Mark Leckey: O’ Magic Power of Bleakness @ Tate Britain

This is an absolutely brilliant, transformative piece of work, hugely staged and thrillingly experienced. It consists of a massive installation and three videos by contemporary artist Mark Leckey. Here’s the promotional video to gt a quick feel:

The big exhibition space on the east side of Tate’s central atrium has had all its partitions removed to create one enormous gallery space. In this space they have recreated a lift-size model of an enormous concrete motorway bridge. To be precise, a recreation of a section of the M53 flyover close to Leckey’s childhood home on the Wirral where he used to play with his boyhood friends.

The bridge goes over our heads at a diagonal, supported by enormous concrete piers. Off to the left is the concrete slope between the hard shoulder which ramps up to the underside of the bridge. It is an enormous brooding presence and absolutely brilliant, cavernous and terrifying.

The first motorway was opened in 1958 and these huge concrete monsters have been part of the British landscape for over 60 years. Why is so little written or painted or arted about them, and about the poisonous mega-roads and planet-strangling super-traffic they carry.

The room is almost pitch black. I nearly bumped into one of the enormous fake concrete motorway piers. But just about made them out because they – and the handful of concrete ‘benches’ scattered about – are illuminated by the flashing, fleering images from two enormous video screens on the far wall, and from a suite of six or so smaller screens off to the right.

Onto these are projected three art videos or films:

  • Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999)
  • Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD (2015)
  • Under Under In (2019)

I used to work in TV. In the late 1980s I produced and directed a dozen or so videos for commercial clients, before going on to produce live and prerecorded programmes for Channel 4, ITV and BBC1 So I’ve spent a lot of time in edit suites, with editors and directors, editing, discussing, cutting and mixing material. This means I have quite high standards and so find a lot of experimental art videos unwatchably amateurish.

To my own surprise, however, I ended up staying to watch all three videos in their entirety and being riveted, transfixed, transported. Yes yes yes, I wanted to shout, this is actual modern life in its shittyness, in its squalor, with working class lads making the most of the appalling built environments, the failing schools, the windswept concrete shopping centres and the high-rise slums designed for them by avant-garde architects and progressive town planners, by getting off their faces on booze and pills and dancing themselves stupid on the dance floors of thousands of provincial dance halls and clubs.

Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore

Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore is a compilation of found footage from dance floors chronicling Britain’s underground club scene from the 1970s to the 1990s, from the era of mullets and Northern Soul through to the ecstasy-fuelled raves of the 1990s.

God it takes me back to having that kind of haircut in the 1970s and crappy church halls discos where lads in Doc Martens ended up fighting each other, through the pogoing and gobbing of the punk era, with the straights going to crappy mirror-ball discos, and then on into the suddenly hard core, techno, trance and rave scene of the late 80s which burst out of nowhere with its amazing sound systems, lasers and powerful psychotropic drugs.

So much for the social history, but what makes Leckey’s films a cut above others in the same style is the use of sound. He has a phenomenal grasp of the importance of sound, sound effects and sound editing. Having sat in those darkened edit suites for years and years and years I can vouch for the drastic affect sound editing and mixing has on the pictures in TV or film. Take a sequence of a beautiful girl smiling: then superimpose on it the sounds of – someone having an orgasm, a woman screaming, or a little girl saying a nursery rhyme. Identical image, radically different impacts.

The picture cutting is brilliant and worth commenting on in its own right; but what lifts Leckey’s films into brilliant is the extremely sophisticated and creative use of sound effects; mashups of music, deep ominous booms, clips of speech, electronic or industrial sounds.

So it’s the sound effects which, in my opinion, make these more than films, but into a fully immersive experience. The space under the mocked-up motorway is pitch black, cavernous and echoing. That’s why it’s worth traveling to Tate Britain to have the full huge, disorientating, slightly scary and sense-bombardment experience. Watching it on a computer or phone screen is too small and contained. You need to be overwhelmed by it. Possessed.

Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD

In 1979, Leckey went to Eric’s, the Liverpool nightclub, to see a gig by Joy Division. Recently, the artist located amateur footage of the event on YouTube. He realised that many, maybe most, of what we think of as treasured personal memories can now be found online, and that was the inspiration to assemble a film.

So Dream English Kid 1964 – 1999 AD uses archival material from television shows, advertisements and music, to recreate a record of all the significant events in his life from the 1970s until the 1990s.

God, it’s wonderful a) as straightforward nostalgia – I didn’t grow up in Liverpool or a slum, but I remember the look and feel of shitty England in the 1970s, and the sequence which shows all the horrible packed food – Nesquik, Marmite, Smash, Kelloggs Frosties – brought back the look and taste of all the crap our parents stuffed us with;

b) again because of the sophistication of the picture editing, but more than that, of the sound: it creates a really haunting beguiling, shocking, in your face soundscape, alternating soft silent moments, with raucous live gig sound, urchins in the street, lads, and other much more haunting, weird and unsettling sound effects. It is as if History itself is struggling to break through the bounds of petty human existence. As if some deeper force is struggling to break free from our everyday concerns about haircuts and boyfriends and pop songs, and tell us the big all-important thing, which we’re all too busy to listen to.

Under Under In (2019)

The last of the three film is Under Under In 2019 is noticeably different in feel. It’s because the other two are mostly made up of old film and video footage cannily edited together, while this one is all contemporary, shot on digital camera.

It is all shot under the actual motorway bridge whose model we are standing under and it features half a dozen or so young gang members, dressed in up-to-the-minute street fashion (I assume) – Adidas hoodies zipped up over their faces, trainers, rap hand gestures. For the first ten minutes or so they’re just hanging under the bridge, pushing each other, giggling, and what looks like getting high by car oil products (I think).

But as I’ve highlighted above, the real impact derives not from the visuals – but from the amazing soundscape Leckey has crafted, in which whatever conversation the lads are having is cut and fragmented and distorted and mangled into spare phonemes and loose grunts and blips and frags of speech, echoing, dismantled, lost under the roaring motorway bridge.

Still from Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD (2015) © Mark Leckey

Apparently the film in some way addresses a supernatural encounter Leckey believes he had under the bridge as a child.

Many of my works have their wellspring in things and experiences from my childhood and youth that still haunt me.

What this means is that one of the larking-about kids seems to see something, a creature tucked in the angle of the bridge, hands reach out, small hands, large hand, white images, intercut sound track, it’s impossible to make out what’s happening but a little kid’s voice repeats, ‘Where you been?’ in a strong Scouse accent.

I’ve made it sound much more comprehensible than it is, the images are quickly intercut, treated, amplified distorted shown from above, the camera swoops down, the same gestures are repeated in juddering cuts or vanish.

It’s all shown on the six smaller screens I mentioned above. You have to stand throughout the entire screening but after a while I realised that behind us, up in the cramped space where the ramp meets the bridge of the model, was another screen onto which were projected images of the pumped-up lads crouching in a row, pushing each other joshing and interacting, which complemented the main action on the six screens. Which cut out at some moments, leaving us in puzzling darkness. Haunting & spooky.

Suddenly something more or less understandable emerges out of the blizzard of fragments and rave-era jump cuts. This is a completely computer-generated diagram of the flyover bridge, and then the point of view descends, under road level to reveal… another view o the same thing, an older type of wooden bridge… and keeps on going down to reveal an older structure yet over the same ravine… and down again and again until we come to a layer of standing stones, dolmen like Stonehenge is built from, and the camera stops descending but moves forward, between the stones, into some dark ominous mysterious chamber.

Leckey has written and spoken about his interest in older visions of Albion, in older imagery connected with faeries and magic inhabiting the countryside, and this sequence obviously comes out of that interest. But it’s one thing to say something, and quite another to come up with a visual and audio presentation of it which is so huge and overwhelming that it makes the viewers’ hair stand up on end.

The film below doesn’t feature in the installation, but it gives you a good sense of the mashup of ancient magic, incantation, a visionary way of reconceiving the shitty, concrete slabverse of our poisonous, toxic streets and motorways and flyover cities, choked with fumes, killing us all, and the aggressively visionary cutups of imagery from all available sources which Leckey uses. And the weird spellbinding obsession with the motorway flyover as a metaphor for our entire ruinous civilisation, which I found preposterous, ungainly, and yet weirdly compelling

Curators

  • Clarrie Wallis, Senior Curator of Contemporary British Art
  • Elsa Coustou, Curator of Contemporary British Art
  • with Aïcha Mehrez, Assistant Curator of Contemporary British Art at Tate

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Nam June Paik at Tate modern

Nam June Paik (1932 – 2006) was a Korean American artist. He worked with a variety of media and is considered the founder of video art. He is credited with an early usage (1974) of the term “electronic super highway” in application to telecommunications. (Wikipedia)

This is a major retrospective exhibition of the work of Korean-American artist Nam June Paik, a collaboration between Tate Modern and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

It’s the most comprehensive survey of the artist’s work ever staged in the UK, bringing together over 200 works – from early compositions and performances, to sculptures, photos and paintings, magazines and drawings – through to rooms full of videos and large-scale television installations, and a final room which is a large scale, pulsating and very loud, multi-media rock installation.

Sistine Chapel (1993) Courtesy of the Estate of Nam June Paik

The Korean War ended in 1953 with South Korea saved from communist tyranny, and the country which saved it – at such cost in blood and money – the USA, proceeded to invest heavily in the South, fuelling a technology and consumer boom.

Paik developed as an artist during this boom and right from the start was interested in the incongruity of a still, in many ways undeveloped, traditional and Buddhist culture taking on the trappings of Middle American consumer capitalism. Hence his frequent images and assemblies playing with and highlighting the clash of these two cultures.

TV Buddha by Nam June Paik (1974) Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

When he, inevitably, traveled to America, he was put in touch with other opponents of the swamping consumer culture, the Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, or the collection of artists musicians and performers at the Black Mountain College, North Carolina, which was home to all sorts of eminent artists and performers, notably the composer John Cage and the choreographer Merce Cunningham.

Cage had an explosive impact on young Paik – he showed him that art can be made out of anything, incorporate any technology, and use chance and randomness. A man on stage twiddling through radio stations can, in the right circumstances be a work of art. A television showing an endless loop of imagery, or weird incandescent patterns you’ve generated to be played through it… or a TV with a magnet on top which distorts the images, or a large magnetic loops around the front with a fluctuating current going through it which makes the images bend and distort.

Why can’t all or any of this be art? After all, this was the age of the atom bomb and the Cold War, when the entire world might be reduced to a smouldering cinder in half an hour if someone pressed the wrong button. How could you possibly go on painting like Rembrandt or Constable in a world like that?

You needed something that responded to the urgency and the crisis of the times. And television seemed to be the new medium, the one through which entertainment and government lies poured in equal measure. A medium which could potentially be used for education and to bring the world together. Or to promote lies and ideology which would tear the world apart.

Why not address its ever-growing centrality, deconstruct it, take it to bits, satirise it, parody it, build sculptures out of it?

TV robots by Nam June Paik

Room by room

This exhibition feels really comprehensive. It’s massive and feels packed with stuff, but still manages to be imaginatively spaced and staged. Its twelve big rooms contain:

Introduction

Paik travelled to work in the US, Germany and Japan. He always questioned not just national borders but professional demarcations – and liked working with collaborators, not just artists, but dancers and musicians, and also fleets of technicians who helped him build robots and experiment with TV technology.

Buddhism. Many of his inventions use Buddhist motifs, from the image of a Buddha statue relayed via a CCTV at the start, to the penultimate room which contains a single lit candle with a camera pointing at it, and the image of the flickering flame reproduced on screens and projected onto the wall.

TV Garden

‘A future landscape where technology is an integral part of the natural world.’ The idea is supposedly related to Paik’s Buddhist feel for the way everything and everyone is connected in the spirit world and, increasingly, in a world dominated by new technology. But it is in fact a load of rubber plants with TV monitors arranged among them.

