to a tsunami of ideas and impressions.

Categories In trying to categorise or make sense of it all, I felt I could break the exhibition down into three very broad elements:

  • rebels by choice – the 50s, 60s and 70s bikers, hippies and Teds
  • rebels by gender i.e. people who don’t feel at home in the gender roles assigned to them, transvestites, transgender people
  • abandoned kids, and abandoned adults

Whereas in the 1950s or 1960s teen rebellion was a choice made by kids and young men who had choices, it is quite obvious that the lives of the abused, sexually exploited, drug-addled street kids of Lyon and Goldberg and Mark contain no choices. Their parents abandoned them or were incapable of looking after them. They didn’t choose to be selling sex on the streets at 13.

Transgender I couldn’t help feeling uneasy about the way the show threw together the issues and life choices facing transvestite and transgender people with the lifestyles of Hell’s Angels or Paris street gangs. The bikers and Japanese gang members and Teds seemed completely different to me. For a start those cultures are aggressively heterosexual and so in many ways confirm and entrench the social pressure which transgender people confront. And somehow it also felt as if those lifestyle choices – being a Russian hippy or an American biker – were in many ways superficial; after all, plenty of hippies ended up cutting their hair, going into business and now run big corporations. Somehow it felt to me as if the life choices the transgender people had to make – in Chile or Mexico or Japan – ran deeper, were more existential, went more to the heart of who they were.

Post-war American invents ‘cool’ Nine of the twenty photographers are American. That phrase about the Paris gangs being ‘in thrall to an idealised version of 1950s American youth culture’ is true of a lot of the other people shown here, too, from the Russian hippies to the London Teds.

After the Second World War America emerged as the most powerful and richest nation the world had ever seen. It pioneered a whole wave of consumer goods – phones, radios, televisions, fridges, washing machines, hoovers – which the whole world wanted. It pioneered and perfected aggressive new marketing techniques associated with thrillingly dynamic images of this new rich automobile lifestyle. And all of this was encapsulated and sold around the world via Hollywood movies featuring rugged-jawed men and the big bosoms of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.

And accompanying all the products and marketing of post-war industrial capitalism, America also pioneered all the ways a newly affluent generation of young people could rebel against it. The Wild Ones (1953), Rebel without a Cause (1955), On The Road (1957). From the Beat poets through Californian surfer chic on into flower power and Woodstock and then New York glam, American popular culture pioneered all the attitudes, fashions and looks which pissed-off young people around the world could adopt as symbols of their ‘rebellion’. According to the wall label, The Outlaws, the gang Bruce Davidson hung out with, influenced the conception of Easy Rider (1969), which itself went on to inspire a whole new generation of young men.

Somewhere along the way, I don’t know when exactly, this look – scruffy jeans, white t-shirt, fast motorbike – became completely commodified and commercialised. By when – was it sometime in the 1980s, or was it in the 1970s – every street market in the western world was selling ‘rebellion’ in the shape of studded leather jackets or pre-stressed jeans, and a whole universe of logo-ed t-shirts.

My point is that, although the actual people Danny Lyon and Bruce Davidson and Larry Clarke documented were real, and experienced their non-conformity as real, this look, this style, this approach, this feel, has for generations now been the stuff of international marketing and profitable merchandising. It has become the international stock language of youth ‘rebellion’.

Post-Cold War America pioneers urban collapse This, I think, explains the difference in vibe between the ground floor and the first floor rooms. On the ground floor are loads of black and white photos which could still feature in an advert for Levi jeans today. That look is totally assimilated into the international style of ‘cool’. It is amusing and thrilling and nostalgic to see all of them, American bikers, Paris gangs, English Teds. Aaaaah, sweet.

Nothing could be more different from the lost children of America on the first floor. This is the world of The Wire and Breaking Bad, depicting a nation which has become really dysfunctional, in which not just a few cool kids drop out to ride bikes or take acid, but scores of millions of families and abandoned individuals live lives of poverty and violence and drug addiction. This is a completely different kind of ‘outsider’, not cool and not by choice they are casualties of a society falling to pieces, a society ravaged by urban unemployment, astonishing levels of street violence, widespread opioid addiction and mass shootings.

Transgender issues I’m not equipped to say very much about transgender issues except that the exhibition provides striking evidence that it is a universal condition – America, Chile, Mexico and, most surprisingly of all, polite suppressed Japan, all have their transgender communities. It is, quite obviously, another way of being human which should be accepted along with all the other ways and means of being human. And at the end of the bombardment of nearly 300 images, one of my favourite images from the whole show was of Evelyn, the Chilean transvestite, smiling, looking genuinely happy.

Photography on the margins?

I couldn’t quite make sense of the theme or message of the exhibition. Sure all these people are outsiders of sorts, but there is a world of difference between an American motorbike gang member and a Japanese transvestite club entertainer. Isn’t there? And between both and a street kid who’s selling sex aged 12?

Maybe they all are ‘outsiders’, but why stop there? If we’re talking the 70s and 80s (which a lot of the exhibition does) what about Vietnam veterans or the Russian veterans of Afghanistan? Come to that what about the veterans of any war from the last 70 years or so, damaged, alienated, depressed, often institutionalised?

What about the inhabitants of mental institutions, outsiders if there ever were any?

What about immigrants who – so we read in the papers – often feel alienated and threatened and ‘outside’ the host culture? Or refugees, also strangers and outsiders?

What about the disabled, hospitals full of deaf or blind or paraplegic people, who have their own ways of communicating and affirming their identities? They’re outside the ‘conventional’ cultural narratives.

What about old people with dementia, a growing tide of people who are really outside all conventional narratives? (My dad had dementia; it puts you way outside ‘conventional social narratives’.)

And those are just Western groups. Thinking of India makes me think of the Untouchables, the excluded caste, which I’m sure have been the subject of photographic books. Why not them?

In short, as soon as you begin to think for yourself about groups living ‘on the margins’, ‘outsiders’ living beyond conventional narratives of society, you quickly realise there’s no shortage of groups and tribes and sub-cultures in any modern society.

So it’s an exhibition which manages to be both overwhelming in the number of images it presents – very high quality images by some brilliant photographers who have dedicated years and even decades to studying their subjects – but also seems to be oddly narrow, politically correct and ‘cool’, in its subject and themes – 60s bikers, street kids, transgender heroes (I appreciate the ugly Russian and the hyena men stand completely outside all these generalisations).

You should definitely go, though. It’s full of brilliant photographs in a whole range of styles, and will (probably) introduce you to wonderful photographers you’ve never heard of before. I’ve told my daughter to go and take her friends. She’s 16. She loves taking photos. She wants to get piercings and a tattoo in order to express her individuality. She’s been taught that society oppresses women and alternative sexualities. She wants to change the world. She wants to be a rebel. She’ll absolutely love this show.

The promotional video

Women in the art world

Barbican Senior Manager – Katrina Crookall
Barbican Director of Arts – Louise Jeffreys
Barbican Head of Visual Arts – Jane Alison
Exhibition Curator
–  Alona Pardo
Exhibition Assistant – Charlotte Flint


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

This is one of the most spectacular and dramatically staged exhibitions I’ve ever been to.

Normandie in New York (1935-39) Collection French Lines

Normandie in New York (1935-39) Collection French Lines

The golden age of the ocean liner from the turn of the twentieth century to the Second World War coincides with the evolution of key decorative trends of the 20th century – Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Modernism. This exhibition takes a systematic approach to showcasing not only the decorative arts movements but a whole range of elements connected to the rise of the great ocean liners. To name a few:

  • national prestige – European nations competed to have the biggest, most luxurious ocean liners
  • technical competition to, for example, cross the Atlantic in the quickest time and win the Blue Riband
  • engineering – with a room devoted to black and white films of liners being built, models of steam turbines and other technical aspects
  • quite a number of very big models of classic liners, some with cutaway views so you can see into everything from cabins and dining rooms down into engine rooms and cargo holds

But where the exhibition really impresses is in the extraordinary thoroughness with which the entire environment has been conceived, and the scale of some of its key rooms.

For example, the first room has a wall with a big wall label introducing the history and art of ocean liners. It took me a while to realise that the wall itself is painted black with a red line along the bottom and slopes gently outwards like the hull of an actual liner. In front of it is a metal bollard of the kind the liner would tie mooring lines onto, and down at ground level was a concealed light projecting the shimmering as of water onto the lower part of the wall. It is the hull of a ship. Next to it is a wall of posters, and some monitors showing footage of people getting on to old liners – and then, to continue the exhibition, you walk through a doorway cut into this imaginary hull. It’s clever and stylish.

The wall of stylish Art Deco posters at Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

The wall of stylish Art Deco posters at Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

The next room wonderfully recreates the dark wood feel of a pre-Great War liner, heavy with wood panelling and Art Nouveau glass, both which featuring motifs derived from Versailles Palace of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

Another room examines smaller aspects of shipboard design as it developed from the 1920s through to the 1960s. This features a wonderful mural by English artist Edward Bawden (soon to be the subject of an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery), as well as a monitor with footage showing how the stylish evening dress of the 20s and 30s declined into the relaxed casual wear of the 50s and 60s.

The Art Deco objects are thrilling and sleek – it is a style which never goes out of fashion – whereas the wall lamps and mounts from the 50s and 60s look tacky and dated.

The English Pub Mural for the SS Oronsay by Edward Bawden (1949-51)

The English Pub Mural for the SS Oronsay by Edward Bawden (1949-51)

On a similar scale is the room about Engineering and the War. The engineering element is conveyed by cutaway models of ships highlighting the enormous coal-powered turbines, by highly evocative black and white footage of shipbuilders working in the Clyde or Belfast shipyards.

