Scene Through Wood: A Century of Modern Wood Engraving @ the Heath Robinson Museum

The British Society of Wood Engravers (SWE) was founded just over 100 years ago, in 1920, by leading artists including Lucien Pissarro and John Nash. Its aim was to promote wood engraving for modern artists.

This lovely exhibition, ‘Scene Through Wood’, was first shown at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 2020 to commemorate the Society’s centenary. Now, a few years later, it has come to the small but beautifully formed Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, north west London and you really should go and see it.

‘Scene Through Wood’ brings together about 70 wood engravings, from the 19th and 20th centuries, from the Society of Wood Engravers’ collection as well as private collections, and by artist engravers around the world, including Britain, Europe, Russia, Canada, the USA, China and Japan. It is curated by noted engraver and artist Anne Desmet (RA).

The exhibition amounts not only to a visual feast of some of the finest wood engravings from the past 100 years, but introduces you to some 50 not-so-well-known artists who have specialised in this format. And, as you slowly patiently make your way round the exhibits, you begin to get a feel of the great variety of styles and approaches which are possible in this monochrome format.

‘The Cyder Feast’ by Edward Calvert (1828)

Sections

The exhibition is arranged into a number of sections and so is my review.

1. Beginnings

‘Beginnings’ starts with by far the earliest piece in the exhibition, ‘Christ in Limbo’ by Albrecht Dürer from 1510. Dürer was one of the first European artists to use printmaking and produced produced around 346 woodcuts during his career.

But woodcuts are different from wood engravings, and wood engraving, apparently, has the distinction of being one of the only art forms to have been invented in Britain. By the 1770s Thomas Bewick was engraving end-grain boxwood using bespoke tools. His ‘invention’ quickly spread around the industrialised world and was adapted for a variety of purposes, commercial and fine arts. The first display case contains a selection of steel engraving tools, and a roundel of end-grain boxwood the surface of which has been ground perfectly smooth and level and ready for engraving.

Put very simply, the artist etches a design into the hardwood which is then inked. The wood which has remained etched takes the ink and this part is printed on paper when the inked block is applied to it. The parts of the wood which have been gouged, striated, etched or scratched do not take the ink and thus show up white in the print.

Early experimenters included the prolific poet-artist, William Blake, Edward Calvert and the wonderful painter Samuel Palmer, all represented here. When I was a teenager I read the Complete William Blake, memorised the Songs of Innocence and Experience, devoted many hours to memorising Blake’s convoluted personal mythology. But later, in my 30s, I found myself warming very much to the delicate, mysterious magic of Samuel Palmer’s paintings. ‘Harvesters under a Crescent Moon’ is the only wood engraving Palmer ever made and it’s tiny.

‘Harvesters under a Crescent Moon’ by Samuel Palmer (1826)

Size matters

This brings me to a general point about the exhibition as a whole, which is size. It would be easy for your initial impression of the exhibition to be that all the works are a bit samey. Almost all the exhibits are black and white. And they also tend to be on the small size, A4 size or so. Half a dozen are strikingly bigger than this but plenty are smaller and some are minuscule.

Hence the gallery supplies a number of magnifying glasses because the thing about wood prints, as a general rule, is that you really have to lean and and study them. Oil paintings and watercolours can afford to be on a huge scale and make great sweeping gestures of colour which immediately leap out and grab you. Almost all these wood engravings, by contrast, require you to lean in and pay attention.

2. A sense of scale

In fact the second section in the exhibition is called ‘A sense of scale’ and explores the question of size, exploring the range of sizes possible with wood engravings, juxtaposing the tiny Samuel Palmer with the biggest thing in the show, ‘Mirage I’ (2014) by the Chinese artist Shi Lei. From a distance the Shi Lei piece looks like the face of a man wearing glasses regarding us with a withering look, except that the entire image appears to be bubbling and melting, maybe some post-nuclear holocaust atrocity.

‘Mirage I’ by Shi Lei (2014)

Only when you look closely do you realise that a) it’s a composite image which has been created out of nine separate blocks  and then stuck together, and b) that the overall image is, rather in the style of Salvador Dali, itself made up of figures of writhing naked bodies. Because of the uneasy, rather sickening effect, this was by far my least favourite image in the exhibition.

David Gentleman

In fact, talking of size and scale, arguably both the largest and the smallest engravings cited in the show were produced by the same artist, David Gentleman (born 1930), one of the most successful commercial artists of his day. Because among his huge range of work are:

1. Postage stamps commissioned by Royal Mail, in this case a 9p Christmas stamp from 1977 showing a partridge in a pear tree.

Christmas stamp by David Gentleman (1977)

2. And the huge mural lining the platforms at Charing Cross underground station in London. I doubt if many other wood engravings have been reproduced at such scale.

Mural at Charing Cross underground station by David Gentleman (1979)

3. The theatre of life

This is followed by a wall of images all falling under the loose heading ‘The theatre of life’. This brings together images of types of people or human activities, such as:

  • Peter Blake’s engravings of four characters from a circus (1974 to 78)
  • dark and powerful images from the 1930s depicting the Great Depression in America Clare Leighton
  • images of ‘Bowlplayers in Sunlight’ by Gwendolen Raverat (1922), the first woman engraver to come to prominence

Comparing and contrasting these figures made you realise that engraving does best when it goes with the tendency to stylisation intrinsic in the form. Trying to achieve the sinuous curves and slow of organic objects is a big ask for an art form which works with chisels and incising tools, and so I thought a piece like Point-to-Point by Rachel Reckitt (1936) didn’t really work. Or I didn’t like the way it worked. By contrast in Le Sporting Bar (1929), it seemed to me that Ian Macnab had worked with the grain of the form to create a kind of semi-geometric stylisation which I enjoyed. But then I love Wyndham Lewis, the Vorticists and all varieties of geometric modernism.

The standout piece in this section was a much more recent work, ‘Fallen Angel’ (2006) by Hilary Paynter, not particularly geometric, certainly not a thing of hard edges and angles, a showcase of how soft and mysterious and rather wonderful a wood engraving can be.

Fallen Angel’ by Hilary Paynter (2006)

4. Construction and destruction

Following on from this is a section titled ‘Construction and destruction’. If we’ve just been looking at human recreation, sports and leisure time, here are people at war, or coping with fires and floods. It includes:

  • ‘Minesweeping Gear’ by James Taylor Dolby (1947)
  • ‘Northern Waters’ (1942) and ‘Sharp Attack’ (1944) by Geoffrey Wales
  • ‘Mill Fire’ (1997) and ‘Deluge’ (2000) by Ian Corfe-Stephens
  • ‘Shot’ (2010) by Chris Pig where ambulancemen and bystanders crowd round someone lying on a stretcher who has, apparently, just been shot

For me the standout piece, and one which typifies many of the strengths of wood engraving, is a marvellous piece by Hilary Paynter, titled ‘Tree with a Long Memory’ (2003).

Tree with a Long Memory’ by Hilary Paynter (2003)

This is a classic example of the need to lean in and look closer at a wood engraving. The more I looked, the more the piece delivered up its wonders. For a start it took me a few moments to realise that the shape of the image represents the trunk of a mature tress which has been sliced across, as when a tree is cut down with a chainsaw revealing the rings of growth for you to count.

Anyway, only when I really peered into the image did I realise that it contains a wonderful set of symbols of humanity’s achievements over the past 3,000 years or so, namely Stonehenge, the Parthenon and a Roman amphitheatre (at the bottom), what might be a Renaissance encampment such as the Field of the Cloth of Gold hanging upside down in the middle, on the left rows and rows of white crosses as in a First World War cemetery, in the top left a jet plane looping the loop, and on the top right the sinewy shape of a 6-lane motorway snaking into the distance. And on the lower right-hand side the timeless labour of working the land, ploughing and sowing which was once done by horse-drawn ploughs, now by diesel-driven machinery, but the eternal round of sowing and reaping which is the basis of all civilisation, the row upon row of furrows echoing the growth lines of the tree.

5. The built environment

Next up is a section titled ‘The built environment’. Given the form’s predisposition to angles and edges, buildings, rooftops, windows, streets of terraced houses and so on are tailor made subjects for engraving. Thus I loved the very first piece in this section, ‘Yorkshire’ (1920) by the noted Modernist artist Edward Wadsworth.

‘Yorkshire’ by Edward Wadsworth (1920)

This section is dominated by an impressive set of unusually large engravings of a view of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, each coloured differently, by the exhibition curator, Anne Desmet. Desmet is on record as saying the sequence was in part inspired by Monet’s set of paintings of the facade of Rouen Cathedral at different times of day. They can be viewed on Desmet’s website.

This section also contains some interesting technical experiments by Desmet. ‘Babel Tower Revisited’ (2018) is round and uses slightly convex glass cover so give the impression the image is bulging out into the room. ‘Fires of London’ (2015) in which slender prints of engravings of the Great Fire have been cut out to form narrow tall images and glued onto 18 razor shells.

It also contains the striking (and tinted) ‘Petra I’ by Geri Waddington (2004).

‘Petra I’ by Geri Waddington (2004)

6. Storytelling (books)

Wood engraving is nowadays both an independent, creative art form and a versatile medium for commercial images. A display case demonstrates how the tendency to simplify and abstract subject matter can result in very striking images which can be used for book illustration. There are illustrations of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (by Garrick Palmer, 1994) and Goblin Market (Hilary Paynter, 2003).

More commercially, editions of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have been printed with dramatic wood engraved front covers by Andrew Davidson (2013). And, best of all, the fabulous engravings produced by Chris Wormell for Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ sequence of novels, which are outstanding.

‘La Belle Sauvage.’ Cover illustration for ‘The Book of Dust’ by Philip Pullman (2017) based on a wood engraving by Chris Wormell

This section also contains:

  • ‘The Crucifixion’ (1927) by the famous poet-artist David Jones
  • ‘The Entombment’ (1930) by Claughton Pellew
  • ‘The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God’ (1932) by John Farleigh, for George Bernard Shaw
  • Illustrations for ‘The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta’ (1933) by Eric Ravilious
  • a vivid scene from ‘Moby Dick’ (1974) by Garrick Palmer
  • Illustrations for ‘Erewhon’ (1932) by Blair Hughes-Stanton

And another series or set of images (cf Desant’s Brooklyn Bridge), this time a set of 9 highly detailed studies of a bust of the Roman emperor ‘Marcus Aurelius’, depicted with the opposite of abstraction, with astonishing photographic accuracy by Simon Brett (2002).

Another part of the display tells us that wood engravings have been used to create entirely text-free books of illustration, where the reader is free to verbalise a sequence of images, exemplified by the work of the Belgian artist, Franz Masereel, whose text-free books of narrative images – such as ‘The Idea’ and ‘Story Without Words’, both on display here – were very popular, especially in Germany, during the era of silent movies, and can be counted among the forerunners of modern graphic novels.

I’d never really given it much thought but those labels you get which you can write your name on and stick in the front page of good quality books, bookplates, often feature exquisite miniature wood engravings. Examples included here are by Joan Hassall, 1946, Vladimir Kortovitch, 1990, and Grigory Babitch, 2004.

7. Abstraction and detail

This section is dominated by a work by a very distinctive artist who produced woodcuts and engravings of wonderful, beguiling and mind-bending visual puzzles, the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher.

‘Fish and Scales’ by Maurits Cornelis Escher (1959)

8. The natural world

This is the biggest section, with the most examples, and so a fascinating opportunity to analyse and compare the very wide range of wood engraving styles available. There’s a ‘Stonehenge’ from 1962 by Gertrude Hermes which looks as if the sky is made out of angrily cross-hatched icebergs.

By complete contrast is ‘Dead Trees – Sheppey’ by Monica Poole (1976) where the trees look as if they’re touching a sky which is like an inverted pond, with dynamic ripples spreading out from the trees’ touch in a surreal manner which echoes Paul Nash in the 1930s.

There are also two different artist’s views of a car headlights at night illuminating a road scene through the windscreen, ‘Through the Windscreen’ (1929) by Gertrude Hermes and ‘The Night Drive’ (1937) by Joan Hassall.

Probably my favourite work was ‘Long-tailed Duck and Whiting’ by Colin See-Paynton (1988), possibly because the fish look identical to the fish in Tintin and the Red Sea Sharks. Aren’t the ducks extraordinarily realistic? From that level of precise naturalistic detail to another large and pleasing, semi-abstract image, in the slightly mysterious Paul Nash style:

‘Under water’ by Monica Poole (1986)

Go see and enjoy this lovely, fascinating, eye-opening and deeply pleasurable exhibition.

The video (6’24”)

Anne Desmet RA is one of only three wood engravers to be elected as Academicians in the Royal Academy’s nearly 250-year history. In this video she takes us through each step in creating a wood engraving, from tracing the original drawing through to printing a first proof.


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

ALERT by Antony Gormley

Imperial College Road

If you ever visit the Natural History Museum or the Victoria and Albert Museum you’ll know that running between them is the semi-pedestrianised road called Exhibition Road, which runs in a straight line up to a gateway into Hyde Park. Just beyond the entre to the Science Museum, half-way up on the left, is Imperial College Road, a fully pedestrianised street which leads into the open space of Dangoor Plaza. Bang in the middle of the pedestrianised road (as you walk along the pavement towards the car park and the bike racks at the other end) was recently unveiled the latest sculpture by one of Britain’s most famous and media-friendly artists, Sir Antony Gormley OBE RA.

ALERT by Sir Antony Gormley (2022) (photo by the author)

Antony Gormley biography

Born in 1950, Gormley has been extraordinarily productive and has sculptures and installations at sites all over Britain, Europe and the world.

His most famous work is probably The Angel of the North, but you might have heard of Another Place (1997) which consists of 100 cast-iron humanoid figures facing out to sea on Crosby Beach, near Liverpool.

In 1991 Gormley developed a work titled Field consisting of around 35,000 individual terracotta figures, each between 8 and 26 cm high. These toured the world, getting placed in various interesting locations and buildings. In 1994 as many of the little figures as he could fit into the space were shown at Tate, and then at the British Museum, under the name Field for the British Isles. Or you might have caught sight of 2007’s Event Horizon, when he placed 31 life-sized and anatomically correct casts of his own body on top of prominent buildings along London’s South Bank, staring rather spookily down on the rest of us.

Most of Gormley’s works are based on the dimensions of the human body, very often his own body, which he has had cast in fibre glass, more often metal, in all kinds of positions and postures. I caught him on Radio London this morning explaining that he wants people to ponder the fact that we are first and foremost bodies – we like to think of ourselves as ‘people’ and personalities who act on the things we see external to ourselves – but we are only able to do this because we exist, first and foremost, as bodies in space. It is this insight or principle, which his work reverts to, again and again.