TV Garden 1974-1977 (2002) Tate Modern 2019. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf

Gooogling images of this, you can see that in some places the plants were set among stones in what looks like an actual low-growing garden. Tell you where would be a good place for these – the greenhouse at the Barbican.

Global Groove

According to the wall label:

‘This colourful fast-paced video mixes high and popular cultures, with imagery from traditional and contemporary, Western and non-Western sources.’

Far out, man! Look at the crazy picture distortion and mirroring effects! Top of the Pops 1973!!

From quite early on you get the feeling that all of this – the obsession with TV, the notion of the global village, lumbering robots, pop music and pop videos – it all seems incredibly dated. When I saw that the magnets placed around TV sets were being used to distort speeches by Richard Nixon I realised were in that kind of art, art gallery, curatorial time loops which is obsessed with the 1960s and their crappy hangover in the 1970s. The Vietnam War, the Beatles, Allen Ginsberg chanting blues to his harmonium, Woodstock, Watergate – yeah, man, it was all one heavy trip.

Even in the massive multi-media ‘experience’ which climaxes the exhibition in which a disorientiating stream of intercut images and clips and sounds and music are projected onto the walls and ceiling of the final room, I was astonished when prolonged clips came up of Janis Joplin singing her heart out. She died of a heroin overdose in died 1970.

In one darkened room is a huge wall of TV sets with other big TV monitors on the other walls and it seems to be playing a kind of multinational, global mashup of videos from various cultures, all treated to look over-coloured, cut-up and treated and all playing to… a soundtrack of Beatles songs! – titled Video Commune (Beatles beginning To End) and dating from 1970. Old. Old, old, old.

It is all just about near enough to be sort of familiar, but also old enough to smell musty like grandad.

Electronic music

Paik actually studied to be a classical musician and was an extremely able pianist. Some of the clips of Beethoven featuring in various vidoes are played by him. But when he moved to Germany in 1956 and met Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, it blew his mind daddy-oh.

In 1963 he hosted a one-man show at a villa converted into a gallery stuffed with immersive environments and sculptures which required audience involvement. There were musical instruments modified by the artist, three customised pianos in the Cage manner (Cage composed quite a lot of music for pianos which had had nuts and bolts and screws and elastic bands inserted between the keys or into the wires. They’re surprisingly listenable. Paik took this approach to the next level.

Zen for Wind took lots of random dangling objects which a breath of wind made brush against each other, jingle jangle. Visitors could record their own sounds and snippets on tape recorders and hear them reproduced at random through loudspeakers.

Paik’s friend the German artist Joseph Beuys destroyed one of the pianos and Paik liked it so much he left it on display. Ah, those were the days. Such rebels, back in a time when rebellion had meaning.

Some of Paik’s Cage-like music, some of the dangling objects and one of the pianos are on display here in this exhibition. It was ironic to read on all the wall labels how Paik wanted his visitors to interact with the pieces and then turn to them to find them all protected by plastic covers or behind tripwires which set off alarms.

Installation view of Nam June Paik at Tate Modern

No, children, you could play with these dusty old toys once upon a time, even smash them up for fun, but now times are very different and every scrap of paper and piece of old cable which was ever handled by a Great Artist is now a precious Work of Art, which would fetch millions on the current art market, and so must be protected, curated, catalogued and carefully stored away.

That’s what happens to avant-gardes – they fall into the hands of galleries and curators where their entire disruptive, anarchic charge is neutralised, surgically removed, and replaced by polite wall labels and security barriers.

Merce Cunningham

There’s a room devoted to Paik’s collaborations with and riffing off the work of Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, including the film Zen for Film a, blank film ‘exploring themes of emptiness, boredom and random interference’ – and Merce by Merce by Paik.

Charlotte Moorman

As a thoroughly trained classical musician Paik was well placed to make his comment that sex was everywhere in art and literature and yet almost completely absent from the classical canon.

Why is sex, a predominant theme in art and literature, prohibited ONLY in music?

(For a start that shows the extreme limits of his knowledge of contemporary and pop culture: I think even a casual examination would have shown him that popular songs, jazz, blues, rock’n’roll, pop and rock music is OBSESSED with sex.)

So he set out to address this glaring error in a collaboration with classical cellist Charlotte Moorman which lasted for nearly thirty years. Basically, these involved getting Moorman to play the cello in various states of undress, topless, bottomless, totally nude, or with various objects taped onto her boobs, for example mirrors, or what looked like little display cases.

This was such a 60s idea it made me giggle. What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding, man? A big quote from Moorman is printed on the wall of her saying that, in the age of nuclear weapons and Vietnam, you couldn’t expect artists to make art like in the old days. She became known as the Topless Cellist.

Thus there are films of performances which involved Charlotte playing the cello nude, or with mirrors or even small TV monitors taped to her breasts, or playing a TV monitor as if it was a cello, or playing a man sitting in front of her as if he was a cello and, most impressively, climbing topless into a column of oil drums filled with water then climbing out again.

The idea that having women strip off, taking their clothes off or taping things to their boobs, would somehow revolutionise music or put the sex back into classical music is so laughable as to be sweet and quaint.

If there’s one thing that Charlotte Moorman is not, it’s sexy. She looks like a nice young lady who’s decided to take her clothes off to make a statement. But just taking your clothes off does not make you sexy, as anyone who’s been in a gym or swimming pool changing room and looked around knows: it just makes you someone who’s taken their clothes off, often enough a rather pitiable sight. Here she is, combining Paik’s two themes, playing a cello made of television sets.

Charlotte Moorman with TV Cello and TV Eyeglasses (1971) Peter Wenzel Collection

Joseph Beuys

Paik encountered the Zero Group in Dusseldorf in 1961, which included the eccentric German artist Joseph Beuys. They remained close friends and made various collaborations. One of the later ones is a long video of Beuys on stage somewhere, standing wearing his trademark hat and army flak jacket and howling howling howling like a coyote into a microphone.

This room contains a full-sized Mongolian yurt, because Paik felt very in touch with the Mongolian part of his heritage. It’s an impressive object, easily big enough to bend slightly and walk into. It was Paik’s contribution to the German pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale.

Mongolian tent by Nam June Paik (1993)

The Sistine Chapel

As mentioned above, the penultimate room contains a flickering flame with a camera pointing at it, and projected on the walls. But this pales into comparison with the elaborate scaffolding which projects a mashup of footage onto the walls and ceiling of the final room all to a deafening rock and blues and classical splice track.

The sound is impressive and the images are sort of immersive, but what really impresses is how much bloody scaffolding and structure it took to project these images. I wonder if the same effect could be achieved nowadays with a fraction of the equipment… as in the nearby exhibition of contemporary immersive artist, Olafur Eliasson. And if so, the thing is impressive less for its effects, than for indicating how laborious and heavy and complicated it was back in 1993, to achieve something which can be done with a few hidden projectors nowadays…

Installation view of Nam June Paik at Tate Modern. Photo by the author

Nothing dates faster than old TV

Well, OK, some things do, bread for example. Or pop music. But not much dates faster and more completely than televison. Watching TV clips of Richard Nixon or John Cage or Janis Joplin or hearing tracks by the Beatles from the 1960s conveys a deep psychological sense that we have stepped back in time not just a few decades, but back into what, is now, a different century – a time which is fast becoming incomprehensible in its political and artistic naivety and optimism

I really enjoyed the exhibition because of its quaint sense of being dated and old. I liked the quaint old bakelite TV sets Paik made his television robots out of, or the extremely ancient tape recorders on which he made his cutting edge music compilations in the 1960s.

But nothing dates faster than old visions of the future. Paik’s wall of video monitors is wonderfully redolent of the 1980s, of MTV and the TV generation. But the future would turn out not to be about walls of TV screens, but screens which are so small you can put them in your pocket or possibly be projected onto your glasses (still waiting for that to be perfected).

This is a beautifully assembled and laid out and clearly explained exhibition, and it explains why Paik was clearly one of the early international art superstars but – Tate’s promotional video includes the slogan THE FUTURE IS NOW. But this exhibition is all about THEN, and quite an outdated THEN at that. To me it ranged from the dated, to the very dated, to the really antique.

Some ancient robots and gizmos by Nam June Paik at Tate Modern.

A fascinating look at the world of a pioneer of TV art, or art for the TV age – but really bringing home the fact that that era, the TV era, is long gone, and we are well into a completely new era, of boundless new communication technologies, bringing with them new social ideas and issues, and new geopolitical threats, which have as yet been very little explored by artists.

Paik appears to have been the grand-daddy to the modern world of video art, a granddad whose pioneering work more or less ended around the same time as the analogue era, sometime in the mid-1990s. He was the great pioneer of analogue visual technology, a revered ancestor. Let’s tap the temple bell, and make a bow to his cheeky, funny, loud and inventive achievements.

Curators

  • Dr Sook-Kyung Lee, Senior Curator, International Art (Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational), Tate
  • Rudolf Frieling, Curator of Media Arts, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
  • with Valentina Ravaglia (Tate) and Andrea Nitsche-Krupp (SFMOMA).


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art @ the British Museum

European explorers

As John Darwin’s brilliant history of Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, makes clear, quite a few things distinguished European culture from the culture of the other Eurasian empires (i.e. the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire in Persia, the Moghul Empire in northern India, the Chinese Empire and the Japanese Empire) in the centuries after the death of Tamerlane the Great in 1405.

Just two of them were a readiness to travel and explore, and an endless curiosity which led to almost obsessive collecting and categorising and curating and exhibiting.

No Chinese explorers visited Europe during the 19th century and were so dazzled by its history and architecture and art that they made copious sketches and drawings, took photographs, bought up every quaint European curio they could get their hands on, and carried them all back to China to catalogue and categorise and trigger an artistic renaissance.

That kind of thing just didn’t happen because few Chinese travelled abroad. Very few wanted to, or had the means to, and anyway it was frowned upon because every educated Chinese knew that the Celestial Empire was the centre of the universe, the possessor of a perfect culture, which didn’t need or want to know anything at all about the outside world, overrun as it was by cultureless barbarians.

And Darwin shows how this complacent and self-centred attitude was echoed by the cultural and political elites of Japan, Moghul India, the Safavid Empire and the sprawling Ottoman Empire, for centuries.

No, the wandering, exploring, collecting bug seems to have affected Europeans on a completely different scale from any of the world’s other civilisations.

Thus it was that from the 1500s onwards a steadily increasing stream of travellers, explorers, soldiers and sailors, archaeologists and artists travelled all over the Muslim lands lining the North African coast and the Middle East – territory nominally under the control of the extensive Ottoman Empire – to explore and describe and paint and buy and plunder.

Inspired by the East

This ambitious exhibition delves into one aspect of this huge European enterprise by looking at the long and complex history of cultural interchanges between the Islamic Middle East and Europe from about 1500 onwards.

Not surprisingly several of the earliest objects are swords and helmets since the single most important fact about Islam is that it was a conqueror’s religion, spread by highly organised and zealous Arabs as they exploded out of Arabia in the 7th and 8th centuries to seize the Christian Middle East and North African coastline.

Gilt-Copper helmet, Turkey (about 1650) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman dynasty which began its rise to prominence in the 1200s was itself just the last in a line of dynasties which had vied for leadership of the Muslim world since the birth of Islam in the 630s.

The Ottoman Turks rose to dominate the area we call the Middle East during the period 1300 to 1453 (the year when the Ottomans seized Christian Constantinople and made it into their capital, Istanbul). I’ve reviewed several books about the decline of the Byzantine Empire as it came under relentless pressure from successive Muslim rulers, until its eventual fall to the Ottomans.

The Ottoman heyday is usually dated from the year of the fall of Byzantium – 1453 – to around 1600, during which they extended their power across all of North Africa and deep into Europe. It’s salutary to remember that twice the Ottoman army besieged Vienna, in 1526 and 1683, and was only just defeated both times i.e. they could have penetrated even further into Christian Europe.

