Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating them with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time, and ever since, have acknowledged.

So in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul mate, and the model for some os his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks they had made to what should nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to dwarf his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was often the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interprtation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators of often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by several other overlapping ideas and explorations of the diverse meanings of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaboration’.

Thus alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

But other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

And other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’ but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. Almost all of the artists are given thumbnail biographies which focus on their love lives and their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as much as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

(Not to be left out, there is a special room off to one side for gay men, and an alcove devoted to transgender artists such as Claude Cahun, who also very much subverted and challenged and transgressed the usual blah-blah-blahs of bourgeois blah-blah.)

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multipole partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim. And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this key element – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. of the curators’ central premise. What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on, radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

So some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering. With some notable exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described and illustrated as being predominantly interested, in their lives and art and writing, in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences.

At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s.)

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic. But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or the site of transgressive desire or that their work was an epitome of queer citizenship, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time interpreted using the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve read about them – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

And that’s before you have to assimilate the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in the room dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes.

For when the curators had written out this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place, it turns out to be interesting, and fun, to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

The glossary suggests that you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Got enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’, groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading the wall texts but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point – obvious really – is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it was more a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be its sole designer. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did. The beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

But blink and you might miss an important artistic collaboration. The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (who he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp, really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These had something almost nothing else in the exhibition had – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This was a really calming, absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. It’s designed to.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth.

Also, as to one of its central premises – that ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is not that radical a thought – as is indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that this interpretation of necessity omits the stories of working people of both genders in those continents, let alone the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard). In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works.

But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ focus on Modernism being defined by couples, love and relationships and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth – derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, David and Victoria Beckham, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of modern artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) has a unique international appeal, as both an artist and a personality. Her image in oil paintings and photographs is instantly recognizable.

This is a beautifully curated and designed exhibition which left me with a much deeper understanding of Kahlo’s life, her work, her toughness in the face of terrible adversity, and the Mexican roots of her distinctive and powerful self-image.

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The treasure trove

The pretext or premise or prompt for the exhibition was the discovery of a treasure trove. After Frida died at the horribly early age of 47, her mourning husband, the famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, ordered all her belongings in the famous ‘Blue House’ they shared together, to be locked up and sealed away.

Rather incredibly, it was only in 2004 that this room was re-opened, to reveal a treasure trove of Kahlo-iana – including her jewellery, clothes, prosthetics and corsets, along with self-portraits, diary entries, photos and letters. Together they shed a wealth of new light on her life, personality, illness and endurance, on her art and on her extraordinary achievement in fashioning herself into an iconic image and brand.

And this is what the exhibition is based on.

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Biography

The show is smaller than some recent ones at the V&A. Not so much a blockbuster, as an intimate portrait. It starts with a corridor-like room divided into small recesses, each of which take us briskly through a chapter in her early life, using black and white photos, a few early paintings and some home movies.

The key elements for me were that:

  • Her father was German, emigrated to Mexico in the 1890s and set up a photographic studio. She helped him and learned photographic technique, how to compose and frame a subject. No accident, maybe, that she is best known for her painted and photographic self portraits.
  • Her full name was Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón. She always preferred Frida because it her father’s name for her. I was mulling this over when I came to the section describing her marriage to the, by then, already famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, in 1928, who was a lot older than her, 43 to her 22. I.e. a big, reassuring father figure. Daddy.
  • When Frida was 6 she contracted polio and was seriously ill. She was left with one leg shorter than the other.
  • When she was 18 she was on a bus which was in a collision with a tram, resulting in her being both crushed against the window and having a piece of metal penetrate her abdomen. This accident and her long recovery put paid to the idea of studying to become a doctor. Confined to bed for months, she began to expand the sketching, drawing and painting she’d already been toying with.

In the late 1920s she developed a kind of naive, symbolic style, drawing inspiration from Mexican folk culture. After marrying Rivera, she accompanied him on a number of trips to the United States, where he had been commissioned to paint murals, socially conscious murals being a big part of 1930s American artistic activity.

Here’s a good example, from 1932. I don’t know if I like it. I understand the fairly simple ideas: on the left are images of Mexico, Aztec ruins and figurines, flowers and agricultural produce, with their roots in the good earth: on the right is Detroit, highly industrialised ‘Motor City’ (the name FORD is spelled out on the smoking chimneys), the American flag, skyscrapers, and growing out of the soil are not beautiful flowers but lamps and fans.

And in between is a self portrait of Frieda in a formal pink dress holding the Mexican flag. Between two worlds, eh? I get it.

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Her naive symbolism matches the simple-minded ‘political’ attitude of Rivera’s murals. They both thought of themselves as communists and went on marches supporting strikers etc, but, nonetheless, liked visiting the heart of capitalism, America – or ‘Gringolandia’, as Frida called it. The money was good and there were lots of opportunities for Rivera to get commissions. And it was in New York, in 1939, that Frida held her first successful one-woman show. Capitalism is an awful thing – unless you can get money, commissions, promotions and sales out of it: the attitude of many 20th century artists.

One of the most interesting biographical facts is that Lev Davidovich Bronstein, known to the world as Leon Trotsky, having been exiled from the Soviet Union, was offered refuge by the revolutionary government of Mexico and came to stay with the Riveras, not for a few weeks, but for two years.

The exhibition includes a b&w film of Comrade Trotsky explaining, in English, how badly he has been treated by comrade Stalin. He insists he is really a man of honour – as anyone whose family was murdered by the Red Army he set up, would surely have testified.

Mexican roots

These early biographical roots are interesting but they are eclipsed by the power of the later rooms.

These start with the room on Kahlo’s Mexican roots. It explains that during the 1920s and even more so the 1930s, Mexico underwent a cultural renaissance. Part of this was the exploration and promotion of the country’s pre-Colombian culture, but it also included the first real appreciation of the folk customs and costumes of peasants and the poor around the country.

Interest in the country spread abroad, with American artists, photographers and film makers attracted to its sunny, bright and passionate culture. John Huston made films here. Even the young British writer Graham Greene made a tour of the country (he hated it) and then set his most powerful early novel here, The Power and the Glory. I’ve reviewed them both.

Frida and Diego were part of this revival of interest in Mexico’s culture and history. They both sought inspiration in the folk and workers culture of their country. In particular they were attracted to the area called Tehuantepec in the Oaxaca region. People here followed traditional ways, and the exhibition includes a whole wall of traditional icons of the Virgin Mary, establishing a link between these images of saintly femininity and Kahlo’s self portraits and explorations of her identity.

The dress room

The final room in the show is the biggest and I involuntarily exclaimed ‘wow’ as I walked into it.

Centre stage is a huge central glass case displaying some 20 of Frida’s dresses. Full length, made of colourful fabrics and bright designs, each one has been carefully displayed and annotated, giving a powerful sense of Frida’s sense of colour and dress.

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

There are only 10 or so paintings in the whole exhibition and six of them are in this room. They’re later works, when she had realised that she was her own best subject and that self portrait was her best medium.

Looking out at the viewer, flat and unemotional, her iconic features by now well established – the monobrow, the faint moustache on her top lip, her strong brown eyes, the sideways pose – she is flatly, unashamedly, blankly herself.

In the painting below even the tears don’t really affect the expressionless face. Or they appear as surreally detached embellishments of the fundamental design. Much weirder is the ‘ruff’ dominating the image. The exhibition explains that this is a huipil de tapar, a traditional Mexican item popular in Tehuantepec, designed to frame the face and extend over the neck and shoulders. There is another larger painting of her wearing the same outfit and a full scale example of a huipil de tapar on a display mannequin for us to compare and contrast reality with painted depiction.

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Kahlo is, you realise, a perfect subject for the V&A because she was not only an artist, but someone with a fascination for clothes and costumes – in her case, of her native Mexico. The exhibition is less about the ar per se and more about how she drew heavily on these costume traditions and elaborated them into a highly colourful style of her own.

Hence there are more than twice as many dresses as there are Kahlo artworks. Hence, also, the display cases devoted to the heavy and ornate jewelry she wore, the elaborate ear-rings and thick heavy necklaces, set off against the bright and colourful hair ribbons.

In this respect it is fascinating to watch the 9-minute tourist film from the Tehuantepec region which is on view just next to the dresses and necklaces. Look at the colours and designs of the dresses, the heavy gold jewellery, and the brightly coloured ribbons in the women’s hair. In a flash you understand. Kahlo was a conduit for these traditional dresses, colours, fabrics and jewellery, into the international art world.

She gave it her own style. She combined it in her own way and, above all, gave it the imprimatur of her own face, of her very distinctive features (eyes, monobrow, moustache) and her unsmiling, detached, dream-like appearance.

But a great deal of her ‘look’ quite obviously stems directly from the traditions of the women of Tehuantepec.

Frida Kahlo on a bench, carbon print (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo on a bench (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The sick room

The big dress room is the climax of the exhibition, in terms of dresses, design, jewellery, paintings and photos.

But arguably the biographical core of the exhibition is the room before it, entitled ‘Endurance’. In an imaginative but spooky display, the curators have commissioned the creation of six small four-poster beds and made each into a display case which, along with photos and text along the walls, give a quite harrowing account of Kahlo’s many illnesses, ailments, treatments, and lifelong suffering.

The polio left her with a limp. The bus accident left her with serious internal injuries. In the 1930s she began to experience back problems and underwent a series of treatments and operations to fix them. At the end of her life one foot became infected and then gangrenous, requiring the whole leg to be amputated. It’s gruesome stuff.

This room includes examples of the medical equipment she was forced to wear or endure. There are platform shoes for the shorter leg, a prosthetic leg made for her to wear after the amputation but, most evocative of all, a series of corsets, plaster casts and back braces to help support her failing spine.

Kahlo decorated, painted and embellished as many of these as she could. The plaster casts, in particular, are painted with abstract patterns. The most elaborate one carries a painted hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union and, underneath, an image of the foetus she was carrying before she had a miscarriage in 1932.

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

The record of her illnesses and, in her later years, the almost constant pain she endured, make for harrowing reading, but there are also two really powerful insights in this room.

1. Painting in bed

One is that she was, at various periods, confined to her bed, it being too painful for her to walk or even stand. (Imagine!) So she had a mirror rigged up in the canopy above her and an easel on the side of the bed. From here she could paint, but paint what?

The answer is dreams – surreal images based on dreamlike symbolism, repeated images of her or a body in a bed – and her face. Over and over again the face of someone in discomfort or pain, staring, blankly, inscrutably, down from the ceiling.

Photos show the actual set-up, with Frida lying in bed, beneath a big mirror, the easel right next to her, on which she is painting.

This sheds quite a lot of light on her subject matter, and lends a depth and dignity to the pictures. Modern critics, obsessed with feminism and identity, may well write about the paintings ‘transgressing’ this or that convention and ‘subverting’ ‘gender stereotypes’.

But they are also the image of someone in tremendous pain. Knowing this, getting the really deep feel for her physical suffering which the ‘Endurance’ room gives you – lends tremendous depth of character and meaning to the detached, slightly dream-like expression you encounter again and again in her paintings.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

2. The construction of the self

The other insight is easy to miss. Off to one side is a set of three black and white photos taken of Frida topless. They were taken by Julien Levy, the owner of the New York art gallery where she had her first solo show in 1939 and with whom she had an affair.

The insight comes in the text underneath, where Levy is quoted describing Frida doing and undoing her braids. First she undid the braids, carefully removing all the objects which were in them and held them in place, arranging them all carefully and in order on the dressing table. Later, she remade the braids, carefully and meticulously taking the ribbons and clips and other elements from their place on the dressing table, and putting them back in just the right places to create just the right effect.

In the context of the ‘Endurance’ room, next to so much physical pain and discomfort and demoralising bad luck – this ritual takes on a whole new significance.

You realise it was a way of controlling and ordering her life, a life of illness and pain which might so easily slip into indiscipline, depression or addiction. Instead she maintained control by paying minute attention to every element of her self-presentation. There are several cases showing the lipstick, and makeup, and nail polishes and eye liner and other accoutrements she used to create her image. To make herself up. To control, create and bolster herself.