Gormley is not only an inventive sculpture but he must also be one of the most personable and articulate living artists. Although his work is, in a sense, remarkably restricted in range (mostly life-size models of the human figure) he can talk about it endlessly and – this is the key thing – always makes it sound fresh and interesting.

ALERT

This new piece in Imperial College Road follows this ongoing interest of Gormley’s in the adult human body, but with a twist. The twist is that it isn’t a naturalistic depiction of the body, but a diagrammatic, schematic one, with the result that, if you didn’t know otherwise, you could easily take it as an abstract piece.

ALERT is a 6-metre-high sculpture which uses stacked and cantilevered blocks of weathering steel to evoke the human form. Gormley regards the work as “the conversion of anatomy into an architectural construction.” The aim is to “re-assess the relation between body and space”.

ALERT is actually based on the posture of Gormley balancing on the balls of his feet while squatting on his haunches. He realised this posture is one of someone watching and waiting and surveying the world around them. It is a posture of being “alive, alert and awake”.

Project diagram of the sculpture, showing different views and scale next to a typical person

Like most of his sculptures ALERT is made of weathering steel, designed to form a stable oxide coating and an organic hue over time. Rust, to you and me.

The pedestrian precinct where it’s located faces onto a quad or square green space between modern campus buildings. There are plenty of benches around this grassy rectangle which is busy with students going about their day. It’s a nice, relaxed vibe. The pedestrian walkway where it’s located is lined by London plane trees and Gormley hopes that the work will ‘interact’ with them – in the summer “the deep red oxidised surface contrasting with the vivid green of the plane trees’ leaves and in the winter its orthogonal geometry [acting] in consort with the organic inscription of their boughs.”

As usual, reading an artist’s official statement gives quite a misleading impression of what you actually see, because behind the trees and dominating the pedestrian walkway is the steep facade of a tall grey office block in brutalist concrete, which I believe to be the Sir Ernst Chain building. Being a drab metal grey colour itself, ALERT is quite difficult to make out – it certainly matches the brutalist building in colour and design far more than the organic curves and green leaves of the trees.

ALERT in front of the Sir Ernst Chain building (photo by the author)

Location

Most of the road has been completely renovated and pedestrianised as part of a fabulously generous donation of £5 million by former Imperial College students Brahmal Vasudevan (founder and CEO of private equity firm Creador) and his wife Shanthi Kandiah (founder of legal firm SK Chambers), two super high-achievers. ALERT was intended to be the cherry on the cake of this redesign.

In the press release, the couple are quoted as saying they were pleased to work with “JJS Fine Art Ltd, the Gormley studio, White Cube and Imperial College London” to bring this project to life. This is a good point because, of course, Imperial College is one of Britain’s leading centres of excellence in science and engineering and ALERT, in its mixture of art and engineering, is an apt symbol of collaboration across disciplines.

The Queen’s Tower

What none of the press blurb conveys, what you don’t know until you visit the location, is that the nice green space opposite Gormley’s sculpture is dominated by an enormous Victorian building, the Queen’s Tower.

The Queen’s Tower, Imperial College (photo by the author)

The tower is 287 feet tall, clad in Portland stone and topped by a copper covered dome. You can go inside and climb the 324 steps from the ground to the base of the dome on a narrow spiral staircase, all the way up to the viewing platform at the top with fine views over London in all directions and, in the belfry, a peal of bells! (Admittedly, none of this is open to the public at the moment.) Some photos of it show it lit up with coloured lights at night. In every way this impressive edifice dwarfs the Gormley sculpture into insignificance. When you read about ALERT you think, ‘6 metres, wow, that’s massive’, but if anything it should have been twice the height to begin to compete with either the tower just north of it or the science block immediately south of it.

According to Imperial College, who own the land and the sculpture, ALERT will provide “a point of interest and intrigue”. Well, one of the most intriguing things about the sculpture has been the controversy it’s sparked.

The controversy

One of the funniest things in life is when a roomful of extremely clever people come up with a plan, discuss it, develop it, test it, implement it, roll it out and…it’s only then that anyone outside their group sees it and says, ‘Er, guys…I think we may have a problem. Did none of you notice this?’

To take a recent example, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng working with a small, loyal team at the Treasury and coming up with the bold idea of borrowing huge sums to make unfunded tax cuts including cutting the 45% rate of income tax, and only when he proudly revealed it to completely unprepared financial markets, discovering how catastrophic the impact would be.

Well, on a smaller scale, it was apparently only after this huge, expensive sculpture had been conceived, designed, built and installed in this prestige location that anyone pointed out, “Er… you see the big bit sticking out the front? It looks like a man’s penis…Did none of you notice?’

This is what the creators intended, a stylish, cleverly designed and artfully engineered schematic sculpture of a man squatting down, “alive, alert and awake”.

Schematic of ALERT showing how it echoes the shape of a human being squatting

But this is how some have interpreted it – as a short-legged man with an erect penis sticking out from his body.

Schematic of ALERT showing how the big protuberance could be interpreted as a 3-metre long (metallic, rusty) penis

For what Sir Antony and all his collaborators, his sponsors and the college authorities overlooked is that they were installing this artwork on a university campus, an epicentre of gender politics and super-sensitivity, where a cigar is never just a cigar, where anything anybody says, does, writes, draws or creates has the potential to become a pretext for outrage and grievance. Thus the students union has described the statue as ‘exclusionary’, reinforcing the gross injustice that only 42% of students at the college are female. Time to pop some popcorn in the microwave and enjoy that traditional British pastime, a moral panic about a new artwork:

University wits have already renamed the area Dong Plaza. I wonder if the sculpture will be graffiti-ed, or whether angry feminists will splash it with paint or, better still, attempt to cut the protuberance off – although, having walked around it and patted the protuberance a few times, they’d need industrial-scale welding equipment to do that.

At the end of the day, ALERT is just another bit of nondescript modern sculpture in an all-too-familiar drab, metallic, geometric style, dwarfed by the long row of dismal office blocks behind it. If you’re in the area it’s maybe worth going to check it out to see what the storm in a teacup is about, but more to discover the peaceful quad with its lawn and numerous benches, a restful place to sit after a visit to one of the busy museums. But the most impressive sight in the area is the dominating Queen’s Tower. I wonder when they’ll reopen the viewing platform to the public. Now that would be worth a visit.


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Kamala Ibrahim Ishag: States of Oneness @ Serpentine South

‘States of Oneness’ is a new exhibition of paintings and drawings at the main Serpentine Gallery (Serpentine South, as it’s now known) by pioneering Sudanese artist Kamala Ibrahim Ishag.

‘Two Women (Eve and Eve)’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2016) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

It brings together works in a variety of media, including:

  • numerous oil paintings
  • a number of early charcoal drawings
  • oil painting on leather drums
  • decorated vases or calabashes
  • a set of 5 Quranic prayers, photocopies of Arabic text which she has decorated with ink and acrylic paint
  • one large painted wooden screen

As usual, the plain white walls and light open spaces of the Serpentine’s rooms make an excellent setting for this major survey of an artist who is, I think, little known in the UK.

Installation view of ‘States of Oneness’ showing a) a big painting on the back wall b) the five framed Quranic prayers on the wall to the right and c) two painted calabashes in the foreground © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag 2022. Photo: George Darrell, Courtesy Serpentine

Ishag’s biography

Born in 1939, Kamala Ibrahim Ishag has practiced since the 1960s and become a defining figure of modern Arab and African art. In the early to mid-1960s, Ishag was part of the Khartoum School, an influential Sudanese modernist movement, which collectively forged an identity for the newly independent nation by drawing on both Arabo-Islamic and African artistic traditions.

Ishag in London

Ishag was among the first women artists to graduate from the College of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum in 1963, and she followed this with studies in Mural Painting at the RCA in London from 1964 to 1966, and Lithography, Typography and Illustration from 1968 to 1969. During her time in London – the press handout tells us – she was subject to three strong influences:

  • she was drawn to the visionary tone of William Blake’s poetry and etchings
  • she was affected by Francis Bacon’s distorted figures
  • and she was struck by the distorted reflections of human faces and figures she saw in the curved windows of Underground trains

One of the exhibition’s rooms features some big paintings from the 1970s which directly reference Bacon, showing human figures in very dark colours, midnight blues and angsty purples, confined in dimly visible cages, with titles like ‘Loneliness’. Striking but not typical of her work.

Loneliness (1987) by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

Much more important, though, is the spiritualist and other-worldly vibe which you can feel flowing through all her work.

The Crystalist movement

In the mid-1970s, she co-founded the Crystalists, a postmodern, conceptual group which challenged the male-dominated and identity-focused Sudanese art scene and advocated for a new aesthetic modelled on diversity, transparency and existentialist theory. Her Wikipedia tells us more about the Crystalists:

The Crystalist Group broke away from traditional practices in the Sudanese art scene. Their intention was to distinguish themselves from the Khartoum School of painting and their traditional male-centred outlook. This new approach in Sudanese painting was marked by a public declaration in the form of the so-called Crystalist Manifesto. This document presented an artistic vision that attempted to work beyond the Sudanese-Islamic framework of the Khartoum School. Moreover, the Crystalists sought to internationalize their art by embracing an existentialist avant-garde, more akin to European aesthetics.

“The Cosmos is a project of a transparent crystal with no veil and eternal depth. The truth is that the Crystalists’ perception of time and space is different from that of others. The goal of the Crystalists is to bring back to life the language of the crystal and to transform language into something more transparent, in which no word can veil another – no selectivity in language. […] We are living a new life, and this life needs a new language and new poetry.”
(The Crystalist Group, Khartoum, 1971)

Events have moved on in Khartoum and the wider world in the half century since then, but you can hear the stands of mysticism, feminism and internationalism which have informed her work to this day.

Spiritualism in Ishag’s art

The Crystalists may have come and gone as a movement but Ishag’s interest in spiritualism and reaching beyond the veil has endured. Working out way to depict the many ‘states of oneness’. According to the press handout, this derives from the stories of spirits told by her mother and grandmothers, and the field research she carried out with spiritualist women convening healing Zar ceremonies, a traditional practice in North Africa and the surrounding region.

In terms of the work, this has resulted in a very distinctive handling of the human body and face, transforming human beings into willowy, undulating shapes, boneless spirits, barely embodied. In the most recurring instances I thought her people were transforming into spermatazoa, heads with wriggly tails for bodies. That’s what the tadpoles wriggling round the bottom of this picture remind me of.

‘Procession’ (Zaar) by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2015) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

Or as here, in the untitled decoration of a leather drum, where the bodies are made to taper parallel to palm trees, in an image obviously influenced by the landscape of Sudan.

Composition by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2016) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

And above all her faces. So many of the faces which appear in these paintings are doubled, as if split, as if she is capturing the duality of human experience in every portrait. As mentioned above, this owes something to her seeing faces of people travelling on the Tube curved and distorted and refracted in Tube carriage windows.

‘Faces with two roses’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

But looking at some of them, I thought about Freud and psychoanalytical notions of the conscious and unconscious selves, or wider depth psychology ideas about the multitude of selves we contain within ourselves. Looking at others I thought about the most basic tenet of most religions which is that we are made of body and soul, are made of bodily instincts and soulful longings. Then again, the ones with multiple eyes reminded me of Picasso or the Picasso which his philistine critics liked to mock, two eyes on the same side of the nose, that sort of thing.

Detail of ‘Faces with two roses’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

These and many more interpretations are possible. I like art which allows indeterminacy of interpretation, allows thoughts and reflections to rise and connect and free associate.

Nature in Ishag’s art

The other really important aspect of her work is nature, to be precise, trees and leaves and flowers. There are many images of trees and leaves and of people’s willowy bodies undulating in line with arboreal curves. For example, the image at the top of this review of two women floating amid a sea of bright green leaves, or the spectacular ‘Lady grown in a tree’.

‘Lady grown in a tree’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

This lady really is deeply embroiled with her tree. The idea made me think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and all those figures from Greek mythology, mostly women, who turns into flowers or trees.

‘Nothing now remained of my dear sister except her face: all the rest was tree.’
(Iole describing the fate of her sister, Dryope, transformed into a tree, in book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses)

But looking up close, it struck me the lady’s face is very reminiscent of the African mask-inspired faced of Picasso’s famous painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, from a hundred and ten years earlier, in 1907.

Detail of ‘Lady grown in a tree’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

The people who float around at a gallery like the Serpentine and are available to answer questions are called ‘visitor assistants’. They are always extremely helpful and very well informed. I got chatting to one visitor assistant who pointed out that many of these images of trees and flowers derive from the plants in Ishag’s own garden in Khartoum. Some – like the palm trees on the drum I mentioned above – are obviously nods to Sudan’s wider landscape. But many not only show flowers but convey a very feminine sense of sociability in a calm, leafy, civilised space. Hence the stylised but still very evocative painting ‘Gathering’ from 2015.

‘Gathering’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2015) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

I assume this is a meeting of (rather ghoulish-looking) ladies who are drinking tea or a light beverage from the long glasses with tiny handles, or maybe just water, which symbolises the water of life. Maybe the glasses are both on the table and floating off it (at the same time) and the picture captures the way it’s the same water as feeds the trees and plants in her garden, which can’t live without it. So the water in the human glasses is one with the water feeding nature and so the plants can be thought of as growing out of the water in the glasses as it is all one.

The more you look, the more you see images of greenery – flowers, plants, tendrils and leaves, either as central motifs for a picture or as decorative elements furling around the split faces and swimming spermatazoa, or of people turning into trees, or of trees containing human faces.

Take the image at the top of this review, ‘Two Women’, if you look carefully at the trees, you’ll see they both contain a human face. In fact at the bottom of both trees, especially the one on the right, you can see a pair of human feet. This painting in particular, made me think of the Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, giants in tree form.

The more you look, the more you see leaves, flowers, tendrils, trees everywhere, images of wholeness and healing to set against her continually disturbing depiction of human faces.

Detail of ‘Two figures in two balls’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2016) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

‘Blues for the Martyrs’

As might be obvious by now but I think Ishag’s most recent work is her best. In the big paintings from the last decade or so all her themes – willowy people, strange split faces, trees and tendrils – emerge with most force and power. Some artists peak early and fade; Ishag strikes me as getting better and better with every year. Long may she continue.

Thus it is that arguably the most striking image in the entire show is the most recent. It’s titled ‘Blues for the Martyrs’ and it was made this year, 2022. One of those visitor assistants I was talking about explained it to me. In 2019 there were student protests in Khartoum. The police cracked down with violence. They beat up and threw protesters into the river (Nile). Hence the deep blue of the painting which portrays the river and the tendrils of river weeds billowing up through the water.

And the faces in their bubbles? Ishag is using the faux naif style she has perfected over decades to convey the sense of the souls of the dead, protected in hermetic bubbles, enduring, living on, smiling blissfully, a little childishly, maybe. They’re certainly strikingly unlike the troubled split faces, the ghoul faces, of virtually all her previous work. ‘Smiley face for the martyrs.’

