Edvard Munch: love and angst @ the British Museum

The fin-de-siecle

The last decade of the 19th century is famous for its fin-de-siecle, decadent, dark imagery. In Imperial Britain this was epitomised by the decadent sexuality associated with the notorious trial of Oscar Wilde and the Yellow Book magazine and the pornographic prints of Aubrey Beardsley. In France there was a reaction against Impressionism which took many forms including the urban posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and the swarthy nudes of Paul Gauguin down in the South Seas. All were well-known and public artists, working in cosmopolitan cities which were the capitals of far-flung empires – London, Paris. They were famous and playing on large stages.

In the other countries of northern Europe, however, one of the most powerful artistic currents was Symbolism.

As the exhibition notes:

Symbolism was a literary and artistic movement that rejected representations of the external world for those of imagination and myth. Symbolists looked inwards in order to represent emotions and ideas.

In Belgium, north Germany and the Scandinavian countries, artists developed a wide range of techniques and styles, but tended to fixate on a handful of themes, namely sex and death. Death awaits with his scythe. Empty boats arrive at forbidding islands. Youths waste away from frustrated love. Beautiful young women turn out to be vampires.

Sex and death and anguish and despair, these are all much more personal, introverted, emotions. Wilde was a flamboyant public personality, Beardsley’s art was defiantly clear and elegant, both were immensely sophisticated and urban and cosmopolitan, confident doyens of the largest, richest city in the world.

Whereas much of the fin-de-siecle art from Belgium, Germany, Scandinavia was much darker, more personal. Of course they produced urban and sophisticated art as well – the 1890s is characterised by an explosion of diverse art movements – but there was also a big strand of empty lakes and immense dark pine forests and brooding skies and agonised artist-heroes.

Edvard Munch

Munch is slap bang in the middle of this social and cultural movement. His most famous work is The Scream, which was first made as a painting in 1893 and then turned into a lithograph in 1895 which was reproduced in French and British and American magazines and made his reputation.

The Scream is probably among the top ten most famous images produced by any artist anywhere, and has been parodied and lampooned and reproduced in every medium imaginable (pillow slips and duvet covers, posters, bags, t-shirts). It featured in an episode of The Simpsons, clinching its status as one of the world’s best known art icons. It’s up there with the Mona Lisa.

The Scream (1895) by Edvard Munch. Private Collection, Norway. Photo by Thomas Widerberg

Why? Why is it so powerful? Well:

  1. It is highly stylised and simplified – it barely looks like a human being at all, more like some kind of ghost or spirit of the woods.
  2. The rest of the landscape is drawn with harsh single lines, whose waviness seems to echo the long O of the protagonist’s mouth.
  3. Thus ‘primitiveness’ of the technique of wood carving – with its thick, heavy ‘crude’ lines – somehow echoes the primalness of the emotional state being described.

The exhibition

This exhibition brings together nearly 50 prints from Norway’s Munch Museum, making this the largest exhibition of Munch’s prints seen in the UK for 45 years.

It also includes sketches, photos and a few oil paintings, not least a big haunting portrait – The Sick Child – of his favourite sister, Johanne Sophie, who died of tuberculosis when she was just 13. These are set alongside works by French and German contemporaries, to present a powerful overview of Munch’s troubled personality, the artistic milieu he moved in, and his extraordinary ability to turn it into powerful images conveying intense, primal, human emotions.

Vampire II (1896) by Edvard Munch. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB, on loan to Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo

Claustrophobic

The exhibition is up in the top gallery in the Rotunda, a relatively small space, which was divided into smallish sections or rooms, the prints hung quite close together on the walls, and the place was packed, rammed, with silver-haired old ladies and gentleman. It was hard to move around. More than once I went to move on from studying a print and found I couldn’t move, with people studying the next-door prints blocking me to left and right and a shuffle of pedestrians blocking any backward movement. Imagine the Tube at rush hour. It was like that.

Possibly, in fact, a good atmosphere to savour Munch’s work. Trapped, claustrophobic, slightly hysterical. it forced me to look up at the quotes from his letters or diaries which have been liberally printed up on the exhibition walls. Just reading these immediately gives you a sense of where Munch was coming from, his personality and the motivation for his art.

For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. (1908)

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted – and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there, trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature. (22 January 1892)

The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.

All art, like music, must be created with one’s lifeblood – Art is one’s lifeblood. (1890)

I would not cast off my illness, because there’s much in my art that I owe it.

We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want… an art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.

Sexual anxiety

There’s plenty more where this came from. The exhibition gives a lot of biographical detail about his early life, describing the Norwegian capital of Kristiana, how it was connected to the rest of Europe by sea routes, how it was a small provincial town whose every aspect was dominated by the stiflingly respectable Lutheran church, but how young Edvard was attracted to its small bohemian, artistic set of poets and writers and artists, how he conceived a massive sequence of works about love and sex and death which he titled The Frieze of Life –

The Frieze is intended as a poem about life, about love and about death. (1918)

How he travelled to Paris and to Berlin and scandalised respectable opinion with the exhibitions he held there, but created a stir and won admirers for the stark, elemental quality of his woodcuts and prints. (The exhibition includes a map of Europe showing Munch’s extensive travels during the 1890s and 1900s, along with a selection of Munch’s personal postcards and maps.)

We are told Munch was born and brought up in a fiercely religious and conservative bourgeois family which was horrified when he fell in with Kristiania’s bohemian layabouts. These bohos practiced sexual promiscuousness, had numerous affairs, and so were plagued by jealousy and infidelity and fights – all exacerbated by the way they drank too much, far too much.

It seemed obvious to me that Munch’s anxiety was caused by the crashing conflict between his extremely repressed bourgeois upbringing and the chaotic and promiscuous circles he moved in as a young man. On the one hand was a young man’s desire and lust, on the other were all the authority figures in his culture (and inside his head) saying even looking at a woman with lust in his heart would lead to instant damnation.

The scores of images he made of women as vampires and weird gothic presences and looming succubi emerging from the shadows, represent a repeated attempt to confront the epicentre of that clash – sex, embodied – for a heterosexual young man – by sexualised young women. They attracted him like a drug, like heroin – but all these compulsive thoughts about them triggered the terror of physical disease – the appalling ravages of syphilis for which there was no cure – along with the certainty of eternal damnation – and all these led to anxious, almost hysterical thoughts, about the only way out, the only way to resolve the endless nightmare of anxiety – and that was release and escape into death, the death which he had seen at such close quarters in the deaths of his beloved mother and sister from tuberculosis.

The obsessiveness of his sexual thoughts, and their violent clash with orthodox Christianity, is most evident in the hugely controversial Madonna, an obviously erotic image to which he blasphemously misapplies the title of the chaste Mother of God. And, when you look closely, you realise that those are sperm swimming round the outside of the frame, and a miserable looking foetus squatting at the bottom left. Sex versus Religion! It’s amazing he wasn’t arrested for blasphemy and public indecency. In fact his 1892 exhibition in Berlin so scandalised respectable opinion that it was shut down after just a week.

Madonna (1895/1902) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

So Munch’s vampire women aren’t real women, of course they’re not. They are depictions of male anxiety about women, namely the irreconcilable conflict between the demanding, drug-addiction-level lust many young, testosterone-fueled men experience, whether they want to or not – and the multiplicity of feelings of shame about having such strong pornographic feelings and experiences, and regret at handling relationships with women badly, and anxiety that you are a failure, as a man and as a decent human being, and terror that – if there is a God – you are going straight to hell for all eternity.

Plus, as the wall labels indicate, there really was a lot of heavy drinking in his circle and by him personally, which led to chaotic lifestyles among the bohemian set, and Munch became a clinical alcoholic. And this addiction – to alcohol – will, of course, have exacerbated all the psychological problems described above.

