Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2019

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is the world’s largest open submission exhibition, running every year since 1769. This, the 251st exhibition, was curated by Jock McFadyen RA, he has overall responsibility for its look and layout – although it’s worth noting that most of the fourteen or so individual rooms were allotted to other artists to sub-curate.

1,583 works

Over 15,000 works were submitted by artists professional, super-famous, or utterly amateur. From these the curators have chosen 1,583 pieces to be displayed in the Academy’s fourteen massive exhibition rooms, in the courtyard outside, and even spilling over into a street display in nearby Bond Street – ‘a colourful installation of flags featuring work by Michael Craig-Martin’.

Large walking figure by Thomas Houseago, in the Royal Academy courtyard (not for sale)

Variety of media

Over 1,583 works in every imaginable medium – prints and paintings, film, photography, sculpture, architectural models and much more – making it the largest Summer Exhibition in over a century. How on earth can the visitor be expected to make sense of process such a vast over-abundance of artistic objects?

Well, the answer is that everyone does it in their own way. My son and I always have a competition to find the cheapest – and the most expensive – works on offer (see the winner at the end of this review). He also likes comic or quirky pieces so he loved this sculpture of a tiger covered in Tunnock teacake wrappers.

Easy Tiger by David Mach (£57,600)

The architecture room

Some people come to see the room of architectural models and blueprints. Usually I call the architecture room the Room of Shame, from a lifetime’s experience of growing up close to an appalling New Town in my teens, and then starting my working life in the poorer parts of London amid slums and rundown housing estates. The planners and architects who designed those places should be ashamed at the barren, soul-destroying environments they condemned other people to live their lives in.

But to my surprise, I quite liked the Room of Shame this year. If you think of all the elaborate models on display as sets from science fiction movies, utterly unrelated to the actual world we all live in, then I found a lot of them entertaining fantasies. And there were some quirky and genuinely inspiring buildings, from the model of an enormous concrete grain silo which has actually been converted into an art gallery in China, to a pyramid of recycled plastic bottles built on a hypothetical beach somewhere.

‘Bottlehouse’, in the architecture room

I couldn’t help sniggering that a lot of architects – from the evidence here – appear to have just discovered something called The Environment, and are making bold little wooden models of cities which will be environmentally friendly and carbon neutral and made from recyclable materials. Well done, chaps. About fifty years too late, but it’s a nice thought. The army of cranes I see around Battersea Power Station don’t seem to be putting up anything beautiful or sustainable, and when I recently visited Stratford East I had a panic attack at the sheer amount of concrete that has been poured to make vast walled sterile walkways and esplanades without a tree in sight.

Amaravati Masterplan Model (1:1000) by Spencer de Grey RA (not for sale)

Photography

Some visitors like photography, and I noticed what I thought was a higher proportion of photos than usual though, as always, that may be a purely subjective impression. They give you a handy pocket-sized catalogue of all the works as part of the entrance price, and I’ve kept the ones from the last five or six years, so I suppose I could go through and do a precise analysis of how many photos have been included in previous years compared to this year…

For me, a lot of art (and certainly a lot of writing about art) is very samey, covering the same sort of subject matter, often small and set indoors. I really liked this photo because it was one of the few images which conveyed the sense that it is a big world with lots and lots, and lots, of people in it, people who live in worlds and conditions we can’t imagine, whose day-to-day existence is as different from our comfortable Western lives as Martians. (It’s a bloody big photo, too, at 1.5 by 2 metres.)

Saw Mills #2, Lagos, Nigeria by Edward Burtynsky (£47,000)

Big names

Some come looking for the works by big-name international artists like Wim Wenders or Anselm Kiefer or Richard Long. There was a huge muddy oil painting by Anselm Kiefer (2.8 metres by 3.8 metres), a turbulent thick impasto of brown tones, over which he had scored lines and patterns and writing. Sounds pretentious but it had real presence, it knocked most of the other paintings in its gallery out of the park. This reproduction is useless at conveying its huge, looming, disturbing, and very physical presence.