‘Blues for the Martyrs’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2022) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

‘Blues for the Martyrs’ is pretty much the most striking painting in the exhibition, not least because it marks such a complete departure from the palette of almost all the other works. Much of the other stuff, whether painted on drums or calabashes or canvas, is predominantly brown or sand, colours of a hot desert country, sprinkled with green leaves, splashes of plantlife in the desert.

By contrast this painting is huge and painted a powerfully deep rich blue. It’s a very striking image but I’ve saved it till last because it’s so uncharacteristic of everything which came before it. Maybe it’s a one-off or…maybe it marks a new departure in Ishag’s work, which is still very much ongoing.

Summary

This is an unusual, unexpected, strange and often very beautiful exhibition, beautifully laid out in the Serpentine’s main big white gallery space. And it’s FREE. Well worth making a detour through the park to see.

Here’s the artist herself, pushing 83 and still rocking it.

Kamala Ibrahim Ishag. Photo © Mohamed Noureldin Abdallah Ahmed


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Other Serpentine reviews

The Procession by Hew Locke @ Tate Britain

Every year Tate commissions established artists to create installations for its two London galleries. The ones which fill Tate Modern’s huge Turbine Gallery tend to get a lot of press. Less attention is devoted to the commission to fill the long hall or central atrium of Tate Britain. This year’s commission was awarded to well-established Black British sculptor Hew Locke. With a certain inevitability, a Black artist decided to cover the topics of race, slavery and empire.

The result is a big bold piece which fills the central hall of Tate Britain with a parade of mannequins – of men, women, children, horses – dressed in a spectacular array of clothes and costumes, designed, stitched together, a surreal mish-mash of fabrics and colours and patterns, created just for this show, and titled ‘The Procession’.

Installation view of ‘The Procession’ by Hew Locke (2022) (Photo by the author)

Like most Tate shows this one is accompanied by a wealth – possibly a rather overwhelming wealth – of explanation and interpretation. You can read:

  1. Tate’s Hew Locke biography
  2. Tate’s Introduction to The Procession
  3. Tate’s fairly long Guide to The Procession
  4. or watch the 8-minute video about its inspiration and creation

Introduction

To quote Tate:

‘The Procession’ invites visitors to “reflect on the cycles of history, and the ebb and flow of cultures, people and finance and power.” Tate Britain’s founder was art lover and sugar refining magnate Henry Tate. In the installation Locke says he ‘makes links with the historical after-effects of the sugar business, almost drawing out of the walls of the building,’ also revisiting his artistic journey so far, including, for example, work with statues, share certificates, cardboard, rising sea levels, Carnival and the military.

Throughout the long, busy work, visitors will see figures who travel through space and time. Here, they carry historical and cultural baggage – from evidence of global financial and violent colonial control embellished on their clothes and banners – alongside powerful images of some of the disappearing colonial architecture of Locke’s childhood in Guyana.

The installation takes inspiration from real events and histories but, overall, the figures invite us to walk alongside them, into an enlarged vision of an imagined future.

I must say I didn’t get any of this at all from actually walking round and along ‘The Procession’. The colours and the way some figures were riding on horses distantly reminded me slightly of Renaissance processions – a very ragtag, surreal distortion of one. But the main impression is of daunting, intimidatingly alien figures with masks or veiled faces or blank mannequin faces from a nightmarish horror sci-fi movie.

Installation view of ‘The Procession’ by Hew Locke (2022) (Photo by the author)

Exhibition guide

The exhibition guide explains that ‘The Procession’ is divided into into sections devoted to themes or topics, mostly about empire, colonialism and rebellion.

  • Carnival
  • Post-Colonial Trade
  • Ghosts Of Slavery
  • Environmental Disaster
  • Monuments To Empire
  • Revolution And Emancipation

These read like chapters from a book and that is very much what the guide turns the work into – a series of tableaux, each one exemplifying one of the themes listed above. Reading the guide you realise that an impressive amount of work has gone into selecting the themes, thinking about them and then crafting tableaux to represent them using an interesting variety of source materials.

Installation view of ‘The Procession’ by Hew Locke (2022) (Photo by the author)

Each element of each outfit, every bit of fabric, plus objects like the palanquin or banners or huge images of old share certificates painted onto fabric, each of these elements has a complex backstory. Some elements are from the white imperialists and business organisations which organised and profited from the slave trade and sugar production on slave-worked plantations in Guyana (where Locke grew up).

But others reference African culture, slave culture, and the post-slavery Black culture Hew himself grew up and experienced. All changed, transmogrified into a Surreal and often quite nightmarish vision of history collapsing in on itself. The friend I went with absolutely loved the workmanship of the fabrics, looking in detail at how different coloured fabrics, printed or painted with a bewildering variety of patterns, had been crafted, juxtaposed and so on.

But I was frightened. I found the whole thing ominous and nightmarish. Faceless figures threatening violent revenge.

Installation view of ‘The Procession’ by Hew Locke (2022) (Photo by the author)

The man below – one of two bearing a stake of wood from which hangs a small fabric basket containing the bust of a white man – he doesn’t look like he’s marching into “into an enlarged vision of an imagined future.” The small figures wearing veils of fabric in the first two images in this review don’t look like carefree toddlers in a playground; to me they look like the psychopathic dwarf in the movie ‘Don’t Look Now’.

Installation view of ‘The Procession’ by Hew Locke (2022)

The Surreal fusion of white, Black, Western and African aesthetics didn’t strike me as Rainbow Nation liberation but reminds me all-too-much of the bizarre post-civilisation outfits worn by the many rebel guerrilla movements which have characterised Africa since independence – voodoo believers dressed in Man Utd shirts and toting semi-automatics. Cold-eyed killers wielding machetes while wearing garish wigs and women’s dresses. Scroll through the first five pages of this website to see what I mean. Or:

Torture, death and dismemberment have come to millions of Africans wearing bizarre outfits, wigs, handbags, kids’ toys, makeup, machine guns and machetes. The deliberate mashup of Locke’s work might be intended to make all kinds of points about resistance to Western imperialism and economic and social norms, but – unfortunately, and unintentionally – reminded me of the hundreds of descriptions I’ve read of mind-boggling violence in African conflicts.

Maybe my imagination has been damaged by reading too many accounts of too many African civil wars, but this installation gave me the willies. Instead of liberal guilt, which I assume is the desired output, I just felt fear, fear of a world which will – in light of inevitable global climate change, the collapse of Third World countries and the resulting mass migration (which, the guide tells us, Locke references somewhere amid these garish costumes) – become more and more like this, multicultural incomprehension, social collapse, people living amid the rags and tatters of the old civilisation, inventing new cults, practicing horrific violence.

Sorry. That’s how it felt to me. The friend I went with felt none of this and just loved the fabrics, the patterns, the designs and how they’d been cunningly assembled. Either way it’s a striking installation. Go and decide for yourself.


Related links

Wars in Africa

I’ve read too many books about unbelievable cruelty, atrocity and horror in post-independence Africa.

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Cornelia Parker @ Tate Britain

Cornelia Parker (CBE, RA) is a very well-known and successful figure in British art. Born in 1956, she’s become famous for her ‘immersive’ i.e. BIG works. Above all she is a conceptual artist. What is conceptual art? According to the Tate website:

Conceptual art is art for which the idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object. It emerged as an art movement in the 1960s and the term usually refers to art made from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.

In some exhibitions you react to the painting or sculpture immediately, as an object in space which fills your visual cortex with sensations and impressions. You don’t necessarily have to read the wall labels. With conceptual art it is almost always vital to read the wall label in order to understand what you’re looking at. Sure, you could still respond naively and sensuously to the work’s appearance but you would be missing out on 99% of its meaning and intention.

The wonderful wall labels

This major retrospective of Parker’s career brings together almost 100 works, spanning the last 35 years. So that’s quite a lot of reading you have to do in order to understand almost every one of these pieces.

But a major feature of the exhibition is that the wall labels are written by Parker herself. Most wall labels at exhibitions are written by curators who, in our day and age, are obsessed with the same handful of issues around gender and ethnicity and lose no opportunity to bash the visitor over the head with reminders of Britain’s shameful, imperial, racist, slave-trading past etc etc.

So it is a major appeal of this exhibition that, instead of every single piece explained solely in terms of race or gender – as it would be if Tate curators had written them – Parker’s own wall labels are fantastically interesting, insightful, thought-provoking insights into her way of thinking and seeing the world. Instead of the world of art being reduced to a handful of worn-out ideas, Parker’s wall labels are as entertainingly varied as her subject matter, full of stories, anecdotes, bright ideas, explanations of technique, aims, collaborations.

They give you a really privileged insight into her worldview and into her decades’-long ability to be interested, curious, take everyday objects and have funny and creative ideas about how to transform them. After spending an hour and a half working through her thought processes for the different pieces, some of her creative spirit begins to rub off on you, you begin to see the everyday world the way she does, full of opportunities for disruptive and fun interventions. In this respect, this exhibition is one of the most genuinely inspiring I’ve ever been to.

Types of work

The exhibition includes immersive installations, sculptures, photographs, embroidery and drawings, as well as four large-scale, room-sized installations, and two rooms showing her art films. At the simplest, physical level, the pieces can be divided into two categories: Small and Large. Examples of the small will serve as an introduction to the large.

Introductory

In the downstairs atrium of Tate Britain stands a single sculpture, preparing you for the exhibition ahead.

The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached) by Cornelia Parker (2003) © Tate Photography

It is, of course, a life-size cast of Rodin’s sculpture, The Kiss, wrapped up in a mile of string. A vague symbolic gesture towards ‘the ties that bind’ people in relationships, maybe. In the nearby wall label Parker describes this as a ‘punk gesture’, which I found very significant. It’s the only time she mentions punk but she was just 20 when it hit, maybe at art school by then, so its attitude of really offensive, in-your-face irreverence must have taken her art school by storm. The point is, various later wall labels repeatedly say that she is interested in destruction and violence – but not violence against persons, against things. Her art does violence to inanimate objects in all kinds of inventive, creative and often very funny ways.

But there is, as so often, a further twist to the tail. Wrapping The Kiss in string is a relatively tame thing to do compared with Dada, Surrealist, Duchamp provocations from 100 years ago. It becomes more interesting when you learn that some opponents of conceptual art within the art world, fellow young irreverent artists, vandalised the original version of The Distance by cutting up the string into short sections, thus ‘liberating’ the sculpture.

And best of all, that Parker was undaunted and promptly gathered up all the cut-up pieces of string and tied them back together around a mysterious object at the centre, ‘a secret weapon’, which is unnamed and unknown.

‘The Distance (with concealed weapon)’ by Cornelia Parker (2003) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Small

I’ll jump straight in and give examples.

‘The Negative of Words’ (1996)

Parker realised that when an engraver engraves words into silver, for example into a cup like the Wimbledon champion’s cups, tiny fragments or curls of silver are generated. This piece is a pile of the shavings thus created. Parker contacted a silversmith, who agreed to her proposal, and it took several months to accumulate enough shavings for her to create the little mound, with sprinkled outliers, which we see on display here. As she points out, each sliver represents a letter, is the trace of a letter, is the inverse of writing, of language. They are absences made solid. This idea really resonated with me as I admired this carefully created little mound and its sprinkled outliers.

‘The Negative of Words’ by Cornelia Parker (1996) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

‘Luck Runs out’ (1995)

In the case next to it is an old dictionary. Under careful supervision, Parker arranged for a shotgun loaded with dice to be fired into the back of the book. The die penetrated to different depths into the text and jammed most of the pages together.  As it happens the post-shooting dictionary automatically fell open at a page about ‘luck’. Hence the title, The luck of the draw. The roll of the dice.

‘Luck Runs Out’ and ‘The Negative of Words’ by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Apparently it’s part of a series titled ‘Avoided Objects’, so-called ‘object poems’ which ‘explore the fractured, unmade and unclassified’. The series explores ‘the denied and repressed’, which sounds a bit hackneyed and stale until she goes on to specify what that means in practice – the backs, underbellies or tarnished surfaces of things, which is much more interesting. Hence shooting this dictionary ‘in the back’.

‘Embryo Firearms’ (1995)

While in Hartford Connecticut, Parker asked to visit the factory where the famous Colt 45 handgun is made. She was surprised to discover the process began with blank featureless gun-shaped casts, before any working parts were added. She asked if she could have one and the Americans, obliging as ever, gave her two and gave them a nice smooth industrial polish. Adding the word ’embryo’ to firearm juxtaposes the birth of the gun with the general idea of the birth of a human being, alongside a tool which might potentially bring it to an end.

‘Embryo money’ (1996)

Fascinated by money, Parker asked permission to visit the Royal Mint in Pontyclun, Wales. She asked for some samples of coins before they were ‘struck’ i.e. had the monarch’s face, writing, value, corrugated edges and everything else added – just the blank dummy coins. Embryo money, before it has accrued any of the power which so dominates all our lives.

‘Embryo Firearms’ (1995) and ‘Embryo money’ (1996) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

See what I mean by ‘conceptual’. You could relate to these just as intriguing objects, but the stories behind them – the anecdotes of Parker’s expeditions to interesting and unusual places to see industrial processes in action – add immeasurably to the enjoyment.

‘Exhaled cocaine’ (1996)

Parker developed a relationship with His Majesty’s Customs and Excise. She visited and got to know them at their Cardiff headquarters over a period of several months. One of the many, many types of contraband objects they confiscate are drugs. Parker persuaded them to let her have a seizure of cocaine after it had been incinerated. A million pounds worth of cocaine turned to ash, which is on display here, as a sad little pile.

In her wall label, Parker adds the coda, which you’d never have got from a curator, that she really loves the way Customs and Exercise destroy things in such a theatrical way, steamrollering fake Rolex watches or alcohol. ‘Like me, they are often symbolically killing things off.’ This kind of casual, candid opinion is a lovely insight into her way of thinking.

Inhaled cliffs’ (1996)

A personal favourite was ‘Inhaled cliffs’. She asked Customs about methods people use to smuggle stuff into the country, especially drugs, and discovered that some drugs can be used to ‘starch’ sheets, so a set of innocuous looking sheets turn out to be drenched in heroin, cocaine or other illicit substances which can be extracted once they’re safely in the country. This notion inspired ‘Inhaled cliffs’ in which Parker starched sheets with chalk from the white cliffs of Dover, ‘smuggling’ those great symbols of England into bed with her. She is tickled by the notion of ‘sleeping between cliffs’.