Exposure to so many of Munch’s prints – alongside detailed explanations of how he made them, the Norwegian and north European tradition they stem from, and so on – really rubs in the fact that he was a great master of the form. It’s not just the Scream. Lots of the other prints have the same archetypal, primitive power, and the exhibition brings it out by setting Munch’s work beside prime examples by other leading printmakers of the time, in France and Germany (many of which are themselves worth paying the price of admission to see).

The subtle prints

It tends to be the extreme images we are attracted to – the Scream, the Madonna, the numerous vampire women, the worrying image of a pubescent girl sitting on a bed. But some decades ago we crossed a threshold into being able to accept all kinds of erotic and extreme images, so these no longer scandalise and thrill us in the same way they did their initial viewers, although they still provide powerful visual experiences.

But having had a first go around the exhibition taking in these greatest hits, I slowly came to realise there was another layer or area of his work, which is – in a word – more subtle. If the most obvious and impactful of his images are about stress and anxiety mounting to open hysteria – there were also plenty of images which were far more restrained. In which – to point out an obvious difference – the women are wearing clothes.

Instead of vampire women whose kisses are turning into bites, these tend to be of fully dressed, utterly ‘respectable’ late-nineteenth century types, set outdoors, in open air situations where… somehow, through the placing and composition of the figures, a more subtle sense of aloneness and isolation is conveyed. They capture the mood of a couple who are, for some reason, not communicating, each isolated in their brooding thoughts.

The Lonely Ones (1899) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Like the complex ways relationships between the sexes fail, become blocked and painful in the plays of Munch’s fellow Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen. (Munch, as a leading artist of the day, was acquainted with both Ibsen and the younger playwright, Strindberg. It crosses my mind that if Munch’s more hysterical images can be compared to the highly strung characters in a Strindberg play, the more subdued and unhappy images in some way parallel Ibsen’s couples.)

Having processed the extreme images of vampire women, sex and death in my first go round, on this second pass I warmed to these less blatant images.

I noticed that the naked women images are almost always indoors (as, I suppose, naked women mostly had to be, in his day). But that the more ‘respectable’ and subtle images were all set outside, and often by primal landscapes – namely The Lake and the Forest – the kind of primeval landscape we all associate with Scandinavia and which really was available right on Kristiana’s doorstep.

The exhibition ends with a set of prints which perform variations on his characteristically hunched, half-abstract human figures – characteristically, showing one man and one woman – but in this series hauntingly isolated, leaning on each other – or against each other – in something which doesn’t look at all sensual but more like the survival techniques of characters from a play by Samuel Becket.

Towards the Forest II (1897/1915) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Less striking than the vampires and naked women and girls, I thought these strange, half-abstract, ‘lost souls in the landscape’ images had a kind of purity and haunting quality all their own.

Breakdown and rebirth

It comes as no surprise to learn that in 1908 Munch had a nervous breakdown. His anxiety, compounded by excessive drinking and sometimes fighting, had become acute, and he was experiencing hallucinations and persecution mania. He entered a clinic and underwent a comprehensive detoxification which lasted nearly eight months.

When he left, he was a new man. Well, new-ish. His work became more colourful and less pessimistic and the wider public of Kristiania for the first time began to appreciate his work. Critics were supportive. His paintings sold. Museums started to buy his back catalogue. His life improved in all measurable ways. But in a textbook case of the artist who needs his anxieties and neuroses to produce great works, everything he carved and painted from then on – portraits of rich friends, of the farm he bought, murals for factories – lacked the intensity and archetypal power of his early years.

Years later all that storm and stress and hysteria seemed so distant as almost to be inexplicable.It is typical that, decades later, he told the story of how his famous painting, Vampire II, got its title. He himself had simply titled it Love and Pain. Pretty boring, eh? But Munch’s friend, the critic Stanisław Przybyszewski, and clearly a man with a flair for publicity, described it as ‘a man who has become submissive, and on his neck a biting vampire’s face.’ And, looking back, Munch comments:

It was the time of Ibsen, and if people were really bent on revelling in symbolist eeriness and calling the idyll ‘Vampire’ – why not?

A man in remission from alcoholism and mental illness, the older Munch can be forgiven for not wanting to revive unhappy memories, and for wanting to palm off the idea for lurid titles onto his friends. But the prints themselves, and all his early writings, don’t lie. The later work is interesting and decorative – but it is the unhappy period covered by this exhibition which produced the intense and troubled works which seem to take you right into the heart of the tortured human condition.

Older, wiser and sober – Munch among his paintings at the end of his life

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Good God this is one of the most wonderful, uplifting, informative and visually fabulous art exhibitions I’ve ever been to!

In 1925 Scottish wood engraver Iain Macnab set up the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, a private British art school, in his house at 33 Warwick Square in Pimlico, London. He ran it with Claude Flight and, although it taught many skills, including composition, design and dance, it was Flight’s course in making prints from linotype which made it famous and, eventually, gave rise to the term the ‘Grosvenor school’ of prints.

Linoleum was regarded as a cheap, industrial material, and the technique of printing with it seen as an introductory skill, useful for teaching children, maybe, but no more. But Flight thought it presented the opportunity to create simplified and stylised images which reflected the speed and angularity of modern life. He is quoted as saying it had no tradition behind it, unlike traditional methods of print-making, where the artist was always looking over their shoulder worrying how Dürer or Rembrandt would have done it.

Carving lino was easier and cheaper than carving wood, requiring far fewer specialist tools. And, in line with the school’s bohemian principles, Flight thought lino could be used to create prints cheap enough for the working man and woman to afford, that it could and should be ‘an art of the people for their homes’.

Usually two to four blocks are cut, each containing different elements of the design, and then printed in sequence onto fine Japanese paper, each block printing a different element and colour in the final design.

It was the 1920s – the Jazz Age – and the school operated amid the heady mix of Art Deco in design and architecture, combined with the Modernist impulse in art which had found its purest expression in the short-lived Vorticism and Futurism from just before the Great War.

Vorticism was invented by the artist Percy Wyndham-Lewis and the poet-publicist Ezra Pound, and combined the formal experiments of French cubism with the dynamic machine-worship of Italian Futurism. The first room of the exhibition includes some prime examples of Vorticism from during the Great War, by leading exponents like Christopher Nevinson and Edward Wadsworth. Flight had studied alongside Nevinson at the Slade School of Art, so there is a direct biographical and stylistic link, with Flight absorbing Futurist ideas about how to convert the movement, energy and speed of urban life into images characterised by simplification, stylisation and dynamic lines and curves.

It was almost worth the price of admission to see these Vorticist works alone. I nearly swooned. I love to distraction their depiction of angularity and energy. Seeing not the skull beneath the skin, but the machine-like aspects of the human anatomy, men marching to war like robots, townscapes morphing into geometric patterns, everything becoming hard, technological, everything organic turning into engineering.

Tempting to show an example, but this exhibition is about the Grosvenor school. What Flight and his two lieutenants and then a suite of students did, was take the really mechanistic hardness of Vorticism-Futurism and give it a human face, somehow making it feel warmer, more likeable. Many of their designs became instant classics.

This exhibition brings together 120 prints and sketches, posters, woodcuts and lithographs, along with magazines, articles, exhibition programmes and some of the tools used in carving the lino, to create a joyous overview of the Grosvenor school tradition of lino printing, to show us the range of subject matter they covered, and to introduce us to the ten or so main exponents of lino print-making, displaying many of their greatest hits, and helping us learn to distinguish between their subtly different styles.