But the attention to detail, to creating a total sensory and visual experience which I mentioned re the sloping hull-wall, comes out in the way the engineering ‘room’ has a deep thrumming sound in it, the sound engines actually beneath the ship’s decks – and by the way the floor changes from parquet to metal plate decking with chevron mouldings, giving just this room a more industrial feel. In one corner is an enormous model of a ship’s funnel painted black and red which also forms part of the wall of the next room. This room contains one of Stanley Spencer’s inspirational paintings of shipworkers on the Clyde.

Shipbuilding on the Clyde by Sir Stanley Spencer (early 1940s)

Shipbuilding on the Clyde by Sir Stanley Spencer (early 1940s)

It also contains a wall describing ocean liners in war, with a focus on the horrific sinking of the Lusitania by German U-boat on 7 May 1915 with the loss of 1,201 people. This section includes photos of the ship, a film recreation of the event, and the stirring patriotic poster which resulted.

'Enlist' by Fred Spear (1915)

Enlist by Fred Spear (1915)

This feel of a ‘sensaround experience’ – the opening room with its curving ship’s hull wall, the engine room with its humming engines – is reinforced by a wonderful Art Deco room adorned with strong vertical lights and displaying the enormous interior panel from the Smoking Room of the French liner, Normandie, created by leading Art Deco lacquer artist Jean Dunand. Photos show it in situ but none of them can convey the sheer scale of the thing itself.

Interior panel from the Smoking Room of the French liner, Normandie by Jean Dunand

Interior panel from the Smoking Room of the French liner, Normandie by Jean Dunand

But impressive though all these rooms are, they turn out to be mere foreplay for the stunning centrepiece of the show.

The V&A has converted a large room in the North Court into a kind of night-time fantasia of the gracious living to be found on the classic ocean liners. The high ceiling of this huge space has been covered in black felt and dotted with lights to recreate the sparkling stars to be seen at night-time far out in the light-free ocean. Reaching up into this night sky is a tower of huge video screens onto which are projected time lapse footage of a man in evening dress and a woman in an elegant gown stylishly descending imaginary stairs down to our (ground level).

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

This central column is surrounded on three sides with display cases showing all aspects of the luxury of life on a cruise: a whole load of evening gowns and dresses in beautiful Deco fashion, studded with pearls and jewels; earrings, necklaces, jewellery that would have been worn; and an entire wall dedicated to food with footage of the famous chef Auguste Escoffier preparing meals for his lucky passengers alongside luxury sets of plate, the cutlery and tea services you would have found in tip-top VIP accommodation.

But that isn’t all. You enter this enormous space by walking around a mock-up of a typical ocean liner swimming pool made of coloured glass, around which and in which are shop window mannekins wearing stylish swimsuits from the era. Behind them, and the length of one wall, is an enormous wide-screen projection of a liner sailing slowly across a panoramic view of a beautiful calm tropical sea.

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Wow! Just wow! I’ve never seen something so ambitious and overwhelming as this one huge display. You go around looking at the tea services and dresses and so on, but keep returning to just gaze in awe up at the tower of stylish evening-wear models or across at the stately liner in the blue sea, and are continually gobsmacked at the size and ambition of the whole space.

There are panels about the importance of class distinctions on the liners, about the difference in conditions, food and facilities for first, second or third-class passengers. There is another room full of the art inspired by ocean liners, including paintings by the likes of Albert Gleizes and Charles Demuth and some great black and white photos by Le Corbusier and Eileen Gray.

There are objets de luxe to coo over, like a precious Cartier tiara recovered from the sinking Lusitania in 1915 or the Duke of Windsor’s sumptuous 1940s Goyard luggage. There’s a little corner devoted to the wonderful Marlene Dietrich, including footage of her posing onboard a liner and a case containing a Christian Dior suit worn by the lady herself.

The show also includes what the museum describes as one of the most important flapper dresses in the V&A’s collection – Jeanne Lanvin’s ‘Salambo’ dress – a version of which was displayed at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. The dress belonged to Emilie Grigsby, a renowned wealthy American beauty, who regularly travelled between the UK and New York aboard the Aquitania, Olympic and Lusitania throughout the 1910s and 1920s.

The silk georgette and glass-beaded Salambo dress designed by Jeanne Lanvin of Paris (1925)

Silk georgette and glass-beaded Salambo dress designed by Jeanne Lanvin of Paris (1925)

And for anyone (like my Dad) who likes big scale models of ships, this exhibition is nirvana.

But after looking at display cases showing all these items or explaining all the industrial, technological and social history of the ocean liner, from Isambard Kingdom Brunel to the Queen Mary, you keep returning to the Big Room, and the sheer scale of its awesome display of swimming models, night gowns, the moving footage, all unfolding under the mocked-up night sky.

This really is an amazing and dazzling exhibition.

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Curator: Ghislaine Wood


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

Age of Terror: Art since 9/11 @ Imperial War Museum London

This is the UK’s first major exhibition to bring together a broad range of artists’ responses to the age of war and conflict which we’ve lived in since 9/11. It features some 50 works of art by over 40 artists, and so – quite apart from the fascinating subject matter – represents an interesting overview of the contemporary art world, from international superstars like Ai Weiwei and British national treasure Grayson Perry, to a raft of Middle Eastern artists who are exhibiting in Britain for the first time.

The exhibition also showcases an impressive diversity of artistic media including painting, film, sculpture, installations, photography, tapestry and ceramics.

A very brief history

The exhibition is based on the premise that the world changed on the morning of 11 September 2001, when al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes, flew two of them into the World Trade Centre towers in New York, and also attacked the Pentagon building.

The exhibition kicks off with the events themselves being depicted in a 57-minute-long video by Tony Oursler. Oursler was in his apartment just blocks from the World Trade Centre when the first plane struck. He grabbed his camera to shoot footage of the burning building and continued to record as the second tower was hit. He went out onto the street to capture the responses of New Yorkers  on that morning and over the following days.

Image result for 9/11 newspaper

A few days later President George W. Bush declared an all-out ‘War on Terror’.

A month later, on October 7, 2001, America invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government which had refused to hand over the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, who had claimed responsibility for the attacks, and ran training camps in the country for his terrorist network. The Taliban government was swiftly overthrown by Western forces, but bin Laden wasn’t captured. (He wasn’t tracked down and killed until 2 May 2011 when United States Navy SEALs stormed his secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.)

Eighteen months later, after a prolonged standoff over the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction, in March 2003 the United States invaded Iraq to overthrow long-standing enemy President Saddam Hussein. the invasion swiftly led to looting and widespread chaos. Within a few months reports began to emerge of American guards carrying out human rights abuses on Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. The U.S. Army instituted its own investigation which ended up detailing the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, and was accompanied by photos of naked and tortured Iraqis which were reproduced around the world and became a rallying point for anti-Western anger.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq turned into a disaster which led to a prolonged civil war in which new Islamist groups emerged, not least the so-called Islamic State group (ISIS). ISIS took advantage of the final withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011 to expand into a swathe of territory across northern Iraq and into Syria, itself the victim of a prolonged civil war.

Saddam is Here by Jamal Penjweny (2009–10) Courtesy The Artist and Ruya Foundation

Saddam is Here by Jamal Penjweny (2009–10) Courtesy The Artist and Ruya Foundation

In the years since 2001 there have been numerous further Islamist terrorist attacks in America itself and across Europe (there was one in the South of France on the day I wrote this post). They have become a fact of life in the modern world.

Set down briefly like this, these facts make a devastating and depressing narrative. But do they mean that we now live in an ‘Age of Terror’? And to what extent can works of art answer that question or explain the situation?

Themes

The exhibition is divided into themes including:

  • 9/11
  • Surveillance
  • Prisoner abuse
  • State control
  • Weapons
  • Home

To be honest, although the treatment was sometimes interesting, I found the choice and explanation of some of these themes a bit obvious.

‘9/11’

As well as Tony Oursler’s video, the 9/11 attacks are marked by a number of works. A long room/corridor contains no fewer than 150 front pages of newspapers from around the world which reported the attacks, gathered together in a ‘work’ by Hans-Peter Feldman titled Front Page. Like a lot of conceptual art, this is really a one-trick pony. You could, if you want to, examine every single front page to see how the selection and cropping of pictures and the use of headline text varies from country to country. In the event what this big display shows is how remarkably little variation there was between countries. The 9/11 attack was front page news and so… it made a lot of front pages. It would have been a bit more teasing and unexpected to make a collection of newspapers which didn’t lead with the attacks as their main story (if any).

A whole room was devoted to an installation, The Twin Towers by Iván Navarro, a spooky work which uses mirrors and lights to give the sense of a limitless hole extending infinitely down into the floor. As it happens, I myself visited Ground Zero in New York a few years ago and saw the enormous square fountains created around the base of each fallen building as a memorial. (In fact I visited the Twin Towers themselves back in the 1980s and took the superfast elevator to the viewing platform.) Navarro’s work is interesting but I found it clinical and clever rather than moving.

The Twin Towers by Iván Navarro (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

The Twin Towers by Iván Navarro (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

Gerhard Richter is a German painter well known for creating large canvases of smeared paint. He was on a plane heading towards New York on that fateful morning which was diverted. He later created a characteristic smear painting which he later – according to the wall label – had second thoughts about whether to display or not. But he did. Here it is.

There’s a video of a piece of performance art, where an actor wore a dust-covered suit, as if he was a survivor of the attacks, and walked or stood at locations around the city a year or so later. The suit is hanging up next to it.

Video artist Kerry Tribe placed an advert in a Hollywood actors magazine for a role she described as ‘potential terrorist’. She then shot silent minute-long profiles of the men who replied, splicing them together into a 30-minute video, Potential Terrorist. Well, they all look a little sinister, given that the context, title and purpose of the film have put you in that paranoid frame of mind.