‘Exhaled cocaine’ (1996) and Inhaled cliffs’ (1996) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

I’m focusing a bit much on these objects in cases. There were conventional things attached to the wall, prints, flat objects treated in various ways. Photographs, for example. On her way to her studio past Pentonville Prison she noticed workmen plastering cracks in the perimeter wall, creating vivid white abstract shapes. They then started to whitewash the wall as a whole so, before these irregular, crack-shaped gestures disappeared, she quickly took photos with her phone and developed a set of 12 prints which are hung here, titled ‘Prison Wall Abstract’.

Or the ‘Pornographic drawings’ (1996). As part of her ongoing conversations with HM Customs she asked for examples of contraband and they gave her (along with the bag of cocaine ashes) chopped up lengths of pornographic film. Parker dissolved the fragments in solvent to create her own ink. She used this ink to create Rorschach blots i.e. poured them on one side of a piece of folded paper, pressed the other side down on the inked side and reopened it to have a symmetrical image. For some reason, all the ones she made (or chose to display) came out ‘to be particularly explicit’.

It dawns on me that these works are beyond ‘conceptual’ in the sense that they might better be described as anecdotal. Often there isn’t a grand concept, project or goal behind them – there is happenstance and accident. Seeing an opportunity to do something interesting and seizing it.

The other obvious thing is that she’s about transforming objects from one state to another. She starts with ‘found objects’ – gun moulds, unstamped coins, porn movies, cocaine and so on – and, in the examples I’ve given, doesn’t even transform them herself, but recognises their artistic potential.

Medium

Using this technique of remodelling the existing and everyday, is a middle-sized work titled ‘Black Path (Bunhill Fields)’ from 2013. Parker describes playing hopscotch on pavements with her daughter. This led her to pay attention to pavements and to notice the antiquity of the old stone paving in Bunhill Fields near Old Street. She got permission to pour liquid rubber into the cracks in a path through Bunhill Fields. When the rubber dried she used the mould to make a metal cast, memorialising the captured cracks in bronze. She then suspended the mould on pins so that the cracks in the pavement hover a few inches above the floor, making it seem more spectral and ghostly. (It’s an accidental quirk that my photo of it features so many people’s feet.)

‘Black Path (Bunhill Fields)’ (2013) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Large

The interest in destruction I’ve mentioned earlier really comes to the fore in the three most famous room-sized installations in the exhibition. These are by way of being her greatest hits. They are:

  • Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988 to 89)
  • Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)
  • Perpetual canon (2004)

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)

I’ll quote her wall label in its entirety:

We watch explosions daily, in action films, documentaries and on the news in never-ending reports of conflict. I wanted to create a real explosion, not a representation. I chose the garden shed because it’s the place where you store things you can’t quite throw away. The shed was blown up at the Army School of Ammunition. We used Semtex, a plastic explosive popular with terrorists. I pressed the plunger that blew the shed skywards. The soldiers helped me comb the field afterwards, picking up the blackened, mangled objects. In the gallery, as I suspended the objects one by one, they began to lose their aura of death and appeared reanimated. The light inside created huge shadows on the wall. The shed looked as if it was re-exploding or perhaps coming back together again. The first part of the title is a scientific term for all the matter in the universe that can’t be seen or measured. The second part describes a diagram in which a machine’s parts are laid out and labelled to show how it works.

I’ve seen photos of this many times. Seeing it in the flesh I realised several things:

  1. it is a mobile – a very complex mobile, but in principle the same kind of thing my son makes to hang his origami figures from his ceiling
  2. it has a cubic, rectangular shape i.e. it is the opposite of chaotically exploding outwards; it is very contained
  3. this is achieved by hanging multiple objects from the same string, not just one
  4. as people walk slowly respectfully round it the eddies of air they stir
  5. and placing a single light bulb at the centre of it means not only that is casts shadows on the wall, but as the string move gently, so a) your perspective through the multiple layers of debris shifts and changes b) the shadows they cast on the wall subtly change

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Perpetual canon (2004)

Again, I’ll give Parker’s words verbatim:

I was invited to make a work for a circular space with a beautiful domed ceiling. I first thought of filling it with sound. This evolved into the idea of a mute marching band, frozen breathlessly in limbo. Perpetual Canon is a musical term that means repeating a phrase over and over again. The old instruments had experienced thousands of breaths circulating through them in their lifetime. They had their last breath squeezed out of them when they were squashed flat. Suspended pointing upwards around a central light bulb, their shadows march around the walls. This shadow performance replaces the cacophonous sound of their flattened hosts. Viewers and their shadows stand in for the absent players.

Perpetual canon (2004) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

The ghosts of music past. I was really taken by the idea that the shadows of us, the visitors, stand in for the long-dead players of these instruments.

Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-89)

Tate own this piece. In Tate’s words:

‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ comprises over a thousand flattened silver objects, including plates, spoons, candlesticks, trophies, cigarette cases, teapots and trombones. All the objects were ceremoniously crushed by a steamroller at Cornelia Parker’s request. She then arranged the transformed silver artefacts into thirty disc-shaped groups, which are suspended about a foot from the floor by hundreds of fine wires. Each ‘disc’ is approximately ninety centimetres in diameter and they are always hung in orderly rows, although their overall configuration is adapted each time to the space in which the work is displayed. The title refers to the biblical story of how the apostle Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus in return for thirty pieces of silver.

And in Parker’s own words:

Drawn to broken things, I decided it was time to give in to my destructive urges on an epic scale. I collected as much silver plate as I could from car-boot sales, markets and auctions. Friends even donated their wedding presents. All these objects, with their various histories, shared the same fate: they were all robbed of their third dimension on the same day, on the same dusty road, by a steamroller. I took the fragments and assembled them into thirty separate pools. Every piece was suspended to hover a few inches above the ground, resurrecting the objects and replacing their lost volume. Inspired by my childhood love of the cartoon ‘deaths’ of Roadrunner or Tom and Jerry, I thought I was abandoning the traditional seriousness of sculptural technique. But perhaps there was another unconscious reason for my need to squash things. My home in east London was due to be demolished to make way for the M11 link road. The sense of anxiety lingers even now.

‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ by Cornelia Parker (1988-89) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Newer works

‘War Room’ (2015)

The biggest thing in the show is a big long room entirely lined with red paper with holes in, titled ‘War Room’, from 2015. As usual, you need to read the wall label to understand what this is about.

‘War Room’ by Cornelia Parker (2015) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

In Parker’s own words:

I was invited to make a piece of work about the First World War. I had always wanted to go to the poppy factory in Richmond, London. Artificial poppies have been made there since 1922. They are sold to raise for money for ex-military personnel and their families. When I visited the factory, I saw this machine that had rolls of red paper with perforations where the poppies had been punched out. The fact that the poppies are absent is poignant, because obviously a lot of people didn’t come back from the First World War, and other wars since. In this room there’s something like 300,000 holes, and there’s many more lives lost than that. I decided to make War Room like a tent, suspending the material like fabric. It’s based on the magnificent tent which Henry VIII had made for a peace summit with the French king in 1520, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. About a year later they were at war again.

The story, the anecdote, is, as usual, interesting but the resulting work less so.. You walk in, you walk round, you walk out. Meh. A slightly shimmery effect is created by having two layers of hole-y red paper hanging everywhere but…this is a minimal effect.

‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’ (2015)

One work dominates the penultimate room. It is an enormous, thirteen-metre long, hand-sewn embroidery of the Wikipedia page about Magna Carta.

‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’ by Cornelia Parker (2015) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

It is a collaborative work which involved over 200 volunteers including public figures, human rights lawyers, politicians and prisoners. On the wall is a list of the worthies who signed up to be involved, an entertaining list of the usual suspects: media-friendly left-of-centre politicians (Tom Watson, 55), actors, psychotherapists (Susie Orbach, 75), academics (Germaine Greer, 83), other high profile artists (Antony Gormley, 72), writers (Jeanette Winterson, 63, Philip Pullman, 75) and so on.

What struck me was how old all these people are. Our generation is declining, now, Cornelia. We’ve trashed the planet, wrecked the economy and degraded the political system for our children: best to withdraw tactfully and not keep on shouting and marching and trying to dominate everything. We’ve had our time. Over to a younger generation and hope they can do better.

The videos

There are two rooms featuring 7 or 8 art videos running consecutively. The best thing in the first room is a new six-minute video titled ‘FLAG 2022’ and made specially for this exhibition. Very entertainingly this shows the creation of a Union Jack by seamstresses in a factory only run backwards – so we see the British flag being systematically unsown and unstitched. It’s accompanied by a straight orchestral rendition of the hymn Jerusalem. Shame. It would have been funnier if Jerusalem had been played backwards, too – but maybe that would be a bit too 1960s, too much like the old avant-garde.

The second film room is about America. Oh dear. That far away country of which we hear so little, which is so rarely in the news, whose cultural products we so rarely get to see. This room contains:

  • One film which Parker shot at the annual Halloween Parade in New York, that city we so rarely hear about. Personally, I’d have though New York has enough artists of its own to do this kind of thing.
  • Another film showing supporters of Donald Trump milling about in New York outside Trump Tower sometime during his election campaign. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of Donald Trump? He was quite big in America, apparently.

Frankly, these films are a let-down. It’s disappointing to see Parker genuflecting to God’s Own Country – as if New York or America need the slightest bit more coverage or publicity than the saturation exposure they already enjoy in the British media, TV, radio, films, academia, all across the internet and the toxic marshes of social media. There are other countries in the world, you know.

I’d like to have shared FLAG or any of the others in t his review, but I can’t find any of them on the internet.

Politics

From here onwards – in the second half of the exhibition – politics emerges as an increasingly dominant theme.

As well as the flag movie, the British film room includes a film made in the empty chamber of the House of Commons in 2018 using a camera attached to a drone, titled ‘Left Right and Centre’. Not only did they make this film, but they made a film about the making of the film, in which I caught Parker telling us how damn difficult it was to make because of health and safety, fire risk assessment etc. When artists start to think they are heroes…

I thought the result was very underwhelming. The drone hovered over the table you see in front of the Speaker of the House’s chair, set between the two front benches, which usually has the Mace on it – except in this film it had been covered with copies of England’s daily papers, which fluttered in the downdraft of the drone’s little rotors.

As with Donald Trump, I am sick to death of Parliament, the succession of incompetent politicians we have had leading our nation for the past 12 years, and the corrupt newspapers which lie and distort in order to keep the ruling party in power. Watching a 10-minute film on the wretched subject of contemporary British politics went a long way to destroying the happy, creative, open impression inspired by the first half of the exhibition.

In 2017 Parker was the first woman to be appointed official artist for the General Election. In this role, she observed the election campaign leading up to the 8 June vote, meeting with politicians, campaigners and voters and producing artworks in response. She made several films during this period including the aforementioned drone movie, and one titled ‘Election Abstract 2018’, a documentation of Parker’s observations during the campaign, posted on her Instagram account.

None of this, to my mind, is as funny or inventive as flattening a load of silverware with a steamroller, or displaying a little pile of incinerated cocaine, or soaking sheets in white cliff chalk, or taking a mould of Bunhill pavement. It just looks and sounds like the news, with little or no inventiveness and no particular insight. British politicians are idiots. Our newspapers are studies in bias and lies. So what’s new?

My heart sank even further when I read that another of her films is titled ‘Chomskian Abstract 2007’ and is an interview with the American social critic and philosopher Noam Chomsky, apparently about ‘the entwined relationship between ecological disaster and capitalism’.

Oh dear God. It’s not that Chomsky’s wrong or that hyper-capitalism driven on by American corporations and banks is not destroying the planet; it’s just that he is such a bleeding obvious choice for Great Man of the Left to interview. And so very, very, very old (born in 1928, Noam Chomsky turns 93 this year).

Is this the best Parker can do in the field of ‘radical’ or oppositional politics – interview a 93-year-old? It’s like waking up one morning and deciding you need to make a film about the environment and, after careful consideration, deciding you’d like to interview David Attenborough (aged 96) on the subject. Topics, and interviewees, don’t come more crashingly obvious than this.

Each year thousands and thousands of students in Britain graduate from international studies, politics or environmental courses. It would have been so much more interesting to interview the young, the future generation, and get their point of view rather than the done-to-death, decrepit old.

And he’s another Yank for God’s sake. What is it with the British cultural establishment and their cringing obeisance to American culture, artists, film-makers, politicians and intellectuals. Of the 200 contributors to the Magna Carta embroidery, in their summary of the show the curators single out just two – Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (who stitched ‘user’s manual’ into the embroidery) and Edward Snowden (who stitched the word ‘Liberty’).

Notice anything about them? Yes, they’re both American. Americans just seem carry more weight with Britain’s art establishment. They have a little more human value than mere Brits like you and me. More pizzazz, more glamour.

Lastly, what has Chomsky actually changed in his 50-odd years of railing against the American government and global capitalism? Nothing. Come to that, what good does getting 200 media-friendly worthies to contribute bits to a 13-metre-long embroidery achieve? Nothing. It’s a feel-good exercise for everyone involved and maybe it makes some of the gallery visitors feel warm and fuzzy and virtuous, too. Which is nice, but…

But meanwhile, out in the real world, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng are destroying the economy, ruining Britain’s standing in the financial world, and declaring war on the poor, the unwell, the vulnerable, even trashing support among their own middle-class, mortgage-paying supporters, in a zombie march of ideologues divorced from reality.

Flying a drone round the House of Commons or stitching a room-length embroidery are not only feeble responses to the world we live in but, worse, I found them imaginatively limiting and cramped. If you’re going to tackle the terrible world of contemporary politics, at least do it with some style and imagination. Old newspaper photos of Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn didn’t take me anywhere new – unlike the pile of silver shavings or a cast of Bunhill pavement or most of the pieces in the first half of the show, which opened magic doors in my mind.

Maybe Parker should stick to what she does best – blowing things up. Guy Fawkes Night is coming. Just a thought…


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Island by Mónica de Miranda @ Autograph

‘Tide’ from ‘The Island’ by Mónica de Miranda (2021) © Mónica de Miranda

Autograph

Autograph is a small gallery in Hoxton, which is open from Wednesday to Saturday only, but is FREE.

Details of opening hours and location here.

It’s housed in an ultra-modern building with a main gallery space – one wide square room with high ceilings – on the ground floor, and other spaces, of more conventional size, upstairs.

Whenever I’ve visited there’s only been a handful of other visitors so, apart from the exhibitions themselves, it feels like a cool, slick oasis of calm amid the hustling backstreets of Hoxton let alone the hectic traffic on nearby Shoreditch High Street.

Currently, Autograph is displaying a work by the Angolan-Portuguese artist Mónica de Miranda.

Mónica de Miranda – official biography

De Miranda is an Angolan Portuguese visual artist, filmmaker and researcher who works and lives between Lisbon and Luanda. Her work incorporates photography, video, drawing, sculpture and installation. Through it she investigates postcolonial politics of geography, history, and subjectivity in relation to Africa and its diaspora through a critical spatial arts practice.