The Big Three

Claude Flight pioneered the new approach and look. Here’s a very early example, from before the school was even founded, of his style. Regent Street is turned into simplified curving architecture, and the passing buses are linked by curvilinear lines which emphasise the dynamism of their movement.

Speed (1922) by Claude Flight © The Estate of Claude Flight. Photo © Elijah Taylor

Cyril Power lectured in architecture but also became a prolific and characteristic lino printmaker. Each colour in this design will have been carved on a different block. Look at the amazingly dynamic effect created by the swirling lines both above and below the merry-go-round, and by the whizzing effect of the passengers closest to us whose bodies have been changed by their speed, from vertical humans to horizontal blurs of movement.

The Merry-Go-Round (c.1930) by Cyril Power © The Estate of Cyril Power. Bridgeman Images/ photo The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Sybil Andrews worked as the school secretary but was already a craftswoman and artist in her own right. Andrews emerges as very nearly the star of the entire show. Good God, she had an extraordinary eye for converting everyday scenery and activities into Art Deco stylised images of extraordinary vim and energy!

Concert Hall (1929) by Sybil Andrews © The Estate of Sybil Andrews. Photo: the Osborne Samuel Gallery, London

These three have the most prints on display and sustained activity throughout the 1920s, 30s and into the 1940s, when Power and Andrews were commissioned to create poster for London Transport, creating images of Epsom Races, Wimbledon or racing at Broadlands, which are gloriously on display in the final room of the show.

More peripheral figures

Most of the prints on display are by Flight, Power or Andrews. But they are set among works by half a dozen others.

The Australian women Three young women artists travelled from Australia to Pimlico to study with Flight and power. They were: Ethel Spowers (1890 – 1947), Eveline Syme (1888-1961) and Dorrit Black. Their works are scattered throughout the exhibition, and are generally slightly softer and less angular. Slightly. It varies. Here’s Spowers.

Wet Afternoon (1929-30) by Ethel Spowers © The Estate of Ethel Spowers. Photo: Osborne Samuel, London

Eveline Syme recorded a visit to Italy in prints. There was a wall of these and they were very pretty but – to my mind – lacked the fizz and energy of the pictures set in London or England. They could be illustrations from a straight travel book.

Outskirts of Siena (1930-1) by Eveline Syme. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Spowers, Black and Syme returned to Australia and became instrumental in organising exhibitions and promoting the school in their homeland. The exhibition includes some prints depicting the vast, open spaces of the Outback in the Grosvenor school style.

Lill Tschudi (1911–2004) Tschudi was Swiss. Although she depicted activities, work and sport as much as the others, Tschudi’s images have a distinctive quality of their own. From the evidence here, they were less curved and dynamic, and a little more blocky and static, the colours a little more pastel.

Gymnastic Exercises (1931) by Lill Tschudi © The Estate of Lill Tschudi, courtesy of Mary Ryan Gallery New York. Photo: Bonhams

Tschudi has half a dozen works on display. Much less well represented, fleeting presences among the main participants, are a handful of works by two men, William Greengrass (1898 – 1972: a wood engraver, sculptor and became a curator at the V&A) and Leonard Beaumont.

Greengrass is represented by this picture of a young family on a beach holiday. It certainly is stylised, it has an abrupt angularity. But it doesn’t – to my eye anyway – have any of the energy and dynamism of the classic Power and Andrews works.

Windmills and Balloons (1936) by William Greengrass. Photo: Bonhams/ © The Estate of William Greengrass. All rights reserved, DACS 2018

Beaumont is represented by a small number of works which seem to owe more to Art Deco vibe than many of the others, in the straightforward way they depict women’s bosoms.

Whereas nudity is conspicuous by its absence in the works of Flight, Power and Andrews, in both the most memorable works by Beaumont on show here, lithe, nubile women are lender and athletic, like countless thousands of other slender, topless, female sculptures and statuettes during the Art Deco heyday.

Nymphs, Errant by Leonard Beaumont (1934) Photo Museums Sheffield/ © The Estate of Leonard Beaumont

Work and sport

In one of the most interesting wall labels I’ve ever read, the curator – Gordon Samuel, one of London’s leading specialists in Modern British painting – explains major social changes which took place in the 1920s and 1930s. This was the passage of legislation which limited the length of the working day, and of the working week, and created a number of bank holidays when all workers were allowed to down tools and relax.

The direct result of this legislation, and the seismic change it brought about in the work habits of most of the working population, was to create leisure industries.

Cinemas and dance halls saw a boom in business and were built across the land. But just as significant was the explosion of interest in sports of all kinds. These ranged from the posher end – tennis and horse racing – through new motor sports like motor racing and speedway racing, through to a surge of health and fitness activities among the young. I live near a lido, in fact I’m going swimming there later this afternoon. Like most of Britain’s lidos it was built in the 1930s, in a wonderful Art Deco style, as part of the boom in sports and healthy activities. (This was the decade when the Ramblers Association was founded [1935], from which we have many photos of healthy young chaps with walking socks and hiking boots and knapsacks and pipes heading off into the Lake District.)

The energy and competitiveness of sport naturally played to the Grosvenor School style, and there are numerous examples here of dynamic, colourful depictions of exercise, sport and fitness.

Speed Trial (c.1932) by Claude Flight © The Estate of Cyril Power. Photo Osborne Samuel Gallery London / Bridgeman Images

Not only sport and leisure, though. The 1930s was a highly politicised decade when many artists and intellectuals responded to the Great Depression by adopting socialist or communist politics, and by creating all kinds of works which explored the hitherto occluded world of the working classes. Think of George Orwell travelling to Wigan Pier and going down a coalmine, or the work of the Mass Observation sociological movement, or the poetry of W.H. Auden which celebrates machines and work.

Flight wanted to create ‘an art of the people… an art expressed in terms of unity, simplicity and of harmony’, and he, Power and Andrews created some striking images of hard, manual, physical labour – particularly well done in a sequence of five magnificent prints by Sybil Andrews.

Sledgehammers (1933) by Sybil Andrews

I like dynamic, semi-abstract art of the Vorticist, Futurist type. But I also respect art which manages to capture the reality of work, the kind of hard physical labour which men and women have spent so much of their lives performing, for so many millennia.

Andrews and Power emerge as the most consistent creators of strong, striking designs, with Andrews probably the better of the two – very close – a fun topic to discuss after seeing the show. But the Swiss artist Lill Tschudi also created some really bold images of men at work. (Note the obvious contrast between the studied angularity of Tschudi’s figures and the razor straight telegraph wires, and the dynamic curves of the figures in the Andrews, and the way the background is entirely stylised to emphasise the energy and activity of the working men.)

Fixing the Wires by Lill Tschudi (1932)

The exhibition culminates with two rooms dedicated to London and its transport system, with a suite of vibrantly evocative images of the Tube, with its escalators, lifts, winding staircases and dynamically curved platforms. Power and Andrews were commissioned by Frank Pick, the Managing Director of London Underground in the 1920s and ‘30s, to create a set of posters publicising sporting events people could reach by Tube. Most of the resulting posters are on display here, along with preliminary sketches and draft works, giving you a fascinating insight into the works in progress.

God, this is an absolutely brilliant exhibition, not only because of the consistent quality of the works on display – all of them are good, and many of them are outstanding – but also because of the fascinating light it sheds on London and English social history between the wars. What’s not to love?

The Tube Station (c.1932) by Cyril Power. Photo: Osborne Samuel Gallery, London © The Estate of Cyril Power

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Sleepless by France-Lise McGurn @ Tate Britain

Art Now is a series of free exhibitions at Tate Britain showcasing emerging talent and highlighting new developments in British art. It is generally held in the big exhibition room on your right, next to the rotunda, once you’ve gone up the stairs and through the main entrance to Tate Britain.