Grayson Perry was working on a large vase about the power station at Dungeness when he heard about the attacks. He modified the design to include crashing planes and terrified civilians.

Dolls at Dungeness September 11th 2001 by Grayson Perry (2001) © Grayson Perry / Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London. Photo by Stephen Brayne

Dolls at Dungeness September 11th 2001 by Grayson Perry (2001) © Grayson Perry / Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London. Photo by Stephen Brayne

‘Surveillance’

The room on ‘Surveillance’ explains the way we citizens of the West World are now more intensively surveilled and monitored than ever before. It contains arguably the two best works in the show – Jitish Kallat’s comical series of Action Man-sized models of people being searched and frisked at airport security; and Ai Weiwei’s brilliant marble statue of a CCTV camera on a plinth.

Surveillance Camera with Plinth by Ai Weiwei (2015) © Ai Weiwei Studio; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Surveillance Camera with Plinth by Ai Weiwei (2015) © Ai Weiwei Studio; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

‘Iraq’

Peter Kennard has been making fiercely political photomontages made from press photographs since the 1980s. (The IWM hosted an impressive retrospective of his work in 2015.) His contribution here is an enormous collage made in collaboration with Cat Phillipps, and using newspapers and black ink.

The basic image is a blown-up photo of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who decided to support George Bush in the American invasion of Iraq, against the wishes of a huge number of British citizens.

Head of State by Kennardphillipps (2007)

Head of State by Kennardphillipps (2007)

Since about 2010 American artist Jenny Holzer has been working on a series titled Redaction paintings. She uses official documents about the attacks and the two invasions, which have been released to the public but with sections blacked out or ‘redacted’, to indicate the scale of what is still kept back from the public, from us, the people who pay the wages of politicians and civil servants and armies.

In a corridor between rooms hang ribbons of black bunting, a work titled Black Bunting by Fiona Banner.

‘Prisoner abuse’

Rachel Howard has done a painted version of the iconic photograph of the Iraqi prisoner being tortured which went viral after its release in 2004. His name is Ali Shallal al-Qaisi.

DHC 6765, Study by Rachel Howard (2005) © The Artist / Photo Prudence Cuming Associates

DHC 6765, Study by Rachel Howard (2005) © The Artist. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates

Nearby is a room in which a 59-minute-long video titled Operation Atropos 2006 by Cuban-American director Coco Fusco is screened. Fusco worked with retired U.S. Army interrogators who, at her request, subjected a group of volunteer women students to simulations of POW experiences in order to show them what hostile interrogations can be like and how members of the U.S. military are taught to resist them. The documentary includes interviews with the interrogators that shed light on how they read personalities, evaluate an interrogatee’s reliability, and use the imposition of physical and mental stress strategically. It’s violent and distressing stuff but then… what did you expect an interrogation to be like?

Operation Atropos directed by Coco Fusco (2006) Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York / © Coco Fusco/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

Operation Atropos directed by Coco Fusco (2006) Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York / © Coco Fusco/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

Nearby is a painting, Bound by John Keane, depicting a figure in an orange jump suit against a stark black background and with no head, representing the civilians and prisoners which various Islamist groups have executed on camera and posted online over the past 17 years.

‘Home’

This part of the exhibition consists of four rooms containing works mostly by Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian artists. The idea is to reflect how the disastrous conflicts in their countries have shattered traditional ideas of a safe, secure ‘home’.

They include a work which is like an enormous tapestry made of cardboard egg cartons spliced together and which tumbles down the wall and onto the floor, Floodland by Walid Siti. Dominating one wall is My Country Map by Hanaa Malallah, made up of layers of burnt canvas arranged to create a tattered and scorched map of the Middle East, with only a few vivid highlights of colour.

My Country Map by Hanaa Malallah (2008) © Courtesy The Park Gallery & Roger Fawcett-Tang

My Country Map by Hanaa Malallah (2008) © Courtesy The Park Gallery & Roger Fawcett-Tang

There are a lot of videos in this section including one by the Syrian artist Hrair Sarkissian which shows a scale model he made of the apartment block in Damascus where his family lived till he fled the city. The video then shows the artist smashing the model to pieces with a big hammer – Homesick, 11 minutes long.

Elsewhere White House is a video by Afghan artist Lida Abdul which shows a woman painting whitewash with a big housepainting brush onto the ruins of a palace in post-Saddam Iraq.

‘Weapons’

There are several pieces meditating on the rise of drone warfare. The first ever drone strike was launched from an unmanned and weaponised Predator aircraft on 7 October 2001. One of the most striking pieces in the show is a site-specific installation made by James Bridle. He was allowed to paint the full-scale outline of a predator drone onto the floor of the main atrium of the War Museum in a piece titled Drone shadow. Watching people walk across it, mostly unaware of its significance, is spooky.

Drone shadow by James Bridle

Drone shadow by James Bridle

There’s a dark room devoted to a 30-minute-long video of an interview with a now-retired ‘pilot’ of one of these drones, Omer Fast’s 5,000 feet is best. I was very disappointed when I discovered that the nervy unshaven dude in the film is in fact an actor. (The devastating power of these weapons, as well as the difficulties of using them without causing collateral damage, is the subject of the 2015 movie Eye in the Sky.)

There’s another video showing Afghan soldiers and civilians stripping, cleaning and rebuilding automatic weapons. The sound of the metallic clicks becomes steadily more oppressive the longer you watch, and follows you as you walk into other rooms – click, click, click…

Media

As well as by subject matter, the exhibits can also be divided by media:

  • painting
  • sculpture
  • photography
  • photomontage
  • video
  • rugs and tapestries
  • ceramics

The most unusual artefact is probably Grayson Perry’s big vase. A vase commemorating 9/11. OK.

I was also surprised at the half a dozen so rugs and tapestries made by different artists, some using tradition Afghan methods and motifs, others more overtly depicting automatic rifles or the 9/11 attacks themselves.

Some of the paintings are powerful, for example of the tortured Abu Ghraib man and the Gerhard Richter smear.

But two things struck me about the exhibition as a whole:

How many videos there were and how long they were. Tony Oursler’s eye witness account is nearly an hour long, the drone pilot is half an hour, the students being shouted at in the Atropos film is an hour long – that’s two and a half hours you’d have to spend in the exhibition just to see these three pieces. But in addition there’s also the stripping guns film, the man smashing a model of his house film, the woman painting a palace film: three hours minimum.

The best pieces were sculptures: the Ai Weiwei camera, a scary model by Jake & Dinos Chapman of small bodies accumulated into two great mounds of corpses (one for each tower) and Jitish Kallat’s toy people being searched.

Circadian Rhyme 1 by Jitish Kallat (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

Circadian Rhyme 1 by Jitish Kallat (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

And also a brilliant piece in the ‘Weapons’ section, a cabinet full of model hand grenades made in the kind of coloured glass that Christmas tree decorations are made from, by Mona Hatoum.

Natura morta (bow-fronted cabinet) by Mona Hatoum (2012) © Mona Hatoum / Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

Natura morta (bow-fronted cabinet) by Mona Hatoum (2012) © Mona Hatoum / Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

Thoughts

1. The new normal

I found a lot of the show a little boring. None of it moved me. 9/11 is pretty old news now. I was very moved by visiting the actual Ground Zero in New York, but not by seeing a wall of old newspapers about it, or even the clever piece by Iván Navarro. Similarly, a big photomontage of Tony Blair as hate figure is pretty old news now, as is the image of the man from Abu Ghraib. 14 years old.

2. Has modern warfare really changed all that much?

Similarly, when the exhibition claims that the nature of modern warfare has changed decisively, I don’t think that’s really true. What was striking about the war in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and latterly in Syria is how very conventional they have been – after the ‘shock and awe’ bombing, it still boils down to our guys going in and shooting their guys and their guys trying to blow up our guys. The misery of house to house fighting through densely packed towns and cities which was a feature of fighting in the Second World War (if not before) was also a feature of the fighting in Falluja and is still taking place in eastern Ghouta and other urban centres in Syria.

Atom bombs, neutron bombs, smart bombs – all the science fiction weapons of my boyhood turn out to be completely irrelevant in modern warfare. It involves air strikes like World War Two, and sometimes artillery bombardments like World War One, but always ends up with bloody street fighting – witness the numerous accounts of British soldiers patrolling Helmand or Baghdad and getting sniped at and blown up by improvised explosive devices, witness movies like American Sniper or The Hurt Locker.

The only real innovation seems to be unarmed drones, which are guided by controllers thousands of miles away in the States. This is new for the people doing it, but the result is pretty familiar – bombs fall out of the sky, sometimes on valid military targets, often on civilian bystanders, as they have since the First World War (as vividly described in Rudyard Kipling’s short story, Mary Postgate).

3. Art in the internet age

What is nowhere mentioned is that the Age of Terror has coincided, more or less, with the Digital Age, the Age of the Internet.

This means lots of things (al-Qaeda posted their videos on YouTube, ISIS has an effective social media presence, terrorists embedded in the West can contact each other digitally without even meeting). But in the realm of aesthetics it means that we are even more totally saturated with imagery and news than ever before.

In my opinion, this has had a seismic and catastrophic impact on art. After all, why care very much about ‘art’ images, displayed in ‘art galleries’, when there is such a bombardment of interesting, funny, shocking, comic, tragic, diverting and exciting imagery to be found all the time, everywhere else?

Most of the artworks in this exhibition are very slow. Very old school. Oil painting? Like Rembrandt and Turner did? Why on earth make oil paintings about the surveillance society or the war in Iraq? What on earth has painting to do with a world of suicide bombers and drone attacks?