As it was, throughout this period the Ottomans ruled the extensive territory of former Christian Europe which we call the Balkans, as well as Christian Greece and Christian subjects in numerous Mediterranean islands.

Mainly Victorian

A handful of pieces and a few wall labels in the exhibition gesture towards this long and complex early history of Ottoman rise and conquest and domination, including the striking portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a painter from the school of Veronese, which has been used as the poster for the show.

A Portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a member of the School of Veronese (c. 1580) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

But the exhibition really focuses on works from the much later period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, partly for the simple reason that the period 1800 to the outbreak of the Second World War saw a steadily increasing number of European travellers to North Africa and the Middle East.

Some of this was simply a function of continually improving transport, sailing ships giving way to steamships, the steady spread of railways, the industrial revolution creating a new leisured class, especially in Britain and France, who wanted to see the world, helped along by firms like Thomas Cook which launched its first cruises in the 1870s.

Many devout Victorians, such as the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, wanted to tour the Holy Land and see for themselves the places where Our Lord had stood. Flocks of visitors drew and sketched and painted watercolours and oils and bought all manner of souvenirs, carpets and clothes, tiles and glasswork. By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 the British public was highly aware of the extremely diverse and colourful cultures of the peoples it ruled over.

But the thesis of this exhibition is that the Islamic culture of the Ottoman Empire bore a uniquely close and fractious relationship with Europe, was the predominant colonial and foreign cultural ‘Other’ for Europe throughout the period – a kind of backward cousin, a slothful and declining ‘Orient’ against which we could measure our ever-growing knowledge, technology and power. And that a huge number of craftsmen and artists and metalworkers and glassblowers and designers and artists and architects were particularly dazzled and influenced and inspired by Islamic and Middle Eastern art and culture.

So this exhibition, Inspired by the East, aims to bring together a wealth of artifacts to show a) some of the original Islamic arts and crafts from the era and b) the impact Islamic architecture, designs and patterns had on European craftsmen, artists and designers through a large selection of European objects.

Enamelled glass lamp made by Philippe-Joseph Brocard, France (about 1877)

Thus the exhibition includes wonderful, ornate and beautiful examples from a whole range of media and crafts such as:

  • tiles
  • glasswork
  • ceramics
  • metalwork
  • jewellery
  • clothing
  • architecture
  • design

I was interested to learn there was a genre called ‘costume books’ which simply showed the costumes of all the new races and peoples Europeans had discovered as they expanded and explored from the 1500s onwards and which, of course, featured books devoted to the clothes and garments of the Middle East.

I learned that all kinds of products by Islamic artisans were prized in the West from early on, such as Egyptian metalwork and Persian ceramics. During the 19th century Western craftsmen could use developing technology to reproduce much of this work. The exhibition includes Arab-inspired ceramics by Théodore Deck, a leading French ceramicist who in the late nineteenth century created a range of pieces directly inspired by Islamic originals.

Nearby is a section devoted to Owen Jones, one of the most influential tastemakers of the Victorian era. His pioneering studies on colour theory, geometry and form still inspire designers to this day. Jones was an architect, designer and design theorist and was Superintendent of Works for the 1851 Great Exhibition. His masterpiece was Grammar of Ornament, a huge and lavish folio displaying stunning patterns, motifs and ornaments in 112 illustrated plates, many of which featured Islamic decorations and motifs. Some of the Islamic plates from the book are on display here.

But but but… I was struck by several obvious problems.

Number one was that most of the works on display are by Europeans. They are not original works by the Islamic craftsmen and artists who are so praised. They are European copies, displayed with the intention of showing how widespread the impact of Islamic styles and motifs was on the European arts. If you’re looking for a world of authentically Islamic arts and crafts you’d do better to go the V&A.

Number two was that, despite the beauty of individual works, it became difficult to avoid a sense of scrappiness, a sense that the curators are trying to cover a lot of ground, in fact an enormous subject – the impact of the Muslim world on the art and culture of the West – with a surprisingly small range of exhibits.

Take my home area, history: A few helmets and a sword are accompanied by a paragraph or two about the extent of the Ottoman Empire – but this, the military rise and dominance of the Ottoman Empire, is a huge, a vast subject, which I felt was barely scratched and whose omission made the entire show feel one-sided i.e. presented only the Europeans as aggressive colonialists whereas, as I’ve explained, it was the Muslims who originally conquered half the Christian Mediterranean.

Similarly, the friend I went with is mad about Islamic tiles so was pleased to see a display of half a dozen beautiful and ornate tiles – but disappointed that they turned out to be made by a Victorian British manufacturer using Islamic motifs – and that that was it when it came to tiles.

Islamic architecture is distinctive and beautiful and exists over half the world, but it was dealt with via just a few British buildings which used Islamic motifs, such as the well-known artist Lord Leighton’s famous house in West London which he had modelled inside to recreate some of the rooms from the Alhambra in Spain, namely ‘the Arab Hall’. Leighton had the place covered in Islamic tiles designed by William de Morgan. There are photos of the interior and a lovely wooden model but… is that it?

The single most dominant impression was made by the paintings, a few scattered in the early sections but then leading up to a huge wall displaying about 20 classic, late-Victorian, Orientalist paintings.

In the Madrasa by Ludwig Deutsch (1890) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Orientalism

This brings us to the several meanings of ‘Orientalism’, a word and idea which are raised early in the exhibition and then referenced throughout.

1. The word Orientalism was originally, during the 19th century and first half of the 20th, a value-neutral term applied to all or any scholars, linguists, archaeologists or artists who specialised in ‘the Orient’, a vague expression generally taken to be Islamic North Africa and Middle East but sometimes stretching to include India. It survives in this neutral sense in many places to this day, for example in the name of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

2. However, the term underwent a revolutionary change in 1978 when the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his academic study Orientalism. In this book Said subjected the so-called ‘scholarly’ works of 19th century Orientalist academics to in-depth analysis in order to support one big radical idea: that almost all the supposedly scholarly and academic books and ideas produced by European scholars about the Orient were the witting or unwitting handmaids of Western Imperialism.

Almost all the nineteenth-century Orientalists declared the Ottoman Empire corrupt and stagnant, Islam itself incapable of change. The people living there were stereotyped as somehow more primitive, dressing in loose but colourful clothing, slothful and lazy and corrupt.

Probably the most notable idea was the fascination the institution of the harem had for repressed Westerners who projected all kinds of sexual fantasies onto Oriental woman and painted no end of soft porn depictions of the sultan and his slaves and concubines and slave auctions and so on.

So powerful was Said’s critique that it spread and prospered in the academy, becoming the new orthodoxy and casting a critical shadow back over everything written or painted about the Middle East in the previous 200 years or more. Since its publication almost everything any European said, wrote or painted about the Ottoman Empire has been reappraised to appear in a much more sinister light, either furthering malicious racist stereotypes, aiding in imperial exploitation, or the shameless appropriation of a weaker culture’s art and designs.

Schizophrenia

Now the woke young curators of this exhibition are fully paid-up subscribers to Said’s unforgiving views about Western exploitation of the Middle East. This isn’t a guess on my part. They quote page one of Orientalism in the very opening wall label which introduces the exhibition:

The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant… The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.

And every other wall label takes pains to remind us that the plate or vase or tile or translation of The 1001 Nights or any other cultural product which we’re looking at and which references Islam may well seem beautiful to us but, tut tut, we should be aware that it was part of the wicked European fashion to appropriate Islamic patterns for vases or the exploitative trend for mock Moorish architecture, or the thieving use of Arabic script in picture frames and so on.

And that behind all of this detail, all of these individual examples of cultural appropriation, lies the huge looming shadow of Western Imperialism!

Four tiles by William De Morgan & Co, Britain (1888-1897)

Cumulatively, these hectoring labels and panels created, for me at any rate, a strange sense of schizophrenia. In one and the same wall label the curators might both praise the craftmanship of a western tile maker or architect – and yet accuse them of being part of the general movement of cultural appropriation. Praise and damn almost in the same breath.

As so often in modern exhibitions, I began to feel that I got more visual and aesthetic enjoyment if I just stopped reading the hectoring labels – felt less harangued and nagged to feel guilty about things which happened 150 years before I was even born.

Orientalist painting

It’s probably in painting that the Orientalist issue is most obvious, or most familiar to most of us because the antique shops of the West are awash with third-rate late-Victorian depictions of the Arab world, of mosques, old men in long gowns with even longer beards, camels crossing the desert, Oriental markets, scantily dressed concubines and so on.

Said’s idea is that, although these images are fairly harmless looked at individually, taken together they become condescending, sexist and racist, depicting a fantasy world of harems and sultans, long-gowned scholars in picturesque mosques, colourful markets or the desert at dawn – all of which, taken together, creates a patronising distortion of the complex realities of the many peoples and tribes and ethnic groups and nations scattered across North Africa and the Middle East.

Moreover, taken together, they all tend in the same direction, promoting an ideology claiming that all these cultures and peoples might well be noble and beautiful, but were also backward and in decline, and therefore needed to be taken in hand, taken over, guided and ruled by us, the enlightened West.

At Prayer by Ludwig Deutsch (1923)

The big wall hanging of twenty or so massive Orientalist paintings which I mentioned earlier are obviously meant to represent a kind of ‘Wall of Shame’. Tut tut, we are encouraged to think: look at all these stereotypical markets and mosques and rugs and carpets. Look how oppressive they are.

However, I just didn’t feel the moral outrage I think the curators intend us to feel. The real impact of hanging so many Orientalist paintings next to each other was, in my opinion, to make you feel a bit sick, as if you’d been let loose in a sweetshop and eaten everything in sight. They are self-consciously opulent and gorgeous to the point of absurdity.

Another, more objective result of examining so many of these over-ripe productions was that, pace Said, most of them are not from the imperial nineteenth century, nor, surprisingly, were many of them produced by the classic imperialist powers who carved up the Middle East between them, France and Britain.

At least half of them were from the twentieth century, many from after the Great War (the two above are from 1913 and 1923). And quite a few were by either German or American painters, not by the cultural Anglo-French cultural appropriators. Neither the Germans nor the Americans had any colonial presence in the Middle East till well after the Great War and even then, not very much.

Orientalism or Romanticism?

As I read yet another wall label pointing out how the Orientalist painters fantasised and romanticised and embellished lots of the subjects they painted, as if this was a shockingly immoral and exploitative thing to do, a simple thought occurred to me: Didn’t all 19th century artists?

There are thousands and thousands of Victorian genre paintings which romanticise and glamorise all kinds of subjects, from their own working classes (cf the exhibition of cheesy paintings of Victorian children I saw earlier this year at the Guildhall) to windswept Hebridean crofters.

In other words, wasn’t the entire artistic movement of Romanticism about, well, stereotypically romantic subject matter – about mountains and storms at sea and heroic adventures and tormented heroes and shy maidens with heaving bosoms who needed rescuing from dragons (I’m thinking of the amazing late-Victorian fantasies of Edward Burne-Jones as recently displayed at Tate Britain).

The same exaggerated depiction of popular conceptions of subjects was applied to everything – I bet medieval knights weren’t as manly and knightly as they appear in Victorian paintings, that Highland crofters weren’t as proud and noble, or our brave soldiers quite as manly and beautifully kitted out, as they appear in those big hearty late-Victorian paintings.

Don’t all Victorian paintings depict extravagant stereotypes in lush and glamorous colours? In other words, there is nothing particular or exceptional about this hyper-romantic style being applied to ‘Oriental’ subjects: it was applied to countless other subjects as well.

The Guard by Antonio María Fabrés y Costa (1889)

The harem

I was especially looking forward to the section about the harem, not because I was expecting to be particularly titillated but because I was anticipating the orgy of outraged feminism it would prompt in the commentary.

After all, one of the most obvious and much-repeated claims of anti-orientalist, politically correct literary critics, feminists and curators is that Western white men used the Ottoman institution of the harem to concoct a vast number of soft porn, erotic fantasies which bore no relation to reality at all, but merely satisfied the gloating gaze of fat, rich, white, male collectors.