Fünf Jahre Lebte Vainamoinen Auf Der Unbekannten Insel Auf Dem Baumlosen Land by Anselm Kiefer

Modest works

Size isn’t everything. All the rooms were packed to overflowing and it was often only on the second or third go-round that I noticed small, shy and retiring works, such as a pair of lovely photos of small songbirds which, on close inspection, appear to be attached to their perches next to brightly coloured brickwork by tiny golden chains.

Gasconades (Letsdothis) by Mat Collishaw (£685)

The Wohl Central Hall where this photo was, is themed around animals, who appear in all shapes and sizes, in paintings and photos and sculptures. Other strong themes were concerns for the environment and recycling in the Room of Shame, and ideas of immigration and identity, particularly in Gallery I which was sub-curated by Jane and Louise Wilson.

Identity

As soon as you see the world ‘identity’ you know there’s going to be images of black people, and gays and lesbians, and probably refugees and immigrants. It’s a stock theme usually accompanied by stock images, and sure enough there’s paintings of a black couple and group of ladies (by Arthur Timothy), a video of a black girl dancing in her front room (by Sophie Perceval), a photo of a black mother and daughter (by Pepukai Makoni). There’s a painting of two men kissing by Ksenija Vucinic.

A Portrait of a Couple by Ksenija Vucinic (£750)

[In fact I completely misinterpreted this painting, thinking it depicted a gay couple – not least because of the word ‘couple’ in the title – when it is a much more complicated image. See the comment below this review, from the artist, explaining her motivation.]

The room is dominated by a big blue hanging fabric by Jeremy Deller with the motto: ‘We are all immigrant scum.’ This made my son quite cross. He thought it was patronising its audience, as if a) wall hangings will have the slightest impact on one of the great social and political issues of our time and b) as if absolutely all the nice, middle-class white people who attend an exhibition at the Royal Academy are not already bien-pensant, cosmopolitan liberals.

We are all immigrant scum by Jeremy Deller (not for sale)

‘Preaching to the converted,’ is the term he used.

Wolfgang Tilmans

Dodging the woke messages, I liked this photo best of anything in the PC room. Possibly the two guys are gay and so shoehorned into the ‘identity’ theme. But the image is caught so vividly, I could almost feel the wet sand giving way under my own feet, evoking memories of when I’ve done this kind of thing.

And, to be honest, I fancied the two blokes. Fit-looking young men, aren’t they?

It was only when I looked it up in the catalogue that I realised it’s by the über-famous Wolfgang Tilmans (who had a big retrospective at Tate Modern not so long ago). And that it’s on sale for the not inconsiderable sum of £72,000.

Liam and Tm jumping up the cliff by Wolfgang Tillmans (£72,000)

Most of us, I suspect, just like pottering around this vast gallimaufrey of every style of contemporary art work you can imagine, letting ourselves be surprised and sometimes astonished at the big, the small, the political, the personal – the world of animals (beautiful prints of whales, photos of dogs) and world of men (a number of works depicting brutalist high-rises), the world of woke (gays and blacks) and the world of weird.

The Scarred One by Benedict Byrne (not for sale)

It doesn’t come over at all in this photo, but you know all the little fuses and bits of wire and coloured components you find inside transistor radios? Well, this work is actually a three-dimensional piece made up of a hundred or so of those wires and coloured components all attached to a black background to make this design.

Technological Echnological Mandala by Leonardo Ulian (£9,000)

From patterns made by man to the incredibly beautiful patterns of nature, he also liked this 3-D rendered giclée print on cotton rag depicting in vibrant super-colour a beehive.

The Language of Bees by Richard Devonshire (£500)

For my part, I liked this screenprint, unsure whether it’s a photo or a painting, or a graphically altered photo. Whatever the precise nature, on a hot summer day, it spoke to me of cool water. I could feel the ozone breeze blowing off the splashing water into my face.