A lot of the artworks here are conceptual in the sense that they are based on an idea which you either ‘get’ or don’t ‘get’ in much the same way that you ‘get’ a joke.

  • 150 newspaper front pages about 9/11.
  • Painting redacted documents.
  • Interview with a drone operator.
  • Jamal Penjweny’s idea to get normal citizens of Iraq to hold a photo of Saddam in front of their faces, photograph them and create a portfolio titled Saddam is here.
  • Painted versions of the photographs of prisoners being tortured at Abu Ghraib.

One-idea gags. They are a kind of intellectual embellishment of the perplexingly complicated historical, political and military events out there in the real world. None of them adds a lot to your understanding of the causes and effects of 9/11 and Iraq. They are another – admittedly sometimes rather demanding – form of entertainment in a world drowning in visual entertainment.

I think this helps explain the impact of the sculptures, the way they emerge as (I think) the strongest pieces. The most impactful three – the Chapman brothers’ piles of bodies, Ai Weiwei’s CCTV camera, Jitish Kallat’s searched action figures – all of them have an instant and powerful visual and conceptual hit.

The Chapmans came to fame in the 1997 Sensation exhibition of works collected by famous advertising tycoon, Charles Saatchi. Just about every critic of the time made the connection between Saatchi’s day job selecting instantaneously powerful images which pack a punch (the pregnant man poster, the Labour isn’t working poster) and his taste for the ‘shocking’ and immediate works of Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin or the Chapmans or Marcus Harvey or Marc Quinn.

I think Ai Weiwei’s work is smack bang in this tradition. He has mastered the skill of applying the ‘instant recognition’ techniques of advertising, to works of ‘art’. It is no surprise that the sculpture of the security camera on a plinth was chosen for the posters and adverts for the exhibition. Like Charles Saatchi Ai has a perfect eye for the iconic image. He is the leading examplar of the way the events of the last 17 years or so can be pillaged for images and icons which can be turned into ‘art’ and form the basis of a lucrative career.

But giving you a better understanding of the world we live in?

4. Understanding issues

No one in their right mind should go to a work of art to ‘understand an issue’. You should read a book, articles, journalism, cuttings and speak to experts in order to ‘understand an issue’. You should research and analyse an ‘issue’.

The commentary asks, ‘Does art have a place in helping to understand terror?’ to which the simple answer is, ‘No, not in the slightest’. What does Ai Weiwei’s stone camera or Mona Hatoum’s glass hand grenades add to your understanding of the causes and consequences of Islamic terrorism? Nothing. They decorate it.

Art is a luxury product, designed to enhance the lives of the rich, or be added to well-funded public collections – it is not history or sociology or anthropology. It is not the study of geopolitics or international affairs or military strategy or state security.

Turn the question round: which work of art has helped you understand the Syrian Civil War best? (Not to understand that war is horrible and violent and people get killed in it – any child knows that, though gruesome photos of victims being dragged from bombed buildings always ram it home. But they don’t help anyone to understand anythingmore than that people suffer and die in war.)

Which work of art has helped you understand why the people of Syria rose up against Bashar-al-Assad in 2011, helped you understand why Syria split up into different geographic units, helped you understand the mosaic of religious and ethnic groups which make up the Syrian population, helped you understand why the West was reluctant to send in troops or commit militarily to the war, helped you understand why Vladimir Putin stepped in and made Russia the main external player in Syria, helped you understand why – lacking Western support – the anti-government forces were soon outstripped by better-funded militant and Islamist groups, helped you understand why U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011 creating a vacuum into which ISIS quickly spread? Helped you understand why, after seven years of agony for the people of Syria, the chances are Bashar-al-Assad will probably stay in power?

Not only does no work of art do this, but no work of art could do this. Only a carefully researched factual account, in fact numerous such accounts, in-depth information about the country’s history and culture and religious and ethnic composition, a good grasp of the geopolitical interests of the local powers (Iran and Saudi Arabia) and the international powers (Russia, America), and a knowledge of the political and military strategy of the United States in neighbouring Iraq could even begin to help you understand the situation.

A painting won’t do that. A sculpture is no replacement for that. Even a video can’t convey that depth and clarity of information required for such a complicated subject. A woman painting a ruined palace is a good gag, a memorable riff, a nifty concept which can be worked up into a ‘piece of art’ which can be sold on to a willing gallery. But it is no replacement for sober, thorough and intelligent analysis.

If the community of galleries, curators, art schools and artists decide that art can be made from subjects, ideas and images in the news, that’s one thing. But pretending that art helps us to ‘understand’ social and political issues is a fond and futile delusion of the art-making and art-consuming classes.

Featured artists

Lida Abdul, Khaled Abdul Wahed, Francis Alÿs, Cory Arcangel, Fiona Banner, James Bridle, Christoph Büchel, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Mahwish Chishty, Nathan Coley, David Cotterrell, Dexter Dalwood, Omer Fast, Coco Fusco, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Mona Hatoum, Jenny Holzer, Rachel Howard, Shona Illingworth, Alfredo Jaar, Jitish Kallat, John Keane, kennardphillips, Fabian Knecht, Hanaa Malallah, Julie Mehretu, Sabine Mortiz, Iván Navarro, Tony Oursler, Trevor Paglen, Mai-Thu Perret, Grayson Perry, Jamal Penjweny, Gerhard Richter, Martha Rosler, Jim Ricks, Hrair Sarkissian, Indrė Šerpytytė, Santiago Sierra, Taryn Simon, Walid Siti, John Smith, Kerry Tribe, Ai Weiwei.

There’s quite a lot of art to enjoy and admire here, and I found this a very thought-provoking exhibition – but not necessarily in the way the curators intended.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial war Museum

Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

This is a wonderfully fun and uplifting exhibition but be warned: only go if you’re prepared to step carefully among the scores of toddlers large and small, running squealing and laughing from one interactive treat to the next. For this exhibition is an experiment, an innovation, an attempt to create a fun and stimulating exhibition for parents and children, very small children. Very, very small children.

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What I hadn’t expected is that, in among all the fabulous blow-ups of the characters, the models, the play tent, the mock-up stairs and the slide, there is also quite a serious and scholarly exhibition of some 95 of E.H. Shepard’s original Winnie the Pooh illustrations, accompanied by some very interesting and illuminating commentary.

Biography of a bear

Alan Alexander Milne was born in 1882 and by 1906 was assistant editor of Punch. He was a prolific professional writer, producing humorous verse, social satire, comic stories, fairy tales and even a murder mystery novel.

Ernest Howard Shepard was born in 1879 and during the Edwardian decade worked as an illustrator for Punch as well as numerous other magazines and illustrated a variety of books. He served in the Great War where he produced not only humorous cartoons (cf. William Heath Robinson’s Great War cartoons) but also some powerful pencil drawings of the Western Front. These are collected in a funny and moving book, Shepard’s War, on sale in the V&A shop, and were also included in the excellent overview of Shepard’s career held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, back in 2000.

In 1913 Milne married Dorothy ‘Daphne’ de Sélincourt and in 1920 she had a baby they named Christopher Robin Milne.

Photograph of A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin, ca. 1925-1926 (c) National Portrait Gallery

Photograph of A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin, 1925-1926 (c) National Portrait Gallery

In 1924 Milne published a volume of verses he’d made up for his son, When We Were Very Young, which included a poem about his son’s bear, humorously nick-named Winnie the Pooh. This was followed by a book of stories –Winnie-the-Pooh – in 1926, then The House at Pooh Corner (1928) with a second volume of poems, Now We Are Six, in between (1927).

An exhibition for children

Five minutes after it opened the exhibition was packed, and I mean packed, with mums and prams and scores and scores of 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children, toddling from one treat to the next. The exhibition has been designed to be as toddler-friendly as possible, in numerous ways:

– There are as many blow-up images of Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl and the rest as it’s possible to ooh and aah at. I particularly liked the model of Pooh holding on to his blue balloon and sailing up towards the ceiling.

– There is lots going on down at floor level, starting with the large-scale words naming each section, festooned with jolly cutouts of all the Pooh characters.

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

– Other treats include a cubby hole inside a big blow-up of the letter O of ‘Owl’ for the very small to crawl into, and a mock-up of the tent Pooh makes in the woods, to hide in. There’s a slide to slide down and little tables and chairs with scraps of paper and coloured pencils to draw on. I used to take my small children to one o’clock clubs to play and draw. I remember it all so well.

– There’s even a mock-up of pooh sticks bridge which, alas, only has a digital stream running underneath it so no actual dropping of sticks is possible. (Given that there’s a fountain and pool in the main courtyard of the V&A I wonder if it crossed the designers’ minds to make this flow from one end to the other, erect a bridge and give kids real sticks.)

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

– There’s a model of the door into the tree where Pooh lived to run in and out of, along with a bell with a rope hanging from the knocker, so that the sound of a bell being manically rung by a succession of three-year-olds accompanies you around the exhibition.

– There’s a recording of a bit of the story going on in a special darkened room where you can lie on the floor and watch the words being projected on the ceiling.

– And throughout the exhibition, at toddler head height, is a succession of placards inviting the curious child to do interesting activities or think creative thoughts:

  • ‘Piglet is struggling against the snow and the wind. How would you feel if you were Piglet?’
  • ‘What do you think a heffalump looks like?’

Suggestion

My experience of looking after small children in party places is that they run excitedly from one treat to another and exhaust themselves in five minutes. To really cater to youngsters, maybe some soft play areas with fluffy Pooh toys would have been an idea – places (and quite a few would be needed) where mums and little ones could really unwind, take coats and shoes off, and soak up the ambience.