Often conceptual and research-based, de Miranda is interested in the convergence of socio-political narratives, gender, and memory at the boundaries between fiction and documentary.

De Miranda is affiliated with the University of Lisbon where she is engaged on projects dealing with ethical and cultural aspects of contemporary migration movements linked to lusophone Africa, such as Post-Archive: Politics of Memory, Place and Identity, and Visual Culture, Migration, Globalization and Decolonization.

Intriguingly for someone who has roots in, what for many Brits are rather exotic countries – Portugal and Angola – her qualifications are very English. She holds undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in art and arts education from Camberwell College of Arts and the Institute of Education, and a doctorate in Visual Art from the University of Middlesex.

The exhibition

The exhibition consists of two elements:

1. The Island is a film, a 37-minute art film. This is being played on a continuous loop in the upstairs exhibition space. The room is dark, you make your way to one of the 4 or 5 basic benches provided, settle down and watch.

2. The main exhibition space downstairs contains half a dozen still photographs from the film. These have been blown up to large scale and cut up into a number of perfectly symmetrical separate frames. So one still from the film may be cut up into two, four or six separate sections, each beautifully framed and placed with mathematical precision on the white walls.

Installation view of photographic stills from ‘The Island’ by Mónica de Miranda at Autograph

They are all large, digitally clear, very calming images of a handful of people in lovely rural settings. Presumably they’re in Portugal, maybe even in Angola, but the lack of tropical foliage, and the look of the trees often made it feel like somewhere in the Thames Valley.

There are only about 6 of these big cut-up photos in the entire exhibition space. It makes for clarity and calm. It’s a very mindful experience.

The film

The problem with making any kind of art film must be persuading the audience to sit all the way through it. I wonder if there’s any data, from any gallery, of what percentage of visitors make it all the way through an art film. I watched about ten minutes of it.

During that time a striking, statuesque black woman wearing a long white dress stood in a haunting, abandoned quarry. Then she was wearing a bright red jacket trimmed with gold epaulettes and standing in what looked like a ruined outdoor auditorium with tiers of concrete benches.

Still from ‘The Island’ by Mónica de Miranda @ Autograph © Mónica de Miranda

Two young black women wearing black jumpers and red berets (the uniform, I think, of 1970s radicals) walked along paths through woods. The same two women wearing white dresses played on a hilltop with panoramic views over a wooded landscape. Without warning they are suddenly wearing Regency era dresses. Time jumps. Different historical eras are overlapped, photoshopped. At another point we see them sitting on a fallen tree half-sunk in a lake (see image at the start of this review).

The statuesque woman sat on some rocks. She was joined by a handsome black man. Cut to the same couple sitting down at a table placed just so on the sandy bank of a river. Long lazy tracking shots of the riverbank, as from a boat slowly drifting along the river.

Three points:

1. It’s all shot in a slow, classic style i.e. all the shots are long and lingering, they’re all set up to give full view of the scene. It’s consciously beautiful, especially the shots in the abandoned quarry, now filled with a huge pool of deep green water, some of which were really haunting.

‘Whistle for the Wind’ from ‘The Island’ by Mónica de Miranda (2021) © Mónica de Miranda

2. But more striking is the words. There are frequent shots of the striking woman speaking deep and meaningful sentences while staring into the middle distance. When she and the handsome man sit down at the dinner table on the river bank they don’t chat, they declaim more deep and meaningful sentences. As the two young women pick flowers in the woods, or walk through woodland paths or hold hands and spin round on the hilltop, there’s a voiceover of the same kind of deep and meaningful commentary. All spoken in a rich Portuguese accent, heavy on ‘sh’ sounds, sounding more East European than Latin.

I can’t find a transcript anywhere online. All I can find is the text accompanying the trailer on YouTube, where the voiceover tells us:

Do not stay lost.
Do not stay forgotten.
Do not lose the memory of who you are.
Breathe!

All the voiceover for the ten or so minutes I saw is like this. It, could have been copied from any one of the hundreds of books which fill the Spirituality and Mindfulness sections of bookshops. Like mottos from a series of inspirational posters. From the same place as the famous ‘Desiderate’ prose poem of healing advice:

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence…

Either you like this kind of thing or you don’t. Chacun à son goût. Personally, I found it very relaxing. My companion had to stifle her titters.

Thirdly, the music. It’s very, very low-key, slowly-changing chords generated by some kind of synthesiser or electronic instruments i.e. not orchestra or pop music etc. It’s ambient, relaxing and lulling. It reminds me of Brian Eno’s ambient albums from the 70s and 80s.

The combination of the bland bromides of the voiceover, sensitively read in a rich Portuguese accent, the slow ambient music, and the lazy tracking shots of the riverbank, of girls walking through woods, of the striking woman standing in abandoned sites…explain why after ten or 12 minutes I fell slowly, lazily asleep. I think I was woken up by my own snoring.

‘Ground Work’ from ‘The Island’ by Mónica de Miranda (2021) © Mónica de Miranda

The curators’ version

The curator’s commentary accompanying the show wants us to believe that de Miranda:

deploys the metaphor of the island as a utopian place of isolation, refuge, and escape: a space for collective imaginings that speak to new and old freedoms. Anchored in cultural affinities and ecofeminism, the artist considers soil as an organic repository of time and memory, where ancestral and ecological trauma linked to colonial excavations continue to unfold. The Island urges us to develop a more conscious relationship between our bodies, the past and the lands we inhabit – and all that they hold – towards regenerative possible futures.

The visitor is free to take these ideas and spin them on into complex post-colonial critiques, pondering empire, slavery, colonialism, gender and ethnicity, all the usual topics of contemporary art.

But as an actual sensory experience the film, and then the big white room full of beautiful photos, are wonderfully calming, relaxing and healing. If you’re in that part of London on one of the days when Autograph is open, it’s worth making a detour to experience a chilled half hour of these calm and healing music and images.


Related links

Angola reviews

In case you get the impression that Angola is all beautiful woods, picturesque ruins and spiritual ladies, here are reviews of books by people who’ve worked in or visited this tragic, war-torn country recently.

Other Autograph exhibitions

Feminine power: the divine to the demonic @ the British Museum

This is the first major exhibition ever held at the British Museum focusing solely on goddesses – on female spiritual beings from mythological traditions from around the world – and it is absolutely fabulous!

Queen of the night relief, c. 1750 BCE, Iraq, painted clay © The Trustees of the British Museum

Questions about women and femininity

The exhibition sets out to ask questions about images and ideas of the divine: How do different traditions view femininity? How has female authority been perceived in ancient cultures? Are sex and desire the foundations of civilisation or their disruptors? To what extent do female deities reinforce patriarchal social systems or subvert them? What relevance to goddess from ancient or remote cultures have for us, here, today?

To ‘answer and explore’ these questions the exhibition brings together female divine and demonic figures feared and revered for over 5,000 years from traditions all round the world. It includes painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, Japanese prints, Indian relief carvings, statuettes and figurines, alongside contemporary sculptures.

Ancient and modern

It’s important to realise that the exhibition combines ancient and modern. It brings together historical artifacts – ancient sculptures and sacred objects relating to female goddesses from all around the world – but also includes modern and recent works of art by contemporary female artists such as the renowned American feminist artist Judy Chicago, and the creations of less well-known woman artists from various cultures, such as this fearsome headpiece from India.

Dance mask of Taraka, workshop of Sri Kajal Datta (1994) India, papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum

The aim is to explore the multitude of ways in which femininity has been perceived, conceived, created and depicted across the globe, from the ancient world to today. The exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints and other spiritual beings, associated with the widest possible range of human experiences and attributes, from sex and fertility, through wisdom, passion and nature, to war, mercy and justice.

18th century Chinese porcelain of Guanyin, the Chinese translation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with child and attendants © The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures

What makes the exhibition so enjoyable is not necessarily its feminist aims (although many visitors will, of course, identify with these) but a much simpler factor. Recent British Museum exhibitions about Nero or Stonehenge featured fabulous objects but also a lot of run-of-the-mill coins or skeletons or shards of pottery. These were important because they tell us about the subject’s archaeology and history, but sometimes they can get a bit, well, boring.

Here, by contrast, having selected 50 or so of the most interesting, relevant or thought-provoking goddesses from traditions around the world, the curators were free to pick only the very best objects to represent them. Almost all of the objects are from the museum’s own collection and they showcase its extraordinary breadth and range. But more importantly, lots and lots of them are really beautiful or, if not beautiful, then striking and fascinating.

Statue of Venus, 1st to 2nd century Rome © The Trustees of the British Museum

I studied the labels and read the extensive feminist commentary but then I have read the same kind of thing thousands of times, and read it every day in the papers and hear it every day on the radio and TV. Discussions of gender and sexuality and gender stereotyping and #metoo and the gender pay gap and female empowerment and strong independent women and women pioneers in culture and science and sport are now part of the permanent background hum of modern life.

What is not an everyday experience is to be able to take a walk through the mythologies of the world, to savour the beauty and force of a carefully curated selection of exquisite and surprising and fascinating historical and cultural artifacts.

Not all the objects on display are masterpieces, but many of them are really, really beautiful, and all of them have fascinating stories to tell and many of them shed lights on countries and cultures I knew little or nothing about. The exhibition amounts to a kind of David Attenborough odyssey through the weird and wonderful products of the human imagination.

Mami Wata headpiece, Nigeria, early 1900s, painted wood and metal © The Trustees of the British Museum

Five themes

One of the curators explained that they went out of their way to consult far and wide, with heads of departments across the museum, with stakeholders and members, in order to draw up a long list of themes and subjects relating to female power. Alongside this they drew up a long list of objects to illustrate the themes, at the same time drafting a list of feminist commentators who might be interested in commenting on them.

The outcome of this long process of consultation and consideration has been to divide the exhibition into five themes, each of which is introduced and explained by the curators – and then a leading contemporary feminist was invited to contribute thoughts on the theme and reflections on the objects.

The five themes are:

  • Passion and Desire, introduced and analysed by Classics Professor Mary Beard
  • Magic and Malice, commented on by writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day
  • Forces of Nature, commented on by psychotherapist and campaigner against violence against women, Dr Leyla Hussein
  • Justice and Defence commented on by human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique
  • Compassion and Salvation commented on by writer, comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White

Thus each section each of the individual exhibits has two panels, one a factual description by the curators and one a subjective and thoughtful comment by the contributors. There are also some standalone video ‘thought-pieces’ of the five commentators giving their thoughts about women and power.

Creation and nature

To give an idea of the sheer number and range of goddesses and deities involved, this is a list of some of the exhibits in just the first section, devoted to ‘Creation and nature’.

  • Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes with flaming red hair and a fiery temper
  • Sedna, the Inuit mistress of the sea
  • Lashmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance
  • Oshun, the Yoruba orisha of water, coolness and healing
  • Mami Wata, the mother water of African spiritual traditions
  • Izarami-no-mikoto, a creator deity of both creation and death in Japanese Shinto mythology
  • sheela-na-gigs, the primitive stone figures found in the Middle Ages across Britain, France and Spain
  • Papatūānuku, the mother earth figure of In Māori tradition, who gives birth to all things, including people

You get the idea. Not so much about the goddesses as such, but the impressive range and diversity of cultures represented.

Kali

The exhibition includes a newly acquired icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by contemporary Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh, the first contemporary 3D representation of Kali in the collection.

As one of the most prominent and widely venerated goddesses in India, this devotional image of Kali reflects the living tradition of her worship, important for millions of Hindus around the world today.

The statuette was commissioned especially for the exhibition, together with the London Durgotsav Committee, who run the annual Kali Puja festival in Camden, in Kali’s honour.

According to the curators: ‘Loved and feared for her formidable power and aggression, Kali is the goddess of destruction and salvation, who transcends time and death, destroys ignorance and guides her followers to enlightenment. Although superficially terrifying, the bloodied heads that she wears and carries represent her power to destroy the ego, setting her followers free from worldly concerns, and the belt of severed arms signifies that she liberates them from the cycle of death and rebirth, by the many weapons she wields.’

Kali Murti, Kaushik Ghosh, India, 2022. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient and modern

There’s a kind of doubled or paired approach to everything. I’ve mentioned the way many of the exhibits feature a panel giving the historical and cultural facts, as written by the curators, and next to it a panel giving the more subjective view and reflections of the guest commentator. Doubling. Two perspectives.

But I mean it in another way as well, which is the curators’ deliberate juxtaposition of the very old and the very contemporary. This is announced right at the beginning of the exhibition (although it was only when the curator pointed it out that I understood it).

Right at the beginning of the ‘Creation and nature’ section they have two exhibits, not quite next to each other, a bit more subtly placed than that. One is a trio of Cycladic figurines of women, those primitive, flat faced half-abstract figures which date from as long ago as 3,000 BC.

A figurine of a woman, from the Cyclades, over 4,000 years old.

These are so beautiful as objects and shapes that I could look at them all day. Anyway, just round the corner from them the curators have hung a print titled ‘The Creation’ by the American feminist artist, Judy Chicago (born in 1939 and still going strong).

I needee a bit of help deciphering this but it is an image of a woman giving birth, taken from between her parted thighs, with her two breasts as hills on the horizon, one a volcano exploding. Obviously it’s heavily stylised, and features strata of creation on the right including sea life and, above them, lizards and apes and humans.

The Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, coloured screen print in 45 colours on black paper. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

In other words, it’s a stylised image of the creation of life on earth. An interview with Chicago is quoted in which she jokes that Michelangelo’s famous image of the ‘Creation’ depicts a man (Adam) lying lazily on his back while a complacent God reaches out and touches his finger. Chicago wanted to counterpoint this patriarchal fantasy with a depiction of the more effortful, bloody and seismic moment of creation in a woman giving birth, but at the same time give it modern mythic overtones, reflecting our knowledge of geology and evolution.

So far so interesting and both works are examples of what I meant by saying that all of the exhibition’s artefacts are powerful and beautiful. It also exemplifies the juxtaposition of ancient and modern I was talking about.

History and art

But it is a dichotomy or duality on another level, as well, which is that the Cycladic figures are conventionally thought of as being of predominantly archaeological and historical interest whereas the Chicago piece is clearly a modern ‘work of art’.

So the curators are enacting another form of doubling: they have deliberately mixed together works which come from the staid academic world of history and anthropology with living works of art.

So there are, arguably, three sets of pairing or doubling going on throughout the exhibition: ancient and modern, curator and commentator, history and art.

These juxtapositions set up forcefields of energy between ancient objects of worship and veneration whose purpose was clearly ‘religious’ and modern works of art whose purpose is, well, what?

In her speech the curator said she was explaining the difference between the consciously ‘sacred’ objects (depicting goddesses and ritual) and the modern ‘profane’ art works to an exhibition sponsor, and the sponsor asked: ‘Is there a difference?’