Might sound stupid, but this knowledge makes the dazzling inventiveness of her self-creation seem genuinely heroic.

3. Long dresses

That’s why she liked to wear long dresses – because they hid her polio limp. This explains why all twenty dresses in the dress room are full length, reaching right down to and covering the feet. It’s a very Victorian effect, in some of the photos every inch of her body is covered save for her hands and face. But a Victorian outfit on acid, blitzed with brilliantly coloured fabrics and designs.

Conclusion

If you like Frida Kahlo this exhibition is a dream come true. There was a long queue to get in and the rooms were quickly packed out.

That said, there is remarkably little about her art, as art. A few mentions of the influence of Rivera’s socialist murals, a bit about Mexican symbolism, mention that the Godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, heavily promoted her, writing at length about the more surreal and dreamlike of her fantasy paintings (none of which are on display here).

But all in all, surprisingly little commentary or analysis of the paintings as paintings, except for comments about the dresses she’s wearing in them, the hair, the jewellery, the way she presents herself in them.

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

A moment’s googling shows that Frida Kahlo painted hundreds of paintings. Only ten are on show here. This exhibition is much more about the creation of her image, all the exhibits inhabit concentric circles spreading out from that premise.

I found it hard to get very worked up about 70 or 80 year-old makeup sets (in the outer circle). Her dresses and fabrics are colourful and interesting but, at the end of the day, not really my thing – though I could see plenty of women visitors being riveted by their designs and fabrics. Kahlo’s mural-style, political or symbolic art is sort-of interesting – although murals aren’t a format I warm to – and I found them less compelling than comparable murals by Stanley Spencer or Thomas Hart Benton.

No, it’s only when I came to her paintings of herself that I felt a real power and forcefulness in the image, the way they bring out her stern, unsmiling expression.

But even more central than her self portraits, and – in my opinion – at the absolute heart of the exhibition are the contemporary photos of Frida. It is the photos which bring together all the elements mentioned above, her great taste for colourful fabrics, bright designs, adventurous headgear, stunning jewelry and vivid lipstick to match, her deep sense of Mexican folk art and culture – all this funneled, channeled and focused in a series of stunning and powerful photos.

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Nickolas Muray

Thus it was often the photos which impressed me most in any given room. And looking closely, it quickly became clear that the photos we know, the ones we’re familiar with, and by far the best ones, were taken by Nickolas Muray.

There is almost no information about Muray in the exhibition, which is a shame because his images are iconic. According to Wikipedia, Muray had a ten-year-long affair with Frida, from 1931 to 1941. (During this period she divorced, then remarried Rivera. And sometime in there, she also managed to have the affair with Levy, which led to the nude photos. Those bohemian artists, eh?)

The only flicker of recognition of Muray’s role in helping to crystallise the Kahlo brand is a wall label next to one of the portraits. Here Muray is quoted as saying

colour calls for new ways of looking at things, at people

This struck me as pointing towards something very profound. Most of Kahlo’s paintings are striking in composition (and for their generally ‘naive’ style) but are surprisingly drab, especially the earlier, political ones. the later paintings are marvellously colourful and inventive. But in a way it is these photos alone which do justice to the tremendous colourfulness of her self-presentation.

According to Wikipedia, Muray was:

famous for his creation of many of the conventions of color advertising. He was considered the master of the three-color carbro process. (Nikolas Muray Wikipedia article)

In other words, Muray wasn’t just quite a good colour photographer – he was one of the inventors of colour photography for the modern age.

This knowledge goes a long way to understanding why Muray’s photos of Kahlo stand out from the other contemporary photos of her, done at the same time, by other photographers. The coming together of Muray and Kahlo’s bodies in their long affair is trivial compared to the coming together of their shared understanding of colour and design – with phenomenal results.

The (admittedly black and white) photo of her by Florence Arquin makes her look like a person, an ordinary human being, squinting in the sun. But the three photos I’ve included by Muray give Kahlo a feeling of power, self-control, majesty, an almost goddess-like calm. In Muray’s hands Kahlo becomes an icon to be worshiped.

You can imagine these images of Frida Kahlo carrying on being iconic for a very long time. Iconic of what, exactly? Whatever you want: our current cultural obsessions are with gender, sexuality, race, identity and so on. But I think her image transcends any one set of ‘issues’ and lends itself to infinite reformulation. Which is one of the characteristics of great art.

The movie

A film of her life was released in 2002. According to the trailer, Frida was ‘one of the most seductive, and intriguing women, of ours or any time’, and it features numerous clips of her jumping into bed with men and women, with little of no mention of the physical disabilities and ailments.

The shopping

Kahlo was an ardent communist. Today she is marketed as a fashion icon, feminist saint, and, more to the point, the inspirer of a whole world of merchandise.

In the shop you can buy some 134 items of merchandise including at least 20 books about her, notebooks, greeting cards, pencils, lapel badges, earrings, necklaces, brooches, jewellery, sunglasses, scarves and shawls, t-shirts, handbags, tote bags ( I counted 20 different design of bag), a Mexican cookbook and ingredients, pillows and socks – yes, socks.

Here’s the full list of Kahlo merch:

The promotional video

Curators: Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958–2018 @ the Serpentine

This is a wonderful exhibition. I walked round it with a huge smile on my face and left with a spring in my step. What inventiveness, humour, precision planning, vision and persistence!


You may have noticed or seen news reports of the immense sculpture made of painted oil barrels which was erected on the Serpentine in London at the start of the summer.

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park (2016-18) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park (2016-18) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

It is titled The London Mastaba and is the work of the modern artist, Christo, born 1935 in Bulgaria (and so 83 years-old).

Since the 1970s Christo and his late-wife, Jeanne-Claude, have created a series of dramatic and well-publicised site-specific installations.

The most memorable (for me) were:

  • erecting a curtain of orange cloth across a valley in California
  • wrapping the Pont Neuf in Paris in golden-yellow fabric (1984)
  • wrapping the Berlin Reichstag in polypropylene fabric, covered by an aluminum in (1995)

Christo and Jeanne-Claude always refused sponsorship or contributions of any kind to their vast installations, instead raising money themselves by selling off sketches, plans, designs and other elements connected with the projects.

The Christo presence at the Serpentine this summer is in two parts:

  1. The vast Mastaba edifice itself, positioned in the east half of the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, which will remain in place until 23 September.
  2. And a fascinating retrospective of Christo’s career being held in the main Serpentine Gallery, with particular reference to his enduring fascination with oil drums, as symbols of modern civilisation and for their sculptural and artistic potential.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958–2018

Part one – Christo and barrels

I grew up in a petrol station. Well, in the house immediately behind a combined village store, petrol station and tyre bay. The smell of petrol, rubber, oil and all their associated products are part of my childhood. The massive shed-cum-warehouse at the back of the house stored hundreds of tyres, stacked vertically, reeking of rubber, especially when it rained and the leaky roof let the rain get in and made the tyres black, wet and shiny. Oily puddles were everywhere.

So I warm to Christo’s love of oil barrels. There is something primeval about them. Our civilisation, the entire world economy, is built on them. No oil – no cars, lorries, buses, lorries, planes, ships. No transport of people or food. No electricity. No light. No internet. No blogs.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (19 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 Hugo Glendinning

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (19 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 Hugo Glendinning

So I have deep autobiographical, and intellectual-economic reasons for being fascinated by displays to do with oil.

But there’s also something about ‘the barrel’ – as a shape, as an artefact – which is oddly picturesque.

Put it another way: the combination of the machine-repetition of hundreds, thousands, millions of identikit barrels – with the way that each one is then rendered individual by its unique collection of scratches, rust and dents makes them almost like human beings. Same basic model. A thousand variations, the dents of individual lives.

And in fact barrels do come in quite a combination of different sizes, makes and designs.

All this makes barrels a perfect material for artists from the schools of Arte Povera and Minimalism, committed to using industrial products and by-products, and to exploring the aesthetic impact of minimal combinations of simple, everyday materials.

Because of my childhood, because I like minimalism and the geometric in art, because I like the modern and urban, and I’m interested in political and environmental symbolism – I didn’t need any persuading to find oil drums, in and of themselves, beautiful objects, and that arranging them in patterns can be strangely attractive and beguiling.

Christo began with pots, apparently. Arriving in Paris in the late 1950s, he could only afford a small studio and became intrigued by the potency of paint pots. Pots plain, spattered with paint, or wrapped in cloth.

And then you can arrange them. One on top of each other, into little towers. Several towers next to each other. Some matt, some wrapped in fabric, some tied and colourised – some spattered. Experiment. Combine. Play.

Paint pots by Christo. Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the w, Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Paint pots by Christo. Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the w, Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Reminiscent of Jasper Johns’s paint pots and brushes of the same period. The joy of the everyday!

Painted bronze (Ballantine Ale) by Jasper Johns, 1960

Painted bronze (Ballantine Ale) by Jasper Johns (1960)

Then Christo moved into a larger studio, which happened to be near a loading yard. Full of barrels. Full barrels, empty barrels, new barrels, knackered old barrels, barrels of petrol, barrels of oil. (This explains the years given in the title to the exhibition – 1958 right up to the present day. Because it covers 60 years of Christo being fascinated by barrels and barrel opportunities.) Now he could ask the yard owners if he could take the oldest, pretty much useless barrels – and they were happy to get rid of them.

Following on from little towers of pots, Christo was now in a position to make bit towers of oil barrels! The exhibition includes some examples of those early ‘barrel columns’ in the flesh, as well as stylish black-and-white photos of the imaginative barrel combos he made back in the early 1960s, blown up to wall-size.

Oil barrel columns by Christo (1962) Photo by Jean-Dominique Lajoux

Oil barrel columns by Christo (1962) Photo by Jean-Dominique Lajoux

Cool, aren’t they? Vaguely Heath-Robinsonish. Or like something off The Clangers. Humorous. Or, more seriously, they could be totem poles, the totems of our tribe, the gas-guzzling, fuel-hungry tribe which is destroying the world. Misguiding spirits. Hollow memorials, ringing false.

Quickly, Christo realised you could not only pile them on top of each other, but build things out of barrels. Most obviously – walls! As early as 1962 he constructed a cheeky installation using them to block a side street in Paris.

Wall of Barrels - The Iron Curtain, Rue Visconti, Paris, 1961-62 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Jean-Dominique Lajoux © 1962 Christo

Wall of Barrels – The Iron Curtain, Rue Visconti, Paris, 1961-62 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Jean-Dominique Lajoux © 1962 Christo

Photos of this installation are in a room with several barrel sculptures and texts (in French) explaining the way that these barrel walls can hold, contain, limit, and block. And can be brightly coloured. Like the pixellations in old colour printing. Like Seurat’s dots. They eat up all kinds of references.

Beside the assemblages of pots and barrel totem poles and tripods, there are stylish sketches of how the Wall of Barrels could have been deployed as a fashion statement or design feature in the snazzy world of the early 1960s: at a gas station, on the ground floor of an apartment block, in your living room – if any architect had been mad enough to take up the idea.

Mur d'assemblage dans un station-service by Christo (1962)

Mur d’assemblage dans un station-service by Christo (1962)

If you can build walls of them on land – why not – floating barrels? Plans for a floating platform of barrels date back as far as the late 1960s, when Christo hoped to float a pyramid of barrels on Lake Geneva. In 1967 there were plans to build a floating pyramid of barrels on Lake Michigan.

Construction (Project for Lake Michigan – 1968) by Christo. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: André Grossmann, © 1967 Christo

Construction (Project for Lake Michigan – 1968) by Christo. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: André Grossmann, © 1967 Christo

Like the best minimalist art works, arrangements of oil barrels are both absolutely everyday objects and packed with meanings:

1. There is something seriously aesthetically about this plan for a floating pyramid of barrels. It is a beautiful object – severe, planned, organised and arranged to display a deeply repetitive pattern, but pattern with variations, of texture and colour.

2. At the same time there is something highly symbolic and meaningful, in a medieval allegorical kind of way – a riff on the age-old proverb about oil and water never mixing.