At the recent exhibition on Tove Jansson at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, they filled the ante-room half way through the show with lots of cushions and lots and lots of books, large and small, picture books, cartoon books, story books, and while I was there these were permanently full with kids reading for themselves, or mums or grandparents reading to toddlers. For all its digital wizardry, what this exhibition missed was some quiet spaces like that.

Still, top marks to the V&A for trying as hard as possible to make the show child-friendly and exciting.

Ernest Howard Shepard, illustrator of genius

Milne himself was the first to acknowledge that it was Shepard’s illustrations which brought Pooh and his animal friends to life. From the start of the exhibition Shepard’s original pencil illustrations for the books are sprinkled in among the displays of Pooh memorabilia, first edition books, props and toys – but as the exhibition proceeds there are steadily more of them and, particularly in the final three, rather narrow corridors, the show turns into a fairly scholarly and fascinating analysis of Shepard’s drawing technique.

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic, showing a mock-up of Christopher Robin’s bedroom (with a toy bed which you’re encouraged to lie on and read). Note the half a dozen prints of Shepard’s original artwork on the wall © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These last few corridors group Shepard’s marvellously evocative drawings into sets of two or three and uses each group to demonstrate a particular aspect of his craft. This is actually quite rare at art exhibitions. Usually you get a lot of biographical information, general history, some explanation of the subject matter and so on – but you rarely very much about how the works are actually made.

The curators have done a tremendous job of explaining how Shepard gets his effects. For example, in this drawing of Pooh and Piglet walking through the snow, they explain how Shepard first drew the figures, then used gouache to ‘stop out’ i.e blot over, some of the lines, thus creating a realistic sense of the snow falling in your line of vision between you and the characters.

Image result for winnie pooh shepard snow

Next to it is the picture of Hundred Acre Wood in the downpour which causes the flood. The commentary explains how Shepard methodically drew the main subject – the imposing beech tree and the rising water level – and then used a knife to incise the surface of the paper in diagonal lines to create an almost physical sense of rain falling.

There are about twenty little sectionettes like this, packed with insights. They bring you right into the pictures and give you a tremendous appreciation of Shepard’s skill and technique. Subjects include:

  • Animation – the way Shepard does multiple versions of a sequence of events e.g. Eeyore chasing his own tail, to give a sense of movement and dynamism.
  • Character study – two versions of Christopher Robin leaving school, one moony and sentimental, the other showing him kicking through the leaves, which is much more forceful and was the version chosen for the book.
  • Stance – Sensible phlegmatic Pooh is almost always show foursquare with both feet on the ground, Piglet’s arms are often cast backwards as if in dismay or surprise, Eeyore’s head and neck are always bent down nearly to the ground in gloom.
  • Expression – Related to the above, the curators point out the simple fact that none of the animals has an expression, their fixed expressions never change. The powerful sense you have of the characters’ changing moods is created almost entirely by their stances and attitudes.
  • Slapstick – shows how Shepard drew sets of pictures giving a sequence of (generally comic) events, possibly something he learned from the movies. The example given is the six small illustrations of Pooh struggling to climb aboard the floating honey jar in the flood and continually falling off it.
  • Irony – Shepard would often illustrate things which weren’t in the text a) giving the pictures added interest, prompting you to really study them, and b) often showing the reader objects or actions in the background suggesting things which the characters themselves don’t know about.
  • Interplay with the text – Milne and Shepard between them came up with humorous ideas for integrating text and illustration, a good example being the scene when Pooh is being lifted up into the air by the balloon, the way the text describing the action is squeezed into a narrow column of single words along the right-hand side of the full-page picture – thus recreating the verticality of the action.

Shepard’s trees

I found myself falling in love with Shepard’s depictions of trees.

At one stage there’s a set of drawings Shepard did when Milne took him to Ashdown Forest, the inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood –  and, devoid of animals or characters, they are simply very good drawings of a wood, a copse, a clump of trees, or individual beech trees.

The more illustrations you look at, the more you realise it’s the completely naturalistic rendering of the trees and bushes which gives so many of the pictures their sense of space, depth and verisimilitude, against which the little animals live out their adventures.

Surely the tree is the real star of this illustration. From Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Surely the tree is the real star of this colour illustration, bringing everything else to life? From Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A wall label towards the end gives an analysis of the drawing of Pooh and Piglet ‘having a stroll’. It explains the way the spinney of trees was drawn in tremendously realistic detail, Shepard using a thin pencil for the outlines and branches, and thicker pencils for the leaves, as also for the detailed gorse bush to the right. Whereas the grass or brush which the characters are strolling through is done in a completely different way, using a scatter of almost abstract shapes and flecks. And then the characters themselves are limned with cross-hatching to bring out their volume. Note how Pooh is in a characteristically phlegmatic pose, hands held behind his back, Piglet is (as so often) looking up in admiration of some larger animal) while ahead of them Tigger is in characteristically exuberant mood, caught off the ground in mid-bounce (note the little shadow beneath his body).

In other words, this detailed commentary to Shepard’s illustrations gives a fantastic insight into how he used different techniques for different elements of the pictures, to create depth and characterisation and animation.

Having a stroll by E.H. Shepard in Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Having a stroll by E.H. Shepard in Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum

As I mentioned earlier, there are some 95 drawings and illustrations by Shepard in the show, and the wall labels explaining in detail how he created his visual effects, how he and Milne integrated the pictures large and small into the text, creating dramatic and ironic effects by their interplay – provide one of the most genuinely illuminating and insightful commentaries on an artist’s work I think I’ve ever read.


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All Too Human @ Tate Britain

Britain is a collection of chilly rainswept islands in the North Atlantic, on the same latitude as Moscow (as we may learn to our cost in the decades to come, if global warming really does disrupt the Gulf Stream). For more than half the year the sky is overcast and grey. Whereas the inhabitants of southern countries like Spain or Italy have a tradition of living outside for much of the year, and dressing their finest every night for the evening stroll or passeggiata, ours is a country of fusty pubs for the working class and dinner parties for the posh. Ours is an indoors country.

This basic fact about life in Britain come across very strongly in Tate Britain’s new exhibition, All Too Human: Bacon, Freud And A Century Of Painting Life. It is a show of some 93 paintings, one sculpture and half a dozen black-and-white photographs by some of the most celebrated British artists of the past 100 years who have painted depictions of the human body. In roughly chronological order the artists are:

  • Walter Sickert b.1860
  • David Bomberg b.1890
  • Stanley Spencer b.1891
  • Chaim Soutine b.1893
  • Giacometti b.1901
  • William Coldstream b.1908
  • Francis Bacon b.1909
  • John Deakin b.1912
  • Lucian Freud b.1922
  • Francis Souza b.1924
  • Leon Kossoff b.1926
  • Dorothy Mead b.1928
  • Michael Andrew b.1928
  • Frank Auerbach b.1931
  • Dennis Creffield b.1931
  • Euan Uglow b.1932
  • R.B. Kitaj b.1932
  • Paula Rego b.1935
  • Celia Paul b.1959
  • Cecily Brown b.1969
  • Jenny Saville b.1970
  • Lynette Yiadom-Boakye b.1970

Mud or Mad

A reviewer of Tennyson’s long poem, Maud (1855) sardonically commented that it would have been more accurately named if either of the vowels had been removed. As I walked round this grim, dark and oppressive exhibition, I began to think most of the works on display could similarly be divided into ‘Mud’ or ‘Mad’, with maybe the additional category of ‘Livid Corpse’.

1. Mud

The School of Mud was inaugurated by Walter Sickert, leader of the so-called Camden Town Group. While John Singer Sargent was painting evocative portraits of fine society ladies or women with parasols lounging in the Mediterranean sunshine, Sickert painted prostitutes in dingy attics or leering crowds in half-lit music halls. The three works by him here are deliberately squalid, dark and dingy, so dark you have to peer up close to see any detail.

Nuit d'Été by Walter Richard Sickert (c.1906) Private Collection, Ivor Braka Ltd

Nuit d’Été by Walter Richard Sickert (c.1906) Private Collection, Ivor Braka Ltd

Rooms five and six of the exhibition explore the work of David Bomberg as artist and teacher at Borough Polytechnic, where his emphasis on the tactile quality of paint influenced his students Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach.

Bomberg is represented by Vigilante, which I quite liked because of its powerful vertical lines, which reminded me of the Vorticist work of Wyndham Lewis or Jacob Epstein. But it was his use of thick impasto which influenced his students and went on to become the distinguishing characteristic of the paintings of Kossoff and Auerbach.

Head of Jake by Frank Auerbach (1997) © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Head of Jake by Frank Auerbach (1997) © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

These murky, smeary, thick abortions of the darkest browns and blacks possible made me think of an explosion in a sewage farm. Some of them made me feel physically sick. The joke is that many of them are meant to be outdoors scenes. Is this how you see or experience London?

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Or this?

Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach (1965)

Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach (1965)

The commentary claims that:

Both Auerbach and Kossoff display great sensitivity to the conditions of light, convey the dynamism of city life and reflect the mood of a specific moment

which I thought might be a joke. Let’s look again at Kossoff’s sensitive depiction of light.

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Not quite so muddy, but still revelling in gloom, bleakness of mood, greys and blacks splattered with neurotic blotches of colour, is the handful of works later in the show by Celia Paul.

Painter and Model by Celia Paul (2012) © Celia Paul, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

Painter and Model by Celia Paul (2012) © Celia Paul, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

Cheerful stuff, eh?

The smear-and-daub tradition (Sickert-Bomberg-Auerbach) which this exhibition reveals to be a major thread in modern British art is represented in our day bt the bang up-to-date works of Cecily Brown.