So the most astonishing single thing about this exhibition about Western depictions of the Orient is the complete absence of even one decent painting showing a classic, late-Victorian harem scene. Not one.

I thought I must have missed a room somewhere and went back through the exhibition to check, but eventually realised that the little collection of five or so chaste drawings and one painting – none of which show a nude woman, all of them very restrained – is all they have! 

There’s a tiny photo of one of the classic nude-in-a-Turkish-bath paintings by Ingres, but any actual huge, beautiful and sexy harem scenes by him or Eugène Delacroix or John Frederick Lewis or any number of their followers and copyers… nothing! None!

I think I could go to my nearest antiques shop and find more cheesy old Victorian paintings of scantily-clad maidens in a supposed harem than there were in this exhibition. It is an astonishing gap. The big oil painting I mentioned is of a fully-clothed woman who could be more or less anywhere.

Off to one side there is one little drawing of a woman playing a musical instrument by a French artist we are assured, by the conscientious curators, was a notorious Orientalist – though it could hardly be less offensive. Does this image strike you as being offensively racist and sexist, stereotyping the Orient and providing visual underpinning for Western imperialism? It doesn’t, to me.

Study of a girl playing a stringed instrument by Jean Léon Gérôme (1886)

In fact it raises a related politico-aesthetic question, because the curators point out that the artists, Jean Léon Gérôme, was well known for his meticulous sketches and drawings he made preparatory to making an oil painting. Which made me reflect: I n what way can these artists be accused of peddling lazy stereotypes if they were carefully and meticulously depicting what they saw, what was actually in front of them?

The sex object bites back (or photographs itself wearing clothes)

The absolute of real killer harem scenes is all the more puzzling because it is meant to set up the final part of the exhibition, which is devoted to contemporary works by modern Muslim women artists.

The curators have chosen to interpret these contemporary Muslim women artists as responding to the despicable tradition of Western Orientalism. They are ‘speaking back to Orientalist representations of the east’. They are ‘subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists’.

But alas the curators’ plan doesn’t really work because we have not seen any of the sexy, sexist Orientalist representations of the east which these contemporary artists are kicking back against. We pretty much have to imagine them, or remember them from other exhibitions or books.

In fact I thought all four of the women artists on display here were very good, very very good, in their way better than the rest of the exhibition. Best of the four was a triptych of images by Lalla Essaydi, part of a large series of works titled Women of Morocco.

In them Essaydi or her models adopt the poses of the scantily-clad women draped around in famous Orientalist paintings, only here the women are chastely and Islamically dressed and – and this is the distinctive thing from a visual point of view – both they, their clothes and the studio backcloths are covered in Islamic script. I thought it was a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, to produce really vibrant and exciting images.

Les Femmes du Maroc by Lalla Essaydi (2005) © Lalla Esaydi

Conclusion

Inspired by the East feels, in the end, like a rather thin exhibition.

Firstly, it claims to be a look at the interaction between East and West, so you’d expect it to be divided into two parts; How East affected West and how West affected East.

As noted, there’s plenty of examples of the way Westerners appropriated Eastern designs and motifs and patterns, architecture and design (although this felt like a much larger subject which really deserved to be investigated in much greater depth – All over London are buildings which incorporate Islamic motifs; if you add in tiling and ceramics and metalwork you have a huge subject).

But as to West affecting East, this section felt very skimpy indeed, with just one small room showing a couple of photo albums by pioneering photographers in Istanbul and a map or two. Is that it?

Secondly, there is the big shadow of Edward Said and his embittering theory of Orientalism threaded throughout the show, the premise that all depictions of the Middle East and all forms of appropriation of its culture were handmaidens to the wicked, Western imperial exploitation of the area.

But this rather harsh and inflexible approach militates against the more nuanced vibe of the ‘cultural interactions’ parts of the show. One minute the curators are praising Western craftsmen; the next they are berating the subtle cultural imperialism of copying Islamic designs.

Hence my comment about the unsettling schizophrenia I thought the show suffered from.

3. And when I got to the section on the harem and realised how tragically thin it was, it suddenly crystallised for me how skimpy the rest of the exhibition feels. It feels like it’s trying to address two or three really big issues and not quite doing any of them quite properly.

Alhambra vase, Spain 1800–1899 © Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia

Writing versus art

I read Orientalism at university four or five years after it was published, when it still had ‘the shock of the new’, before it settled down to become the new orthodoxy taught to each new generation of humanities and art students.

And Said’s book is almost entirely concerned with Orientalist writing – with the supposedly factual works of Orientalist ‘scholars’ (who he systematically debunks) and with the Western literary writers who perpetuated stereotypes about the Exotic East (Byron, Nerval, Flaubert just for starters).

A lot of this kind of writing was produced in the nineteenth century and so Said had a rich vein to draw on, and was able to show how the supposedly ‘scholarly’ writing, and the literary works, easily morphed into official, governing and imperial writing, could be co-opted into government reports and assessments, how anthropological studies could be quoted in business cases for invading Egypt, say, or Iraq.

But it is much harder to divine a particularly patronising, racist or imperialist motive behind a set of porcelain which just happens to use an Islamic motif, or in picture frames which use Arabic script as decoration, or in glassware which incorporates Islamic patterns.

It’s easier to imagine that they were just one among the millions of other ranges of pottery and ceramics and frames produced during the consumer boom of the nineteenth century, which cannibalised motifs and patterns from all available sources – from India and China and Japan to name just a few – if it produced something which would sell.

To see most of the objects in this exhibition as part of an enormous explosion of art and crafts products which catered for the burgeoning middles classes as, to some extent, they still do today.

So my last thought is that maybe the bittiness and thinness of the exhibition is owing to the fact that the curators are trying to illustrate a basically literary theory with works of art and museum objects. And not nearly enough of them to really round out the argument.

Whatever the reason, for me this exhibition contained an entertaining pot-pourri of lovely objects, but didn’t really hang together either as history, or as a sustained exploration of the themes it purports to address.

Promotional video

Curators

  • Julia Tugwell
  • Olivia Threlkeld

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Sir Stamford Raffles: collecting in Southeast Asia 1811-1824 @ the British Museum

As it is in just one room upstairs at the back of the British Museum, and is FREE, I thought this would be a relatively light and small exhibition to enjoy, but I was wrong. It’s a surprisingly packed exhibition which gives a panoramic view of Indonesian, and particularly Javanese, culture – at least through the eyes of one of its earliest European collectors.

Puppet of the comic character Sabda Palon, one of Damarwulan’s servants (Central Java, probably Surakarta, 1700s) © Trustees of the British Museum

Stamford Raffles, a potted biography

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781 – 1826) started working for the East India Company when he was 14, and spent most of his life as an East India Company official in Southeast Asia. In 1811 he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Java when the British seized it from the Dutch, but in 1815, when we gave it back to the Dutch at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he was forced to stand down and returned to England.

Raffles arrived back in Britain with a substantial collection, almost 450 puppets, over 700 coins, more than 350 drawings, over 130 masks, more than 120 small metal sculptures and five small stone sculptures. His collection quickly became the talk of academic London and Raffles settled down to write what became a massive two-volume History of Java. On its publication in 1817 he dedicated it to the Prince Regent and was rewarded with a knighthood. That’s how to make friends and influence people!

Portrait of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles by James Thompson (1824)

In 1817 Raffles went back out East when he was chosen to be Lieutenant-Governor of Bengkulu (Bencoolen), in southwest Sumatra, where he served until 1824. It was during this period that he took advantage of a succession dispute between local rulers to seize the small village of Singapore, as the perfect location for a trading post for the British East India Company half way between India and China.

This ‘foundation’ of Singapore took place in 1819, and this explains why this exhibition has been mounted – indirectly to mark the bicentennary of what went on to become one of the most vibrant commercial cities in the world.

Post-imperial reappraisal

But, as you might expect of any leading figure in the British Empire, Raffles is nowadays frowned on by academics, by historians and curators (not to mention the inhabitants of Java and Indonesia, or those who are interested enough in their history to have heard of him).

Raffles has become, in other words, a controversial figure, one of thousands of similar controversial imperial figures, once revered in their European homelands for deeds of derring-do and seizing territory from foreigners – now undergoing reappraisal from academics and curators who are, because of their positions, more than usually aware of the need for respect and diversity in our modern multicultural societies.

A demon, Buta Kimul, Cirebon, Western Java, late 1700s-early 1800s

The Raffles collection

Anyway, the exhibition explains that Raffles was an avid collector of objects from the region, particularly from Java but also from China, Sumatra (now part of Indonesia), India, Burma (Myanmar) and Siam (Thailand). He had the true collector mentality, he was fascinated with bargaining and bartering for obscure objects, and then categorising them and arranging them.

Eventually he accumulated some 2,000 objects which provide us with a vital record of the art and court cultures of Java from approximately the 7th century to the early 19th century.

This exhibition presents the cream of Raffles’s personal collection and adds some loan objects from the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, seen here in the UK for the first time. So it’s a collaborative exhibition and will transfer to the Singapore museum next year.

The exhibition is divided up into quite a few sub-sections, each devoted to a specific type of artefact. These include:

  • Hindu and antiquities
  • bronze Buddhas and bodhisattvas
  • protective amulets
  • theatrical puppets
  • theatrical masks
  • musical instruments
  • stone sculptures
  • metal sculptures

In all there are 130 objects, many of them very beautiful. I think the curator was wise to begin with a dramatic display of theatrical face masks and stick puppets from across Java, since these are by far the most colourful and attractive objects.

Javanese theatre masks

We learn that Java and the nearby islands were home to a combination of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, until Islam arrived around 1400. This explains the number of Hindu and Buddhist statues on display.

It also explains another particular thread of Raffles’s collection, which was the organised visits he paid to a series of famous Hindu and Buddhist archaeological sites. Each of these is given its own section in the display cabinets, with a label explaining its location (and a map), a photo of the modern site, and then examples of drawings made at the locations. Often these drawings are not by him; he bought them off Dutch antiquarians who had visited and sketched the various sites.

To be honest, I found these worthy but a bit boring – one for the specialist in the religious architecture of medieval Java, maybe.

Pair of drawings showing a temple covered in foliage (right), and as imagined in a complete state (left), with commentary by G. P. Baker. H. C. Cornelius (1774–c.1833), around 1807

The curator makes the interesting point that what’s interesting about many of these drawings is the way they have been ‘beautified’ i.e. touched up to appeal to the late-eighteenth century taste for ruins, especially ruined temples, churches etc. Most of the buildings remain today and don’t look remotely as weathered and picturesque as these stylish drawings.

Raffles’ colonial motivation

Raffles had an ulterior motive for making such an extensive collection. The British had seized Java from the Dutch when the latter allied with Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars. However, we gave it back to the Dutch with the peace of 1815, but Raffles thought this was a mistake. He thought Indonesia ought to be a British colony. According to the curator this was based not only on straightforward mercantile considerations, but also on a particular view of history.

Raffles subscribed to one of the many theories of history floating around during the Enlightenment, in his case the view that civilisations rise and fall in a continual ebbing and flowing.

He thought the impressive ruins which he visited, and the highly crafted artifacts which he bought, showed that Java had once had a great civilisation… and could do so once again, if carefully tutored and supported by a benevolent patron, namely the British.

Therefore Raffles made his extensive collection, at least in part, to persuade his British masters that the island was worth taking over as a British protectorate. Same goes for the enormous two-volume History of Java which contains a monumental survey and history of the island state. In it Raffles provides a comprehensive ethnographic description of the island’s society, describing its economy, trade, languages and dialects, and religious and social customs, together with a detailed history of the island, including a discussion of the introduction of Islam.

He was a true collector and early ethnographer, but also a man of his time and a thorough colonialist. This exhibition is a truly fascinating insight, less into the man, than into the history of the place whose artifacts and objects he collected so assiduously.