This big, white, well-lit room is currently hosting a site-specific exhibition by Glasgow-based artist France-Lise McGurn (born 1983).

Figurative outlines of people

McGurn mostly works with paint, and draws people, slender outlines of people caught in various postures and actions, often dancing, leaping, twisting, turning. That’s certainly what the work here looks like – light and elegant drawings of naked people — in the detail below, apparently bending stretching walking sitting – and these sketchy outlines are treated with random washes of primary colours applied in broad brushstrokes or patches.

Installation view of Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless at Tate Britain, 2019. Photo by Tate Photography

In a big white room

The room is big and light and airy. The walls are painted white and there are big skylights. I went on a sunny day. The overwhelming visual and psychological impact was of LIGHT and airiness. It felt lovely just to walk around the room, glancing now and then at the figures dancing on the wall. They felt like a sort of 21st century version of a Renaissance frieze except that the great majority of the wall had been left a pure and cleansing white.

Installation view of Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless at Tate Britain, 2019. Photo by Tate Photography

Interplay between canvas and wall

A lot of the figures – dancing, bending, posing, sitting amid blotches and spatters of yellow and orange paint – have been painted directly onto the wall. Presumably this is what it means to say the work is ‘site-specific’ in the sense that, eventually, when it ends, they will all be painted over.

Except for the half a dozen or so canvases, ranging in size from medium to very, very large, which are stuck to the walls. These canvases partake of the bigger pattern i.e. they are composed of line drawings of people in motion, with washes of paint which start on the canvas and wash over onto the walls, joining them to the bigger configuration.

On the whole, though, looking closely, it seemed to me that the figures and compositions on the canvases were more densely drawn and painted. They felt like the nexuses of the composition, out of which, and between which, flowed lines of energy. Focal points.

Installation view of Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless at Tate Britain, 2019. Photo by Tate Photography

Curators and sex

So the whole thing gave me the impression of light and airiness and dancing and happiness. Being in this room made me smile.

However, McGurn is a woman, and the curator of the installation is a woman, and so I was not at all surprised to learn, when I wandered over to the wall label, that the installation is actually all about sexuality and the body.

Much more so than their male equivalents, contemporary women artists are very often concerned with the body and sex, often with their own bodies, quite often with taking their clothes off to expose their own bodies, examine their own bodies, question their own bodies.

Both women artists and women curators are often obsessed with sex and gender in a way the rest of the world is not and in a way which has the effect of narrowing and limiting and confining responses and ideas and feelings and the imagination. This is what the curator writes:

McGurn draws on a collected archive of found imagery to create figurative installations which express notions of sexuality, ecstasy, loss and consciousness. The new body of work presented in Sleepless explores the experience of living in a city as one that is intimate and inherently sexual. The exhibition title itself evokes key themes in McGurn’s work, including partying, dreams, longing, motherhood and nostalgic popular culture, recalling the 1993 romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle.

Hmmm it is mildly interesting to learn that the piece is named after Sleepless in Seattle – although what these perfect, mute, rather Greek god-like figures have to do with very non-Greek-looking Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks is not immediately obvious. But:

‘The experience of living in a city as one that is intimate and inherently sexual.’

Hmmm. As you crowd onto the Tube at rush hour, as you wait for a bus in the rain, as you walk past deafening roadworks, as you breathe in the toxic mix of diesel fumes and carbon particulates… does your experience of living in the city strike you as being ‘inherently sexual’? Or  ‘intimate?’

My querying of these kinds of curatorial descriptions isn’t motivated by anti-intellectualism or anti-feminism. It’s that:

1. So often their descriptions of human existence seem wildly at odds with the experiences of myself, my family and everyone I know. I just asked my son if his experience of living as a student in the big city of Bristol struck him as ‘intimate and inherently sexual?’ I cannot reprint what he said. He thought I was mad.

2. More importantly, my view is that this kind of stock-in-trade obsession with sexuality, gender and identity, this kind of standardised, boilerplate rhetoric about sexuality and desire, actually conceals and masks the art itself. The art itself is made up of lines and patterns and colours. The ‘subject matter’ is an important part of it, no doubt (although learning that the title comes from Sleepless in Seattle narrows and limits and brings your experience of the wall paintings down to a very specific time and place and cultural reference with a bit of a thump).

But the art itself is a matter of lines and patterns and colours and surfaces which, as you follow them with your eyes, begin to make your imagination flow and bend and soar along with them. And as they spill over from the canvas you feel a lovely sense of freedom and unconfinedness, and as some of them dance up towards the sunny skylights you feel a wonderful sense of openness and freedom.

For me, far more important than any amount of guff about the inherent sexiness of ‘the city’ is the dynamic visual and tactile effect created by the contrast between the painted walls and the more composed canvases which stud them. That juxtaposition is visually and imaginatively exciting.

What irritates me about the way so many curators and wall labels and guides write about art is that they cramp and confine it by imposing narrow social definitions and ideas and fashionable ‘issues’ onto it, instead of attempting to explain how the art is made, and the effect it has on us. Not on our Guardian-reading social consciences, with their narrow Pavlovian responses to trigger words like gender and sexuality and race and refugees and equality and the male gaze, and the rest of contemporary art scholarship’s fantastically small and limited little box of woke issues.

But where art should and generally does work – deep down in the imagination, the soul, the spirit, the unconscious, the preconscious, on our feelings, on our feel for pattern and colour and the sometimes very fleeting moods and responses they trigger in us.

The actual art of Sleepless made me want to fly, I felt beguiled by the strange and unexpected whorls of lines and the dancing figures, which shimmer across the walls, some of them rising up into the sunlit sky.

The curator commentary on it brought me down to earth with a painful bump, thumping my mind with the worst kind of artspeak clichés. I met a man at dinner the other day who goes to even more art exhibitions than me. He has stopped reading any of the wall labels of any exhibitions of contemporary art, because he finds them so irritatingly narrow and repetitive and limiting. Although, by doing that, you risk missing out on important information, I’m beginning to think he’s got the right idea. That you should go to an art exhibition and just respond to the art without any interference from the curators and guides imposing their obsessive concerns with gender and race on the visitor.

Demographics

This exhibition is FREE to stroll in, around and out of, and isn’t worth going to Tate Britain just for itself, but if you’re going to Tate Britain, you should make the effort to seek it out.

When I went at about noon on a weekday, there was one other person in the room.

Curators

Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless is curated by Zuzana Flaskova.


Related links

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Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers @ Tate Britain

The Asset Strippers by Mike Nelson

British installation artist Mike Nelson (b.1967) has filled the central atrium of Tate Britain with a rich collection of objects plundered from Britain’s industrial heritage, the entire installation titled The Asset Strippers.

There are old weaving machines, heavy-duty metal cabinets, two huge old-fashioned weighing scales, the threshing wheels of a tractor attachment, the huge rubber tracks from a mechanical digger. He has collected knitting machines from textile factories like the ones he grew up around in the East Midlands, woodwork stripped from a former army barracks, graffitied steel awnings once used to secure a condemned housing estate, doors from an NHS hospital, and much, much more. It is a rag and bone yard, a paradise of defunct paraphernalia artfully arranged to clutter and fill Tate’s long narrow central space.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

My experiences of manual and physical labour

I absolutely loved the sight and smell of this installation. It took me right back to my childhood. I grew up in a village store-cum-petrol station. I started working in the shop when I was about 11, graduating to the till when I was 14. They let me serve on the petrol pumps when I was 16, waiting for cars to pull in then leaping up, pulling the cold, metal, petrol nozzle out of its socket on the pump, and guiding the long, thick, dirty, rubber tube away from the pump itself and over towards the fuel filler door. Some doors you could open manually, some you had to ask the driver to ping open for you. Unscrew the metal cap or pull out the cheap plastic cap. Insert the nozzle and pull the trigger, setting off the familiar noise of the fuel pump. Asking the owner how much they wanted, then asking if they wanted their oil and water and tyre pressure checked as well.