Boy with a Cat by Cecily Brown (2015) © Cecily Brown. Photo by Richard Ivey

Boy with a Cat by Cecily Brown (2015) © Cecily Brown. Photo by Richard Ivey

2. Mad

Only room one deals with the depiction of the human figure between 1918 and 1945. That’s not much space for nearly thirty years, is it? Murky Sickert, distorted Soutine and blue-veined Stanley Spencer are the only artists included (We’ll come back to Spencer under the category of ‘livid corpses’) thus omitting quite a lot of other artists active during this period.

Then it’s quickly on to Francis Bacon, who dominates rooms two and seven with his screaming popes, tortured dogs and baboons, men turning into hunks of meat. All depicted against precise geometric backgrounds as if caught in cages or on stage as specimens. Angst. Existential despair etc.

Portrait by Francis Bacon (1962) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London

Portrait by Francis Bacon (1962) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London

In the hall outside the exhibition there’s a loop of videos playing which show interviews with some of the featured artists, alongside display cases and wall displays showing photographs of the artists’ studios. Bacon’s was a notoriously filthy, dirty, messy cave with only a skylight allowing the grey light of Soho to penetrate down into the torture chamber. It tends to confirm your prejudices to learn that Lucian Freud’s studio, also in Soho, was nearly as dirty and scrappy.

The room after the early Bacon is devoted to Francis Souza whose strikingly large paintings are done in an edgy, angular, primitive style. The room is dominated by an enormous Crucifixion and a full figure painting of a naked black woman. Reproductions can’t convey how enormous, dark and menacing they are.

Crucifixion by F.N. Souza (1959)

Crucifixion by F.N. Souza (1959)

Again – dark dark dark, intense or even demented. I actually liked them, they have a terrific style, but God the mood they convey is wretched.

Room ten of the exhibition is devoted to paintings by Paul Rego. To quote the curators (there are three curators, all women):

Women’s lives and stories have often been overlooked in art as a historically male-dominated activity. Rego places them at the centre of her work. Women are portrayed as undertaking a variety of activities, in a broad range of moods and temperaments, as victims, culprits, carers, passive observers and sexually-charged creatures. As viewers we are drawn into and become complicit in an unruly world shaped by patriarchal power.

Here’s an example: can you feel yourself being drawn into it and becoming complicit in an unruly world shaped by patriarchal power?

The Family by Paula Rego (1988) Marlborough International Fine Art © Paula Rego

The Family by Paula Rego (1988) Marlborough International Fine Art © Paula Rego

Obviously, the more you look at it, the more disturbing it becomes. Maybe that’s what the commentary meant. For me the disturbing element is the way the schoolgirl fiddling with the man’s trousers in a way which in recent times we’ve been taught to think of as pedophilia, as being a sex crime. Yet she has the head of an adult woman. So…

Livid corpses

There aren’t any actual corpses on display, that’s just a short hand way of describing a style of painting human skin and bodies which emphasises the whiteness of English complexions, the lack of exposure to sunlight which leaves so many English bodies pale, pallid and covered in blue veins.

The exhibition decisively shows the strong tradition in English art of arranging and depicting the naked human body in the most unflattering way possible, as if it was a corpse just been pulled out of the Thames. It is as unsensual and unsexy as it is possible to be.

One recurrent cliché or trope of this styleis to depict a woman mostly wearing clothes but revealing one slack, white, veined breast in the most unappealing way possible. We see Stanley Spencer establishing this tradition in room one.

Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer (1935)

Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer (1935)

(There’s a lot more to Spencer than his full frontal nudes, as any visitor to the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham or even to the 1910 room in Tate Britain will discover – but for some reason it’s always the saggy-boobed and flaccid-penised nudes which feature in exhibitions like this, never the scores of paintings he did of the cheerfully clothed men and women of his native Cookham.)

Anyway, saggy blue-veined boobs was a motif picked up by young Lucian Freud fifteen years later.

Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud (1950-1) © Tate

Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud (1950-1) © Tate

Freud makes his first appearance as a pupil of art school teacher William Coldstream in room four, and then has the largest room in the show – room seven ‘Lucian Freud: In the Studio’ – devoted to him, with 13 big paintings.

It is interesting to learn that Freud’s mature style was the result of his switching from the small brushes which produced the smooth finish of paintings like the one above, to using bigger, coarser brushes which produced a more modern, slightly blotchy style. And that he moved away from the sitter – instead of being close and smooth, his portraits become more distant, more mottled.

Those changes by themselves, however, don’t account for the drastic change from the smooth, light palette of the painting above to his fascination with all the hues of brown, orange, grey and white which result in the characteristic blotched skin of his mature work.

David and Eli by Lucian Freud

David and Eli by Lucian Freud

The Freud room is full of paintings which revel in the ungainliness and the sheer ugliness of raw, naked, gawky, livid English bodies. Feet with their corns, legs with varicose veins, the tanned face and chest contrasting with the rest of the pallid body, the livid puce of this man’s flaccid cock and balls. In all of Freud’s ugly nudes I get the feeling the painter is daring you to come out and say how disgusted you are. Just how ugly can he make his people, before the viewer cries ‘Enough!’

Recognisably in the same tradition of ‘English ugly’ are the paintings of Jenny Saville although, unlike Freud, for reasons I can’t quite define, I’ve always loved Saville’s work.

Saville broke through in the fabulous Sensation exhibition of 1997, with paintings of grotesquely fat people who seemed to be pushing right up against the surface of the canvas, squeezed and compressed right into your face. All her works are awesomely big.

For some reason, although Freud’s blotchy nudes with their hairy penises and ragged vulvas make me feel like I’m in a butcher’s shop, I find Saville’s work visually thrilling and exciting. But it’s still from the very English ‘school of ugly’.

Reverse by Jenny Saville (2002-3) © Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Reverse by Jenny Saville (2002-3) © Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

A little light

Is there any light in this gallery of murk, madness and tormented flesh? Yes, some.

I’d never heard of Michael Andrews. In line with the general vibe two of his paintings here are of gloomy roughly-sketched interiors in Soho, namely the notorious Colony Club where Bacon et al. hung out, drank and bitched. But there is also this surprisingly touching outdoors scene.

Melanie and Me Swimming by Michael Andrews (1978-9) Tate © The estate of Michael Andrews

Melanie and Me Swimming by Michael Andrews (1978-9) Tate © The estate of Michael Andrews

It was admiring the grace and tenderness in this painting which brought home to me how much the qualities of gentleness or grace are missing from almost all of these paintings – certainly from all the screaming Bacons, blotchy Freuds, oily Kossoffs, murky Auerbachs and mad Regos.

And for that matter, scenes simply set outdoors are few and far between in this show: there are none in the Bacon room, none in the Freud room. Even when there are supposedly outdoor scenes, as in the Auerbach and Kossoff rooms, you wouldn’t really know it, so buried are the motifs in layers of industrial thickness sludge.

No – happy, light, outdoor scenes are conspicuous by their complete absence, as is the depiction of the human body as a thing of beauty. Think of Aubrey Hepburn. Think of a ballerina. Think of Lionel Messi nutmegging a defender. Think of a hundred images of people in outdoors settings, laughing at cafes, walking through woods, gardening, sunbathing.

All of that, almost all of actual human life, is consciously excluded from this parade of horrors and corpses.

It’s odd that anyone takes ‘Art’ as being in any way representative of the actual life of its era when it is quite obviously the opposite – the product of a cloistered, hermetically-sealed world which almost makes a virtue of not capturing or depicting the actual lives of the people around it.

The only room which provided a relief from torture and turpitude was room four, devoted to the teachings of William Coldstream at the Slade School of Fine Art. Coldstream developed a process for marking out the canvas with precise grids to help construct a realistic image, deliberately leaving bits of grid visible to hint at the geometric framework beneath the ‘reality’.

Seated nude by William Coldstream (1973)

Seated nude by William Coldstream (1973)

I liked the precision of his draughtsmanship and the way you can see original lines of the sketch showing through the oil colours. That sense of outlines and shape. Three or four of Coldstream’s relatively light and airy works are included, alongside some by his pupil Euan Uglow.

Georgia by Euan Uglow (1973) © The Estate of Euan Uglow

Georgia by Euan Uglow (1973) © The Estate of Euan Uglow

In the flesh, up close, you can see traces of the lines of the grid which Uglow created across the canvas and many of the little crosses formed by the crossing of lines remain visible through the paint. I like that sense of the mechanical or mathematical emerging from the picture – or the sense of the work being unfinished, a work in progress.

As to the actual image, it’s another unsmiling person. In an exhibition devoted to the depiction of human beings over the past 100 years of English art not one person is smiling, let alone laughing (apart from the mad mother in the Paul Rego painting).

All confirming that ‘Art’ is a bloody serious, sombre, tragic business, you know.

Contemporary artists

The eleventh and final room is devoted to works by four younger or contemporary artists, all four of them women – including Jenny Saville, Cecily Brown and Celia Paul (all mentioned and illustrated above).

The Saville I loved, the Brown and Paul a lot less so. And, alas, as so often with contemporary artists, their work turns out – according to the (female) curators – to be all about sexuality and identity.

In their representations of figures they explore what it is to be human from a contemporary perspective. Throughout their work, they investigate and stretch stereotypical views on femininity, masculinity, race and many other categories that define and constrain identity.

Last word for Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, born in 1970 and so, along with Saville, the youngest artist in the show. According to the wall label she knocks out her paintings in a day of rapid and intense work. I liked both her pieces on display here, because I like disegno, the ability to conceive and carry out accurate line drawings. Both her works here display extremely skilled draughtsmanship, a handy way with oil paints, and the ability to create mood and expression.