Falling Water II by John Mackechnie (£1,100)

There are about 1,500 other examples I could give, but maybe that’s enough…

For the last couple of years we have been a little disappointed by the Summer Exhibition. This year, maybe it was the weather or my hormones, but I felt it was a return to form, I thought there was a really massive variety of works on display and, for some reason, lots of it really clicked with me.

For sale

As always, most of the artworks are for sale with proceeds helping to fund the Academy’s non-profit-making activities, including educating the next generation of artists in the RA Schools. The free catalogue I mentioned earlier lists all 1,583 works, their titles, artists and prices, if for sale.

It’s always part of the fun to try and figure out the cheapest and the most expensive works on display, and, as you wander round and different pieces take your eye, having a bet with your friends or family about how much each piece costs. As far as I could tell, this is the most expensive piece, an untitled bronze sculpture of an androgynous woman with a branch on her head and coils of wire round her hands with a couple of metal numbers thrown in, by Mimmo Paladino, which will set you back a cool £337,000.

Untitled by Mimmo Paladino (£337,000)

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers @ Tate Britain

The Asset Strippers by Mike Nelson

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

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

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

My experiences of manual and physical labour

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working as a dustman

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

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

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

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

How Mike Nelson assembled The Asset Strippers

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

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

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

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

Are we really living in a post-industrial society?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, to quote the Manufacturers’ Association:

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

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

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

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

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

Or to comment that the installation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dignity of work

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

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

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

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

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

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

What beautiful objects! What an inspiring installation!

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

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

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

Work by the Blue Orchids (1981)

Curators

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


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Franz West @ Tate Modern

Franz West (1947-2012) is best known for his unconventional objects and sculptures, installations and furniture work, which often require an involvement of the audience.

This is a big exhibition, taking up no fewer than ten rooms at Tate Modern and the overwhelming impression you get is that West relished amateurishness, the cack-handed, graceless elevation of the everyday into ambiguous and intriguing objects – like this set of sculptures made out of bottles and baths and rolls of carpet and toilet seats and plates stacked on each other in no particular order and covered in papier-mâché and painted a horrible vomit-brown.

Redundanz by Franz West (1986)

His works’ determined lack of grace and finish ought to be off-putting but I came out of the exhibition really liking them.

Deliberate amateurishness

A modern artist like Jeff Koons gets his kicks by making objects and sculptures which are manufactured to a technicolour-bright, smooth, hyper-real perfection. Their gleaming finish satirises the impossible perfection of airbrushed models, movie stars, and adverts. His sculptures are satires on, ahem, modern consumer capitalism.

West makes the same general point (i.e. isn’t capitalism, advertising and consumer culture awful?) but with the diametrically opposite strategy.

From the start of his career in the late 1960s, through to the end – as an award-winning showstopper at the Venice Biennale and numerous other international art festivals – West set out to undermine the shiny world of western consumerism with determinedly hand-made and amateurish artefacts, where you are meant to see the joins and the glue and the shabby lack of professional finish.

Big papier-mâché sculptures

Thus the most characteristic – and memorably enormous – works here are huge, hand-made, hand-built, wonky, papier-mâché sculptures which look like they could have been made by enterprising schoolchildren.

Installation view of Franz West at Tate Modern 2019. Photo by Luke Walker

The exhibition builds up to a climax in the last couple of rooms which contain vast, pastel-coloured, abstract sculptures all made out of wood and cardboard and gauze and papier-mâché. Are the bright but gentle pastel colours symbolic of something, packed with artistic meaning? No. In a typically off-hand, deliberately unpretentious way, West is quoted as saying he got the idea for the colours of these big works from children’s pajamas 🙂

Epiphanie an Stuhlen (2011) by Franz West. Photo by Luke Walker

Early drawings

The road towards these monster sculptures began in the late 1960s, when West (born in 1947) was a well-known alcoholic and trouble-maker on the periphery of the Vienna art scene. He was arrested a couple of times, and took part in friends’ ‘happenings’ and installations in those far-gone, heady days of revolution and sticking it to the bourgeoisie. Only slowly, and relatively late (around the age of 26) did he begin to make anything like ‘art’ himself, in the early 1970s.