3. The image is also rich with serious socio-political overtones, a sardonic reflection on our civilisation’s prioritisation of oil over water – especially in light of the kind of disastrous oil spillages we used to get in the late 1960s and 1970s.

4. And, then again, there’s something purely cheeky and comic about it. It’s the kind of thing Bart Simpson might suggest.

‘Hey, let’s make a floating pyramid out of oil barrels!!’
‘Yeah, cool, Bart.’

In the corner of the main gallery is a smaller version of this pyramid of barrels – only one barrel deep, so more of a barrel triangle.

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo by the author

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo by the author

Looking at this brings us up to date, as it were, and introduces us to the long-gestating idea of The Mastaba!

Part two – Christo and the Mastaba

If you look at it and ponder it and walk around it and think about it, the nature of ‘the barrel’ places certain limits on what you can build with it.

You can have a vertical wall – like the one blocking the street in Paris – because the round surfaces pile very neatly on top of each other – but only so long as you have something to brace the edges of the wall against. Without two walls to hold the sides in place, a rectangular arrangement of barrels would simply fall apart. If you want your barrels to be freestanding, the most stable arrangement is the triangle, as in the arrangement above.

But the facade is a problem. The tops and bottoms, or fronts and backs, of the barrels, the round ‘faces’ – are unavoidably flat. No way are they going to slope in any direction. Not unless you set each successive layer of barrels a set distance back from the one below – a foot, say, or half a barrel length. This would create a very sharp, stepped, zigzag effect. And it would have the drawback of being contrived – of not emerging naturally from the nature of the material.

And so, the logical conclusion of really thinking what you can build with barrels is the mastaba shape – two sides sloping gently with the natural slope created by piling rows of cylindrical objects on top of each other, each successive layer one barrel less wide than the one below. But the front and back faces of the pile rigidly flat and vertical, and so creating a straight, vertical wall.

Christo’s been working on trying to build just such a massive shape since the late 1960s. In the 1970s a great deal of planning and architect’s drawings were made to erect a massive mastaba painted orange to be sited amid the undulating sands of the United Arab Emirates.

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo by the author

There are photos of the location, and group photos of the Arab engineers and designers who collaborated on the plans. There are detailed sketches and draft designs. There’s even a scale model of the enormous result, complete with tiny stick humans scattered around the base.

The Mastaba by Christo (1979) Enamel paint, wood, sand and cardboard

The Mastaba by Christo (1979) Enamel paint, wood, sand and cardboard. Photo by the author

What with the desert and all, it’s hard to miss the blatant reference to the Egyptian pyramids. Mausoleums to dead tyrants. ‘Look on my work, ye mighty, and despair!’ as future generations will look back on our fossil fuel civilisation, and not with affection.

But it was not to be (there’s no explanation in the exhibition why the plan for a massive mastaba in the desert didn’t come off, but IChristo’s career has been full of ambitious plans which never quite make it).

Instead, the last room in the exhibition shows the focus switching to London, where the powers-that-be obviously gave the go-ahead for it to be constructed, and Christo’s team of designers, engineers and architects swept into action – as described here in a welter of sketches, designs and architect’s plans.

The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake) 2018. Pencil, charcoal, wax crayon, enamel paint, hand-drawn map, technical data and tape.

The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake) 2018. Pencil, charcoal, wax crayon, enamel paint, hand-drawn map, technical data and tape.

Conclusions

These images of Christo working with oil barrels, stretching back 50 years or more, indicate the enduring centrality of a lifelong interest in mass-produced industrial artefacts and what can be done with them, in their sculptural, architectural and aesthetic possibilities.

I used to associate Christo with wrapping buildings in foil, but for the rest of my life he will be ‘the man who was obsessed with barrels’.

The antiquity of some the sketches – dating back to the 1960s – indicate the incredibly long lead time required for all of his projects, many of which have taken decades to organise and fund, and which give you a real respect for his combination of ambition with dogged determination.

Plenty of time for the ideas themselves to be sketched, played with, and then planned in meticulous detail – all with the kind of safety and engineering requirements which bring in town planners, health and safety officials, engineers and so on.

The exhibition suggests the deep creative commitment required. And then the intensely collaborational nature of the final result.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, 2016-18 Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, 2016-18 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo by Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

And that final result? Is rich and strange and puzzling – banal in everyday daylight, strange and haunting at dusk, throwing an endless variety of rippled reflections across the surface of the lake, a statement of… what?

An artistic statement, a political statement, a cultural statement, an environmental statement. All or any of these.

It is the Rorschach test-like nature of his works which I find so liberating. The London Mastaba is a big impressive thing and what you make of it is up to you, a test of your imaginative resources and open-mindedness.

The exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery is FREE and so is the Mastaba. There for anyone to visit and investigate, or just to pull up a deckchair and ponder.

I think it’s wonderful.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

BP Portrait Award 2018 @ the National Portrait Gallery

The BP Portrait Award is in its thirty-ninth year at the National Portrait Gallery and twenty-ninth year of sponsorship by BP. The competition is open to everyone aged 18 and over, from anywhere in the world.

From the 2,667 entries submitted from 88 countries, 48 portraits were selected to be put on display in the NPG galleries, where you can visit them for FREE. A few weeks ago the judges announced the winners of the first, second and third prizes.

In a commendable move the NPG has made all the portraits available to view online.

Thus you are as free as me to make up your mind which ones you like, and dislike, and to pick out trends or patterns.

Winner of the first prize: An Angel At My Table by Miriam Escofet, 2017 © Miriam Escofet

Winner of the first prize: An Angel At My Table by Miriam Escofet, 2017 © Miriam Escofet

White art for white people

Art is a middle-class, white activity. Some artists are, admittedly, lower-middle-class or working class. A handful are black or Asian. But for the most part it’s a white person’s game. Most art critics and scholars, for example, are comfortably white, professional and upper middle class. Think Andrew Graham-Dixon.

And the vast majority of gallery goers – as I can attest from the 100+ shows I’ve reviewed for this blog, and from the hundreds I visited before I started writing it  – are white, middle class and middle aged.

The white, professional orintellectual milieu of the art world comes over very strongly from the 48 portraits in this exhibition.

Sister by Zack Zdrale, 2017 © Zack Zdrale

Sister by Zack Zdrale, 2017 © Zack Zdrale

Conservatism

As does a powerful feeling of stylistic and visual conservatism.

Maybe it’s the format. Maybe, after 150 years of photography, films, TV and advertising have devised countless ways of presenting the human face in all kinds of formats and situations, maybe the sheer idea of painting someone’s portrait is intrinsically conservative and, well, a bit dull.

But the show reeks of safety and conformity. There are quite a few examples of breath-taking technical dexterity as in, for example, the staggeringly life-like Bertha (2004) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa.

Bertha (2004) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa, 2017 © Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ocho

Bertha (2004) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa, 2017 © Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ocho

But it is skill in the service of an essentially conservative, utterly realistic vision.

There is, in other words, a surprising absence of modern art in all the paintings on display. It’s as if van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso or Bacon had never existed.

Numbers

First, a summary of the numbers:

  • 48 pictures
  • featuring 62 people
  • 13 of whom are children
  • so about 49 adults
  • 27 of whom are women (55%)
  • 6 black subjects (12%)
  • 1 Chinese guy

Nationalities

It seemed to me there were more non-Anglo artists than last year i.e. it was a more truly global selection. Thus the three prize-winning entries were by a Spaniard, an American and a Chinese.

  • First prize: An Angel At My Table by Miriam Escofet (Spanish)
  • Second prize: Time Traveller, Matthew Napping by Felicia Forte (American)
  • Third prize: Simone by Tongyao Zhu (China)
Winner of the third prize: Simone by Zhu Tongyao, 2017 © Zhu Tongyao

Winner of the third prize: Simone by Zhu Tongyao, 2017 © Zhu Tongyao

Persons of colour

There’s a portrait of a Chinese guy, but no south Asians that I could see.

I’m not sure if there were any black artists. What was clear is that all (I think) of the portraits of black people were painted by white artists.

  • Portrait of Gifty from Shitima by Huey Glynn-Jones
  • A throne in the West by Massimiliano Pironti
  • Laura by Shawn McGovern
  • David by Robert Seidel
  • Miranda by Meghan Cox
  • Vincent Desiderio by Bernardo Siciliano
  • Portrait of Neema Tambo by Gaela Erwin

Which doesn’t stop some of them being the best things in the show.

Portrait of Neema Tambo by Gaela Erwin, 2018 © Gaela Erwin

Portrait of Neema Tambo by Gaela Erwin, 2018 © Gaela Erwin

But it only takes a smattering of critical theory, or politically correct-speak, to suggest that, on this showing black people are certainly allowed into art galleries – so long as they have been painted by white people.

Or to suggest that, in the act of painting them, white artists present a sedate, restrained, bland, mute and very passive image of black people.

Not consciously. Not deliberately. But it seems to be the cumulative effect of a) most of the artists being white b) most of the portraits being stiflingly muted.

Style

Almost all of the 48 portraits are figurative, covering a range of realism, from ‘photographic’ through a variety of more stylised approaches, such as the portraits of Francesca Hayward, and the children’s book illustration-style portrait of Laura.

Only a handful – six (12.5%) that I counted – were deliberately ‘experimental’ or modernist, in composition or style. And even these felt like only soft references to modern art. Or to art that had been and gone a hundred years ago.

Charlie Masson by Alvin Ong is very unlike most of the other straightforward pictures. But isn’t it a bit in the style of Edvard Munch, the Edvard Munch who had his heyday over a hundred years ago?

Charlie Masson by Alvin Ong, 2017 © Alvin Ong

Charlie Masson by Alvin Ong, 2017 © Alvin Ong

Maybe the best ‘experimental’ work is Ako by Nikita Sacha, a self portrait which aims to capture the blurred, faceless, heartless quality of our era of web-camming and skyping.

Not an immediately striking image, it is, though, if you focus on it for a bit, quite an effective depiction of the emptying effect of modern digital communications. You can imagine how a whole series of these would have an appropriately alienating effect.

Ako by Nikita Sacha, 2017 © Nikita Sacha

Ako by Nikita Sacha, 2017 © Nikita Sacha

Group portraits

I counted three group portraits, including a real monstrosity, The New Religion by Conor Walton.

The New Religion by Conor Walton, 2017 © Conor Walton

The New Religion by Conor Walton, 2017 © Conor Walton

Nudes

Just the one (female) nude. According to the wall label:

This self-portrait was painted by Güven as a response to moving from her native Turkey to live in the Netherlands. She says: ‘This new cultural environment, together with the natural surroundings, has provided a new dimension to my feelings and mode of personal experience. In particular, it has enabled me to freely experience my own identity more intensely and at greater depths.’

What this reproduction doesn’t capture is that, once you’ve got over her bare boobs and fanny, and the dark rings under her eyes… once you’ve got past the human figure – her rendition of twigs and grass and leaves are done in staggering realism. I took a while to look at the way every single twig and leaf had been rendered with pinpoint accuracy.

Slightly reminiscent – now I think about it – to the pedantic super-realism of John Everett Millais’s portrait of Ophelia – although the comparison brings out the lack of flowers in the Güven. And, on further comparison, also the stylisation of the face compared to Millais’s naturalism. Has she deliberately made herself look more Turkish? If you really look at the eyes and eyebrows you realise they have a simplified, stylised, cartoon quality.

Self-Portrait by Seçil Güven, 2017 © Seçil Güven

Self-Portrait by Seçil Güven, 2017 © Seçil Güven

Emotion

I noticed at last year’s show that nobody was smiling let alone laughing or, indeed, showing any human emotions at all.

Same again this year.

My friend said, ‘Don’t be an idiot, it’s hard enough getting someone to sit still for hours and hours in the same pose, let alone asking them to sit still for hours with a funny expression on their face.’

Maybe so. But, taken together, it still seemed to me that these 48 unsmiling portraits make for a very constrained, emotionless and, therefore, cold and unengaging experience.