Off to one side of the forecourt was the tyre bay where customers left their cars for a few hours and where a succession of the village lads eased the rubber tyres off with long heavy metal tyre levers, and patched up or replaced the inner tubes. Later there was an expensive new machine which gripped and removed the tyre from the metal wheel with great snorts of compressed air.

The bay was dark and smelt of rubber and oil and Swarfega. Out back of the main house was a huge shed, really a small warehouse, in which were piled hundreds of tyres of all shapes and sizes in vertical columns, towering tubes of smelly dirty rubber, often half full of stagnant oily rainwater which spilled over you as you made your way along the narrow walkways between them looking for a particular size and manufacture.

Beyond the village were the fields where you’d see the migrant workers endlessly bent over the ploughed furrows during the summer and autumn, picking vegetables, cabbage and kale, sometimes in the blistering sunshine, sometimes in the driving rain, chucking them onto the flat-bed truck pulled by a tractor which lumbered slowly in front of them. I stood at the pumps in a waterproof coat, the rain streaming down my face as I filled up another car, and wondered which of us had it worse.

Like many students, I got Christmas work as a temp postman. Going out on the rounds was fun, so long as it didn’t rain. I was fascinated by the big sorting rooms, with their arrays of metal cabinets and pigeonholes, the hundreds of fraying postal sacks everywhere, and the huge industrial weighing scales. There’s a pair of giant scales here in this exhibition. They are set on a brace of stinky, oily, creosoted old railway sleepers, with a couple of big granite rocks surreally placed on the scales themselves. They made my heart sing.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

Working as a dustman

Later, during my A-levels and in the holidays from university, I worked on building sites, and in factories. I worked as a temporary dustman in my local new town, up at 5am , on the road at 6.30am, done by noon. (Most of the dusties had second jobs they did in the afternoons. Each round had been designed to end at a pub where we a) processed all their rubbish b) had a well-earned pint.

There were two roles – pullers-out and chuckers-on (plus, I suppose, the driver). Pullers-out were dropped at the edge of this or that estate and spent an hour or so pulling out every single rubbish bag from every single rubbish bin and assembling them in piles out on the pavement. The cart would be off somewhere else for a while, clearing up another area, then, suddenly, would come storming into the puller-outs’ estate, and the chuckers-on would jump down from the bar at the back of the cart and walk along beside the cart as it drove slowly through the estate, stopping at each pile for the chuckers-on to, well, chuck the rubbish on.

The blighted landscapes of the 1970s! Rundown estates, high-rise blocks, wheel-less Ford Cortinas up on bricks, abandoned kids’ bikes and toys strewn across grass verges littered with dog poo, and everywhere rubbish, rubbish, rubbish spilling out of ripped bags onto the verges and pavement. Chicken bones, all sorts of packaging, half-eaten meals, unknown rotting vegetable matter, cardboard, sacks of ashes and burnt coals. A world of waste, every day, pulled out, piled up and chucked on by sweating, dirty, working men.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

How Mike Nelson assembled The Asset Strippers

All these thoughts and feelings and memories came flooding back as I strolled among this wonderful graveyard of old, heavy industrial machinery and furniture (cabinets and benches, looms and equipment). Work. The universe of work and the countless tools and devices and machinery which people have built and worked with over hundreds of years.

Mike Nelson assembled this collection by scouring online sales and auctions, focusing on big ‘statement’ pieces of equipment which were being sold off from closing-down factories or defunct businesses. He then arranged them:

  1. as units – most of them being made up not of one object but a pair or more of objects artfully combined
  2. carefully situated these ‘units’ throughout Tate Britain’s long narrow atrium, to create a walk-through phantasmagoria of industrial junk

The curators suggest that the pieces appear first as industrial artefacts, then you realise they have been assembled into sculptures, and from that point onwards they shimmer back and forth between mementos of the real world and aesthetic contrivances. Maybe. But my sensibility was too flooded by their size and bulk and strong industrial design. I just saw them as beautifully engineered and designed tools.

Are we really living in a post-industrial society?

The wall labels claim all these wonderful objects are testimony to, or heirlooms of, ‘a lost era and the vision of society it represented’.

I can’t help wondering if that’s true. Every week the dustmen still come and empty my bins, in fact there are more trucks than ever since there are now separate bins for waste, recycling and food, as well as periodic visits by the big caged van which takes large objects, as well as the one you order up to remove garden waste, cuttings, and prunings.

Someone picks all those up by hand. Someone drives the dustcarts back to the depot, which is supervised, run and maintained by people, who then supervise the sorting of bags into different skips, which are then sent to waste food aggregators, or to the incinerator or – at my local tip in Wandsworth – loaded onto river barges and sailed slowly down the Thames to be offloaded and carted up slopes of waste and thrown into vast landfill sites in Essex.

People do that, all of that. Driving the carts, humping the rubbish, loading the barges, skippering the tugs, docking the other end, unloading, carrying from the docks to vast holes in the ground with big diggers. Hard physical work, all down the line, involving dustcarts, huge containers loaded by massive cranes onto giant tugs pulled by big trawlers down to industrial docks and unloaded onto giant diggers which carry the waste across derelict landscapes to the big holes.

Maybe it’s not ‘industrial’ in the sense of taking place in big factors, but it is industrial in the sense of being highly mechanised and relying on giant machines powered by oil.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

Certainly all this wonderful equipment has been thrown away. But that doesn’t mean all the functions they performed have been superannuated. Far from it. It just means they’ve been replaced by newer, more effective equipment.

Indeed it is a little too easy to dismiss heavy industry, manufacturing and labouring as having somehow disappeared from Britain. For sure, the vast coal mining industry has more or less vanished, ship building pretty much gone, and industries like car-making and steel-making are much reduced and hugely more automated than they were in my youth (in the 1970s).

But, to quote the Manufacturers’ Association:

UK manufacturing is thriving, with the UK currently the world’s eighth largest industrial nation. If current growth trends continue, the UK will break into the top five by 2021. In the UK, manufacturing makes up 11% of GVA, 44% of total UK exports, 70% of business R&D, and directly employs 2.6 million people.

In other words, there are still lots and lots of our fellow citizens working with heavy machinery, in light and heavy industry, making things. And tens of thousands of people still work in docks and shipyards, at distribution centres and industrial warehouses, in agriculture and in food packing plants up and down the country, and in the basic kind of street cleaning/rubbish collection, gas-water-electricity mains maintenance jobs which I’ve described above. In manual labouring jobs.

A moment’s reflection makes me think of the huge HS2 project, and the Cross-Link project, both huge feats of engineering which require skilled workers and supervisors working with very heavy drilling, tunnel-making and railway-building equipment.

So it feels, to me at any rate, just a bit too easy for the curators to dismiss these objects as:

remnants from a bygone era… [with which] Nelson creates a melancholic journey through Britain’s recent social and political history.

Or to comment that the installation:

presents us with a vision of artefacts cannibalised from the last days of the industrial era…

Go ask the Manufacturers’ Association if we truly live in a post-industrial society, and they will tell you that the death of Britain’s manufacturing industry has been much exaggerated.

And in any case, many of these artefacts are not truly ‘industrial’.

Take the ‘doors from an NHS hospital’ which are included in the show. We still have NHS hospitals and they still have doors, so these objects are hardly ‘cannibalised from the last days of the industrial era…’

Similarly, the steel awnings used to block up the doors of abandoned council properties – well, I see the same kind of thing quite often as I cycle round my part of London, blocking up derelict buildings with steel panels still seems to be ongoing practice. So, again, there’s nothing particularly ‘industrial’ or ‘post-industrial’ about them.