Good question, and the exhibition provides a fascinating field of study for similar questions and reflections, either prompted by our own impressions as we stroll among these weird and wonderful objects, or by the factual summaries of the curators, or by the reflections of the feminist commentators, or by the vibrant juxtaposition of objects from such different times, places and cultures.

The visitor strolls not only between beautiful objects but amidst a complex matrix of factual information, aesthetic experiences, and intellectual discourses, jangling and buzzing, prompting all manner of thoughts and feelings.

Lilith

Take the figure of Lilith. Since the late first millennium AD, Lilith has been known in Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan. Her origins are thought to lie in Mesopotamian demons. The exhibition includes several representations of this talismanic figure, including a ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD), featuring a rare early image of Lilith in female form. Buried upside down under the thresholds of houses these bowls were inscribed with charms to protect the owners (who are named in the text) from demonic forces. They regularly name Lilith as a demon to be warded off, sometimes as grammatically singular and feminine, but also masculine or plural, one among many indications of the gender fluidity found in many mythologies.

Ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

So far, so historical or archaeological. But the exhibition also includes a very striking sculpture of Lilith by American artist Kiki Smith, made in 1994. Smith’s sculpture is cast from the body of a real woman and the striking thing is that this life-size black metal sculpture is attached half way up the gallery wall. This would be a striking installation in a gallery of contemporary art but in the staid world of the British Museum with its glass cases carefully spotlighting tiny coins and bits of pottery, it makes a huge statement, visually and physically. The artist herself writes of her work:

Lilith becomes this disembodied spirit that goes off and wreaks havoc and doesn’t want to be subjugated. Here she is transcending gravity and the constraints of her body.

Yes, the legends about Lilith and the havoc she wrought we may or may not be familiar with. But it’s the fact that she is a life-size sculpture hanging upside down on the gallery wall which makes the statement.

Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) image © Pace Gallery

The exhibition poster

Of all the objects in the exhibition, the Lilith sculpture is the one the curators chose to go on the poster and promotional material. Personally, I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been better, more accurate, to use a montage of 3 or 4 of the most striking objects to give a true sense of the exhibition’s breadth and diversity. It’s also a bit boring that out of all the cultures of the big wide world, the curators have chosen an artist from America. Disappointing. As if we don’t hear enough about American artists already. Would have been more genuinely diverse to promote a work by a Hindu or Nigerian or Inuit artist.

But then again, it is a strange and disturbing object. Maybe it recaptures, in our blasé culture, some of  the shock and mystery and weirdness that many of the more obviously ‘religious’ objects on display conveyed to their contemporaries, long ago and far away.

Lots of goddesses

If nothing else, the exhibition shows that there have been lots of goddesses and female spirits, in all societies, at all times. In the second half of the show I noted a fourth kind of doubling, which is where the curators have a panel describing an important goddess in a general sense, and then introduce a specific instance of the goddess, drawn from their vast collection.

So there’s a curator panel describing the figure of Eve, explaining her provenance and significance in Christian theology; the curators then give an example of the iconography of Eve in the form of a striking woodcut by Renaissance artist Cranach the Elder. Then one of the feminist commentators gives a more subjective assessment of the importance of Eve in shaping and projecting ideas of femininity in the Christian tradition.

A similar two-panel treatment (general explanation, then specific artifact) was meted out to (to name just the ones that really struck me):

  • Radha (Hindu)
  • Ishtar (Babylonia and Assyria)
  • Aphrodite (Greece)
  • Lilith (Jewish-Christian)
  • Tlazo Iteotl (Aztec)
  • Hekate (Greek)
  • Circe (Greek)
  • Cihuateteo (Aztec)
  • Rangda (Bali)
  • Taraka (Hindu)
  • Sekhmet (Egypt)
  • Athena (Greece)
  • Luba (Congo)
  • Mahadevi (Hindu)
  • Kali (Hindu) Isis (Egypt)
  • Maryam (Islam)
  • Mary (Christian)
  • Guanyin (China)
  • Tara (Tibet)
  • Medusa (Greece)
  • witches (Christendom)

Women and gender identity

The curators assert that the representation of feminine power in world belief and mythology has played – and continues to play – an important role in shaping global cultural attitudes towards women and gender identity.

I suppose this is true of many places, still, but…. there’s something not quite right with that statement. On reflection I think it’s that the curators are pushing it a bit far when they say the exhibition explores or investigates the role religion, and female deities, goddesses and spirits have played in representing, defining, limiting and empowering women through the ages. To really properly do that would require a library full of books and studies of religious sociology and anthropology. To be blunt the exhibition, big and broad though it is, only scratches the surface of a vast, global, pan-historical subject.

As an example, the exhibition includes a section devoted to the Virgin Mary who is (obviously) the most prominent female figure in Christianity, itself the most widespread religion on earth. This section contains five artefacts connected with her veneration, which is more than most of the other goddesses get, but, still… It would obviously need quite considerably more than that to amount to a proper ‘investigation’ or ‘exploration’ of the role of Mary in defining and limiting women’s roles in Western society over the past 2,000 years. Vastly more. Thousands of books and objects. A huge exhibition could be devoted to Mary alone. And that’s just one among the 50 or 60 female deities on display here.

And that thought brings out the exhibition’s weakness, which is that a lot of the very broad (and very familiar) generalisations which the feminist commentators make about gender and identity are not really supported by the exhibits.

The curators tell you the facts about Rangda (Bali) or Taraka (Hindu) or Sekhmet (ancient Egypt) and then the commentators shoehorn onto them one of the handful of familiar feminist concerns about gender stereotyping or gender fluidity or the power of desire or women as strong independent figures and so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s spot on. But sometimes it feels…contrived. You feel the unknowable weirdness of some of these objects, the strange worlds they inhabit and the fearsome spirits they represent are being hijacked to pad out a Guardian editorial.

A friend of mine, a designer, goes to lots of exhibitions and makes a point of never reading the labels. She likes to engage directly with the objects on display, unmediated by the curators’ editorialising. The commentators opinions are over familiar and tend to drag you into the squabbling world of the modern media and culture wars and twitter and so on.

Whereas the exhibition’s great strength is the way the objects themselves open doors in your head to weird and wonderful otherplaces and otherminds, leading you through the looking glass, through the back of the wardrobe, into a huge range of times and places and cultures.

And the way these beautiful or fascinating objects have been carefully juxtaposed with notable works of contemporary art to set up all kinds of resonances and vibrations. This – the often strange, haunting beauty of the objects themselves, and resonances set off by their artful positioning – is what I responded to, what I found very stimulating and rewarding.

(To be fair, the exhibition is accompanied by a big heavy catalogue packed with essays by feminist academics, and this does go into considerably more detail about the issues around women and gender and sexuality which the exhibition references. Read the catalogue blurb to get the publishers’ summary of it. ‘The publication concludes with a discussion of contemporary feminism…’)

The curators speak

Here are the voices of two women closely involved with the exhibition. Belinda Crerar, curator, British Museum, writes:

This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, enlightened beings and saints, and their profound influence in people’s lives today and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity – and indeed masculinity – are defined and valued now and in the future.

Muriel Gray, Deputy Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, writes:

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is brimming with magic, wisdom, fury and passion. I am very proud that through the breadth and depth of the British Museum’s collection, alongside special loans, we can tell such powerful and universal stories of faith and femininity from the most ancient cultures to living traditions around the world. I would like to thank Citi, whose ongoing support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.

A word from our sponsor

The exhibition is sponsored by Citi. Citi is the swish new name of what used to be Citigroup Inc, an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation headquartered in New York (where Kiki Smith lives and works). A spokesman for the bank writes:

As a global bank, our mission is to serve as a trusted partner to our clients by responsibly providing financial services that enable growth and economic progress. Success in our mission is only possible if we can continue to foster a culture of equality and inclusion that enables and encourages diversity of thinking. To drive that message of equality and the power and influence of women over time, we are delighted to see the Museum use its collection, along with some spectacular loans, to create a thought-provoking look at the diversity of representations and complex meanings of the divine female over time.

So the exhibition, which the curators and contributors like to see as ‘subverting’ the patriarchy and ‘questioning’ masculinity and ‘interrogating’ gender stereotypes etc – is wholeheartedly aligned with the values of American multinational investment banks and financial services corporations.

Whether you like it or not, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are now fully integrated into the lexicon of international capitalism, and it is money from American capitalism which makes possible exhibitions like this, makes possible the curators’ good intentions and the feminist commentators’ ‘subversive’ comments. What do you think of that, O goddesses of fire and flood and fury?

Tiare Wahine, Tom Pico, Hawai’i, 2001, Ohi’a wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

I’m not especially singling out this exhibition. It’s the same kind of irony which meant that the huge sculpture lamenting the transatlantic slave trade made by the American artist Kara Walker (also based in New York) was hosted at Tate Modern, a gallery founded by sugar plantation owner Henry Tate who, although he never owned slaves, made a fortune out of black labourers descended from slave in the Caribbean, whose name the Tate organisation insists on retaining despite protests.

Or that until recently Tate, whose exhibitions routinely campaign for a better world, was funded by BP, the oil corporation, which is actively engaged in destroying the world.

Ditto the National Portrait Gallery, which is only ending its funding by BP this year, having only just noticed global warming and oil companies’ role in creating it.

Or that the Serpentine Gallery in London has only just (2021) dropped ‘Sackler’ from its name because of the Sackler family’s involvement in selling the opioid painkillers which have made large numbers of Americans into addicts, wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives. (A link I was making two and a half years ago, Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery.)

In fact I attended a press launch of an exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery which was addressed by its Chief Executive, Yana Peel, and I squirmed a bit as she imperiously lectured us about sexism and racism (it was the exhibition by African-American female artist Faith Ringgold). So I was all the more surprised and amused when Peel was then forced to step down from her post after the Guardian revealed her involvement in ‘the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company whose software has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents’.

And then, of course, there are the many, many art galleries and cultural institutions which have spent the last 30 years deeply entwining themselves with the money or support of Russian oligarchs. Russia. Oligarchs. Putin. Nice company to keep.

So I’m just adding this exhibition to the many which promote high-minded values about gender and race, and advocate for sweeping social change, while being funded by money from harmful or immoral  or deeply reactionary sources. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find this kind of irony hilarious. There’s no point getting upset, it’s the way of the modern world. But you are allowed to smile at the ironies.

For young readers

There is, of course, a sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, but a book has also been written for younger readers, what the press release describes as a ‘fascinating and empowering introduction to 50 female figures from around the globe’, entitled Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief, written by Janina Ramirez and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945 to 1965 @ the Barbican

Layout

The Barbican gallery is a big exhibition space, spread over two floors. On the ground floor, as you come in, there’s the ticket desk and shop, then you walk through a doorway on your right into the ground floor display space. This is divided into three successively larger ‘rooms’, the third and final one being a fairly big atrium. You then emerge from these into a corridor which runs back alongside the atrium spaces back to the shop, and off which are three alcove rooms or ‘bays’.

Back by the shop there are stairs up to the first floor gallery which runs round the walls and allows you to look down onto the atrium space you’ve just left, so you can see paintings and sculptures from above. You can walk right round this gallery but there are only alcoves or bays on along two sides of it, four bays on one side and four on the other. 3 + 3 + 4 + 4 = 14 distinct display spaces.

14 rooms, 14 themes

So when the curators set out to design this exhibition of post-war British art they had 14 spaces to play with and have come up with 14 topics or subject areas, accordingly. Starting in room 1, the visitor walks through 14 themed aspects of post-war British art, which are also arranged in a loosely chronological order, starting just after the end of the Second World War and ending in 1965.

‘Cyborg collages’: First Contact by John McHale (1958) Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York © Estate of John McHale

The new

The curators have made one key decision which defines the entire show: believing that post-war artists had to cope with the aftermath of ‘a cataclysmic war that called into question religion, ideology and humanity itself’, they have consciously chosen to focus on THE NEW ARTISTS of the period. They have ignored artists who’d come to prominence between the wars (so no Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, for example; no Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, no Stanley Spencer, Surrealists or Bloomsburyites).

Instead the curators have tried to catch the mood conveyed by The New Generation of young artists who emerged immediately after the war and set a new tone. The result is that, although the exhibition contains the huge number of 200 works of painting, sculpture and photography, by an overwhelming number of artists (48) it has a surprising unity of feel.

Leaving aside the (excellent) photographers, the paintings in particular demonstrate what you could call a kind of damaged abstraction. There’s a blurred, grey and brown, muddy quality to much of the work. There are lots of earth tones, earth grey, earth cream, earth browns.

West Indian waitresses by Eva Frankfurther (1955) Ben Uri collection, presented by the artist’s sister Beate Planskoy © the Estate of Eve Frankfurther

The war hadn’t pulverised a specific landscape, as in the images of the Western Front made famous during and after the First World War. It had ranged far more widely than that. Crucially, it had permanently damaged mankind’s view of itself.

It was hard to be optimistic about people or ‘culture’ or ‘civilisation’ after news of the concentration camps broke in May 1945, and then the atom bombs were dropped in August 1945. And then the H bombs and the start of the incredibly fearful and menacing Cold War. Many artists struggled to believe in anything positive and channelled their energies into devising novel ways to express their horror and despair.

With so many works by so many artists, there are some exceptions, but overall I’d say this is quite a grim, depressing exhibition, with much to be justifiably depressed about. If you put the (five) photographers to one side, then there’s hardly any figurative work, and when there is (Auerbach, Freud, Bacon, Bratby, Cooke, Souza) it is heavily stylised or deliberately distorted. There are certainly no landscapes. It is an accumulation of damaged psyches.

From murk to clarity

It occurred to me that you could arrange almost all the works along a spectrum from Murk to Clarity. Then you further could sub-divide these categories. What I mean is that the murky end of the spectrum could be divided into images which look like:

  • bodies melted in a nuclear blast (Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter King)
  • bodies eviscerated in some grotesque medical calamity (Magda Cordell)
  • people drowning in Holocaust concentration camp mud (Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff)
  • bodies blurring into hunks of meat (Francis Bacon)
  • bodies reimagined as abstract shapes, blots, drabs and dribbles of paint (Gillian Ayres)
  • bodies combined with inorganic materials such as metal to become ominous cyborgs (Lynn Chadwick’s semi-abstract sculpture of a demonic bird, John McHale’s robotic family, Elisabeth Frink’s menacingly humanoid Harbinger Birds and the St Sebastian sculptures by Eduardo Paolozzi)

The murkiest of the murk

I’ve always heartily disliked the paintings of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Both applied unbelievable amounts of paint to their canvasses to create nightmare brown meringues of mud. They themselves in interviews claimed they were seeking to get at the essence of the subject or to capture the fleeting nature of reality or some such. They obsessively painted London scenes such as two big muddy paintings here, of the Shell building on the South Bank and Willesden railway junction.