A Throne in the West by Massimiliano Pironti, 2017 © Massimiliano Pironti

A Throne in the West by Massimiliano Pironti, 2017 © Massimiliano Pironti

Keeping it in the family

So there’s a definite lack of emotional diversity. But you could argue that there’s also a strong lack of social diversity, a thought which forces itself on you as you read the wall labels which explain who each sitter is:

The portrait is of the artist’s younger sister, Abigail.

The portrait is of the artist’s friend and studio-mate, Charlie.

The portrait is of Huang’s long-standing friend Chen Ching Ming

The portrait is of Tim, a long-standing friend of the artist.

The portraits are of the artist’s mother and brother.

The portrait is of the artist’s sister-in-law.

The portrait is of the artist’s brother, Tom.

The portrait is of the artist’s nephew.

The portrait is of the artist’s mother, herself an artist.

The portrait is of Vittorio, the artist’s colleague and friend.

The portrait is of Nicki, a model and friend of the artist.

The portrait is of the artist’s girlfriend, Verania.

The portrait is of Miranda, a performer, playwright, artist’s model and long-term friend of the artist.

The portrait is of the artist’s daughter, Ilea.

The portrait is of the artist’s friend Antonio.

The portrait is of the artist’s daughter, Bertha.

The portrait is of the artist’s son.

The portrait is of Vincent, a fellow teacher at New York Academy of Art.

The portrait is of Kelly, a friend and regular model for the artist.

The portrait is of the artist’s friend Mark.

The portrait is of the artist’s daughter, Maeve.

The portrait is of the artist’s son, Finn.

The portrait is of Forte’s friend Matthew.

The portrait is of the artist’s brother-in-law, David.

Again my friend said, ‘Don’t be an idiot. These people aren’t rich, you know. Who do you expect them to paint? The Queen? Of course they’re going to paint friends and partners and work colleagues and whoever is available and agrees to sit for them. Hence the popularity of the self portrait, where the poor artist can use the cheapest, most available subject imaginable – themselves!’

Yes. Maybe. But it still makes for a collective portrait of an overwhelmingly white, bohemian, artistic class, reeking satisfaction with all its liberal values and sympathies. The same class, in other words, as the visitors to the gallery. Everyone congratulating themselves on agreeing about everything.

Except that this isn’t the world. Not the real, big, complicated messy world, with its footballers and movie stars and bankers and buskers and Pride marchers and Notting Hill paraders and policewomen and ambulance drivers and nurses and doctors and lawyers and estate agents and plumbers and postmen and builders and decorators and shop assistants and chief executives and PAs and pilots and caterers and farmers and casual labourers.

It’s a world of friends of the artist and the artist’s son and the artist’s nephew and the artist’s mother. Who, in several instances, are themselves artists. Artists making art about other artists. Thus A portrait of two female painters by Ania Hobson. The wall label thinks this is ‘radical’, because one of the girls is wearing boots, thus subverting gender stereotypes blah blah blah. I think it couldn’t be more narrow and limited, because it is an artist painting two other artists and thinking this is somehow new or interesting.

In summary: I felt the absence, in the exhibition, of real social diversity. There’s one writer (Claire Tomalin), a ballerina (Francesca Hayward) and probably a few other job descriptions I’ve missed but, for the most part – it’s overwhelmingly a world of artists and their friends and families. A small world. A tiny world.

Moreover, hardly anyone was portrayed doing anything. No one is portrayed in a uniform or work clothes (except for a number of fellow artists in paint-spattered dungarees). No-one is in a factory or warehouse or at a desk or driving a car or watching telly or cooking food or standing by a bike or a canoe or anything at all interesting or active.

In fact, if I tabulate it, and if we exclude ‘sitting down’ as an activity, then the only human activities being carried out in the pictures are:

  • sitting at a laptop (Charlie Masson)
  • sewing (Patchwork)
  • sketching at a desk (The Oolographer)
  • doing something with biological specimens (the Biologist)
  • playing a lute (in The New Religion)

Maybe it’s this curious absence of human activity of almost any kind which contributes to the strange sense of limbo and deadness which the exhibition as a whole creates.

To end and sum up, here’s a wonderfully realistic painting, done with amazing technique, which I really liked. Its subject is, inevitably, a relative of the artist, in this case a portrait of the artist’s nephew. Andthe little boy in question is not doing anything at all – unlike most little boys of my acquaintance. But he is almost smiling. Which is something.

Found Albert Crouching in the Kitchen by Samantha Fellows, 2018 © Samantha Fell

Found Albert Crouching in the Kitchen by Samantha Fellows, 2018 © Samantha Fell


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 (2017)

The Great Man theory…

Catherine Merridale’s book Lenin on the Train describes the journey by sealed train which Lenin and 30 or so of his Bolshevik supporters made across Germany, up into Sweden, across the border into Finland and then south to St Petersburg, in April 1917.

The whole thing was laid on and funded by the German High Command in the hope that returning this noted troublemaker to the febrile political atmosphere of wartime Russia, only a few weeks after the Tsar had been toppled in the February revolution, might lead to even worse political disarray, and that this might cause Russia to abandon the war altogether, thus allowing Germany to concentrate her forces in the West.

In the chapter titled ‘Gold’ Merridale speculates on just how extensive German support for the Bolsheviks in fact was. Was laying the train, passports, visas, food and so on just the beginning? Did the Germans also siphon money to the Bolsheviks to fund their party newspaper, Pravda, and their campaigning leaflets, to pay for meetings and venues?

The evidence is murky, but underlying the whole enquiry is a variation on the Great Man theory of history, namely: if only someone had stopped Lenin getting to Russia, if only he had been arrested at the Finland order (which, apparently, he nearly was), or simply executed by British Intelligence (who had more than one opportunity) – then maybe the whole Russian Revolution, with the immense worlds of suffering it produced, would never have happened. Maybe it all came down to one man or, at the least, to one small political party – the Bolsheviks.

… versus the hunger for change

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 is the massive coffee table book of last year’s enormous Royal Academy exhibition about the radical, world-changing new art and design which was inspired by the Russian Revolution.

I spent an afternoon flicking through it (and dipping into the 16 intense and detailed essays which address every genre and type of art influenced by the Revolution). And it dawned on me that the extraordinary explosion of high and popular art, all across the nation, art for factories and workshops and steelyards and barracks, radical innovations in film and design and posters and graphics – mitigates against the Great Man theory.

At the very least the sheer scale and scope and dynamism of the new movements, which lasted for at least a decade (until Stalin suppressed it in favour of his bland, conventional ‘Socialist Realism’ in the early 1930s) show the enormous hunger for change and for radical, world-changing experimentation among all the artists, poets, authors, film-makers, craftsmen and designers of 1910s Russia.

Moreover, the fact that these outpourings of propaganda films and wallpaper and textiles and ceramics and architecture and completely new styles of graphics and design were welcomed, watched, read and distributed so widely, suggest the Russia as a whole was a society straining at the leash for an incredibly total transformation.

Maybe, possibly, the Bolsheviks might not have seized power in October 1917. But the existing dual government couldn’t have continued – somebody would have seized power.

And all the art on display at the exhibition and in this book suggests that whoever took the reins would not have been able to hold back the tremendous, society-wide thirst for complete change in social, political, economic and cultural values which was straining Russia to breaking point.

Maybe Lenin could have been stopped and the Bolsheviks banned. But the evidence of this exhibition and book suggest that whoever took power in Russia in late 1917 would still have been compelled to make wide-ranging and sweeping changes, which would have led to much the same end – a dictator force-marching Russia through agricultural and industrial modernisation. Given Russia’s long history of secret police and prison camps, any faction which had come to power – on the right or left – would probably have wreaked just as much social and personal havoc as the Bolsheviks.

In other words – speculation about how much the German High Command makes for interesting reading, and leads to fanciful speculation – but I don’t think it would have changed the outcome of events.


Completely new visual styles

Abstract art

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919) by El Lissitzky

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge by El Lissitzky (1919)

Figurative art

After the battle by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1923)

After the battle by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1923)

Architecture

Model of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, Moscow, 1920

Model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Moscow, 1920

Ceramics

Russian revolutionary plate (1921)

Russian revolutionary plate (1921)

Design

Propaganda poster by Alexander Rodchenko

Propaganda poster by Alexander Rodchenko

Fabrics

Red spinner by Andrey Golubev (1930)

Red spinner by Andrey Golubev (1930)

Film

Still from Battleship Potemkin, the famous 1925 avant-garde film directed by Eisenstein

Still from Battleship Potemkin, the 1925 avant-garde film directed by Eisenstein

Avante-garde photography

Osip Bril by Alexander Rodchenko (1924)

Osip Bril by Alexander Rodchenko (1924)

Socialist realist photography

A Komsomol at the wheel (1929) by Arkady Shaikhet

A Komsomol at the wheel (1929) by Arkady Shaikhet

Posters

Poster for Man with a movie camera (1929)

Poster for Man with a movie camera (1929)

Even if Lenin had never lived, and the Bolshevik party never existed, the complete and utter collapse of Russian society, with all its traditions, its religion, its class system, king and aristocracy, its system of land ownership and industrial production, would have triggered an immense social and cultural transformation, regardless.

Artists reflecting these changes would have fallen in line with the discoveries of the other European avant-gardes, themselves based on the transforming impact of the new technologies of the day which were driving all Western societies – mass production of ceramics and fabrics, the new popularity of film and radio, the excitement of cars and fast trains – and everywhere the transforming impact of electricity with its ability to power lights in streets and public buildings, as well as driving a whole new world of consumer goods.

My argument is that seismic change would have happened no matter what the precise alignment of political parties in Russia. Or who the German High Command had funded.


Related links

Reviews of books about communism and the Cold War

Reviews of other Russian art exhibitions

Aftermath: Art in the wake of World War One @ Tate Britain

The First World War ended on 11 November 1918. To mark the end of the conflict Tate Britain has been hosting an extensive exhibition devoted to the aftermath of the war as it affected the art of the three main nations of Western Europe – Britain, France and Germany.

Thus there is nothing by artists from, say, Russia, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Serbia, Bulgaria, nor from the white colonies, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, nor from America which entered the war in 1917. It is a Western European show of Western European art.

Paths of Glory (1917) by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson © IWM

Paths of Glory (1917) by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson © IWM

Masterpieces

The show includes a staggering number of masterpieces from the era, interspersed with fascinating works by much less-well-known artists.

For example, room one contains the Rock Drill by Jacob Epstein, possibly my favourite work of art anywhere, by anyone. For me this hard brooding metallic figure contains the secret of the 20th century, and of our technological age.

Torso in Metal from “The Rock Drill” (1913-14) by Jacob Epstein. Tate © The Estate of Jacob Epstein

Torso in Metal from The Rock Drill (1913-14) by Jacob Epstein. Tate © The Estate of Jacob Epstein

Layout

The exhibition is in eight rooms which take you in broad chronological order:

  1. Images of battlefields and ruins, early movies, and memorabilia (helmets, medals, cigarette cases)
  2. The official War memorials of the three featured nations (statues, designs and paintings by conventional artists such as William Orpen and the sculptor Charles Sargeant Jagger)
  3. A room devoted to images of disfigured and maimed soldiers
  4. Dada and Surrealism i.e. the extreme irrationalist response to the war of Swiss, German and French artists – including signature works by George Grosz, Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters
  5. A room of black and white prints showcasing series of lithographs and woodcuts made by Max Beckman, Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix and Georges Rouault
  6. The ‘return to order’ in a revival of nostalgic landscapes in works by Paul Nash and George Clausen, sculptures of sleek femininity by Eric Gill and Aristide Maillol, neo-classical portraiture by Meredith Frampton, and the revival of a strange post-war type of Christian faith in the work of Stanley Spencer and Winifred Knights
  7. Politics and pass-times – divided between gritty depictions of a newly politicised working class by socialist and communist artists, such as The International by Otto Griebel, and a rare opportunity to see an original ‘portfolio’ or pamphlet of lithographs by George Grosz – and on the other hand, depictions of the newly fashionable night-life, the craze for jazz dancing depicted in The Dance Club 1923 by William Patrick Roberts, cabaret clubs of the Weimar Republic, or the Folies Bergère as painted by English artist, Edward Burra
  8. The exhibition ends with brave new world visions of technology, machinery, skyscrapers, Russian constructivist images by El Lissitsky, the geometric paintings of Fernand Leger, and the sleek new design and architecture of the German Bauhaus school

1. Images of the battlefield

First impressionistic indications of the appalling nature of the war. A display case contains an original infantry helmet from each of the three featured nations, one French, one German and one British. Oil paintings of corpses in trenches or hanging on barbed wire. A rare black-and-white-film shot from an airship shows the devastation

2. Memorials

In terms of memorials I don’t think you can do better than Edwin Lutyens’s Cenotaph in Whitehall, arresting in its monolithic abstraction. But the show includes three large memorial sculptures by Charles Sergeant Jagger.