Finally, from the whole collection of masks and puppets and statues and swords and ceramics and drawings, I thought by far the most winning object was one of the ‘additional’ objects on loan to the exhibition and not actually collected by Raffles himself, but from a much later generation – this wonderfully intricate model ship made entirely out of cloves!

Model boat from the Maluku islands, made of cloves and fibre, late 19th century

Curator

Alexandra Green


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Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies @ the British Museum

At the back of the British Museum and up three flights of stairs you get to rooms 90, 90a, 91 and 91a, calm quiet rooms which specialise in temporary exhibitions drawn from the museum’s vast collections of prints and drawings. The rotating exhibitions in these rooms are always FREE.

At the moment rooms 90 and 90a are hosting a fabulous exhibition of prints and drawings by the great Käthe Kollwitz, and a wide-ranging selection of drawing by contemporary artists from the 1970s to the present.

Beyond them lie rooms 91 and 91a which are currently hosting a fascinating and surprisingly dense exhibition about the collection made by the imperialist Stamford Raffles of artifacts from Java and Malaysia in the early nineteenth century.

And beyond these is a room so small it doesn’t appear to have a number. And it is in this darkened, hushed and reverend room that the museum is displaying the extremely old and fragile masterpiece of early Chinese figure painting known as Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies.

The instructress writing the scroll

Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies

The Admonitions’ proper title is Nüshi zhen 女史箴 (Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies).

It is a handscroll painting three and a half metres long and about a foot tall. The Admonitions is one of the earliest Chinese paintings on silk in existence and one of the earliest and most important Chinese paintings to survive anywhere.

The poetic text was composed by writer, poet and politician, Zhang Hua (c. AD 232 – 300) and should be read from right to left.

The Admonitions depicts nine scenes (there were originally 12) each of which shows a situation encountered at the imperial court or from legend, giving palace ladies advice on how to behave according to Confucian principles or examples of ladylike heroism or devotion.

Palace ladies beautifying themselves

The first three scenes were lost before the scroll came to the museum. Scenes four to 12 depict:

  1. Lady Feng and the bear – Lady Feng was the consort of Emperor Yuan of Han, who ruled 48 to 33 BC and she is shown with two palace guards placing themselves in front of the emperor to protect him from a bear
  2. Lady Ban refuses to ride – Lady Ban was the consort of Emperor Cheng of Han, who ruled 33 to 7 BC, and she refused to ride in the imperial palanquin with her husband, saying emperors should only ride with their ministers
  3. The mountain and the archer – in the outside scene an archer takes aim at a faraway mountain teeming with life and the text draws the moral about the impermanence of fame and glory
  4. Attending to appearance – palace ladies attend to their appearance but the text warns that tending to the inner self is just as important
  5. The bedchamber scene – when your words are evil even your bedfellow will mistrust you
  6. The family scene – the emperor is show with his wives and children
  7. The rejection scene – the emperor turns away from a consort; she had become accustomed to thinking herself the most important but ends up being spurned
  8. A lady reflects on her conduct – and the Confucian virtues of humanity, righteousness, loyalty and respect for parents, husband and emperor
  9. The court instructress writes down instructions on how to behave

Lady Feng along with two guards defending the Emperor Yuan of Han from a (rather small and unthreatening) bear

Painted in the fifth to the seventh century AD, the Admonitions was once part of the collection of the Qianlong emperor who ruled from 1736 to 1795. The emperor himself was one among several hands who added further inscriptions to the scroll.

It was under him that the scroll was remounted, and a new wrapper was added. This was made from a piece of 18th century brocade, woven in a geometric and floral pattern. In fact the same piece of fabric was used to wrap other important handscroll paintings in the emperor’s collection.

For conservation reasons the scroll can only be displayed for six weeks a year, which explains the seriously darkened room it is being shown in, and means this is a rare opportunity to see it. To be honest I found it more a thing of interest than of beauty. The paintings are distinctively Chinese but not necessarily that impressive.

Other exhibits

The historic scroll is the centrepiece of this one-room display, but around the walls are hung some additional works to give it context. These include:

  • Zou Yigui’s (1686 – 1766) Pine, Bamboo, Rock and Spring which was once mounted with the Admonitions Scroll
  • Wen Zhengming’s (1470–1559) Wintry Trees
  • a 14th century painting Reading in the Reflection of the Snow, signed Sheng Mou (active 1310 – 1360) which has recently been restored and remounted by the museum

In their way I preferred these paintings to the scroll itself. Or to put it another way, they give very different experiences.

Quite obviously the scroll is a didactic work, with designs on its readers to improve their thinking and behaviour, whereas these later paintings are much lighter in touch and feel.

Reading in the Reflection of the Snow in particular, depicts that classic Chinese painted landscape, tall tiered mountains in the background, beautifully rendered trees in the foreground. It’s only when you bend down to look closer that you can make out the figure of a bearded man walking over a bamboo bridge at the bottom, and slowly realise that he is heading towards a house hidden among the trees. In the house you can just about make out the protagonist of the painting, the scholar Su Kang, of the Jin period (265-420), who was so poor that, the story goes, he couldn’t afford a candle and so, at night time, could only read when the moonlight was reflected in the winter snow – hence the title.

Reading in the Reflection of the Snow by Sheng Mou (14th century)

It’s a relatively small room, but full of beautiful visual and intellectual experiences 🙂


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Rembrandt’s Light @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This beautiful exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is celebrating the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death in 1669 by bringing together 35 of his iconic paintings, etchings and drawings, including major international loans including:

  • The Pilgrims at Emmaus, 1648 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
  • Philemon and Baucis, 1658 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)
  • Tobit and Anna with the Kid, 1645 and The Dream of Joseph, 1645 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

The theme of the exhibition is Light and each of the six exhibition rooms focuses on different ways and different media in which Rembrandt showed his mastery of light and shadow.

Philemon and Baucis (1658) by Rembrandt van Rijn. National Gallery of Art, Washington

Before we look at any of the works in detail the curators introduce us to a couple of key ideas:

1. Theatrical

Apparently a new theatre opened in Amsterdam in the 1640s, and the curators quote its owners as pointing out that all the world’s a stage. There’s no direct link, apparently, between the new theatre and Rembrandt’s work except as a peg to bring out the theatricality of his conception. Once it’s pointed out to you, you realise how obvious it is that so many of Rembrandt’s paintings have been posed and staged and set and lit as if for a stage play or opera; that Rembrandt time after time chooses moments of great human drama to depict.

Hence the centrepiece of the first room is the enormous, square painting showing the moment the cock crows in the story of St Peter denying Christ, a moment of phenomenal psychological and religious drama.

The Denial of St Peter (1660) by Rembrandt van Rijn © The Rijksmuseum

This painting alone would repay hours of study. Suffice to point out the obvious, that most of the picture is in deep shadow or gloom, with the result that where light is portrayed it powerfully draws the eye – towards the mysterious glow behind the woman’s hand and onto Peter’s cloak. It was possible to spend quite a long time in front of it just enjoying the burnish on the soldier’s armour and elaborate helmet.

Reflections and jewels

In fact a kind of sub-theme of the exhibition, for me at any rate, was not only Rembrandt’s use of light so much as his use of reflections, especially off metallic surfaces and jewels. For me an exciting part of the Philemon and Baucis painting is not the light as such, but the way it highlights the gold filigree work on Jupiter’s chest and what looks like a band of pearls around Mercury’s head.

Philemon and Baucis (1658) by Rembrandt van Rijn. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Detail

Similarly, the exhibition includes Rembrandt’s famous Self Portrait with a Flat Hat, but among all the visual and psychological pleasures of this wonderful painting, I was attracted by the light reflected from the pearl necklaces around Rembrandt’s chest, on his gold bracelet, and his cheeky, dangling pearl ear-ring.

Self Portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn, (1642) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Detail

Light not only has a source and comes from somewhere, but also impacts, illuminates and is reflected back from its targets. What I’m struggling to express is that I didn’t just notice the cunning use of light sources in Rembrandt’s paintings, but the extremely clever, inventive and beautiful ways he uses these often obscure light sources to highlight, burnish and illuminate telling details in the compositions.

A word about reproductions

Back to The Denial of St Peter. What’s a little hard to make out in this little reproduction is that off in the background at the top right is Jesus, a shadowy figure with his hands bound behind him being led away and turning to look at the doleful scene of faithless Peter. Which brings us to a general point:

There’s a good catalogue of the exhibition but flicking through it you realise that all reproductions of Rembrandt are inadequate. No photographic reproduction can do justice to the subtlety and depth, the multiple levels of light and shade and darkness which he manages to achieve with oil painting.

One of the best paintings here is Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Rembrandt van Rijn (1647) National Gallery of Ireland

In the flesh it is a marvel, with multiple layers of paint conveying a dark and stormy night, hills in the background and up on a distant hill the silhouette of some kind of building with tiny glowing windows, while down in the foreground the tiny figures of Mary and Joseph and a servant tend a fire which shines out in a darkness which includes multiple shades of grey inflected with the orange of the fire and morphing into a strange preternatural almost purple sky of dusk. But in the catalogue reproduction almost all of this is jet black.

That’s the point of going to art galleries. The real actual art is always, in the flesh, a thousand times more sensual, rich, deep and mysterious than any colour print.

2. Rembrandt’s house

The curators go large on the biographical fact that in 1639 Rembrandt bought a big house in the Jodenbreestraat in Amsterdam, where he lived and painted until he went bankrupt in 1656 (today the Museum Het Rembrandthuis). One wall of room two has an architect’s drawing of the building printed on it.

Rembrandt had his studio on the first floor with its big windows. On the floor above were the smaller studios where he supervised his students. Here, we learn, he set his students all kinds of challenges designed to broaden their technique. Draw or paint a composition with a light source above, to the side, beneath the figures. Make an image with two light sources, one outside the frame. Paint a scene at night. Paint a scene at dawn. Thus the exhibition features drawings by a number of Rembrandt’s students showing them working with light, or by the master himself.

The Artist’s Studio (c. 1658) by Rembrandt van Rijn © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Mock-ups

This brings us to another notable aspect of the exhibition, which is the way it is laid out and staged. The curators have gone to a lot of trouble to make it a dramatic experience, with each room lit and arranged in a different way. But over and above the lighting, in the room where the drawing above is on display, they have recreated the scene by building into the partition wall high, latticed windows that you can see in the drawing, and above the windows a sheet of muslin or cotton has been hung in a kind of billow, while the lower tier of windows has been blocked off, either by fabric of wooden shutters.

The point, for understanding Rembrandt, is to show how carefully he arranged windows and fabrics in order to create light effects in his studios. The point, for visitors to this exhibition, is to be impressed by the trouble the curators have gone to to recreate this aspect of Rembrandt’s studio in the gallery.

Peter Suschitzky, cinematographer

Related to the care taken over the design and layout of the exhibition, is the fact that the two curators – Jennifer Scott and Helen Hillyard – have collaborated with the award-winning cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, famed for his work on films such as Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back to create ‘a unique viewing experience’.

What this means is that, having established which works they were going to display, they collaborated with the lighting guy to really think about how to group them into rooms each of which has its own special lighting design and feel.

The most dramatic example of this is room five which is stripped back to its simplest essence with just one painting hanging in it, Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (1638). All kinds of things are going on with light in this painting, as you can see for yourself.

Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb by Rembrandt van Rijn (1638) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The thing, the schtick, the gimmick or the stroke of brilliance cooked up by Suschitzky, Scott and Hillyard, was the decision to have one narrow spot light focused on this painting and have it set to very slowly fade away to nothing, and then very slowly come on again till it’s bathing the painting in full light.

As it fades and then returns, something really weird happens: at certain moments in the dimming and fading process, it really as if a ray of light from heaven is falling across the scene. In particular, there’s a certain pint when the face of Mary, the light lower left half, becomes briefly luminescent. And you can simply see why this experience required a whole room to really savour.