Initially these consisted of really bad, amateurish drawings. There are several walls covered with them, sets of human figures drawn with breath-taking gawkiness. Some are funny, most are notable for a kind of confident ineptitude.

Untitled (1972) Private collection © Estate Franz West © Archiv Franz West

Many of his pictures and collages satirised contemporary pornographic magazines. Apparently, he made the images ‘absurd’ by ‘decontextualising’ them – as you can see by this one, a penetrating study of the wickedness of contemporary pornography.

West was, according to the wall labels, keen to satirise the Freudian theory that human behaviour is based on sexual drives. Hence lots of crudely drawn images of men with erect penises about to penetrate women with crudely drawn breasts.

Frohsinn (1974) by Franz West

The Passstücke

But West’s real breakthrough came when he invented the Passstücke (Adaptives), abstract papier-mâché pieces which were intended to be picked up and played with. These are as rough and amateurish as his drawings, but it was the contexts he put them in that began to make them interesting. For example, there are a handful of replicas of the early hand-pieces and visitors are encourage to mess about with them in what look like department store dressing rooms.

Passtucke mit box und video (1996) Photo Luke Walker

There are several very rough, amateurish video films and lots of photos of West’s friends in Vienna’s 1970s underground art scene putting these funny, odd papier-mâché shapes on their heads, wearing them like clothes, or – in one striking scene – there’s a topless woman using a plate-shaped piece of papier-mâché to lift and move her naked bosoms while a fully dressed man sits nearby and plays improvised jazz on a trumpet. A naked woman! With boobs! Improvised jazz!

You can still smell the wild, crazeee, avant-garde vibe of these subversive rebels 40 years later. I bet they smoked pot. I bet they stayed up all night talking about philosophy and the meaning of life. Crazeee.

Friedl Kubelka. Graf Zoken (Franz West) still, 1969. Courtesy Friedl Kubelka © DACS, London 2018

Bigger, brighter, and with added furniture

After two or three rooms acclimatising you to West’s relatively small and amateurish early art, and to the 1970s world of flairs and slacks and beards and long hair and bare boobs which it came out of – the visitor walks through a doorway into the first of a series of far larger, much more open spaces, in which Franz is suddenly making much, much larger sculptures and installations.

There’s a big one comprising four walls made of papier-mâché which create four office booths, each of which contains home-made furniture. For Franz had started to make furniture.

Wegener Räume – an installation of four gouaches, four sculptures on wooden bases, four seats, wooden walls, paper, cloth, gauze, plaster and metal by Franz West (1988)

The office furniture was, originally, meant to be sat on and used, just like the Passstücke are meant to be handled, twirled round your head, worn on your wrist or whatever.

West wanted to make art that was functional – art and furniture at the same time.

BUT – I couldn’t help smiling to read, on a whole succession of wall labels that – unfortunately, regrettably, sadly – this or that piece of furniture or hand-held sculpture was now too old and fragile to be touched. Please don’t touch the interactive art. Ne touche pas. Nicht tasten.

Some furniture by Franz West, namely: Caseuse (1989), Untitled (1989) and Untitled (Stuhl) (1989)

Furniture usable and unusable

One of the wall labels says that West was interested all his life in blurring the border between art and the useful, sculpture and the everyday, which involved interrogating the notion of the gallery as th enly place where are could be displayed, etc etc.

An intention which, you can’t help thinking, must be judged a complete failure seeing as a) you are not allowed to touch any of his interactive art b) this entire exhibition is taking place in an, er, very traditional art gallery and c) that the exhibition costs a fairly steep £13 to enter.

As long as you don’t take the po-faced wall labels too seriously, this is a very enjoyable exhibition. It’s full of silliness.

In 1987 West made Eo Ipso, for a survey of sculpture in Münster. It’s made from his mother’s old washing machine which he unravelled into a twisted approximation of a bench and then painted a dire lime green. And then photographed his artist mates sitting on it (not for very long, I imagine).