No Man's Land (1919-20) by Charles Sargeant Jagger

No Man’s Land (1919-20) by Charles Sargeant Jagger

3. The disfigured

The room of disfigured servicemen is hard to stay in.

The grotesques of Otto Dix and Gorge Grosz are bearable because they have a cartoon savagery and exaggeration which defuses the horror. But the realistic depictions of men with their jaws shot away, half their faces missing, skin folding over where their eyes should be, and so on by artists like Heinrich Hoerle and Conrad Felixmuller, are almost impossible to look at.

Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran, Two Victims of Capitalism by Otto Dix (1923) © Estate of Otto Dix

Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran, Two Victims of Capitalism by Otto Dix (1923) © Estate of Otto Dix

4. Dada and Surrealism

The exhibition takes on a completely different tone when you enter the room of works by Dada and Surrealist artists – although the grotesques of the previous room make you realise how so much of Dada’s strategy of cutting up and collage, of rearranging anodyne images (especially from glossy optimistic magazines and adverts), to create incongruous and grotesque new images, is actually a very reasonable response to the grotesqueness of war and its dismemberments.

Here there are works by Kurt Schwitters, pioneer of cut up and paste art, as well as the stunning painting Celebes by early Surrealist Max Ernst.

Seeing a number of examples of post-war collage – works by Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, the English Surrealist Edward Burra and their peers like Hannah Hoch and Rudolf Schlichter all together – brings out the superiority of George Grosz.

It’s probably because I’m a longstanding fan but he seems to me to combine the best eye for design and caricature, with the best feel for how to create a collage of elements cut out from newspapers and magazines.

As well as a good selection of his biting political satires, there is an opportunity to see a reconstruction of the Dada-mannequin he created for the 1920 Berlin Dada exhibition.

Why be sensible? How could you be sensible and take any of the standards and values of the old order seriously? After what they had seen in the trenches? After that old order had brought about Armageddon?

The Petit-Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild. Electro-Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture (1920) by George Grosz © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J.

The Petit-Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild. Electro-Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture (1920) by George Grosz © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J.

5. Prints, lithographs, woodcuts

In the print portfolio room it is interesting to compare the style of the four featured artists: Max Beckman was too scratchy and scrappy and cluttered for my taste. The Georges Rouault images are harsh but use shading to create an eerie, gloomy depth, as if done with charcoal.

'Arise, you dead!' (War, plate 54) (1922-27) by Georges Rouault. Fondation Georges Rouault © ADAGCP, Paris and DACS, London

‘Arise, you dead!’ (War, plate 54) (1922-27) by Georges Rouault. Fondation Georges Rouault © ADAGCP, Paris and DACS, London

By contrast Käthe Kollwitz’s series War is made from harsh, stark, pagan woodcuts, which exude a really primeval force. This set is a masterpiece. You can see the continuity from the harsh emotional extremism of pre-war German Expressionism, but here a widely used technique has found its perfect subject. Kollwitz is a great artist. Her images may be the most profound in the show.

The Survivors (1923) by Käthe Kollwitz

The Survivors (1923) by Käthe Kollwitz

6. The return to order

After the physical and metaphysical gloom of the print room, room six is large, well lit and full of images of sweetness and delight. In all kinds of ways the European art world experience a post-war ‘return to order’, a revival of neo-classical technique, in music as much as in painting. It had quite a few distinct strands.

Landscape One strand was a return to painting idyllic landscapes, represented here by a haycart trundling down a lane by the pre-war artist George Clausen, and a similarly idyllic but more modern treatments of landscape by the brothers Paul and John Nash.

Woman After the disfigurements of the war and the parade of grotesques in the previous galleries, this one contains a number of images of complete, undisfigured bodies, particularly female bodies, used as celebrations of beauty, fertility, of life. These include the big, primeval statue Humanity by Eric Gill, alongside a more realistic depiction of a naked woman, Venus with a Necklace by Aristide Maillol. After such horror, why not? Why not unashamed celebrations of peace, whole-bodiedness, beauty, youth, fertility – a new hope?

Venus with a Necklace by Aristide Maillol (cast 1930) © Tate

Venus with a Necklace by Aristide Maillol (cast 1930) © Tate

Interestingly, this room contains three or four works by Picasso, portraits of women or a family on a beach, done in a kind of revival of his rose period, with the figures now more full and rounded.

Neue Sachlichkeit Another strand was the particularly German style known as ‘New Objectivity’ which I’ve written about extensively elsewhere, not least because it was itself sub-divided into a number of strands and styles.

It’s represented here by a signature work from the era, Christian Schad’s half-realistic, half-cartoonish, and wholly haunting self-portrait of 1927.

Self-Portrait (1927) by Christian Schad © Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London

Self-Portrait (1927) by Christian Schad © Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London

Christianity Amazingly, after such a cataclysmic disaster, many artists retained their Christian faith, although it emerged in sometimes strange and eccentric new visions.

These are exemplified by the English artists Stanley Spencer, who is represented by one of the many paintings he made setting Christian stories in his native home town of Cookham. And also by the strange and eerie vision of Winifred Knights, here represented by her unsettling vision of the Flood.

The Deluge (1920) by Winifred Knights

The Deluge (1920) by Winifred Knights

Not so long ago I saw a whole load of Knights’ paintings at a retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Seeing it here makes you realise the link to the stark geometric modernism of someone like Paul Nash. But also to the deliberately naive style of Spencer. It is a kind of Christianity by floodlights.

Portraiture Separate from these varieties of self-conscious modernism was an entire strand of neo-classical portraiture. A style which had observed and absorbed the entire Modernist revolution from Cezanne onwards, and then reverted to painting exquisitely demure neo-classical portraits, generally of demure and self-contained young women. Exemplified here by Meredith Frampton’s still, posed portrait of Margaret Kelsey.

Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton (1928) © Tate

Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton (1928) © Tate

Is this a portrait of refinement and sensibility? Or is there an eerie absence in it, a sense of vacuum? Does it have all the careful self-control of someone recovering from a nervous breakdown?

7. Politics and pastimes

Room seven juxtaposes images of The People, The International and the proletariat – with images of jazz bands and people getting drunk in nightclubs. Which is the real world? The International by the German communist painter Otto Griebel faces off against William Roberts modernist depiction of a jazz nightclub (heavily influenced, I’d have thought, by Wyndham Lewis’s pre-war Vorticism).

The Dance Club (1923) by William Roberts. Leeds Museums and Galleries © Estate of John David Roberts

The Dance Club (1923) by William Roberts. Leeds Museums and Galleries © Estate of John David Roberts

By now it felt as if the exhibition was turning into an overview of artistic trends of the 1920s. A number of the works were painted 10 or 12 years after the end of the war. When does an aftermath stop being an aftermath?

8. Brave new worlds

The last room is devoted to technocratic visions of the machine age. Russian constructivists, French futurists, some of the old Vorticists, all the Bauhaus artists, looked to a future of skyscrapers, chucking out Victorian ideas of design and taste and creating a new, fully twentieth century art, architecture and design.

Fernand Leger perfected a post-cubist style based on brightly coloured geometric shapes suggesting a new machine civilisation, and the exhibition includes footage from the experimental film he made, Ballet Mechanique with music by the fashionably machine-age composer George Antheil. The Russian constructivist El Lissitsky devised an entirely new visual language based on lines and fractured circles. Bauhaus teacher Oskar Schlemmer is represented by an abstract figurine. Oskar Nerlinger evolved from pencil sketches of the war to developing a distinctive style of constructivist illustration featuring stylised views of up to the minute architecture.

Radio Mast, Berlin (1929) by Oskar Nerlinger

Radio Mast, Berlin (1929) by Oskar Nerlinger

Now I like this kind of thing very much indeed but I feel we had wandered quite a long way from the First World War. Much of this last room struck me as having next to nothing to do with the war, or any war, instead being the confident new visual language of the hyper-modern 20s and 30s.

Wandering back through the rooms I realised the exhibition splits into two parts: rooms one to five are unambiguously about war, the horrors of war, trenches and barbed wire and corpses, moving onto war memorials and horrible images of mutilated soldiers, how those disfigurements were taken up into the distortions and fantasies of Dada and Surrealism and then extracted into a kind of quintessence of bleakness in the woodcuts of Kollwitz.

And then part two of the show, rooms 6, 7 and 8 show the extraordinary diversity of forms and style and approaches of post-war art, from nostalgic or semi-modernist landscape, through neo-classical if unnerving portraiture, Christianity by floodlight, from bitterly angry socialist realism to the frivolities of jazz bands and strip clubs, and then onto the Bauhaus and Constructivist embrace of new technologies (radio, fast cars, cruise liners) and new design and photographic languages.

Whether these latter rooms and their contents can be strictly speaking described as the ‘aftermath’ of the Great War is something you can happily spend the rest of the day debating with friends and family.

But there is no doubting that the exhibition brings together a ravishing selection of masterpieces, well-known and less well-known, to create a fascinating overview of the art of the Great War, of the immediate post-war period, and then the explosion of diverse visual styles which took place in the 1920s.

From the po-faced solemnity of:

To the Unknown British Soldier in France (1921-8) by William Orpen © IWM

To the Unknown British Soldier in France (1921-8) by William Orpen © IWM

to the compelling crankiness of:

'Daum' Marries her Pedantic Automaton 'George' in May 1920, John Heartfield is Very Glad of It (1920) by George Grosz © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J.

‘Daum’ Marries her Pedantic Automaton ‘George’ in May 1920, John Heartfield is Very Glad of It (1920) by George Grosz © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J.

From the earnest political commitment of:

Demonstration (1930) by Curt Querner. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie © DACS

Demonstration (1930) by Curt Querner. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie © DACS

to the vision of an all-metal brave new technocratic future:

Abstract Figure (1921) by Oskar Schlemmer

Abstract Figure (1921) by Oskar Schlemmer

The promotional video


Related links

Other blog posts about the Great War and its aftermath

Politics and soldiers

Art and design

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy @ Tate Modern

Pablo Picasso. You might just have heard of him, since he is probably the most famous artist of the twentieth century. Picasso had a number of ‘great years’, years in which he made stylistic innovations which really did send ‘shockwaves through the art world’ and change the way that educated people see and think about art.

The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy has the simple idea of looking at one of Picasso’s Great Years in immense detail. It takes us month by month through Picasso’s life and output in 1932, ‘a time so pivotal in Picasso’s life and work that it has been called his “year of wonders”‘.

Pablo Picasso, rue La Boétie, 1933, Paris by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Pablo Picasso, rue La Boétie, 1933, Paris by Cecil Beaton © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

The exhibition includes more than 100 outstanding paintings, sculptures and works on paper to give you a flavour of Picasso’s prolific and restlessly inventive character. It includes an unprecedented range of loans from collections around the world, including the Musée National Picasso-Paris, as well as many works from private collection, reuniting some of Picasso’s greatest works of art, many of which are rarely shown in public, for the first time in 86 years.

What was happening to Pablo Picasso in 1932

In 1932 Picasso turned 50. He was married (to Russian dancer, Olga Khokhlova) and had an 11-year-old son Paulo. Many galleries were vying with each other to stage a retrospective of his works, a competition won by the Galeries Georges Petit, which staged Picasso’s first major retrospective in June 1932.