Coterie Of Questions by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2015) © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Coterie Of Questions by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2015) © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Still, though – very dark aren’t they? Britain is for much of the year a dark and gloomy place which, at least according to this exhibition, has inspired a lot of dark and gloomy art – and the sombre palette of Yiadom-Boakye’s work fits right into that tradition.


The promotional video

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Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Lucinda Rogers: Drawings from Ridley Road Market @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration is located just north of King’s Cross station, London, and contains three exhibition spaces.

The Main Gallery (four rooms) is currently hosting a fascinating exhibition of posters and everyday products from North Korea, highlighting the distinctive graphic design and colour palette of that most isolated of countries.

Leading off a side-corridor is a small L-shaped room which is the Quentin Blake Gallery, periodically hosting small shows of selected works by Blake, who was a leading force behind the foundation of the House of Illustration.

And the South Gallery (one room as big as a church hall) is currently displaying a selection of the graphic journalism of Lucinda Rogers.

Fruit mountain at the entrance to Ridley Road by Lucinda Rogers

Fruit mountain at the entrance to Ridley Road by Lucinda Rogers

Lucinda Rogers

The HoI is the only UK gallery which commissions illustrations for public display. For this, its fourth commission, it approached the young graphic illustrator, Lucinda Rogers.

Rogers is interested in realistic depictions of urban environments. As this exhibition more than proves, she has a staggering ability to capture the complex architecture and bustling street life of inner city environments. Rogers’ technique is to immerse herself in the setting of her chosen subject and record straight from eye to paper, without preliminary sketches or the photographs which some other illustrators use. She lives in London but has drawn in other urban settings from New York to Marrakech.

Lucinda Rogers at work in Ridley Road Market. Photo by Patricia Niven

Lucinda Rogers at work in Ridley Road Market. Photo by Patricia Niven

This exhibition combines Rogers’s ability as a highly gifted graphic artist with her campaigning concern for issues around gentrification and urban development.

On Gentrification: Drawings from Ridley Road Market

The show consists of 35 large-scale drawings which capture the bustling street life of Ridley Road Market in Dalston. Rogers spent over four months on location at the market, which has been held since the 1880s and is one of London’s oldest East End institutions.

Her drawings display a breath-taking way with line, a really gifted ability to capture volume and depth – but not of simple and easy subjects like a couple of aristocrats or the still lifes of the Old Masters – but the extraordinary visual complexity of the hyper-cluttered modern scene.

Just being able to draw a transit van from scratch would impress me, but then to sketch in all the street clutter surrounding it, the stacked crates on their trolley, the detail of the retractable awning, as well as the old geezer at the cafe table with his patterned tie, the pens in his pocket and his watch – is quite stunning.

View from Almond Lane coffee house by Lucinda Rogers

View from Almond Lane coffee house by Lucinda Rogers

Each of the drawings is accompanied by sometimes quite lengthy captions explaining the history and context of the subjects, of the different shops and stalls which throng the market.

The ‘issue’ behind the exhibition is the way this teeming street life is threatened by the erection of a luxury apartment block next to the market. This is bound to attract richer buyers, who will then fuel a need for ‘smart’ coffee shops, organic grocers, chi-chi bakers and bijou fashion stores. Then the influx of identikit estate agents.

Rogers’ view is that markets like Ridley Road often provide the only way for small businesses to start up, and they serve as a wonderfully colourful reflection of the diverse communities they serve. Both are lost when a neighbourhood becomes ‘gentrified’.

Outside Ka-sh fabric shop by Lucinda Rogers

Outside Ka-sh fabric shop by Lucinda Rogers

Admittedly an abstract concept like ‘gentrification’ is a little hard to capture solely with pictures. Just drawing the foundations of the luxury apartment block doesn’t really convey the complexity of the issues involved – hence the need for the sometimes lengthy captions. These you can read or not, depending on your interest in the issue.

Where Rogers’s drawings unambiguously score is in their astonishingly detailed and precise, yet loose and evocative impressions, of all aspects of the street market.

I particularly like the restrained, impressionistic use of colour. Only a minority of the images in any picture are coloured in: generally (as in the example above), she combines casual dabs and washes which overlap the borders of the object, with the very precise capturing of patterns and designs on just some of the elements.

I found her selectivity about what to colour and what to leave uncoloured absolutely perfect, displaying a wonderfully sure touch, knowing just how much colour to add to bring the image to life, and how much to leave out in order to leave it rough, sketchy and evocative of movement and street life.

In the picture above, I love the way the guy at the right is semi-transparent, like the fleeting impression of an over-exposed photo. And the way his trousers bunch around his snazzy, pointed shoes. All of the drawings here demonstrate a quite breath-taking talent and, in addition, a wonderful sureness and taste of colouring and restraint.

It is mostly left to the picture captions to explain the issues surrounding the threat to the market. These make a good case, which her drawings powerfully underpin. But it is also possible to not read any of the captions and still come away astonished at Rogers’ fleetness of hand and pen.

Bedding stall and Alex the plant man by Lucinda Rogers

Bedding stall and Alex the plant man by Lucinda Rogers

The House of Illustration

All three shows – North Korean produce, Quentin Blake’s Valentine drawings, and Lucinda Rogers Ridley Street drawings – are included in the one admission price of £7.50. Crack along!


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Neo-Romantic Book Illustration in Britain 1943-55 @ the Heath Robinson Museum

Although the Heath Robinson Museum is a relatively small gallery, this is a major exhibition. It is the first time a substantial collection of work by the Neo-Romantic book illustrators of the 1940s has been gathered together in one place. With nearly 50 prints, drawings, paintings and lithographs, and over 20 original book jackets from the period, this is a unique opportunity to sample a special and distinctive moment in English publishing and art history.

Neo-Romanticism in England

To paraphrase Wikipedia:

In British art history, the term ‘neo-romanticism’ is applied to a loosely affiliated school of landscape painting that emerged around 1930 and continued until the early 1950s. It was first labeled in March 1942 by the critic Raymond Mortimer in the New Statesman. These painters looked back to 19th-century artists such as William Blake and Samuel Palmer, but were also influenced by French cubist and post-cubist artists. The movement was part a response to the threat of invasion during World War II. Artists associated with the initiation of the movement include Paul Nash, John Piper, Henry Moore, Ivon Hitchens and especially Graham Sutherland. A younger generation followed in the same vein, including John Minton, Michael Ayrton, John Craxton, Keith Vaughan, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde.

This new visual style was most obvious to the general public in the form of book and magazine illustrations, particularly during the Second World War. The spirit of romanticism – a focus on nature, emotion and individual expression – was in part a reaction against the gloom of the blackout and rationing (and, possibly, against the very urban and politicised art of the 1930s).

Neo-Romantic artists looked back to the tradition of English landscape painting, drawing inspiration partly from the mystical Kent countryside portrayed by Samuel Palmer, and from the heavily stylised illustrations of William Blake.

But it’s not that simple – they also subtly acknowledged the visual possibilities opened up by more recent European art movements such as cubism and surrealism.

Book illustration for 'Time Was Away' by John Minton (1947)

Book illustration for Time Was Away by John Minton (1947)

Government sponsorship

The war itself played a key role. It cut English artists off from all contact with European art for six long years. And it forced many artists and writers to reconsider what it meant to be English, across all the arts (for example, George Orwell’s long essay on the English character, The Lion and the Unicorn, published in 1941).

This impulse received official support when, in 1940, the British government commissioned artists including John Craxton, Leslie Hurry, David Jones, John Minton, Paul Nash and Ceri Richards, to document lives in towns and villages across the country for a project called ‘Recording Britain.’ It was intended to boost national morale during the Second World War by celebrating the nation’s landscape and architecture.

In other words, a large number of artists in the 1940s became aware, through friendships, their own experiences and official commissions, that they shared certain values and artistic approaches to romantic ideas of English landscape, English culture, English art and English writing.

Neo-Romantic book illustration

Book and magazine publishers weren’t slow to pick up on the new look, seeing an opportunity to commission illustrations from this new wave of exciting illustrators in order to make both classics and new books appear up-to-date. The result is a very distinctive style of book illustration which is immediately recognisable, and powerfully evocative of the period (say 1940 to 1955), but hard to put into words.

The style is definitely figurative, not abstract – but the figures, the landscapes and buildings, have been through the wringer of Modernism and have emerged leaner, tauter, more stylised and simplified.

Depth and perspective don’t have to be depicted with punctilious precision, as in Victorian or Edwardian illustration. Hatching and shading, colour and tinting don’t have to be perfect, but can hint and gesture towards the subject.

Cover design for Vicky Lancaster's novel Short Lease, by Eric Fraser (1950)

Cover design for Vicky Lancaster’s novel Short Lease, by Eric Fraser (1950)

There’s an article about Neo-Romanticism on the Tate website which uses the word ‘sombre’ and I think this opens up one way of thinking about the style. It is often mysterious, sometimes a bit threatening, often psychologically intense. There is a lot of black in many of the illustrations, often a hint of menace, of threat.

Possibly this derived from the six-year-long threat of Nazi invasion, but it was there in the 1930s work of Graham Sutherland, one of the godfathers of the new look – a darkness, a blotty inkiness,and it spills over as a vague and disturbing presence in many of the illustrations here.

Of course, this ability to convey menace and mystery was perfectly suited to many modern books, of both poetry and fiction, or travelogue – somehow conveying the troubled mood of mid-century life. And not only adult books – the ability to conjure a sense of danger is intrinsic to many children’s books, particularly adventure and mystery books.