Draughtsmanship

The middle rooms contain the etchings and drawings, including ones from his pupils. I have to be honest and say I was underwhelmed by these. His capture of light and shade in the punishingly difficult medium of drypoint etching is marvellous; but his actual draughtsmanship isn’t. In fact sometimes it feels positively wonky.

A good example of this mixed impression is Woman with an Arrow, which is important enough to have an audioguide item devoted to it. Now I can see the dramatic contrast between the whiteness of her naked body and the deep gloom of the background. But.. but if you look at her right arm, at some point I think you realise it isn’t quite in the same picture plane as the rest of her body, has a kind of deformed look. It took me a while to notice there’s a face (presumably of a student drawing her) by her left shoulder. Not very good is it? Crude.

Woman with an Arrow (c. 1661) by Rembrandt van Rijn. The Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam

This kind of rather blodgy wonkiness with the human figure runs throughout Rembrandt’s work. Sometimes he rises effortlessly above it. But other times, I found it distracting. If you scroll back up to the painting at the start of this review – the painting captures the moment from the Greek myth of Philemon and Baucis when the old peasant couple welcome in two wandering strangers and go to the trouble of slaughtering their best goose to make  meal. And at this point, the wanderers reveal themselves to be no other than king of the gods Jupiter and  his messenger Mercury.

It is a typically dramatic moment, and the lighting effect is characteristically subtle, with the natural light coming from the little fireplace on the left eclipsed by the golden light now suddenly emanating from the heads of the visiting gods.

But look closely at those godheads and you might be disappointed by their wonkiness. Jupiter’s eyes in particular look uneven, almost making him look like a cranky Cyclops rather than a figure of majesty and awe.

Heartbroken tenderness

So I’m a big fan of very precise draughtsmanship, for me one of the great thrills of art is the way a handful of pencil or brushstrokes can create a world, and so I felt myself being brought up again and again by the apparent wonkiness of many of the images, viewed as pure exercises in draughtsmanship.

BUT, and it is an enormous but, Rembrandt’s paintings (especially) have a quality which supersedes and outweighs any strict concerns about linesmanship, and this is their immense human warmth. The catalogue quotes a letter van Gogh wrote to his brother in which he describes Rembrandt’s tenderness and then goes on to be more precise, praising the heartbreaking tenderness of his images.

Rembrandt in fact made a very large number of images – paintings, drawings and etchings – and you can see why it’s possible to argue – even on the basis of just the 35 works here – that he inhabited a number of different styles.

But the ones we remember, the famous ones, the ones in the anthologies and you were shown at school all share his great and wonderful quality, a sense of almost superhuman sympathy and understanding with the poor weak vulnerable human animal. He liked painting old people because their faces convey the depth and ravages of experience and yet tremendous dignity. His own mature self portraits convey volumes about human experience which no words can match.

Which is why the sixth and final room of this exhibition is worth the price of admission by itself because it brings together half a dozen of Rembrandt’s greatest hits and the impression is overwhelming. There’s the Self Portrait in a Flat Cap, the Girl At a Window, a wonderfully sensuous and intimate portrait of a woman in bed. All of them convey that sense of immense, almost god-like tenderness which van Gogh described.

Maybe most tender of all is the famous painting of the woman wading into a stream, supposed to be a portrait of his mistress.

A Woman bathing in a Stream (1654) by Rembrandt van Rijn, © The National Gallery, London

In line with my narrow (and maybe illiterate and philistine) views about Rembrandt’s abilities as a draughtsman, I don’t think the face bears too much scrutiny. But detail like that is beside the point. By this stage (the end) of the exhibition, we have been tutored to appreciate:

The theatricality of the image – not a melodramatic moment from the Bible or classical myth, but nonetheless a very telling, precise and revealing moment of domestic intimacy and candour.

The human tenderness the tremendous feel for the beauty of the exposed, trusting human being in a moment of vulnerability and honesty.

And – to bring us back to the main theme of the exhibition – to the importance of light in creating the overall effect. In a sense, it is only because he is such a master of light that you don’t really notice the importance of the light to the impact of the image until it is specifically pointed out to you, it is so totally subsumed into the overall composition.

The cumulative effect of looking closely at, and having explained to you, Rembrandt’s various ways and techniques with light is eventually to make you realise that rather startling fact that light alone can convey emotion. Light alone can create meaning in a painting. Light alone can shape images which prompt such powerful feelings of human sympathy and compassion.

The promotional video


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Raúl Cañibano: Chronicles of an Island @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Downstairs at the Photographers’ Gallery is the print shop, whose function is to put on displays of work by contemporary or modern photographers in quality prints which are for sale. The print room is currently hosting the first UK solo exhibition for Raúl Cañibano, one of Cuba’s most famous and prolific photographers.

Malecón series: Havana, 1994 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

The room contains fifteen of Cañibano’s prints (more are available to view on request) and they’re all marvellous.

Cañibano is a people’s photographer, down and dirty among peasants and workers. There’s no studio work or models or posing. He works in black and white capturing the grit and feel of life for ordinary, generally pretty poor, Cubans.

Tierra Guajira series: Manatí, 1999 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

So first of all I responded to them as gritty images of the labour and enjoyments of the Cuban working classes. Only slowly did certain patterns or approaches to emerge.

There are two obvious tricks or techniques he uses. The first is the use of multiple levels. In the photo above there are, pretty obviously four levels: the old guy’s face right up close to the lens, the guy on the right swinging an axe, the horse in the middle distance, and then the mountains on the horizon. You could say these multiple levels draw you into the image, but they also emphasis the photos’ artificiality: an odd combination of the naturalistic and the heavily contrived.

Secondly,  there is Cañibano’s use of shadows. In the photo below the shadow of the woman washing her hair is reasonable enough. But the shadow of the horse and rider is unexpected, suggesting all sorts of interesting stuff going on outside the frame, and adding an air of mystery, of almost symbolic power, to the image.

Vinales, Cuba, 2013 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

What Cañibano’s use of both shadows and the multiple levels or depths do is to disrupt the predictability of the images. To disconcert and decentre them.

By comparison, behind the sales desk in the Print Room are photos from previous exhibitions, including some by the great Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Bravo’s compositions tend to have a lovely flat, calm and classical feel. They are artfully composed.

The Daughter of the Dancers (1933) by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Comparing the Bravo images with Cañibano’s brings out the dynamism not only of the Cuban’s subjects (all his people are generally doing things) but the dynamism of the compositions themselves, starting with the two elements mentioned above – the multiple levels and the shadows. His people are doing things, but the image is doing things as well.

Another favourite disruptive element in Cañibano’s photos is translucent fabrics. Sometimes kids are wrapping it round themselves for fun, or making a cape out of it. Or it is just there in the background or as a feature, maybe mosquito netting or fine muslin used as an awning, as in this photo which seems to be depicting age and youth, at least we think it’s a child silhouetted in the window. (Note the multiple levels: foreground, sheet, background silhouette and, very faintly in the distance, the horizon of trees.) The woman friend I went with said it reminded her of a pre-natal scan.

Raúl Cañibano, Tierra Guajira series: Manatí, 1999. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

Cañibano was born and raised in a poor family in the rural province of Las Tunas on the eastern side of Cuba. He had little formal education and worked as a welder until 1989, when a visit to an exhibition of Alfredo Sarabia’s surrealist photographs at the Fototeca de Cuba inspired him, at the age of thirty, to consider a career in photography.

It paid off. In 1999 he won the Grand Prix in the Cuban National Photography Exhibit for his project on the life of rural workers, Tierra Guajira.

Thus Cañibano had little or no formal training and picked it up as he went along. His first art photograph, depicting the shadow of an equestrian statue cut off in the middle to reveal an array of modern lamp-posts against a clear cloudless sky, established his style but also hints at his socio-political concerns.

After the collapse of communism in 1990 Cuba’s role as the pioneer of communism in Latin America lost its rationale. For generations the population had put up with travel restrictions and the shortage of consumer goods because they were told they were building a better society. Then communism collapsed. Now what? In Cañibano’s photograph the general riding his proud horse into the dream of a perfect future has been cut in half.

De su serie Ciudad (1992) © Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

The print gallery assistant explained to me that, because of the restrictions on imports of photographic equipment into Cuba, Cañibano initially had to use expired film and materials, and didn’t have the correct printing resources to hand when starting out. So he tended to convert the negatives straight into digital images which could be stored and distributed.

And so, this year, the Photographers’ Gallery made the decision to fly Cañibano to England, bringing his precious negatives in a cigar box. Once here the negatives were turned into limited-edition silver gelatin prints in collaboration with master printer Robin Bell, who has worked with such big name photographers as David Bailey, Don McCullin and Terence Donovan. So this exhibition is a real first, creating high quality prints of Cañibano’s work, and making them available in the UK, for the first time.

All the prints are for sale, starting at £1,250 + VAT. I can’t afford anything like that but I can well imagine people who would pay that sum for a limited edition, high-quality print of one of these wonderful, vivid and evocative images.

Malecon Habanero, Cuba, 2006 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery


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Shot in Soho @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Shot in Soho is an exhibition of photographs documenting life in the Soho district of London over the past 60 years or so.

It is not is an encyclopedic, systematic or historical overview. Instead it consists of generous selections from half a dozen or so specific photographic ‘projects’ made by particular photographers – some historic i.e. dating back to the 1960s, others made more recently, in the 2000s or 2010s. Three of them were commissioned specially for this exhibition by the Photographers’ Gallery, along with a series of podcast interviews of local inhabitants.

Although the sets are deliberately not hung in chronological order, I found it easier to make sense of them chronologically. And to give away the plot, in my opinion the first two sets of black-and-white photos, from the 1960s, were head and shoulders above the rest in terms of style, atmosphere, composition and impact.

The Undressing Room by John Goldblatt (1968) BLACK AND WHITE

Born in 1930, Goldblatt emigrated to South Africa in 1955, where he earned his living as a photographer. He returned to the UK and worked for publications like The Sunday Times, The Jewish Chronicle and The Observer. He took the series of photos on display here on four consecutive nights backstage at a Soho strip club on spec . Unfortunately, they didn’t sell, which is surprising because this set includes by far the best photos in this exhibition.

Take this photo of an ‘exotic dancer’ reading the paper in the dressing room. Not only is this almost nude young woman very sexy, but it is the composition – the lining up of her vertical leg with the leg of the woman behind; the way both legs take your eye to the electric heater in the background – reminding you how cold and draughty most of these backstage rooms probably were, especially in the wet and windy winter. It is the 45 degree angle of the newspaper balanced on her thigh, the simple unstyled 60s look of her hair falling over her shoulder, the way the other girls in the background are looking round, maybe aware of the photographer, but she is sweetly oblivious, absorbed in what she’s reading. It’s lots of things which make this photo so evocative and memorable.

Untitled from the series The Undressing Room (1968) by John Goldblatt © John Goldblatt. Courtesy of the artist’s estate

Soho Observed (1968) by Kelvin Brodie BLACK AND WHITE

Back in the 1960s Brodie (b.1932) worked on assignments for the Sunday Times covering routine street works and accompanying police and charity workers in Soho, snapping young people caught up in its criminal underworld or, at the other end of the social spectrum, some of the area’s ancient shopkeepers.

Kelvin Brodie for the Sunday Times Magazine (1968) © Times Newspapers Ltd

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of Soho by William Klein (1980) COLOUR

Then the visitor makes the huge leap to colour, albeit a grainy analogue, pre-digital kind of colour,

American-born French photographer William Klein (b.1928) was commissioned by the Sunday Times to do a photo feature on Soho. His rough and ready street shots capture the Soho I knew when I first visited it as an impressionable teenager, full of ugly people with manky haircuts, wearing flairs, smoking fags – look at the men on the left. Men from C&A.