Picasso was the most famous living artist. He  bought a big farmhouse in Normandy, created a studio in the barn and toyed with having an outdoor swimming pool built. He owned a luxury apartment in Paris and was ferried around in a chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza car.

Yet he was restless. He had been carrying on an affair with a sporty, outdoorsy 22-year-old blonde, Marie-Thérèse Walter. And the new flavour of the month in fashion-conscious Paris were the Surrealists, who in the 1920s had mostly been a literary movement, but whose visual experiments and confidence had been given a shot in the arm by the arrival of Salvador Dalí, who joined the group in the late 1929.

Some critics wondered whether Picasso was finished, a man of the past. He consciously set out to prove them wrong, with the result that 1932 marks an explosion of creativity and a restless set of experiments in oil painting, sculpture and drawing.

Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Tate. © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Tate. © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Pictures of women

When I (and the curators) say ‘experiment’ something must be emphasised right from the start: the exhibition showcases Picasso’s stunning creativity and includes a dozen or more quite wonderful works – but at the same time you can’t help noticing the monotony of subject matter. Women. Women are his subject. Or rather, single women. A woman in a chair. Sleeping woman. Woman reflected in a mirror.

Later in the show there are several women playing on a beach. Or a man saving a woman from drowning. Or women lying around while being serenaded by fauns. But at the imaginative core of the work is one woman.

You don’t get far into the exhibition before you’re being told that the woman in question is Marie-Thérèse, the mistress. She was blonde and she had the kind of nose which is an extension of the forehead without a dent or kink, a Roman nose it’s sometimes called.

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The obsessive repetition of the same woman, sleeping or sitting in a chair makes the visitor wonder whether there was some kind of a trade-off – that Picasso had to limit his subject matter to the tiny world of the studio, and his one, central muse figure – blanking out the entirety of the roaring, industrial, political, urban world of 1932, rejecting every visual thing in the universe except his blonde lover and a few studio props – in order to be imaginatively free to submit it to so many fantastic and brilliant variations.

Information

Each room is dedicated to a month or two, and the audioguide zeroes in on pictures often painted on a specific, named day.

The exhibition includes a huge amount of biographical information, a host of articles about what was going on in Paris at the time, about the fashionable popularity of Freud and Jung’s psychoanalytic theories, about the competition from the Surrealists and the launch of the Surrealist magazine Minotaur (first edition published June 1933 and devoted almost entirely to Picasso), about Picasso building the sculpture studio at his Normandy house, a detailed account of his comings and goings during the year, and the elaborate preparations for the retrospective exhibition.

So much so that it’s almost easy to lose sight of the art in the blizzard of explanations and timelines.

Reclining Nude (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Reclining Nude (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Practicing curves

One way to approach them is via the room devoted to some of the black-and-white charcoal drawings on canvas which Picasso made throughout 1932. The commentary very usefully pointed out that the sweeping lines, the curves and arabesques of the charcoal lines, are like a preparation for the paintings. For in the paintings, the scholars tell us there was little if any preparation. Picasso rarely painted from life – he started from memory and imagination and created shapes and patterns by great sweeping curves of his hand.

The charcoal pictures show his hand and arm building up the technique of creating great sweeping curves first time, with no afterthought or adjustment, again and again depicting the kind of curve which, in the finished paintings, become a woman’s face or nose or arms or torso or bottom.

His habit was to mark out shapes and patterns in black paint and, once he was happy with the composition, to fill in the shape with colour, but quite happy to leave both elements (black lines and colour) unfinished, rasping the paint, letting undercolours or even blank canvas show through.

All of the paintings here benefited from looking at close up to see this technique up close. Colouring and setting varied a little, but the fundamental idea of the defining black line (almost, at times, the thick black line of a cartoon) is always paramount.

Wallpaper

It may sound trivial and the commentary didn’t mention it, but I was struck by the care with which he depicts the wallpaper behind the subjects.

The Mirror by Pablo Picasso (12 March 1932) Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The Mirror by Pablo Picasso (12 March 1932) Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The curator’s commentary dwells on the fact that these are paintings of a woman, and paintings of Picasso’s mistress. Either angle gives the opportunity for lengthy discussions of either his private life, or the long tradition of painting women in Western art. A woman near a mirror is bound to set off a small explosion of art theory referencing the long tradition of associating women with ‘vanity’.

Maybe. But when I look at this picture the first thing I notice is the dark blue patterned wallpaper and then the orange frame of the mirror, in other words the overall design of the composition, long before I notice the broad-nosed sleeping blonde with her ripe-apple boobs. And after processing her shape and curves, it is to the extraordinarily deep blue of the backdrop that my eyes returns.

In this concern for the decorative ancillaries to the main image a lot of these paintings reminded me of the purely decorative concerns of Picasso’s long-time frenemy, Henri Matisse.

The subject may be a female nude, it may be his hushed-up mistress, she may be passively sleeping and yet reflected, in a semi-surreal way, by the mirror. But the painting is also an arrangement of colours on a flat surface. It is a decorative object, whose subject you can almost ignore, if you will. It is first and foremost a big bright image and I think the viewer reacts immediately, either for or against the size and vibrancy of the colour and shape of the composition, long before you get round to thinking about the ‘issues’ of women and mirrors or marriage and mistresses.

Angles

Again, putting aside the subject matter for a moment, by the time I’d got to the end I realised Picasso had roughly three approaches or ‘styles’, at least in this year of 1932.

One is the curvy, ‘feminine’ style exemplified in the pictures shown above. But there was another, very different style – characterised by uncomfortable angles, distortions, harsh straight lines and geometric interactions. There are quite a few of them here and they feel completely different to the soft curvy sleeping blondes.

The most striking instances are a sequence of smaller works he made which are all variations on the idea of a woman sunbathing – but not a woman as you or I might conceive the subject.

Woman on the Beach (1932) by Pablo Picasso. The Penrose Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London 2018

Woman on the Beach (1932) by Pablo Picasso. The Penrose Collection © Succession Picasso / DACS London 2018

The commentary points out that the small circle in the middle is the woman’s anus. Apparently, Picasso’s usual gallerist refused to exhibit the series because he said he didn’t want a load of ‘arseholes’ in his shop. But I think this rather typical obsession with sex and the body on the part of critic and seller is missing the more obvious point – which is the entire conceptualisation of the human figure which has, in a work like this, become fantastically stylised.

In the strange combination of the zoomorphic (i.e. curved shapes) with harsh geometry (the set of triangles and the table leg-style legs) there’s a lot of the influence of Surrealism, maybe of Max Ernst, influencing Picasso’s own abstracting tendencies.

But Picasso never actually becomes abstract – his paintings are always of something, almost always of people, and overwhelmingly of young nubile women.

Henry Moore

The closest he comes to pure abstraction is in the works of his third style, which kept reminding me of the drawings and sculptures of Henry Moore. In both the styles identified above – curvy and angular – the image is essentially flat. There may be token references to chairs or wallpaper but they don’t really create a sense of depth.

In the works where he does go for a sense that the picture is a window into the world, the effect is strikingly odd, for there’s a thread throughout the work of pictures made up of blobs and odd, curved shaded shapes, which look like the products of a pot-maker or clay modeller who’s gone mad.

Seated Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée national Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London 2018

Seated Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée national Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London 2018

Here the two balls in the middle, the curved object which seems to contain them, and the curving cowl up towards two tiny eyes in a blank monster’s face – all of them have shade and shadowing which give them the illusion of three dimensionality.

Can you see why I mention Henry Moore? They look like paintings of Henry Moore sculptures.

One room in the show is devoted to a rarely-seen sequence of thirteen drawings Picasso made based on the crucifixion section of the Isenheim Altarpiece by the German painter Matthias Grünewald.

The Crucifixion, from the Isenheim Altarpiece (circa 1512-15)

The Crucifixion, from the Isenheim Altarpiece (circa 1512-15)

The commentary goes heavy on the religious subject matter, but what struck me was how Picasso recast almost all his versions by breaking down the human figure into a sequence of Henry Moore-style blobs and craws.

The Crucifixion (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The Crucifixion (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The approach may also, possibly, owe something to the Surrealists Hans Arp or Yves Tanguy. It was very much a style of the age. But on the evidence of all these works it does look as if, when Picasso thought of depth and perspective, everything turned into shaded, blobby shapes.

Sculpture and landscapes

There are many more themes and subjects. It is, ultimately a staggering and exhausting exhibition. How did he manage to think and see and create so many different things in one short year?

There is a series of surprisingly charming landscapes of the view from his Normandy house over the nearby village, Boisgeloup, which could almost be illustrations of a children’s book.

There is an entire room dedicated to classic works from earlier in Picasso’s career – including Blue Period, Rose Period and Cubist paintings – to give us a flavour of the major retrospective of June 1932. Picasso was very careful in which works he chose to include in it and, most strikingly, he mixed them all up, eschewing chronological order in order to create a solid wall of art, all of it as relevant as any other.

And another room has been carefully arranged to recreate something of the atmosphere of the rough and ready sculptor’s studio he created in a barn at his Normandy house, with one entire wall of the room covered in a massively blown-up photo of the studio with its decrepit barn doors, a sequence of b&w photos made of the artist at work on his sculptures by the classic photographer, Brassaï, and a handful of actual sculptures – big, semi-abstract heads. (Notice the Roman nose – I wonder who this could be a bust of?)

Bust of a Woman (1931) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Bust of a Woman (1931) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The rescue

But the exhibition ends with a turn to a completely new subject, something you wouldn’t have predicted at all from all the sleepy blondes or blondes in armchairs from earlier in the show.

1932 ended traumatically for Pablo when Marie-Thérèse fell seriously ill after swimming in the river Marne. During the illness she lost most of her iconic blonde hair. The result in his art was a series of paintings, large and small, showing the rescue of a drowning woman by a man – all heavily stylised.

Some of the variations take on a dark overtone with the male presence not rescuing but threatening the drowning woman, and at least one of them is titled The Rape.

Or there are variations like this one in which a woman appears to be saving the drowner. And who is the third figure at bottom right – a passing swimmer or a siren reaching out to drown the unwary? (And note the scrappier use of colour – in the earlier sleeping woman pictures the colours tended to be uniform within each section demarcated by a solid black line- – in these last paintings the colours are more blotched and varied within each section.)

The Rescue (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Sammlung Beyeler © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The Rescue (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Sammlung Beyeler © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Here, in the last room, the commentary leads off into a load of history, explaining that only a month or so later, in January 1933, Herr Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and it was only 3 years later that General Franco rebelled against the Republican government of Spain, triggering the brutal Spanish Civil War. And then World War Tow. And the Holocaust. And the atom bomb.

Yes, yes, yes, I know that terrifying things were just around the corner, but I think a) nobody in 1932 had an inkling that any of that was going to happen, and b) the curators are over-politicising a painter who went to great lengths not to reference the contemporary world in any way at all in his art. Guernica was still seven years off and even then it is a thing of primitive people and horse. Not many planes, trains and automobiles in Picasso’s entire oeuvre. In this respect – in  terms of subject matter – he was a very unmodern, a surprisingly conservative, artist.

Anyway, I had never seen any of the works in this room before so, in some ways, found it the most rewarding room of the exhibition. The many variations on The Rescue, although mostly done in the big, cartoony, boldly coloured style of the previous rooms, were nonetheless haunting and powerful.

For reasons I can’t put into words I found one particular painting in this room especially hypnotic and upsetting.

The Rescue by Pablo Picasso (1933)

The Rescue by Pablo Picasso (1933)

It’s at the most abstract end of his range. Probably the ‘figures’ are women, but they really seem more like creatures caught in some agonising death dance and suddenly turned to bronze, against a crude sea and an eerily realistic sky.

Picasso almost never painted landscapes, certainly not intending to make them ‘realistic’ depictions. This reproduction doesn’t convey the incongruity of setting such a completely abstract, modernistic, sculptured shape against that extreme rarity, a realistic Picasso sky.

I don’t know if I was more upset, or scared, or touched by it.