But for me the key fact is that both were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and, to me, all their paintings powerfully, oppressively convey the feel of the grim Polish winter mud in which so many of their fellow Jews were worked to death, starved to death and exterminated.

‘Drowning in the mud of the Holocaust’: Head of Gerda Boehm by Frank Auerbach (1964) Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts © The Artist

Clarity

At the other end of the spectrum is what I’ve called Clarity, which can be sub-divided into maybe three rooms or artists:

  • artists in the Concrete room
  • Lucian Freud
  • Surface / Vessel room

In the room called Concrete are a set of surprisingly calm, clean, crisp, white abstract images. Victor Pasmore was a celebrate figurative artist when, in the late 1940s, he underwent a conversion to abstraction. By 1951 Pasmore had established a circle of younger artists who were equally committed to the cause of geometric abstraction, which they referred to variously as ‘Concrete’, ‘Constructionist’ or ‘Constructivist’ art, artists including Mary Martin, Adrian Heath, Anthony Hill, Robert Adams and Denis Williams.

Concrete is right next to the death camp vibe of the Auerbach room, Scars, and I really needed it. The white geometric shapes projecting from the canvas as Modernist friezes reminded me of Ben Nicholson (famous between the wars and so banned from this show).

Lucian Freud may seem an odd artist to group under the heading of clarity, but the exhibition features three of his earliest works which do, in fact feature this quality. Edgy, though. Distorted. The curators put it well when they say that ‘Freud’s forensic attention to small details suggests an uneasy vigilance, revealing anxieties just below the surface.’

‘Neurotic clarity’: Girl with Roses by Lucian Freud (1948) Courtesy of the British Council Collection © The Lucian Freud Archive/ Bridgeman Images, photograph

The third ‘calm’ room is titled Surface/Vessel. It features the paintings by William Scott and ceramic vessels by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. What they have in common is the withdrawal of all bright colours and a return to the colour of canvas and clay, textured surfaces and irregular forms. I might have liked them because 15 years later they set the tone for the kind of abstract prints you could buy at Habitat and Ikea and my parents decorated my childhood home with reproductions of these kind of gentle, cream and earth brown soothing shapes.

Installation view of Postwar Modern showing two works by William Scott: Message Obscure I (1965) and Morning in Mykonos (1961)

Room guide

The themed rooms are:

1. Body and cosmos

The first three rooms are the three progressively bigger ones on the ground floor. Each is dominated by a big signature work. This first room is dominated by Full Stop by John Latham. This seems pretty meh in reproduction which doesn’t convey its size. It’s huge, monumental, 3.5 metres by 2.5 metres, a Mark Rothko of a painting, and a hypnotic image. Is it a solar eclipse, a black hole, an enormously magnified piece of typography. Something has ended – but what?

‘The death of colour’: Full Stop by John Latham (1961) Tate © the Estate of John Latham

Much smaller is the set of three prints by Eduardo Paolozzi, born in 1924 the son of Italian immigrants, so an impressionable teenager during the war. It’s impossible to make the prints out as heads because the images look eroded and decomposed as if by acid or, as wall label suggests, evaporated in the atomic blast so many around the world feared was coming.

2. Post atomic garden

The second room is bigger, contains more but is dominated by the mutant bird sculpture by Lynn Chadwick named The Fisheater (1951). It was commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain. It’s set on a slender tripod and aerial assembly, a slender outline of a bird made from thin metal rods and sheets of metal, looking a bit like the skeleton of Concorde, very slightly swaying in the ambient air, beakily looking down at us soft and vulnerable humans.

Installation view of Postwar Modern at the Barbican showing The Fisheater by Lynn Chadwick (1951)

Fisheater epitomises the combination of light, modern industrial elements with unnerving menace which is one of the threads which runs through the show, as in the Paolozzi robots and the robot-humanoid nuclear family grimly depicted in John McHale’s First Contact (above).

3. Strange universe

The third ground floor space is the biggest, lined with huge paintings by a variety of artists, but it is dominated by a signature work, three metal sculptures, about man-size mutant cyborgs made out of complex metal and engineering detritus, welded together and melting at the edges as if they’re robots which have been brought to a halt and slightly melted in the ultimate nuclear apocalypse. They’re by Eduardo Poalozzi who, I think, has more pieces than anyone else in the exhibition and emerges as its presiding spirit.

‘Humanoid figures assembled from electrical scraps and castoffs’: Installation view of Postwar Modern showing Saint Sebastian by Eduardo Paolozzi (1957)

This room also features some enormous paintings by Magda Cordell which are splashed with red and orange and look like the freshly flayed and eviscerated carcass of a humanoid life form.

Figure 59 by Magda Cordell (1958)

4. Jean and John

The first of the bays off to the side of the ground floor corridor contains 8 or so paintings by the husband and wife artists Jean Cooke and John Bratby. Bratby’s stylised but basically figurative still lifes of their home, with boxes of cereals on the kitchen table, were nicknamed ‘Kitchen Sink’ art, presumably before kitchen sink drama came along. Although figurative and colourful, these paintings somehow bespeak the horrible, pokey domesticity of English life and it came as no surprise to learn that Bratby was jealous of his wife’s talent, destroyed much of her work and beat and abused her. See what I mean by grim?

5. Intimacy and aura

This is the room with the neurotic early paintings by Lucian Freud which I mentioned above.

But it also features the first of the photographers, Bill Brandt. Photography, with its figurative realism, comes as a big relief after four rooms loaded with paintings of bleakness, despair, mutant robots and huge abattoir paintings. But it is even more of a relief to discover that Brandt is represented here by a series of photos of female nudes. It’s not that they’re nude so much as that they’re studies of people who are young, fit and healthy. It is a sudden oasis in a desert of radioactive despair.

Apparently Brandt had been renowned in the 1930s for his photojournalism (thus breaking the curators’ self-imposed rule that no-one from between the wars has a place) but 1945 saw a radical shift in his practice as he began experimenting with nude studies indoors. Not only indoors, but in spare, spartan uncarpeted rooms. So, although fully realistic, these studies also have a strange, spooky, spectral mood. Arguably these photos, although entirely naturalistic, manage to share the same sense of nervy ominous as so many of the paintings and sculptures.

The Policeman’s Daughter, Hampstead, London 1945 by Bill Brandt © Bill Brandt Archive

6. Lush life

This room is a surprise. One entire wall is a hugely blown up photo of the interior of a new model home designed by the visionary architects Alison and Peter Smithson. It’s a photo of their stand at the 1956 Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. It was titled ‘House of the Future’ and the furniture was created using plaster, plywood and paint masquerading as the moulded plastic they’d like to have used but couldn’t afford, the kind of new super-slimmed-down ideals for living designs which were being pioneered and mass produced in America and which featured in the Barbican exhibition about Charles and Ray Eames.

Installation view of Postwar Modern showing the wall-sized photo of Alison and Peter Smithson’s 1956 ‘House of the Future’, with just one yellow ‘egg chair’, made from moulded reinforced polyester, on the low dais.

The American theme is echoed in a series of humorous collages created by Eduardo Paolozzi (is he the most represented artist in the show?). It’s a series of A4 sized collages he created by cutting up images from glossy American consumer magazines, titling the series Bunk. Of course they’re meant to be ironic and subversive and whatnot, but what really comes over is the power and optimism of the original images. Particularly when set against the post-atomic, post-Holocaust nihilism of so much of the rest of the show.

Bunk! Evadne in Green Dimension by Eduardo Paolozzi (1952) Victoria and Albert Museum, © The Paolozzi Foundation

7. Scars

As described above, the Auerbach and Kossoff, drowning in mud, Holocaust despair room.

The room also has a little TV on which is playing a film of a 1961 event carried out by another Jew (the curators emphasis the common ethnicity of these three artists), Gustav Metzger. Metzger pioneered an art of ‘auto-destruction’ in the late 1950s, staging works that enacted their own disintegration, mirroring the violence he felt in a world hell bent on its own destruction. In the grainy old film Metzger is wearing a gas mask, with St Paul’s in the background, while he sprays acid onto canvas which promptly shrivels and dissolves. ‘Happenings’ had been happening in America among beatnik audiences art colleges throughout the 1950s. This appears to be Metzger’s variation on the idea which – as so often in this exhibition – accentuates the negative.

8. Concrete

As described above, a roomful of works by Victor Pasmore and his fellow ‘Concrete’ artists. I especially enjoyed the small-scale, abstract sculptures by Robert Adams. Calm and healing.

Installation view of Postwar Modern at the Barbican showing works by Robert Adams, being: Divided form (1951), Rectangular bronze form number 7 (1955) and Balanced bronze forms (1955).

9. Choreography of the street

More photography, thank God. The black and white snaps of Nigel Henderson and Roger Mayne who specialised in capturing children at play in the gritty, ruin-infested post war streets. Mayne’s most famous body of work was created between 1956 and 1961, capturing the working-class community of Southam Street in North Kensington, west London. One of his photos was used for the cover Colin MacInnes’s novel, Absolute Beginners (1959), a copy of which is here in a glass case.

Street scene 1957 by Roger Mayne © Roger Mayne Archive / Mary Evans Picture Library

Reminds me a bit of the photo of young toughs in Finsbury Park, 1958, which marked the start of Don McCullin’s career.

The lovely and hugely evocative photos of kids playing in bomb sites are interspersed with a series of collages by Robyn Denny and Eduardo Paolozzi (surely Paolozzi is the most featured artist in the show?). And alongside these, collages and in the radical print designs created by Henderson and Paolozzi for their company Hammer Prints Ltd (1954 to 1962).

10. Two women

The two women in question are German refugee painter Eva Frankfurther and home-grown Mancunian photographer, Shirley Baker. Baker documented the changing face of Manchester in the 1950s and early 60s as the old slums were demolished and cleared for high rises and social housing. She walked the streets with a camera always in her bag, taking wonderfully evocative black and white photos of wretched slums and the old-style, working class inhabitants. In 1965 she started experimenting with colour photography and some of her colour photos are feature here.

I was lucky enough to go to the Shirley Baker exhibition at the Photographers Gallery a few years ago – none of the colour photos here are as good as her black and white ones. In a funny kind of way, colour shots of this kind of scene look oddly older, more technologically dated, than the pure black and white ones.

Anyway, the point is… look at the rubble! And in 1965! Twenty years after the war, large parts of England were still struggling to drag themselves into the modern age.

Hulme 1965 by Shirley Baker © Nan Levy for the Estate of Shirley Baker

11. Cruise

The wall label in this room informs us that:

Cruising, or looking for a casual sexual encounter in a public place, was central to the expression and exploration of male same-sex love and desire in the postwar years…

And so it is that one wall features a couple of early works by David Hockney, large browny-black background with all kinds of graffiti, words, lines and squiggles drawn across them:

The title My Brother is Only Seventeen (1962) was derived from graffiti that Hockney read on the toilet walls of Earl’s Court station, a popular cruising spot.

My Brother is only Seventeen by David Hockney (1962) © Royal College of Art

But the real revelation of this room is arguably the best thing in the exhibition. In 1954 Francis Bacon painted a series of seven huge paintings depicting a man in a dark suit sitting at the bar of a hotel, although the background has been stylised to become the slender bars of some kind of cage set against a very dark background. Three of the series are hung here, side by side.

Man in Blue I by Francis Bacon (1954) Collection Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam © The Estate of Francis Bacon

A photo like this doesn’t do the paintings any kind of justice. They are not only enormous but also, despite their stylised subject matter, have the depth and resonance of Old Master paintings. It took me a while to realise that, unlike all the other rooms in the show, the walls of this room are painted black, as if we are in a very old museum or gallery, and these three Man in Blue paintgins have the power and depth of Old Masters.

Black upon black, depths of blackness, inky impenetrability and ominousness. Possibly the best part of the entire exhibition was standing in front of these three enormous variations on a dark, baleful image and letting it soak right in to your soul.

12. Surface/vessel

As described above, a calming, peaceful room of the paintings by William Scott and ceramic vessels by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper.

13. Liberated form and space

Big colourful paintings by Gillian Ayres, Patrick Heron and Frank Bowling. From the reproductions I thought I’d like the Ayres, but in the flesh I found them a too big and I didn’t warm to her use of ‘dribbles, splashes and stains’ of paint, as the curators themselves describe her work.

‘A world of abstract shapes and dripping paint’: Break-off by Gillian Ayres (1961) Tate © the Estate of Gillian Ayres, courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, London

By the same token, I didn’t warm to the press release photos of paintings by Patrick Heron, but in the flesh found them to be some of the very few genuinely colourful, vibrant and life affirming paintings in the entire exhibition. The wall label explains that, like Pasmore and other post-war artists, when he moved from figurative to abstract painting Heron experienced a great sense of liberation.

June Horizon by Patrick Heron (1957) Wakefield Council Permanent Art Collection (The Hepworth Wakefield) © The Estate of Patrick Heron

14. Horizon

The exhibition ends on an oddity.

We met Gustav Metzger in the Scars room, represented by a film of one of his auto-destructive events. Here, at the end of the exhibition is a blacked out room with half a dozen film projectors projecting onto two walls a series of abstract swirling shapes, which were to become super familiar in the Psychedelic movement and subsequently in the lava lamps of millions of suburban bedrooms. Metzger had moved away from the ‘auto-destructive art’ of the 1950s and towards what he now titled ‘auto-creation’, in which the work of art takes on its own life. This immersive room, complete with bean bags (but no spliffs) is titled Liquid Crystal Environment and was created in 1965 using heat-sensitive chemicals sandwiched between rotating glass slides in a projector.

It’s an odd piece to end on because it seems so out of synch with the rest of the show. It feels like a little bit of the Psychedelic Sixties which has got lost in an exhibition which is overwhelmingly about the grim psychic damage, the anxieties and angst of the early Cold War, with the long memory of the Holocaust festering under the shadow of nuclear apocalypse.

Maybe it’s meant to feel cheerful but it doesn’t, which might explain why the two or three times I walked past I didn’t see anybody on the numerous beanbags.

Immigrants

An impressive number of the artists were refugees from Nazi Europe (Auerbach. Kossoff, Metzger, Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Eva Frankfurther, Magda Cordell). But the curators go out of their way to include artists from colonial backgrounds, non-white immigrants from what was still the British Empire. These include:

  • Francis Newton Souza (India), with his intimidating, highly stylised black Christs (1958) in the first room
  • Anwar Jalal Shemza (Pakistan) with a series of Islam-inspired abstracts in the same room as Heron and Ayres
  • Kim Lim (Singapore Chinese) with her delicate abstract sculptures

The Barbican’s birthday show

The curators point out that the exhibition has been timed to coincide with the fortieth birthday of the Barbican’s opening, for it was in the grim post-war period that the Barbican Estate was first conceived, to occupy what was at the time an enormous bombsite in the heart of London.