Shoes polisher, Rocky II etc, Piccadilly 1980 by William Klein © William Klein

The Brewer Street Work (1990-2013) by Corinne Day

Day was born in 1962 and died in 2010. Most of her personal and professional work was shot in a flat she kept in Brewer Street, at the top of a 1930s block. The Raymond Revue Bar was across the road. At the end of the working day, friends or models or artists would drop by and Day photographed them all.

Day is famous, apparently, for doing a photo-shoot with the then 16-year-old Kate Moss, which made both their reputations. The photos on show here capture a rough and grimy, rather dirty flat, with rollups and empty booze bottles rolling on the floor as cool young people smoke, drink, joke and pose for her camera. The same kind of vibe as Tracey Emin and her famous bed. 1990s cool young pretty things.

Georgina Cooper, Interview Magazine ‘That Imaginary Line’ January 1996 by Corrine Day © The Corrine Day Archive. Courtesy of the Corrine Day Archive

The Colony Room Club (1998-2001) by Clancy Gebler Davies

Born in 1966 Davies blagged her way into the famous private members’ club and was eventually asked to join. When she ran up a huge bar bill the owner offered to let her work it off by working as bar staff. Part of the reason for being a member was you could drink as much as you wanted, late into the night. The owner let Davies take her photos once she’d gained everyone’s trust. The result is a series of photos of people – mostly men – getting drunk and behaving drunkenly.

The Colony Room Club (1999-2000) by Clancy Gebler Davies © Clancy Gebler Davies. Courtesy of the artist

Soho 2011 by Anders Petersen BLACK AND WHITE

Petersen (born in 1944) was commissioned specially by the Photographers’ Gallery to make a project in Soho in 2011. Published as a book, Soho 2011 captures night time embraces and drunken performances for the camera. He befriended locals in the street, in pubs and cafes and bars, shot them in situ or invited them back to his studio. He uses high contrast and graininess to create a sense of drama.

Soho 2011 by Anders Petersen © Anders Petersen

Looking for Love (2018) by Daragh Soden

Soden (b.1989) was commissioned specially by the curators of this exhibition to create a contemporary portrait of the area. He responded by thinking of Soho as a place where people ‘hunt for love or lust’. Pardon me for heaving a big, heavy sigh at the sheer stereotyped inevitability of that approach. According to the wall label his project ‘examines how we perform and relate in the pursuit of love, sex, romance’. So. Yet another series of photos of sexy chicks and cocktail glamour.

Looking for Love by Daragh Soden (2019) © Daragh Soden

Soho Then (2018/19) by Clare Lynch

The show is rounded out with a series of podcasts. There’s a bench, we’re invited to sit on it and put on the headphones hanging on it, and listen to a series of six podcasts by Soho residents who reminisce about specific streets and buildings in this compact grid of streets, cafes, bistros, shops and bordellos. This series was actually commissioned by the Photographers’ Gallery itself.

Thoughts

In the later 1980s and throughout the 1990s I worked in television production (as researcher, assistant producer, producer, producer/director and then series producer), at offices and studios just north of Oxford Street.

Sometimes at lunchtime, and especially in the evenings, I went strolling down into Soho to windowshop or meet mates for a drink. I had my stag night in Soho in 1997. I worked at quite a few independent edit suites in Soho. This exhibition didn’t really capture the Soho I knew and experienced for quite a long time on a daily basis.

For a start all artists and curators are obsessed with sex, which they dress up in the smart terminology of gender and desire. Still shagging, though. In terms of photography – naked people, strip clubs, prostitutes, dingy streets, and the looming threat of policemen, all create an agreeably louche atmosphere, a Weimar 1930s vibe, it makes everyone feel a lot more continental than we really are. Makes prostitution seem a lot more glamorous than it is. None of these photographers seem to have uncovered any use of drugs or people trafficking or violent pimps on any of their travels.

But in any case you can walk round Soho during the day and not notice any of that night-time stuff. What you see is the shops – the shops and bistros and restaurants, which often had a wonderfully cosmopolitan flavour, testament to the French, Italian, Maltese, Chinese, Hungarian, Jewish and Bengali populations. Lunchtime in the pub, evening meal at the Gay Hussar, then cramming into the Coach and Horses to hear the legendarily rude landlord Norman shouting at people. I did all that twenty five years ago.

There’s nothing at all here about the music shops. After leaving the gallery I went into Schott’s music shop and browsed some sheet music before dropping into the Yamaha shop and playing a very expensive electric guitar which the shop assistant kindly plugged into a big amp in a soundproof practice room. None of that, nothing about shopping which is a far more popular and democratic activity than sex, in any of these ‘projects’.

Nothing at all either about the TV and film editing suites, let alone the fact that many film and advertising companies have lined Wardour Street since the 1960s. The people who work in those swish offices don’t get pissed and hang out with hookers in the evenings, the Americans in particular were ruthlessly efficient and professional in my day. None of the slick professionalism of the advertising, TV and film worlds of Soho appears in any of these ‘projects’.

And the markets. I often stopped in at Berwick Street Market on the way home of an evening, loving walking past the thronged stalls loaded with fresh food, artisan bread and, oh my God, the wonderful cheese stall which I can still smell twenty five years later.

And the media clubs. The Groucho Club has been in Dean Street since 1985 and the Soho House in Greek Street since 1995. I was never a member of either but was taken along by people who were, meeting loads of media and showbiz celebrities. On one memorable evening in 1996 at the Soho House I mingled with a big party of New Labour consultants, cocky arrogant bright young things who knew they were going to win the next election and were celebrating in advance with ice buckets of champagne and by nipping into the bogs to snort a line and emerge motor-mouthing how fabulous Tony and Gordon were. The point is there’s nothing here about the upmarket, glitzy world of TV, film and media in the area.

And the music, live music. Did it occur to no-one to include something about Ronnie Scott’s world-famous jazz club, or the Marquee or the Vortex Club, or to photograph musicians making live music in any of the modern clubs?

No. Strip clubs, models, drinking and snogging are the order of the day. To sum up, then, this exhibition presents a very narrow and tendentious image of Soho as a land of strip clubs and skinny models, cops and boozers and private clubs where people can behave appallingly – which was only ever a fraction of the truth.

The exhibition – ironically – completely misses out on Soho’s genuine diversity, not just its sexual diversity, but its class and professional and employment diversity – the real weirdness or urban thrill of watching blue-overalled delivery men carrying boxes of fresh fruit past the Ann Summers shop while a couple of pony-tailed video editors pop into a sandwich bar and three men in smart suits emerge from the Warner Bothers offices, a motorbike courier goes past carrying fresh rushes to an edit suite, while a group of advertising account handlers come out of a late lunch at Wagamama, and the outside tables along Old Compton Street are filled with queers sipping lattes and admiring each others’ poodles.

Soho was and is much, much more interesting than this exhibition conveys. In fact this exhibition could almost be taken as a sort of epitome of how narrow and impoverished in outlook and experience modern art and photography can be.

Curators

  • Julian Rodriguez, Head of the Department of Film & Photography, Kingston School of Art, Kingston University
  • Karen McQuaid, Senior Curator, The Photographers’ Gallery

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Feast For The Eyes: The Story Of Food In Photography @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Two types of art exhibition

There are, maybe, two types of exhibition – the ‘open’ and the ‘closed’. An example of a ‘closed’ exhibition is the massive William Blake show currently on at Tate Britain, which presents Blake’s work in chronological order, explaining his etchings and paintings and illustrations in a cumulative way, so that you really have to pay attention and read all the wall labels to understand what’s going on, and to be able to move forward.

In an ‘open’ exhibition, by contrast, there’s just a lot of stuff hung up on the walls and you can wander round and look at whatever takes your fancy, popping in and out, window shopping, snacking, returning to the same rooms later to have another go round. Maybe the curators have organised it a bit by themes, but it doesn’t matter too much whether you pay any attention to them – you are, in effect, free to stroll around and create your own route and draw your own conclusions.

Feast For The Eyes is very much an ‘open’ exhibition. It brings together over 140 works, from black-and-white silver gelatin prints and early experiments with colour processes, to contemporary works of all shapes and sizes and styles, all focusing on the yummylicious subject of food.

Phillip J. Stazzone is on WPA and enjoys his favourite food as he’s heard that the Army doesn’t go in very strong for serving spaghetti (1940) by Weegee © Weegee/International Center of Photography

The sociology of food

Feeding is a basic activity of all life forms. All of us have to take in nutrition – foodstuffs which can provide protein, calories, fats, essential acids, vitamins and so on.

And for as long as we have had records, food has held a richly varied symbolic and allegorical meaning for peoples and societies – from Eve eating the apple in Paradise through to Mom serving up all-American apple pie in a 1950s kitchen.

New Recipes for Good Eating, Crisco, Proctor and Gamble, Cincinnati. Photographer unknown

The growing, harvesting, preparation, cooking and consumption of food has been accompanied throughout human history and around the globe by all kinds of rituals and celebrations – as are new births, the annual celebration of birthdays, the activities surrounding mourning – all have come with their own traditions of foods and drinks.

Photography and food

So, what about photography and food? Well, as soon as photography was invented, the earliest pioneers – alongside portraits and pictures of landscapes and houses – experimented with taking photos of food. For the most part they arranged and posed foodstuffs in the layouts which had been developed by the painters of still lives.

Still Life with Fruit and Decanter by Roger Fenton c.1860

The exhibition includes some very early three-dimensional or stereographic images produced by the London Stereoscopic Company in the 1850s, two colour images side by side designed to be viewed through a special stereoscopic viewer to create an early 3-D experience.

In the 160 years since Fenton’s pioneering work, people have taken countless millions more photos of food of every possible types and shape, from every possible national cuisine, in every possible position and angle, taken in styles which range from early Victorian, through social realism and documentary styles (the poor in Victorian slums or 1930s Depression-era America).

The Faro Caudill Family Eating Dinner in Their Dugout, Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940. by Russell Lee. Courtesy The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The exhibition includes experimental Modernism of Man Ray and the like, through to 1960s pop art which, Andy Warhol-style, presented po-faced photos of mass produced tins and cans as themselves worthy of interest and respect, like this great blank photo of a tin of spam by Ed Ruscha.

Spam (1961) by Ed Ruscha © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery

Thus Feast for the Eyes sets out to give examples of pretty much every way food has been prepared, posed and consumed over the past 150 or so years – from a poptastic 1960s art film by Carolee Schneemann of an art happening where a bunch of scantily clad young men and women holding dead chickens rolled and cavorted over each other – to a feast arranged to take place on a long table straddling the USA-Mexico border.

There are collages and cutups, sexy images of rude food, sculpted food, architectural food, and so on. There’s everything from tiny old Victorian photos to huge new prints enabled by the latest digital technology by the likes of Cindy Sherman and Wolfgang Tillmans.

Untitled from the series Forbidden Pleasures by Jo Ann Callis (1994)

There is, of course, also a whole world of cookbooks to be explored – dating back as far as the famous Mrs Beeton, and illustrated from the late Victorian period onwards with all manner of photos.

A good chunk of the show features those very distinctive illustrations you used to see in 1950s and 1960s cookbooks, the kind I remember my mum having, where colour printing was going through a very distinctive phase which made everything look like it was under neon lighting, where every food known to man or woman seemed to be coloured either vivid pink or orange or yellow.

Some of the corny old 1950s and 60s cookbooks on show at Feast for the Eyes. Photo by the author

And all that’s before you even approach the huge volume of images created to fill the wide universe of advertising every conceivable foodstuff as well as cookery implement.

Classic black and white photography

Insofar as it has been a subject of photography right from the beginning, food offers a way of surfing through the history of photography seen via one topic. Thus the exhibition includes some extremely famous food-related photos – Robert Doisneau’s one of Picasso sitting at a table which cleverly replaces his fingers with baby baguettes, or the super-famous image by Henri Cartier-Bresson of two couples having a picnic by the river, the man in the foreground pouring himself a glass of red wine.

Picnic on the Banks of the Marne (1938) by Henri Cartier-Bresson

So there are works by Weegee, Irving Penn, Man Ray and Edward Steichen, classics of black and white photography.