Sometimes it is good to just be in front of a work of art, undistracted by curatorial talk about mistresses and wives, breasts and anuses, analysis of the male gaze, and the theme of the mirror, and rivalry with other painters, and the vagaries of the Paris art market, and the looming European catastrophe, and all those other issues and stories.

To just stand in front of a work and be awed and puzzled and confused and absorbed and transported.

Videos

A brief, wordless overview of the exhibition.

A longer tour of the show by two art experts.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds @ the Barbican Gallery

This woman is a shit-hot photographer! This is great, great work! I couldn’t help yelping with excitement at some of her pictures. What an eye! What a fantastic eye for finding a good subject, for framing and composition! Each one packs a visual and aesthetic punch.

This is the first major UK solo exhibition of contemporary English photographer Vanessa Winship, who was born in 1960. The exhibition showcases over 150 photographs, along with magazines and diaries, extensive wall texts, experimental works and even audio tracks of Vanessa reading her own poetic prose to the accompaniment of hypnotically repetitive minimalist sounds.

Hand in hand with her photographic genius goes a fair dollop of pretentious curatorspeak and a variety of experiments which are interesting but, in my opinion, fail. But none of this detracts from the brilliance of loads and loads of the photos here.

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship

Unknown pleasures

All the early photos in the exhibition are from photographic projects carried out in Eastern Europe, namely the Balkans, the area around the Black Sea, Turkey and Georgia.

This is a part of the world we almost never hear from. It has cultures and traditions we are completely unfamiliar with, languages none of us can speak (Albanian, Georgian). The people look different, they are from ethnic stock we are unfamiliar with. They dress differently, their ideas of casual, formal or traditional wear are from different worlds. Their histories, the sway of oriental empires over these lands, from the Sassanids onwards through to 20th century communism, have left the landscape and cities littered with statues to heroes we’ve never heard of and leaders whose grandiose visions have crumbled and collapsed.

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship

The subjects, people and places are recognisably human, recognisably European, or at least Caucasian. They come from a recognisable twenty-first century – but it is not the twenty-first century we’re living in.

They are heirs to the colossal wars and dislocations of a twentieth century we can only read about, and to a blanket of totalitarian oppression we can’t really imagine, to centuries of peasant poverty, and they now live amid the crumbling concrete of the failed communist utopia.

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship. 'A choreographer of the states greatest dance company, the world at his feet, had gone on tour with his wife, a young and beautiful dancer. One night after a show a group had gone out to celebrate. They were strangers in that town and didn’t know the streets. A robbery occurred, his young wife had her jewellery snatched. There was a fight, and in the fray a terrible and fatal accident happened. He had fallen into a deep an impenetrable depression. No one knew what to do or how to console him.'

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship. ‘A choreographer of the state’s greatest dance company, the world at his feet, had gone on tour with his wife, a young and beautiful dancer. One night after a show a group had gone out to celebrate. They were strangers in that town and didn’t know the streets. A robbery occurred, his young wife had her jewellery snatched. There was a fight, and in the fray a terrible and fatal accident happened. He had fallen into a deep an impenetrable depression. No one knew what to do or how to console him.’

Discourse and obfuscation

Modern curators and art experts can run rings round us with the jargons of curatorspeak and political correctness, but often have a real problem describing the actual art – the stuff you see, the information the eye processes and transmits to the brain.

It is infinitely easier to write about issues, to invoke the language of sociology and the human sciences and a kind of water-down left-wing politics, to repeat at length the same old clichés of identity politics and political correctness, than it is to describe and explain the aesthetic thrill – what happens when we see and engage with the work.

So, for example, one of the many lengthy wall labels explains that Vanessa’s work is:

concerned with politics, identity, community, home, belonging, vulnerability and the body

which makes her sound the same as virtually every other contemporary artist alive today.

The exhibition includes quite a few of Vanessa’s own words and thoughts. For example, she tells us that her work explores the:

concepts of borders, land, memory, desire, identity and history

Identity, memory, desire, the body, history, community – yawn, it’s like a shopping list, it’s like a list of fillings at Subway.

I imagine a bored sandwich shop worker asking ‘Now, do you want to interrogate traditional gender stereotypes in your roll, or would you rather explore contemporary notions of the body and desire on plain white? And would you like to engage with some lettuce and mayonnaise?’ These are the art critical clichés of our time.

The guide tells us that Vanessa attended art school in the 1980s where she was introduced to post-modern dialogues which radically questioned photography’s ‘truthfulness’ and ‘objectivity’. Surely you have to be a moron to think that photography is truthful or objective? I mean, really, really, really stupid not to know how photographs are tampered with, and cropped, and photoshopped and posed and generally invented and made up in a thousand ways? Always have been. Roger Fenton re-arranged the cannon balls in the Valley of Death at the Crimean War in 1855 to make them look more picturesque. 1855! Lying with cameras has been going on ever since photography was invented.

Is there anybody anywhere who doesn’t realise that?

But it’s easy to write biography, to list the academies an artist attended, the courses she did, the ‘issues’ she was introduced to. By contrast, nowhere is there a description of Winship’s fantastically acute visual perception and technical ability, her gift at fariming, composing and capturing subjects to phenomenal effect. Because that is difficult.

The room of Black Sea photos, taken altogether, is one of the most powerful collections of photos I’ve ever seen.

Here are the people of a strange, remote region – the girls, the boys, the bored housewives, the police. Here are the men, unvarnished, foreign, inaccessible. Men from a completely different tradition and language, behaving, looking, talking from a completely different place than we’re used to.

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship. 'Comfortable in their victory, they were together as one. They seemed absorbed not only by the game, but also by echoes from their place in another time, when they were heroes.'

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship. ‘Comfortable in their victory, they were together as one. They seemed absorbed not only by the game, but also by echoes from their place in another time, when they were heroes.’

There’s a bunch of photos taken on board a fishing ship out in the Black Sea, bleak and cold and wind-wracked, the long nets trawling out from the rusted old equipment. It is an image of the world, the world of work, the work that billions of labouring people have to perform every day.

And yet the wall label tells us that Winship’s Black Sea series focuses on ‘the fragile nature of belonging and a plurality of truths and realities’.

Is that not a completely inadequate use of prose to even remotely capture the visionary precision, the solid realism of other worlds and other cultures which these rooms depict so marvellously? Does this photo depict ‘the fragile nature of belonging’? No. Lots, thousands of other things, yes, marvellously, yes.

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship

The Humber

Bidding the East Europe rooms a reluctant farewell, we move on to discover that the second half of the show features a room of stunning photographs of the muddy estuary of the Humber river, near where Winship was born and grew up. She applies the same wonderful eye for composition, the same profound understanding of the power of black and white photography, to these empty windswept landscapes.

Untitled from the series Humber, 2010 © Vanessa Winship

Untitled from the series Humber, 2010 © Vanessa Winship

The wall label points out that her photographs ‘trace the roots of the materiality of this place’. I can see what they mean about the sheer slappy quidditas of the mud which dominates these images but… it still seems inadequate to even touch on the power of the images.

Experiments

Many of the photos are accompanied by extended captions and quotations from literary works. Fair enough, but I found the texts added little or nothing to the pictures. Her photos are so far away in a different universe of brilliant that the fairly pedestrian text, for me, just can’t keep up.

In one of the rooms of Balkan photos some pleasant ambient muzak pulses repetitively while Vanessa herself intones some of her own prose poetry.

There’s a room devoted to a project recording Turkish girls in their school uniforms, Turkey having had – apparently – ‘gender equality issues’ for some time. Who knew?

There’s a set of straightforward although rather haunting portraits of schoolgirls in their school uniforms. But next to them was a sequence where photos had been made into collages of the official documents, id cards and birth and school certificates of the girls. Fine, and I can see the conceptual point – they’re just not a patch on the straight photos.

Later on there’s a series – And Time Folds – inspired by Winship’s little grand-daughter, which amounts to several wall-sized arrangements of sometimes overlapping photos of the English countryside – trees, railings, flowers and so on – with her grand-daughter popping up in some of them, looking through railings, snuffling through the grass in wellies, a little like Christopher Robin in the Pooh books.

And they’re in colour, which has a strangely jarring effect after looking at so many photos in black and white. The colour – to my mind – somehow brings out their banality, their everydayness.

Untitled from the series And Time Folds, 2014-ongoing by Vanessa Winship © Vanessa Winship

Untitled from the series And Time Folds, 2014-ongoing by Vanessa Winship © Vanessa Winship

How do you like them apples? They’re OK but… lack the punch of the Balkan works.

she dances on Jackson

The final room was disappointing. Instead of building up to something even more weird and unexpected, it turns out that Winship won the prestigious Henri Cartier-Bresson prize in 2011 (the first woman to do so, cheers, fireworks, streamers), and decided to spend the prize money to fund a journey and a photographic investigation of… America 😦

My heart sank.

She still has a tremendous eye for character and composition, fat (excuse me, ‘heavy’) men being a speciality, here as in the Balkans.

Untitled from the series she dances on Jackson, 2011-2012 © Vanessa Winship

Untitled from the series she dances on Jackson, 2011-2012 © Vanessa Winship

But we have seen too many photos of rural and small town America. Winship discovers, like every other European who’s gone on artistic pilgrimage to small-town America, that the countryside is sparse, the small towns feel empty and listless with their rows of low-rise buildings and traffic lights hanging from wires, the streets are haunted by alienated skater youths and gawky listless teenagers, there are blacks hanging coolly on the corner, here’s a portrait of a smart young man dressed in his U.S. Army uniform – these may all have been new to Winship, and she captures them with trademark precision – but I feel like I’ve seen photos of them all, exactly these same subjects, hundreds of times before.

There is one really new and ‘experimental’ aspect to the and she dances on Jackson project, which is that Winship includes extensive samples of her diary entries and emails to friends, reverently shown in big display cases. These were, not to put too fine a word on it, trite and inconsequential.

I guess life itself is and can be deeply violent

she shares with a friend, in an email dated 7 November 2011, sent at 11:39, and addressed to ‘C’. (Every email includes the addresses, date and time of transmission.) Indeed, I think this is the first exhibition I’ve ever seen which features the artist’s emails as part of the display – and it is a dire warning to all other artists not to bother.

On 24 November 2011 Winship begins a diary entry with these words:

Walking down an empty street in Las Cruces we meet a young couple.

Turns out that the couple had hitch-hiked there, and, now she’s bumped into them, proceed to share some of their stories with lucky Vanessa who, in turn, has shared them with lucky us.

This is all, frankly, dull, unless you are a Vanessa Winship completist, in which case maybe you’ll want to collect all her emails, even the ones about the gas bill and the leaking gutter.

Summary

So some of the experiments – reading prose poetry over music, mixing coloured and different size prints in the And Time Folds sequence, and the inclusion of mundane emails and diary musings – do not, to my mind, succeed.

It doesn’t matter. Who cares? She can include her laundry list in her next exhibition if she wants to. Or a wall-high printout of her phone bill. Just as long as she keeps on taking such beautifully composed, wonderfully framed and arresting photos.

Untitled from the series Imagined States and Desires: A Balkan Journey, 1999-2003 © Vanessa Winship Extended caption: 'It was a strange city, and seemed to have been cast up in a valley one winter’s night like some prehistoric creature. It was not easy to be a child in that place' (Ismail Kadare, Chronicle in Stone)

Untitled from the series Imagined States and Desires: A Balkan Journey, 1999-2003 © Vanessa Winship. ‘It was a strange city, and seemed to have been cast up in a valley one winter’s night like some prehistoric creature. It was not easy to be a child in that place’ (Ismail Kadare, Chronicle in Stone)


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing @ the Barbican Gallery

To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, potentially unattainable…

This is a major retrospective of one of the best known documentary photographers of the 20th century, the American Dorothea Lange. It brings together some 300 objects – hundreds of vintage prints and original book publications through to ephemera, field notes, letters, magazines and books in which her photos featured.

It also includes a documentary film interview with her made towards the end of her life in which she explains her ideas and motivations.