The exhibition

The exhibition contains work by about twenty artists, to wit:

  • Keith Vaughan (12 b&w prints)
  • John Minton (8 colour, 4 b&w illustrations for Time Was Away, 3 other prints and book covers)
  • Michael Ayrton (3 illustrations to John Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller)
  • Eric Fraser (4 big colour illustrations)
  • John Piper (one dramatic ink and watercolour of an Oxfordshire tomb)
  • Edward Bawden (5 original artworks for book covers)
  • Barnett Freedman (4 colour lithographs)
  • Robin Jacques (three fine pen and ink illustrations, two for Don Quixote, in a very different style from most of the other artists)

These are the big names. They each get a substantial wall label detailing their biography, artistic career, describing their style and the books which they illustrated or provided cover art for, and so on.

Also featured, but with less commentary, are:

  • Julian Trevelyan (two Gothic illustrations for a work by poet Kathleen Raine)
  • John Elwyn (2 small drawings)
  • John Bantin (1 book cover)
  • Bryion Winter (1 drawing)
  • Rigby Graham (three or four illustrations)
  • Leonard Rosman (two small pen and ink drawings for the Radio Times)
  • Henry Moore (four studies for illustrations to a book by Edward Sackville-West titled The Rescue, as well as a copy of the book open so we can see some of Moore’s characteristically lacerated mannequins in situ)

Several additional illustrators feature in the three display cases, which present vintage books in order to show the Neo-Romantic style of their cover art. Among them is an early edition of Mani, the travel book by Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose jacket was done by his good friend John Craxton. (Leigh Fermor and Craxton are the subject of a fascinating exhibition currently running at the British Museum.)

Display case of Neo-Romantic book covers

Display case of Neo-Romantic book covers

John Minton (1917 – 57)

Minton emerges as the strongest presence and the exhibition features more examples of his work than anyone else. An entire wall is devoted to the colour illustrations he did for a travel book, Time Was Away, the result of a tour he made with the writer Alan Ross around Corsica in 1947.

Minton combines a kind of rough but keen descriptive line, which is then touched and dabbed by colour washes which:

a) are in a very distinctive and limited palette (mustard yellow, dull dark green, sky blue, orange-brown)
b) only partially colour the picture

The way his colour washes deliberately don’t fill the lines creates a sense of spontaneity and openness. ‘Scrappy’ isn’t the right word, but a sense of roughness. This deliberate lack of finish contrasts oddly with the actual lines of the drawing which are quite… stiff.

Both features are clear in the picture below. The drawing is highly figurative yet stylised, not quite ‘real’. The colour is a) deliberately unnaturalistic and b) only applied in patches or washes. And look at the pose of the boy – it isn’t fluent and graceful, it is somehow stiff and hieratic, almost clunky.

Illustration for 'Time Was Away' by John Minton (1947)

Illustration for Time Was Away by John Minton (1947)

Oh, and Minton likes to draw people with Roman noses, I noticed a number of classic silhouettes in his pictures. The result of all these effects is an odd sort of classicism, hard to describe but instantly recognisable.

Minton was prolific, which may explain why he is the most represented artist in the show, which itself reinforces the sense of his art being one of the most memorable. There’s a copy of the edition of Treasure Island which he illustrated, open to the dramatic, full-colour, double-page illustration on the end papers.

And it was Minton who did the jacket covers for Elizabeth David’s epoch-making cookery books, which brought recipes from the Mediterranean into middle-class households across Britain. These are always cited in social histories as defining cultural products of the age, reminding grimly snowed-in Brits of the delights of sunshine and fresh fruit in far-off, exotic locations, such as Greece. A whole generation learned to cook – or at least fantasise about cooking – Mediterranean food form David – and visualised these luxury landscapes via Minton’s depictions.

Jacket illustration for Elizabeth David's Book of Mediterranean Food by John Minton (1950)

Dust jacket illustration for Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food by John Minton (1950)

Keith Vaughan (1912-77)

Next to the Minton is a set of black-and-white illustrations by Keith Vaughan for the children’s novel The Spirit of Jem by P.H. Newby. According to the fascinating wall label, Newby wrote 17 books, as well as being a full-time senior manager at the BBC, eventually rising to become Managing Director of BBC Radio. (He was also the recipient of the first ever Booker Prize, in 1969.)

'I wedged myself into a fork and waited' from The Spirit of Jem, illustration by Keith Vaughan (1947)

‘I wedged myself into a fork and waited’ from The Spirit of Jem, illustration by Keith Vaughan (1947)

The intense design of Vaughan’s drawings, like the one above – the wildness of the trees and the semi-abstract treatment of the leaves – remind me of Graham Sutherland’s intense landscapes, and reach back past him to Samuel Palmer.

You don’t necessarily need to know that Vaughan was gay and lived for some time with Minton, but it does shed light on the closeness of the artistic as well as personal relationships of the period.

Michael Ayrton (1921-75)

Speaking of close friendships, Michael Ayrton shared a studio in Paris with Minton in Paris just before the war. Ayrton went on to illustrate over 35 books as well and worked for leading magazines of the day such as the Listener, the Radio Times and Penguin New Writing.

He’s represented here by some of the illustrations he made for Thomas Nashe’s Elizabethan picaresque adventure, The Unfortunate Traveller and by some book covers, including the cover art he did for a book called The Problems of Lieutenant Knap by the Czech writer Jiri Mucha, which really caught my eye.

In this drawing the moon appearing in a kind of flame of cloud reminds me of Paul Nash or Sutherland and harks back to Samuel Palmer’s rural visions, but whatever visionary element there is in that symbolism is obviously and brutally contrasted with the random piece of military equipment leaning against the doorway and the casual bored posture of the smoking soldier.

Cover art for 'The problems of Lieutenant Knap' by Michael Ayrton (1945)

Cover art for The problems of Lieutenant Knap by Michael Ayrton (1945)

Barnett Freedman (1901-58)

The son of poor Jewish immigrants, Freedman developed a really distinctive variation on the Neo-Romantic look, a compositional style which features curled scrolls or decorative borders around his often cartoonish and childlike illustrations. Take an example of both in this fabulous poster promoting cheese which he made for the Milk Marketing Board. Look at the houses, the church spire. Childish innocence.

Real Farmhouse Cheese poster by Barnett Freedman

Real Farmhouse Cheese poster by Barnett Freedman

The scroll and especially the font whose letters contain shading and decoration put me in mind of the posters and promotional material for the Ealing Comedies of this period, and the wall label points out that Freedman did, indeed, help to create the Ealing Studios look and logo.

Freedman also created a host of eye-catching book covers during the period, the most distinctive example being the cover for a complete edition of the nonsense verse of Edward Lear.

Cover of the Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear designed by Barnett Freedman

Cover of The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear designed by Barnett Freedman

One Freedman piece which stood out for me was a wonderful colour illustration, apparently for a Christmas card. For its precision, its gentleness, its warm vision of the English scene, and for its use of the gentle, understated palette which so many of these pictures used (was it a limitation of the printing technology of the day?) I found myself returning to this particular picture again and again.

Christmas card by Barnett Newman

Christmas card by Barnett Newman

Edward Bawden (1903-89)

I’ll be writing at length about Edward Bawden when the retrospective exhibition devoted to him opens at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in May.

What the five book covers by him here bring out is something of the childishness of some of these covers. None of these illustrators were amateurs – the opposite, many of them made very successful careers as commercial artists. But many of the illustrations and covers deliberately accentuate a kind of hand-drawn, childish or naive style. This is one of the things that give them such a strong sense of nostalgic warmth and comfort – they are sub-consciously infantilising – you want to say ‘aaaah’ at so many of them. Atmosphere of the nursery. And the artlessness of the imagery deliberately connects them with an older tradition of English arts and crafts, foregrounding the hand-made and the hand-drawn.

Take this cover by Bawden for Richard Hughes’s novel A High Wind In Jamaica. Everything about it is deliberately hand made and naive – the very hand-drawn figures of the centaurs, the simplicity of the horizontal mustard-coloured bands representing the fields, but above all the highly decorative border round the main illustration, with its deliberately artless use of details i.e. sheafs of wheat or clumps of grapes woven into the composition.

Edward Bawden's cover art for A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Edward Bawden’s cover art for A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

What came next

In the second half of the 1950s, a new look came in. Book covers and magazines began to reflect the influx of new consumer goods into Britain, and the rise of consumer culture. Harsher covers using the language of Abstract Expressionism became popular and, by the end of the 1950s, imagery inspired by the shiny high gloss look of American advertising and movies.

The world became modern, shiny and urban – the exact opposite of Neo-Romantic imagery showing an underpopulated countryside or Mediterranean harbours or childish, hand-drawn figures – a shininess which went on to be celebrated and/or mocked in the plastic brightness of Pop Art.

The Neo-Romantic look was old hat by 1955 and quickly disappeared, surviving as dog-eared copies of beautiful old editions in the kind of provincial library where I first came across them as a boy.

Conclusion

This exhibition chronicles a relatively brief period of highly distinctive book covers and illustrations which, looking back, now seems classic, warm and overdue for a revival.

It has clearly been a labour of love on the part of exhibition curator, Geoffrey Beare, to track down and retrieve many of the prints and paintings, drawings and lithographs from public and private collections around the country, and bring them all together for our enjoyment. And it’s been a very worthwhile effort.

This is a lovely exhibition, which inspires you to explore further, to find out more about Minton, Craxton, Vaughan, Freedman – about this whole generation of wonderful and under-appreciated illustrators.

The promotional video


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NOTE ONE: there is currently an excellent exhibition about Craxton and Leigh Fermor which features many examples of Craxton’s art and illustrations from this period, at the British Museum.

NOTE TWO: A major retrospective of Edward Bawden opens at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in May this year.

Heath Robinson-related reviews

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