The Barbican itself, a grim, forbidding, concrete bunker, on an oppressive grey, rainy day, was the perfect setting for an exhibition about the damaged lives, damaged psyches and damaged country which – despite occasional bursts of colour – is what comes over so powerfully in this show.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Quay Art, Blakeney, Norfolk

Quay Art is a small gallery and shop in Blakeney, north Norfolk. It specialises in printmaking techniques including linocuts, etchings, collagraphs and woodcuts, but also showcases other formats including painting, ceramics, fused and kiln-formed glass, sculpture and artisan jewellery. What unifies all the works is that they are made by local artists and inspired by the Norfolk coast and countryside. I spent a happy half hour browsing round the pictures and prints and was taken by the work of three artists in particular:

Chrissy Norman

In the words of her website:

Chrissy is a Suffolk printmaker and works using the traditional method of etching copper or zinc plate in acid to achieve an image. Once the etching plate is complete she starts to print the edition and hand inks each one in small batches.

This summary doesn’t begin to do justice to the beautiful precision and accuracy of Norman’s etchings. They all depict either landscapes from the Norfolk coastline or details of specific flora, sometimes flowers, but it was her portraits of trees which floored me with their precision of outline, detail, light and colour, wonderfully evocative outlines of plane trees, oaks or, as in this instance, a soaring, sunlit, spiky Scots pine such as form the forest cover around the vast expanse of Holkham Beach. You can smell the hot sunlight, the crumbly sand underfoot, the powerful scent of hot pinewood, and the occasional salty waft of sea breeze rustling the branches.

Looking Up by Chrissy Norman

There was also a subterranean Winnie the Pooh vibe going on, some of these trees reminding me of the vivid and timeless illustrations of Pooh or, more precisely, of the trees in the Hundred Acres Wood drawn by E.H. Shepard.

Rob Barnes

On Rob’s website he tells us that he taught etching, screen-printing, lino and related surface printmaking at Keswick Hall College and then the University of East Anglia, Norwich until 2006.

Whereas Norman uses lines which are so fine and precise they sometimes create the slight blurriness of actual vision before you’ve focused on something, or the softness of sea fogs, morning mist, summer haze, Barnes’s linocuts achieve the exact opposite effect. The lines are clear, thick and black, the colours bolder and simpler, and deployed to create strikingly simplified and vivid images. And whereas Norman focuses on the fine detail of one tree, or spray of blossom, or haystack, Barnes steps back to give us clear vibrant perspectives across entire landscapes.

I particularly liked this one, Over the fields, which, when you study it, you realise is composed of 4 parts. In the foreground is a flurry of wild flowers, including (I think) teasel, honeysuckle and poppies. In the middle ground four or so deeply rolling fields folding into each other. Beyond these and the barns (pun) on the immediate horizon, an entire secondary country disappearing into the hazy far-beyond. And fourthly, of course, the murmuration of stark black starlings in the sky, arranged in an artfully artless pattern which creates and defines the space of the sky, clinches and crystallises the landscape.

Some of his other works depict hares bounding across lanes or pheasants pottering over fields. They, also, are crisply conceived with thick black, defining lines but, in my opinion, lack the fourth dimension which makes this particular image so compelling to me, the sense of enormous space and openness created by the flock of free-flying birds and which, when you really look at it, I think, invites you into their ever-changing freedom of flight.

Over the Fields by Rob Barnes

Colin Moore

Colin Moore’s work is semi-abstract but in an interestingly different way from Barnes’s. Whereas Barnes simplifies the detail of his images in order to create a kind of storybook clarity, Moore sees more complex, abstract shapes continually emerging from the world around him.

He also, more consistently than the previous two artists, depicts not trees or country but the coast, the sea, the estuaries and inlets and marshes and cliffs and beaches of this part of the world, distilling from them images which are both simplified of the untidy clutter of real life but also infused with a kind of semi-abstract, almost baroque imagery.

The day before I saw this painting I had gone for a swim in the sea off Holkham, and you can trust me that neither the tidepools nor the sky there looked anything like they do in this painting. Moore has taken the original elements and distorted them with the aim of creating something new and otherworldly out of the familiar. Look at the ‘clouds’ at the top right. They look like ice floes in the Arctic Ocean. And the pools themselves look like patterns on a psychedelic t-shirt. The overall composition is recognisably ‘realistic’ but the individual elements have been stylised and colorised to produce a powerful, visionary, and yet precise and very controlled effect.

Holkham Tidepools by Colin Moore


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John Hassall @ the Heath Robinson Museum

In the early twentieth century John Hassall was one of Britain’s best known commercial artists. Starting his career in 1895, he quickly developed an impressive reputation as a book illustrator, a humorous cartoonist for postcards and magazines, an art school founder and teacher, a painter in oils, consummate clubman, and a designer of toys, figurines, pottery and nursery decor. But it was through his commercial illustrations, and especially his posters – for travel companies, political causes, theatre and panto, and a host of well-known brands – that he made his name in an age when advertising hoardings were known as ‘the poor man’s art gallery’.

In the course of a hard working career Hassall designed some 600 posters, illustrated some 150 books and much more. By 1905 one magazine could dub him ‘the King of Posters’.

Skegness is SO Bracing – the famous poster featuring the jolly fisherman designed for the East Coast seaside town by artist John Hassall. Hassall was paid £10 (1908)

The small but beautifully formed Heath Robinson Museum up in Pinner is hosting an excellent exhibition showcasing the full range of Hassall’s work, along with loads of photos, caricatures and paintings of the great man at work, and correspondence, brochures and whatnot relating to his many additional activities as art teacher and founder member of the of London Sketch Club and of the Savage Club.

Potted biography

John Hassall was born in Kent in 1868 but, when he left school at 18, art wasn’t his first choice. After twice failing entry to The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he emigrated to Manitoba in Canada in 1888 to begin farming with his brother Owen. The exhibition includes some fascinating correspondence describing, and a set of sketches depicting, the tough life of rural Canada, as well as a couple of wonderful illustrations of well wrapped-up children hunting wildlife in the snow (a moose and a walrus).

Boys hunting moose by John Nassall

It was only when one of his illustrations of daily life in Canada was published in the London Graphic magazine that he decided to return to England and try his luck with an artistic career in 1890. On the advice of friends, he went to study on the Continent, first in Antwerp, then in Paris. He met a fellow artist, married and moved back to London in 1894, when a couple of paintings were accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

But it was only in 1895 that he was given an introduction to the firm of David Allen and Sons, leading printers of theatre poster. At the interview he was asked to demonstrate his abilities and quickly knocked out a sketch for a poster of the fashionable hit, The French Maid. He was hired on the spot and, over the next four years, went on to produce almost 600 posters.

Poster promoting Pontings department store in Kensington High Street by John Hassall

The range and variety of posters (and postcards and book illustrations) on display in this exhibition allows you to trace Hassall’s development as a commercial artist, and his deployment of different styles for different purposes.

Early influences

The very earliest posters, including the fully worked-up version of The French Maid design, included here, very clearly demonstrate the influence of the French style of posters. In fact the 1890s was by way of being a golden age of poster art, technological advances in printing allowing for an explosion of colours and styles, exploited by artists like Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha. This in turn triggered a craze among connoisseurs to collect poster art and Hassall had arrived back in London just as the craze arrived with him, partly triggered by a major exhibition in 1894. Here he is, in the early days, very much channeling the elongated, exotic and semi-abstract feel of Alphone Mucha’s Art Nouveau designs.

The Daughters of Babylon by John Hassall 1897

But as the exhibition shows, after just a few years Hassall had moved a long way from his Continental origins and developed his own, very distinctive style. The exhibition curator usefully defines this as consisting of:

  • bold outlines
  • flat colours
  • minimal letting
  • large areas of negative space

which Hassall combined to produce ‘an engagingly cheery style.’

I think that phrase about ‘negative space’ refers to the way that the use of shading to indicate perspective and/or light sources is dropped in order to produce flattened and simplified images. Probably the most extreme example of this is this almost surreal poster promoting the joys of Morecambe. Flat colours, bold outlines, minimal lettering, large areas of negative space. Look how far he’d come from his languid and cluttered, fin-de-siecle, Mucha phase!

Poster promoting Morecambe as a holiday destination by John Hassall

Hassall produced posters promoting a number of seaside destinations, of which the one for Skegness (at top of this review) became iconic. In 1936 the town invited him for a VIP day to celebrate its success and awarded him a vellum certificate, displayed in the exhibition! The town now boasts a statue of the jolly fisherman.

The Skegness poster became so iconic that it is occasionally riffed on by later cartoonists: the exhibition features two examples, including a very funny one by Peter Brooks where the figure of the jolly fisherman is replaced by a swivel-eyed Jeremy Corbyn.

Book illustration

In 1899 Hassall took on his first book illustration project. In total he illustrated some 143 titles, not including jacket and spine designs. As you can imagine, many of these were for children’s books, some for older readers, such as the adventure stories of G.A. Henty, but most collections of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Making use of flat colours enclosed by thick black lines, his poster style was very adaptable for children’s books, and he produced many volumes of nursery rhymes and fairy stories, such as Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes (1909).

Cinderella enters the coach by John Hassall

In 1900 Hassall was commissioned by Laurence and Bullen of Covent Garden to design a range of nursery wallpaper friezes and lithographic prints for children. He produced a frieze of seven prints of children with their toys designed to be mass produced, sold and installed as a literal frieze around nursery walls. They were retailed by Libertys and other upmarket stores. You can see a slideshow of these on the Hillhouse antiques website.

The exhibition points out that J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan, became an overnight sensation, generating piles of merchandising and spin-offs. As one of the leading illustrators of his day, Hassall contributed to the sensation with a series of six panels illustrating scenes from the play which are, to the modern eye, oddly flat and stylised. They resemble the stark simplifications of his toy friezes and in this particular scene, as Peter enters the children’s bedroom, you can see how it is liberally decorated with examples of Hassall’s own posters and friezes, a pleasing example of self-referentiality. In fact Hassall was deeply involved in the production: he drew the official poster and designed the cover of the programme, which also advertised these large-scale panels for two shillings each (10p in modern money).

Illustrated panel of Peter Pan by John Hassall (1907)

Also magazine covers: by this time his strikingly simple but effective designs made him a popular choice to provide cover illustrations for a wide variety of magazines such as the Scout magazine, and many others, on display here.

Pantomime

Pantomime is a form of theatre for children so his ability with cartoon and caricature was well suited to produce reams of posters for each season’s pantos.

Original antique theatre poster for the Drury Lane production of Babes In The Wood by the playwrights J. Hickory Wood and Arthur Collins. Poster by John Hassall (1907)

In fact the exhibition includes the complete set of 26 illustrations from a book titled The Pantomime ABC projected as a slideshow up on the gallery wall, with humorous and sometimes genuinely funny poems for each letter by Roland Carse.

The Great War

The First World War was actually the busiest time of Hassall’s career. He continued his commercial work but added a whole new stream of patriotic content, ranging from recruitment posters, to illustrations for patriotic pamphlets and songs, as well as personally touring the front in 1915, and working as a special constable.

The war posters are interesting because they feature iron-jawed, cleancut young men who are quite distinct from his commercial cartoon-style work. They’re the clearest proof that he could adapt his style quite drastically to suit the client and the need.

First World War recruitment poster by John Hassall (1916)

There are quite a few of the smaller cartoons, postcards, sheet music, pin badges and so on in a display case, the highlight of which, for me, is a copy of a satirical work he wrote and produced called Ye Berlyn Tapestrie a parody of the Bayeaux Tapestry featuring numerous examples of the perfidy of the beastly Hun.

Something the exhibition doesn’t include is any of the wonderfully realistic oil paintings depicting machines of war which Hassall made during the conflict. In these he applies all his skills he’s acquired over 20 years in the art of clear, striking composition, but infused with a wonderful ability to depict light and shade and depth. Its presence in stunning works like this (not in the exhibition) highlight how very much he excluded all these elements and abilities in his commercial work.

Short Seaplane by John Hassall (1915) The Collection: Art and Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery)

This section of the exhibition also showcases his broadly ‘political’ works, satirical cartoons about contemporary politics. These include a little sequence of cartoons produced in support of the little-known Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, an excellent cause which I think some brave and foolhardy souls ought to revive in our day.

Anti-suffrage cartoon by John Hassall (1912)

Pick a favourite

I loved all of it, I loved everything I saw. Hassall was a commercial artist who aimed to please, whose works are designed to make the viewer feel good, to associate a positive feeling with the product being sold, whether play or panto, shop or product, book or story – and it works. This is a hugely enjoyable, interesting and uplifting exhibition. I defy any visitor not to come out with a broad smile on their face.

Pick a favourite? Well in the midst of his immense productivity and hard work, Hassall found time to create uncommissioned art works which he submitted to serious exhibitions and competitions. These were generally storybook in style and took as their subject classic moments from English history, such as the morning of the battle of Agincourt.

I found them very appealing because they remind me, I think, of some of the long distant children’s books about history I read when I was very young. They are packed with crowds, soldiers or raiders, they have a rugged Edwardian masculinity and vividness which I really enjoyed. Here’s a photo I took of a detail of the painting ‘The morning before Agincourt’, which was exhibited in 1900. (Apologies for the terrible quality, the exhibition is held in a darkened room and I have a terrible camera. I include it to demonstrate what I mean by the ‘manliness’ of the figures in his ‘serious’ art works.)

Detail from ‘Morning before Agincourt’ by John Hassall (1903)

In these historical paintings Hassall took the opportunity to reintroduce those elements he so rigorously excluded from his commercial work. There is deep perspective, there are complicated crowds instead of a handful of isolated individuals, and, when you look closely, there is a deliberate blurring or mistiness about the faces which gives them a strange dignity, which somehow implies that you are seeing them through a time machine, their faces flickering and blurring through the distance of 500 years. In every way except for the patriotic storybook subject matter, as unlike the minimalist clarity of his posters and commercial work as can be.

Procession by John Hassall (1901)

But if I had to choose one out of all the works on show here, it would be a classic example of Hassall’s commercial poster art, a clear composition, limned with bold black lines in the style of a newspaper cartoon, all background detail kept to a bare minimum in order to focus your eye on the main character which is drawn with affectionate humour.

It’s titled ‘Treasure Trove’ and is an original artwork for a brand of whiskey but, intriguingly, nobody seems to know which one.  I think I was partly attracted because the fish look the dead spitting image of the fish which feature in the Tintin adventure, Red Rackham’s Treasure (and because both feature a man in an old-fashioned diving suit). I wonder whether Hergé knew and was influenced by Hassall’s work, by its clarity of composition, solid outlines and blocs of bare or negative space…

Treasure Trove by John Hassall (date unknown)


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

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