Rarely has an artist or photographer been so overshadowed by one work, Lange’s super-famous portrait of a Migrant Mother which has come to symbolise the suffering of America’s Mid-Western farmers in the Great depression of the 1930s – forced to abandon their land due to bank foreclosures and catastrophic environmental collapse.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

But the exhibition goes out of its way to present this period of Lange’s work in the broader, and more varied context of her entire career.

The show proceeds in straightforward chronological order, from her earliest professional photos of 1919 through to her last project in 1957.

Room 1 Portrait studio

In 1919 Lange set up a portrait studio in San Francisco, which she ran until 1935. The studio became a meeting place for San Francisco’s creative community, including bohemian and artist friends such as Edward Weston, Anne Brigman, Alma Lavenson, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard van Dyke.

There’s a portrait of photographer Roi Partridge, and of painter Maynard Dixon, Lange’s first husband and father of her two sons.

The style and mood are soft focus with plenty of self-consciously artistic poses from artists, writers, poets and musicians – people like the founder of the San Francisco Opera, Gaetano Merola. There’s a misty, soft focus, aesthetic feel to most of them, like the wonderfully romantic Woman in a black hat, and a beautifully caught mother turning away from the camera. The baby is rather rubicund but the mother’s pose has the self-conscious (and slender) grace of a Virginia Woolf.

Mother and child (1928) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Mother and child (1928) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

This is bourgeois, arty Lange – before she was ‘woke’.

Rooms 2, 3, and 4 – The Great Depression and the Farm Security Administration

In the early 1930s Lange began to notice homeless men hanging round on the San Francisco streets. Along with everyone else she watched as this trickle turned into a flood of homeless families, farmers uprooted from the Mid-Western states by crop failures caused by drought and over-farming and exacerbated by bank foreclosures by banks who were themselves fighting off bankruptcy. Altogether some 300,000 farmers and their families were forced to head West in the hope of getting work as casual labourers in California.

This, and the accompanying political uproar it caused, woke Lange from her aesthetic slumber and gave her a subject. She took her camera out onto the street and was soon snapping demonstrations, unemployed workers, and breadline queues.

This section of the exhibition displays some hundred photos she took of these subjects, as well as displaying some of the magazines they were shown in, alongside letters and diaries of her travels into the Dustbowl and among the temporary encampments set up by these poverty-stricken migrants all across southern California.

Lange was hired by the Farm Security Administration work (1935–1939) to publicise the problem in a range of government-sponsored publications. By association she was supporting the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to create a New Deal and support the farmers. She worked alongside other notable photographers, including Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothstein.

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

The photos show a wide range of subject matter including:

  • urban poverty in San Francisco
  • tenant farmers driven off the land by dust storms
  • mechanisation in the states of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas
  • the plight of homeless families on the road in search of better livelihoods in the West
  • the awful conditions of migrant workers and camps across California

Traveling for many months at a time and working in the field, Lange collaborated with a prominent social economist and expert in farm labour, Paul Schuster Taylor, who became her second husband. With him she published the seminal photo book An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion in 1939. A copy of the book and associated letters and diaries are on display here.

Room 3 Migrant Mother

There’s an entire room devoted to the iconic Migrant Mother photo, rather as there used to be a room at the National Gallery devoted to Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks. And after all the two images have a lot in common, being images of a mother and baby.

But what justifies giving it a room of its own is the backstory to the photo. Driving along, Lange saw a sign to a pea-picking camp, took a detour to visit it, wandered round, saw this particularly wretched mother and her swarming infants in a truly pitiful make-do shelter, and asked permission to photograph her.

Because the final version is so iconic it’s lost a lot of its power to shock. The photos she took in the run-up to the final version were – to me at any rate – completely unfamiliar and their unfamiliarity recaptures that sense of squalor and abandonment. It’s just a makeshift tent in a crappy bit of scrubland, sheltering children in rags with nothing to eat. There’s nothing epic or artistic about it. It is pure misery.

Migrant Mother alternate takes by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Migrant Mother alternate takes by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Architecture

It’s possible to become a little overloaded with Lange’s powerful images of the poor trudging along streets carrying all their earthly possessions in a blanket, or dirty men hanging round street corners begging for work.

The exhibition points out that Lange also had an eye for the stark architecture of the Mid-West. She shot buildings in a classic, square-on way which gives them a striking monumentality.

Dust Bowl, Grain Elevator, Everett, Texas, June 1938 by Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress

Dust Bowl, Grain Elevator, Everett, Texas, June 1938 by Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress

There’s also a section which focuses on Lange’s interest in parts of the body. Photos of people’s arms, or legs, or torsos, capturing the arrangement of limbs in a self-conscious, posed, artistic way. The curators speculate that this may have been something to do with the fact that Lange had polio when she was seven, which left her right leg and foot noticeably weakened.

Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Later in life Lange came to think that having to overcome such a physical trauma at such an early age had shaped her personality, her ambition, her refusal to quit.

It was the most important thing that happened to me, and formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me.

Maybe her own personal struggle against illness predisposed her to be interested in the underdog?

Room 6 Japanese American internment

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, the U.S. Government decided to round up and intern all U.S. citizens of Japanese descent. Even at the time many people thought this was a mistake and it has gone on to become a well-known radical cause célèbre.

Over the next year more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were rounded up by the War Relocation Authority and housed in makeshift camps. Lange’s series of photos depict not only the Japanese-Americans themselves, but the architecture and infrastructure of the camps. There are bleak signs and posters attacking the Japanese, or in which patriotic Americans announced their loyalty.

It is the first time this series of works has been shown outside the US and Canada.

Centerville, California by Dorothea Lange. This evacuee stands by her baggage as she waits for evacuation bus. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry were housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration, 1942. Courtesy National Archives

Centerville, California by Dorothea Lange. This evacuee stands by her baggage as she waits for evacuation bus. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry were housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration, 1942. Courtesy National Archives

Room 7 California shipyards

As America swung into full wartime production mode, all aspects of agriculture and industry across Lange’s native California were called on to play their part. The shipyards at Richmond, California became an important centre for producing naval vessels. Along with friend and fellow photographer Ansel Adams, Lange documented the war effort in the shipyards for Fortune magazine in 1944.

The town experienced an explosive increase in population numbers and business of the endlessly changing shifts of shipyard workers. To quote the wall label, Lange was ‘drawn to images that transgressed accepted attitudes towards gender and race’ i.e. women and blacks.

Shipyard worker, 1943 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Shipyard worker, 1943 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

After the rooms full of photos of begging farmers, of the wrongfully interned Japanese, and of black and woman shipyard workers, you have got a good feel for the way Lange had made herself a portrayer of the underdog, a chronicler of society’s victims or defiers of conventional values.

She faced a problem, then, after the war, when America headed into a prolonged period of high employment and affluence. The wall label tells us that Lange disapproved of the arrival of mass consumer culture, cheap homes, a radio and then a TV, a fridge and an affordable car for everyone.

To me, it seems that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t produce tear-jerking images of utter poverty and wretchedness, begging the government for something to be done – and then be upset when people finally find work, employment, and can afford somewhere decent to live, a house, a car.

It seemed to me that Lange, by now a familiar figure on the Left, had settled into a posture of permanent opposition, even when Americans had never had it so good.

Room 9 Public defender

This comes over in the project she embarked on in 1955. California had instituted a new system of public defenders to represent the poorest plaintiffs in court, and Lange spent six weeks shadowing one of these new public defenders, Martin Pulich.

From the jaws of the most affluent nation on earth, Lange was able to pull a series of photos which still managed to focus on poverty, bad education and the sorry squalor of the criminal classes.

She has such a great eye. The courtroom shots are all powerfully composed. There are classic shots of a grim-faced judge sitting under an American flag, of Pulich standing next to a sequence of sorry, shame-faced defendants, of the defendants’ wives or girlfriends slumped in anguish in the corridors outside the court. Of prison vans and prison cells.

Public Defender in Court, Oakland, California (1955) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Public Defender in Court, Oakland, California, 1955 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

In the era when more Americans had better paid jobs than ever before, bought their own houses and cars, and their kids were cruising round listening to Elvis on the radio, Lange was exploring the US legal defence system for the poor and disadvantaged through the work of a public defender at the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland.

I guess affluence and happiness are just such boring subjects for artists. There is an in-built bias in modern (post-Great War) art, towards always focusing in on the underdog, the downtrodden, the pitiful and the outcast. The many millions who have great jobs, drive big cars, have barbeques with family at the weekend? Not seen so often in ‘modern’ art, film or photos.

Room 10 Death of a valley

In 1956 Lange heard about a town in California that was going to be destroyed by the construction of a dam.

Death of a Valley (1956–57) was the series of photos she made in collaboration with photographer Pirkle Jones, to document the disappearance of the small rural town of Monticello in California’s Berryessa Valley as a consequence of the damming of the Putah Creek.

The pair set out to capture the traditional rhythms of rural life in spring and summer – and then to document the uprooting of the town, the literal carting away of many of the wooden houses and the digging up of the dead to be reburied elsewhere, before the developers moved in with their giant earthworking machines and the remaining buildings were burnt to the ground.

Her depiction of cowboy hat-wearing old-timers dressed in dungarees in village stores are classic evocations of small-town California life. More vocative shots of rugged, individual people.

What also struck me about this sequence was that Lange was rarely good with pure landscapes. The few shots of the valley, as a whole,, on its own, are flat. Whenever people enter the frame, the photos jump to life.

These photos haven’t, apparently, been displayed or published since the 1960s.

Death of a Valley by Dorothea Lange (1957) © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Death of a Valley by Dorothea Lange, 1957 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Room 11 Ireland

In 1954 Lange made the only trip she ever made outside the USA, to Ireland. She spent six weeks in County Clare in western Ireland, capturing the experience of life in and around the farming town of Ennis.

Once again she demonstrates her terrific eye for spotting immensely characterful people and capturing them in richly evocative black and white photographs.

Ennistymon fair, County Clare Ireland (1954) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Ennistymon fair, County Clare Ireland (1954) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

But also, this series clinched for me the feeling that, at some point, Lange stopped portraying the world, the actual world – the big wide world of the Cold War and supersonic jets and colour TVs and cars with big fins pulling into diners where Elvis is blaring out of the jukebox.

Her black-and-white vision of the underdog, forged in the Great Depression, was only a part of American culture, even back then – and became a slenderer, almost endangered vision of outsiderness, as the majority of America headed confidently into an era of unprecedented affluence.

It seems to me wholly characteristic that she had to go abroad, leaving America altogether, to seek out the kind of peasant ‘honesty’ and ‘truthfulness’ and the ‘dignity of labour’ and so on, which she was temperamentally attracted to but was ceasing to exist in the land of I Love Lucy and the drive-in movie.

Lange’s politics

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican, says:

Dorothea Lange is undoubtedly one of the great photographers of the twentieth century and the issues raised through her work have powerful resonance with issues we’re facing in society today.

Well, yes and no. There isn’t currently, in 2018, a great collapse in American agriculture forcing hundreds of thousands of farmers to migrate to the coast. There isn’t a world war in which people from the enemy nation are being interned in mass camps. Ireland is no longer a nation of sturdy peasants riding carts to market, but of financial over-reach and Catholic paedophilia.

If Alison means that Lange depicted poverty, well, when in human history hasn’t there been grinding poverty somewhere in the world? And when haven’t there been moralists, from Goya to Dickens, who have felt it their duty to record poverty and squalor?

1. This is a major overview of a really important photographer, showing how she brought an acute eye for the human, for human character, for the pathos of the human condition, to a wide range of embattled situations.

2. But it also made this visitor, at any rate, think about the nature of oppositional artists who thrive by focusing on the downtrodden, on society’s losers. It made me ponder whether this choice of subject matter represents a political act – in the sense that setting up a political party, making speeches, writing manifestos and hammering out party platforms is a political act – or whether it is more of a temperamental and artistic choice, a preferred subject matter – the subject matter which brings out the best in an artist and which they therefore learn to focus on it, as Stubbs specialised in horses or Bacon on screaming popes.

In other words, whether what Alison describes as ‘politics’ isn’t really, in fact, just a type of style.


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

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