The concrete tubing which features at the end of the hall, arranged on a couple of old telegraph poles, I’ve seen massive concrete tubes like that being installed in the current updates to the London water mains. And telegraph poles – we still have them, don’t we?

Many of these artefacts aren’t symbolic of anything, they’re just worn-out examples of objects which we still use and which still make up the built environment around us. To call all of this stuff ‘post-industrial’ or relics ‘from the last days of the industrial era…’ is to simplify their origins and effects.

Sure there are old-fashioned weaving looms and light engineering machinery which, yes, I dare say that’s been superseded. But rubber tyre tracks for diggers, doors for hospitals and metal grilles blocking up abandoned council houses – these are types of objects still very much in use.

What I’m driving at is I think the aesthetic and emotional, and even historical-intellectual, effects of this installation are far more complicated than the curators, and maybe even the artist himself, imagines. Some of the objects are relics of now-defunct industries and technologies. But others are just knackered examples of machinery and industrial designs which we are still using.

So the display is – in my opinion – saying something about the continuity between Britain’s heavy industrial era and the present, so-called, post-industrial age. Revealing unexpected continuities amid the wreckage of obsolescent machinery.

The dignity of work

Anyway. I loved this installation and loved these big heavy old smelly objects, loved their shape and size and weight, loved their smells of rubber and oil and machinery. I bent right down to smell the tough, rubber smell of the digger’s tracks, I wanted to open and close the huge heavy metal cabinets, I wanted to make the looms work again, I wanted to stand on the big red scale and see if it still works.

These are objects of love and veneration because they contain within them the cumulative toil and effort and care and labour of generations of workers who have spent the best hours of their lives building, installing, maintaining and using this equipment.

For me this huge installation is a hymn to the dignity of working life – which I know as well as anyone, is often undignified, dirty and degrading in itself – but which gains in human dignity by virtue of the effort and concentration and care which has gone into it. Here’s the section of big concrete tubing laid out on a ‘stand’ made of telegraph poles I mentioned earlier. I loved its round shape. I loved the smell of the wooden poles and the lost functionality indicated by the couple of white porcelain insulators, the bit which held the electric wires separate from the main pole and visible at the bottom of the photo.

All placed on rust-resistant-painted steel bars and laid on the kind of massive tarpaulin sheet you find in any number of industrial site.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

The installation is divided into three sections, with knackered wooden partitions dividing them off and creating walkways across the atrium for visitors going to other exhibitions. Even these partitions are made from the remnants of old buildings, with heavy wooden doors which many of the visitors I saw hesitated to touch or open because they looked, well, old and intimidating.

What beautiful objects! What an inspiring installation!

It prompted all kinds of half-articulate thoughts and feelings. Made me remember all the physical labouring job I’ve had, the memory of all the things my hands have held and lifted, in sun and rain and snow.

And reflect poignantly on the trillions of man and woman hours of work which have been expended in this country, in the toil and use of so many machines, so much equipment, from trawlers hauling in nets in the North sea to coalminers using heavy drills in South Wales, from the shipbuilders riveting and welding on the Clyde, to the fleets of light engineering factories along the A4, where my old man started his working life.

We commemorate the dead of the Great War or D-Day in big public ceremonies. I can’t quite see how it could be done practically, but we should also rejoice celebrate mourn condole and remember the vast amount of work work work our forebears carried out, day after day, dutifully, sometimes with love, sometimes with loathing. For better or worse we live amid the result of all their efforts. It is insulting to dismiss this vast, unimaginable legacy of toil and sweat in a few glib sentences. This exhibition is a moving tribute to the pith and marrow of our forebears’ lives, to the achievements of all their work.

Work by the Blue Orchids (1981)

Curators

Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers is curated by Clarrie Wallis, Senior Curator of Contemporary British Art, Tate, and Elsa Coustou, Curator of Contemporary British Art, Tate.


Related links

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Frank Bowling @ Tate Britain

‘Just throw the paint, Spencer!’
(Frank Bowling to his assistant, Spencer Richards, as told by Richards on the exhibition’s visitor audioguide)

This is a really good exhibition. Bowling isn’t a genius – this show doesn’t compare with the van Gogh exhibition downstairs at Tate Britain – but he is a consistently interesting and experimental artist, who has produced a steady stream of big, colourful and absorbing paintings. I found it hard to finally leave, and kept going back through the rooms to look again at the best paintings in the show.

Frank Bowling

Frank Bowling is a black British artist. He is still going strong, painting every day at the ripe old age of 85.

Frank Bowling. Photo by Alastair Levy

Bowling was born in Guyana in 1934 and moved to England with his parents in 1950, when he was 15. After experimenting with poetry, and doing his National Service, Bowling decided to pursue a career in art and studied at the Royal College of Art. His contemporaries were David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Allen Jones, R. B. Kitaj and Peter Phillips. In fact, at graduation in 1962, Hockney was awarded the gold medal while Bowling was given the silver.

Back in those early years he was caught up in the expectation that he would be a ‘black’ artist and concern himself with colonial and post-colonial subjects – an expectation, he admits in modern interviews, that he at first played along with, doing a painting of African politician Patrice Lumumba and in 1965 at the First World Festival of Negro Arts, held in Senegal, winning the Grand Prize for Contemporary Arts.

It was only when he moved to New York in the mid-1960s that Bowling discovered the light and space and artistic freedom of contemporary American art. Encouraged by American critics, he changed his style, adopting the prevailing mode of abstract art, alongside the likes of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.

As Bowling’s assistant, Spencer Richards, tells us on the visitor’s audioguide: ‘he didn’t want to be hemmed in by race and origins and that kind of stuff.’

This is the first major retrospective ever held of Bowling’s work in Britain. The gallery says it is ‘long overdue’ and seeing that he was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 2005 and awarded an OBE as long ago as 2008, it does seem extraordinary that this is the first major retrospective devoted to his work.

Nine rooms

The exhibition is in straightforward chronological order. It is divided into nine rooms each of which addresses a particular phase or style. But as I’ll explain later, in fact the show can be divided into two halves – flat surfaces, and gunky, gooey, three-D surfaces.

Room 1 Early work

This selection of early paintings includes works heavily influenced by Francis Bacon, the number one British artist in the early 1960s. Blurred figures trapped in cages look as if they’ve just been blasted by radiation.

Other early works use geometric patterns, referencing the Op Art (i.e. the playful use of geometric shapes) of Bridget Riley.

This room features some examples from a series he did using the motif of a swan, its neck and head realistic, but its body exploding, as it were, into abstraction, set against neat geometrical figures – note the orange and green concentric circles which have kind of melted, to the right of the swan’s body. If you look closely you can see that Bowling has mashed real bird feathers into the bloody, messy splurge of pain on the right. Unsettling.

Swan 1 (1964) by Frank Bowling © Frank Bowling

Room 2 Photographs into paintings

It was the Swinging Sixties. The room contains the original Observer magazine front cover of a Japanese model in a Mary Quant dress typical of the period.

Cover Girl (1966) by Frank Bowling © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved DACS 2019

Very reminiscent of David Hockney’s kind of ‘wrecked Pop Art’ of the period i.e. taking images from fashion and pop culture and kind of smearing and subverting them. More obvious is the ghostly outline of the house at the top. What is that? It is based on a photo of the big house which contained the Bowling family business (Bowling’s Variety Store) back in his home town of New Amsterdam, Guyana.