Modern and weird

But there are also plenty of works by new and contemporary photographers, such as Imogen Cunningham, Roe Ethridge, Lorenzo Vitturi – creator of surreal images paying homage to Ridley Road Market in London’s East End – and Joseph Maida – the latter represented by a quartet of fancy food images from his series Things R Queer in which he mixes up food porn and Pop art humour, advertising glossiness and Japanese cuteness.

#jelly #jello #fruity #fruto #thingsarequeer (October 26, 2014) by Joseph Maida. Courte

Political photography

And food can be political in the most basic sense that some people have a lot while others have little or none – one of the basic causes of conflict around the world and throughout history. A striking political image in the show is by the French photographer JR, who took an aerial view of migrants having a picnic on a long bench set up across the US-Mexico border, the table covered with a table cloth printed with the eyes of a child migrant.

Migrants, Mayra, Picnic across the border, Tecate, Mexico-USA (2017) by JR

The curators’ three themes

The curators have themselves arranged the works under three headings – Still Life, Around the Table and Playing with Food, and their wall labels and explanations group works together into three rooms (which are colour coded, the walls painted a vivid yellow, red and blue respectively). They expand on the themes and discuss issues around the tradition of still lives, or the sociology of eating. They provide plenty of food for thought.

But we are free to ignore them if we prefer, and wander at will, letting ourselves be struck by vivid and arresting images as we come across them, such as this classic depiction of the reality of unvarnished life in modern England by the poet laureate of the mundane and everyday, Martin Parr.

New Brighton, England, 1983–85 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

One of my favourite images was a 1977 still life by the American photographer Irving Penn. Penn had the bright idea of taking blocks of frozen food from his freezer – or more probably of creating blocks of frozen food in a freezer – then taking them out and arranging them as sculptures and photographing them. His photos capture the moment as the blocks of fruit and veg start to melt and the white frosting starts to give way to the true underlying colour of the various foodstuffs. Vivid, creative.

Frozen Food (With String Beans), New York, 1977 by Irving Penn

Photographers

The show includes works by:

  • Nobuyoshi Araki
  • Guy Bourdin
  • Imogen Cunningham
  • Roe Ethridge
  • Marion Faller and Hollis Frampton
  • Rotimi Fani Kayode
  • Roger Fenton
  • Peter Fischli and David Weiss
  • Nan Goldin
  • Daniel Gordon
  • Rinko Kawauchi
  • Russell Lee
  • Laura Letinsky
  • Vik Muniz
  • Nickolas Muray
  • Martin Parr
  • Irving Penn
  • Man Ray
  • Martha Rosler
  • Ed Ruscha
  • Cindy Sherman
  • Stephen Shore
  • Edward Steichen
  • Wolfgang Tillmans
  • Lorenzo Vitturi
  • Tim Walker
  • Andy Warhol
  • Weegee
  • Edward Weston
  • Hank Willis Thomas

and many others. It is a smörgåsbord of imagery, a tasty buffet of photos old and new, large and small, black and white or coloured, digital and analogue, posed or au naturel, a rich array which creates all kinds of memories, associations and sensations in the visitor (by the end I found I was feeling really peckish – one of the 1960s style photos of swirly vanilla and strawberry ice cream had really pushed my button).

It only costs £5 to visit the Photographers’ Gallery, and this is only one of three exhibitions currently on there. Pop along and feast your mince pies.

Curators

Feast for the Eyes – The Story of Food in Photography is organised by the Aperture Foundation, New York and curated by Susan Bright and Denise Wolff.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Olafur Elliasson: In Real Life @ Tate Modern

Olafur Eliasson was born in 1967 in Copenhagen, Denmark. He specialises in dramatic art ‘experiences’ – and they really are dramatic and wonderful.

I got to Tate Modern as it opened at ten am and there was already a long queue outside the exhibition, mostly of parents with small children, toddlers and even babies, because of all the art displays on anywhere this is probably the most ooh and aah.

Curators categorise and sort and order and structure exhibitions. It’s open to any of us visitors to do the same. In which case, at the top level, Eliasson produces roughly three kinds of work, the traditional look-at-the-wall-label-then-look-at-the-exhibit sort; the clever circus attraction mirrors and kaleidoscopes — and then the totally immersive ‘experiences’ which require no explanation.

Wall label art

Into the wall label category fall:

Room one which contains a huge glass display case, inside which is a jungle – in fact some 450! – complex, fancy, inventive geometric shapes and designs and prototypes which Eliasson and architects and engineers he’s worked with for decades, notably the Icelandic artist, mathematician and architect Einar Thorsteinn, have produced: models of buildings, booths, shops, street plans, spaceships, all kinds of clever shapes generated from copper wire, cardboard, paper photocopies, Lego, wood, foam and rubber balls.

Model Room (2003) in collaboration with Einar Thorsteinn. Photo by Anders Sune Berg © Olafur Elliason

There’s a room of pin-prick clear digital photos. On one wall a grid of 42 photos of a river which Eliasson white-water rafted down (river raft, 2000). Opposite it an exactly matching grid of 42 photos of glaciers in Iceland.

Installation view of Olafur Eliasson: In real life at Tate Modern, showing the grid of photos of the river to the left, of the glacier to the right. Photo by Anders Sune Berg

As you might expect, Eliasson is very aware of global warming (aren’t we all, darling) and so has spent considerable time and effort flying to and from Iceland, driving chunky Land Rovers and gas-guzzling four-by-fours up to the glaciers and recording the way they’re melting away as a result of human beings… er… flying all over the place and driving billions of petrol and diesel-fuelled vehicles everywhere. Thus:

Ice Watch which was staged in front of Tate Modern in 2018, is an installation of ice blocks fished from the water off the coast of Greenland. It offered a direct and tangible experience of the reality of melting Arctic ice. Other works, like those in this room, are a more abstract reference to the changing environment. In Glacial currents 2018, chunks of glacial ice were placed on top of washes of coloured pigment. This created swells and fades of colour as they melted onto the paper beneath. In The presence of absence pavilion 2019, a bronze cast makes visible the empty space left by a block of glacial ice that melted away. Glacial spherical flare 2019 is constructed with glass made from small rock particles created by glacial erosion.

So this is the kind of art you have to a) read about and then b) respond to with the appropriate sentiments – ‘Global warming, isn’t it terrible, somebody ought to do something, that wonderful Greta Thunberg’ etc.

Optical illusion art

Eliasson likes kaleidoscopes, and prisms, and distorting lenses and mirror balls. Thus as you stand in the queue to enter the gallery space, outside in the foyer is hanging a huge geometric ball with light projected through it to cast a complex shadow on the wall.

Stardust particle by Olafur Eliasson (2014). Photo by the author

There is a room with one vast jagged mirror ball casting rainbow-prism colours all over the walls. Another with a big white silk screen onto which is projected a continually changing swirling white shape. There’s a sort of catwalk which lets you walk through a ‘tunnel’ made of thousands of jagged fragments of reflecting metal, which reflect your moving image into thousands of fragments. There’s a concave lens embedded in the wall of one of the galleries so you can see the visitors in the next room amusingly distorted.

Installation view of Olafur Eliasson: In real life at Tate Modern. Photo by the author

There’s a wall of moss – ‘a vast plane 20 metres wide entirely covered with Scandinavian reindeer moss’. Why? Why not? This reminded me of Richard Long’s environmental art. But 1. the friend I went with was upset that this much sphagnum moss had been torn up and removed from its natural habitat i.e. she saw it as an act of destruction 2. as always with unusual sculptures, I wanted to touch it, to get up close and touch and stroke and smell it. But none of that is allowed and there’s now a security tape (not in this picture) preventing visitors from touching it, and a burly security guard strolling up and down to make sure nobody gets too close.

Moss wall by Olafur Eliasson (1994) Photo by Anders Sune Berg

Immersive art

But Eliasson’s really distinctive trademark is the immersive experiences. There are three or four real crackers here. In one you go into a pitch black room and then there is a sudden flicker of intense white light by which you just about make out a weird white blog in the centre of the room. Only as you carefully blunder your way in the pitch black towards it (trying not to trip over the numerous toddlers underfoot) do you realise the periodic flash of intense light is illuminating a continual small-scale fountain of water, whose shape – caught in mid-snap – is always different, always changing.

Big Bang Fountain by Olafur Eliasson

Along the same lines – well, involving water – is another darkened room in which a sheet of sine misty spray is continually falling. Not a pour or drench of water, a fine mist so that it’s comfortable to stand under and feel only a little damp – as indeed hundreds of visitors do in order to be snapchatted and instagrammed by their giggling friends. When there are no people under it, you can enjoy the rainbow prism effect of the hidden wall lights refracted through the mist.

Beauty by Olafur Eliasson (1993)

Last and most spectacular of all is Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger) from 2010. You have to queue and are let in a few at a time into a airlock between the gallery and then the experience. And then you open the inner door and enter a 39-metre-long corridor full of dense fog, really dense fog, fog where you can’t see anything more than a couple of yards away, and which is lit by Eliasson’s trademark orange light. At first it’s wonderful and disorientating but the real power comes from it being so long. It really lasts. It takes an appreciable time to walk that distance and this is long enough for your entire system to begin to acknowledge and acclimatise to the new circumstances. 

Din blinde passager/Your blind passenger by Olafur Eliasson (2010)

Oh and I forgot the coloured shadow room. A bank of coloured lights are at the back at floor level projecting upwards onto the entire facing wall and anyone who walks in front of them projects multiple, multi-coloured shadows. So a number of people walking through create a complex interaction of shadows. It’s titled Your uncertain shadow (2010). This is a really interactive creation, with loads of people throwing shapes and silly poses and my favourite was a baby which has just reached the crawling stage and its parents let it crawl around the floor casting huge multi-coloured baby shapes on the wall behind it.

Your uncertain shadow (colour) 2010 by Olafur Eliasson. Photo by Maria del Pilar Garcia Ayensa

There’s much more. There are long narrow trays full of sleepy liquid in which one wave is travelling up and down. There’s a room with a mirror for a ceiling where you can look up and see yourself looking down. There are more prisms and mirror balls.

The lifts are illuminated by the trademark Eliasson orange glow, as is the lobby outside the exhibition.

Downstairs the Tate Modern café has been given an Eliasson makeover by Studio Olafur Eliasson’s ‘kitchen team’, SOE Kitchen, so that you can munch on the same kind of tuck Eliasson enjoys at his Berlin studio.

The Expanded Studio

The show culminates with a space called The Expanded Studio, which ‘explores Eliasson’s deep engagement with social and environmental issues.’

You exit the main gallery rooms into a school-type space: down one side is a long wall covered with magazine and newspaper pages, and photos and articles. These are full of positive uplifting messages about how we can change the world and change ourselves and be more mindful and live in the present and co-operate and engage and energise our communities and save the planet, arranged into a casual A to Z order.

All this is alongside a big round table surrounded by kids making objects and shapes out of some kind of meccano-like set.

Installation view of Olafur Eliasson: In real life at Tate Modern. Photo by the author

It reminded me of school. It was just like school, like the woodwork or design classes back at school, with the corridors lined with examples of uplifting art and inspiring slogans about diversity and equality and opportunity, and big posters across the dining hall saying SAVE OUR PLANET. Just like my children’s junior and secondary schools, with lots of concerned parents milling round on an open day or Parents’ Evening.

And made me reflect on the maybe, possibly, essentially juvenile nature of all art, at some level. Insofar as it is play and men and women’s lives are, for the most part, not spent in play, but in work, and if not in work, then in childcare and childrearing and childworrying, and worrying about their rent or their careers or their sick parents or their various ailments.

Because the drawback about school, and about art galleries generally, is that sooner or later you have to bid farewell to the high-minded sentiments about gender and diversity and the environment, and walk back out into the actual adult world, where no-one gives a toss about your fancy ideas or your idealistic slogans.

The video


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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