A friend sent Bowling the photo (the original is on display in one of the several display cases devoted to notes and letters and magazines and other ephemera which shed light on his career) and he used it obsessively in a whole series of paintings which contain the house motif superimposed on maps and abstract shapes. We can guess that this obsessive repetitiveness derives from a psychological need on the part of the artist to revisit the house, and by extension, the land of his parents. On the other hand – maybe it is just a powerful image or motif which he was interested in placing in different paintings, juxtaposing with other images to create the dynamism and energy of any collage.

Room 3 The map paintings

These are enormous. Suddenly we are in a huge white room on the walls of which are hung some truly enormously huge paintings. They are made of acrylic paint on flat canvas. In the second half of the 1960s Bowling was in New York and liberated by the scale and ambition of American painting, especially the abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still.

Just like them, the works are enormous and almost abstract, covered in great washes of paint, to create dynamic forcefields of colour.

Installation View of Frank Bowling at Tate Britain. Photo by Matt Greenwood

The gallery guide points out that almost all of them contain maps and that they mark ‘Bowling’s rejection of the western-centric cartography of many world maps’. I think this is wrong, and a typical attempt to shoehorn politically correct sentiment into the art. It stands to reason that many of the paintings feature a map of South America. Bowling is from Guyana which is in South America. And some of the others feature the ghostly stencilled outline of Africa. Ultimately he is of African heritage.

But quite a few of the others – like Dog Daze (1971, on the left in the photo above) feature a map of the entire world, laid out according to standard convention, exactly as you see it in any atlas or poster – with the Americas at the left, then the Atlantic, then Eurasia with Africa dangling down. Not subverting or rejecting anything in particular. I bought the audioguide to the exhibition and this contains quite a few quotes from the man himself, and Bowling makes it perfectly clear time and again, that his art is not about a ‘subject’.

Art is to do with painting colour and structure

If there are maps in the huge map paintings it is not to make the kind of politically correct, left-wing, political point which the curators want him to make. It is because they offer a motif around which the art can constellate and come into being. It enables the art. Its force is not political, it is imaginative.

For sure maps can be given meanings. I can paint an outline of Africa and declare it is ‘about’ slavery. Or empire and colonialism. Or oppression. Or poverty. Or the fight for independence. or about war. Or about dance and music. Or about anything I want it to ‘mean’. Then again, maps may just be shapes and patterns which are interesting and stimulating, as shapes, as a well-remembered shapes from schooldays, but which carry precisely as much freight and meaning as the viewer wishes to give them.

Some of these works are stunning, comparable to the Rothko room at Tate Modern, big enough for the visitor to fall into, to meditate on, to create a mood of profound calm and wonder.

At one end of the room is a stunning work titled Polish Rebecca, dating from 1971. You can make out the stencilled shape of South America at the centre and the wall label tells us that the Rebecca in question was a Polish Jewish friend of Bowling’s, and that the work is a meditation on the shared history of the African and Jewish diaspora – revealing ‘Bowling’s interest in the way identities are shaped by geo-politics and displacement’.

To me this is reading the liberal political concerns of 2019 back into a painting from 48 years ago. Maybe it is so. Maybe not. What’s not in doubt is that it is a stunning composition, dominated all the tints and shades of purple, the strange beguiling white feathering effect spreading up the west coast of South America, and the random swishes of green, blue and orange paint. In the flesh this enormous painting is utterly entrancing.

Polish Rebecca (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtest of the Dallas Museum of Art © Frank Bowling

Room 4 The poured paintings

As if to prove that Bowling is more interested in art than in bien-pensant, liberal, progressive political theory, the next room is devoted to paintings with absolutely no figurative content. He set up a tilting platform that allowed him to pour paint from heights of up to two metres. As the paint hit the canvas it cascaded down in streams of mingling colour.

Ziff (1974) by Frank Bowling. Private collection, London, courtesy of Jessica McCormack © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Structured accident, not unlike the spatter paintings of Jackson Pollock and then the hundreds of random spurting spattering throwing flicking shooting artists of the experimental 1960s and 70s. The titles also became less meaningful, more accidental, referencing people who were in his thoughts or events during the day, totally random.

Room 5 – Cosmic Space

Each new room has been marked by technical experimentation. In this once are works from the later 1970s where he began a set of further experiments. He began using ammonia and pearlessence, and applied splotches of paint by hand, producing marbling effects. He embraced accidents, which sometimes hardened into mannerisms. For example it was at this time that he took to leaving buckets of pain on the surface of the wet canvas, creating a circular ridge.

In Ah Susan Whoosh Bowling added water, turpentine and ammonia to the acrylic paint to create complicated chemical reactions. He poured the paint directly onto the canvas and then manipulated it with a squeegee. The technique forced him to work quickly, making strategic decisions to exploit the random combination of elements. It’s testimony to his skill that so many of these works, created under demanding conditions, with little or no planning, come out looking so haunting and powerful.

Ah Susan Whoosh (1981) by Frank Bowling. Private Collection, London

No reproduction can convey the shiny metallic tint of many of the colours, the sparkle on the surface of the paintings, which changes as you walk around them.

Three D

This brings me to the big divide in Bowling’s career which I mentioned at the start. The first four or five rooms are full of works where the paint lies more of less flat on the canvas. But in latter part of his career, from about 1980, and certainly in the last four rooms, Bowling’s canvases become thick and clotted three-dimensional artefacts.

He started using acrylic gel to create waves and ridges of colour and goo. And he started embedding objects in the paint. At first he used acrylic foam, cut into long strips, creating zoomorphic swirls and spirals.

In fact the ribbed nature of this foam reminded me a bit of fish skeletons, and the way some of these skeletal ruins emerge from a thick goo of paint, reminded me sometimes of the movie Alien. According to the wall labels:

Bowling also started to use a range of other materials and objects in his work. He applied metallic pigments, fluorescent chalk, beeswax and glitter to his densely textured surfaces. In several works, found objects such as plastic toys, packing material, the cap of a film canister and oyster shells are embedded within the paint. These items are rarely fully visible but add to the complexity and mysterious quality of the work.

Spreadout Ron Kitaj (1984–6) by Frank Bowling. Tate © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Spreadout Ron Kitaj is so named because the artist Ron Kitaj saw an exhibition of Bowling’s works in 1986 and got in touch. Bowling describes the strips of acrylic foam he embeds in the surface of works like that as ‘the ribs of the geometry from which I work.’ The painting also includes shredded plastic packing material, plastic jewellery, toys and oyster shells. It’s not one of the best works here – its effect is too dark and dingy for me – but it’s very typical of his modus operandi.

Room 7 – Water and Light

In 1989 Bowling went back to his childhood home in Guyana, accompanied by one of his sons. He immediately noticed the quality of the light in South America.

‘When I looked at the landscape in Guyana, I understood the light in my pictures is a very different light. I saw a crystalline haze, maybe an East wind and water rising up into the sky. It occurred to me for the first time, in my fifties, that the light is about Guyana. It is a constant in my efforts’ (1992).

As you might expect, the trip resulted in works which try to capture the effect, using Bowling’s (by now) trademark effects of acrylic gel swept into ridges, themselves arranged in very loose box or square shapes.

Sacha Jason Guyana Dreams 1989 Tate © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

From the later 1960s Bowling had studios in London and New York. His London studio is in East London and here he has made a series of paintings titled Great Thames which do just that – reference the mighty river Thames, invoking the long line of landscape painters who Bowling is well aware of – Gainsborough, Turner and John Constable.

In the way they adapt his by now trademark use of gel to create boxes and ridges, scattered with metallic pigments, scored and indented with all manner of objects found around the studio and pressed into the surface – nonetheless, the Great Thames paintings on display here prompt comparisons with Monet – not so much in technique or even in aim, but in the shimmering evocativeness of the finished product.

Great Thames IV (1989-9) by Frank Bowling. Arts Council Collection, South Bank Centre © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved DACS 2019

Room 8 – Layering and stitching

In the 1990s, Bowling continued to work with acrylic paint and gel and continued to experiment with incorporating different materials and objects into his paintings. he experimented with stitching canvases together and attaching the main canvas to brightly-coloured strips of secondary canvas, to create a distinct border to the work.

 

He took this further by cutting up earlier canvases, and stapling sections together, juxtaposing different paint applications and colours. Like the many found objects embedded in the gloop, this stitching is very evident and all tends towards emphasising the materiality of the work of art. And, in some sense, its contingency. It is like this. But it needn’t have been like this. Meditate not only on the work. But on the arbitrariness and contingency which leads to the work.

Girls in the City (2017) by Frank Bowling © Frank Bowling

Girls in the City was made by stitching together seven individually stretched canvases. You can still see the vaguely square, ‘brick’-like shapes he creates using raised ridges of acrylic gel. But to that element of boxness, is added a more literal boxiness created by the piece’s assemblage from smaller parts. He is quotes as saying the works from this period were ‘organised in the way people structure themselves, in the way we are’ – presumably, assembled from lots of disparate elements.

Room 9 Explosive experimentation

This last room is devoted to works made over the past ten years. My first reaction was I didn’t like them so much. Nowadays confined to a sitting position, Bowling has used assistants to help him, and has continued his experimentation. He uses washes of thin paint, poured paint, blotched paint, stencilled applications, the use of acrylic gels, the insertion of found objects, and stitching together of different sections of canvas.

This results in what, for me, are rather a departure from the work of the previous three or so rooms. In a work like Iona Miriam’s Christmas Visit To and From Brighton the stitching is very much on display, in the sense that the canvas with the great pink crescent on it has been roughly chopped in half and stitched onto another canvas underneath, which appears to consist of a regular pattern of coloured stripes which provide a striking ‘interval’ between the top and bottom halves, and also, when you come to look at it, a frame around the ‘main’ canvas. And that’s before you get round to processing the complicated imagery, the vibrant colours and the scoring and striking into the surface, which characterise the ‘main’ image.

Iona Miriam’s Christmas Visit To and From Brighton (2017) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy Frank Bowling and Hales Gallery, Alexander Gray Associates and Marc Selwyn Fine Art © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved DACS 2018

I think that I was still too in thrall to the box or square gel ridge shapes of the earlier works, still processing the effect of them, to really appreciate these more recent works. Maybe you need to visit the exhibition several times to really absorb Bowling’s variety and inventiveness. These last works seem to be going somewhere completely new. I hope he lives long enough to show us where.

Summary

The works in the first part of the show are interesting and good, but often feel very much of their time like the Swinging Sixties cover girl and other works which feel like mash-ups of Hockney, Bacon, Kitaj with patches of Op Art thrown in.

The enormous map paintings – some of them over seven yards long – riffing off the abstract expressionists, are very powerful and absorbing in their own right.

The poured paintings reminded me a bit of school art projects. An interesting idea but the results weren’t that great.

It is only when Bowling starts working with acrylic gel and metallic tints, and embedding foam and then all kinds of objects into the surfaces of his paintings, that something weird and marvellous happens to his works.

Words cannot convey the rich and strange results of these experiments. The dense gloop, the metallic tints, and the strange clotted surfaces, alive with all sorts of half-buried objects, create enticing effects. I walked back and forth through the show half a dozen times or more and each time one particular painting stood out more and more strongly – spoke to me.

Philoctetes’ Bow (1987) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy the Artist and Hales Gallery © Frank Bowling

This reproduction in no way conveys the richness of the colour of this huge painting (it is 1.8 metres tall by 3.6 metres wide; it would cover most of the wall of an average sitting room).

And also doesn’t convey the way the long curve along the bottom which dominates it, actually sits proud of the surface. It is a characteristic slice of acrylic foam which also looks like a long, thin strip of corrugated cardboard. It not only creates the composition, but it projects it forward off the wall, and into your imagination. I kept being drawn back to look at it again and again, to sit in the bench placed in front of it precisely so the visitor can let it permeate every cell of your imagination.

Wow! What an amazing body of work.

Demographics

When I arrived at 10.30 the exhibition was almost empty. When I walked slowly through it at 12.30, there were 38 visitors, including me – 12 men and 26 women. There were no black or Asian people at all. The only two black faces belonged to two of the Tate ‘visitor assistants’. There were half a dozen or so teenagers who seemed to be on a school trip, and one or two 20-somethings. The rest of us were white, middle-aged, grey-haired old dudes. Which reinforces the impression I’ve gained from reviewing some 150 art exhibitions: the gallery-going public in London is overwhelmingly white, middle-class, old or retired, and two-thirds female.

Curators

Frank Bowling is curated by Elena Crippa, Curator, Modern and Contemporary British Art and Laura Castagnini, Assistant Curator.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Quentin Blake: From the Studio @ the House of Illustration

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

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

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

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

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

Sheffield Children’s Hospital

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

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

Mural by Quentin Blake at Sheffield Children’s Hospital

The King of the Golden River

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

From The King of the Golden River © Quentin Blake

Moonlight travellers

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

Moonlight Travellers © Quentin Blake

Mouse on a Tricycle

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

Mouse on a Tricycle © Quentin Blake

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


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Posy Simmonds: A Retrospective @ the House of Illustration

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Silent Three

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

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

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

The Silent Three by Posy Simmonds

Posy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feminism

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

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

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

Seven Ages of Woman by Posy Simmonds

Children’s books

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

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

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

Illustration from Fred by Posy Simmonds (1987)

Text heavy

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

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

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

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

The graphic novels

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

True Love by Posy Simmonds (1981)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gemma Bovery (1999)

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

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

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

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

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

Tamara Drewe (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cassandra Darke (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration from Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Faith Ringgold @ the Serpentine Gallery

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

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

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

Faith Ringgold’s biography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics

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

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

As the press release puts it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The art

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

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

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

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

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

1. Paintings

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Posters

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

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

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

Woman Free Angela (1971) by Faith Ringgold

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

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

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

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

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

3. Tankas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From left to right, they are:

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

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

4. Quilts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Faith Ringgold

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

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


Related links

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

Books by Faith Ringgold

Shes quite a prolific author, too.

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The exhibition is divided into the following categories or headings:

Richard Hamilton (1992-2011)

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

Dieter Roth (1930-1998)

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

Fluxus

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

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

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

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

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

Beached by Lawrence Weiner (1970)

Feminism

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

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

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

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

Lynda Benglis nude postcard

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

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

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

Performance

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

Stelarc, Event for lateral suspension (1978)

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

Big Wrench by Chris Burden (1979)

Conceptual I

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

Gilbert and George in a rural setting (1972)

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

Conceptual II

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

Sky Post Card #7 by Geoff Hendricks (1974)

Endre Tót

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

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

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

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

Paradise regained

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

Paradise regained by Duane Michals (1968)

Graphic postcards

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

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

Postcard invitations

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

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

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

Political postcards I

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

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

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

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

Political postcards II – Feminism

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

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

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

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

Saw his head off by Jill Posener (1981)

Altered postcards

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

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

Excalibur by Michael Langenstein (1986)

Excalibur by Michael Langenstein (1986)

Portrait postcards

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

Struggling with language by Peter Hutchison (1974)

Recent postcards

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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

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

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

The 1940s

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving to California

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

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

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

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

Strip paintings

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

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

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

The ‘I am’ works

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sky skin’ paintings

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

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

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

Word paintings

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

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

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

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

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

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

White word paintings

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

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

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

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

Feminist art

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

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

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

Eco art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

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