Eo Ipso by Franz West (1987)

Here are some big papier-mâché heads he made out of plaster, gauze, cardboard, iron, acrylic, foam and rubber.

Lemurenköpfe by Franz West (1992)

According to the wall label:

In Roman mythology lemurs are tortured spirits living in limbo because they were never buried or because they committed crimes during their earthly life. At the beginning of the 20th century the term Lemurenköpfe was coined by the Viennese intellectual Karl Kraus to describe the Social-Democrat political group, who did not manage to prevent the rise of extremism. When they were first presented at documenta [an exhibition of contemporary art which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany] West invited visitors to fill the mouths of the Lemurenköpfe with garbage, creating sculptures with ‘bad breath’.

Satirising the art world

The same childish simplicity is on evidence throughout. In a darkened room there’s a projection onto a big screen of a characteristically amateurish film titled Vier Gellert Lieder. According to the guide:

West show this video with Bernhard Riff between 1992 and 1996. they recorded several meetings with artists and curators at openings and dinners, often giving artists absurd instructions to talk to camera. They then set the images to the music of Beethoven’s Six Lieder which had themselves used the texts of poems by Christian Furchtegott Gellert. When editing, they cut up and repeated clips of dialogue, slowed and speeded up the footage, and distorted colours. The video is a surreal portrait of the art world as a clique of weirdos and obsessives, rather than a place for the refined creation evoked by Beethoven.

What’s sweet about the film and the guide text is the touching belief that most of the world doesn’t already think of modern art as rubbish and modern artists as con-men and art dealers as slimy crooks.

Watching some of the leering, goonish, freakish artists and their simpering dealers and curators, and comparing them with the old-fashioned but pure and graceful music, had the – presumably – intended effect on me, which was to ponder how far, how very, very far, modern Austrian, German and, by extension, European art has fallen in the past century.

A Franz west living room

The final room features a number of bookcases holding the typically modish books Franz liked to read (Freud, Nietzsche, Sartre, Benjamin, all the usual suspects), some relatively small papier-mâché sculptures, and a couple of sofas on which you’re meant to sit and watch another, really amateurish film recording West and a bunch of mates assembling ‘The Hamsterwheel’, an unofficial group show that took place during the 2007 Venice Biennale.

British artist Sarah Lucas has worked with West on a number of projects – in fact she designed the plinths and backgrounds and the design of a lot of this exhibition – and was involved in the Hamsterhweel project and features in the film. Of the Hamsterwheel she’s quoted as saying:

We all spent a couple of weeks together, knocking things up, and nobody what it was going to be, really. It all seemed a bit chaotic, but by the time it was done, it had a sublime quality – everything worked and it had this amazing elevated feel to it.

And next to the bookshelves, hanging on the wall, is the poster West made for this show. It recycles one of the deliberately crude and graceless drawings from his 1975 series, Sexuality. Has a kind of amazing, elevated feel to it, don’t you think?

The Hamsterwheel by Franz West (2007)

Post-war Austria

Walking among the many posters West has created, and amid the steadily more enormous papier-mâché sculptures, enduring the terrible videos, and reading solemn references in the wall labels to West’s use of imagery of penises and turds… you can’t help feeling you’re walking amid the ruins of a once-great civilisation.

It is as if a great holocaust, a vast devastating event, has ruined western civilisation forever, destroyed old beliefs in traditional forms and genres and ideas, and left its survivors like children scurrying amid the ruins, filming women’s boobs, drawing men with penises, creating coiled turds and melting, grungy, barbarous shapes out of papier-mâché.

And of course, it did. West was born in 1947 into an absolutely ruined Vienna, one time stronghold of Nazi sentiment and now divided between the four victorious allies, setting of the grim Graham Greene story, The Third Man. For anyone with a soul, an imagination and a conscience, it must have seemed like the old traditional values in art and life had been broken forever.

West’s posters

But then I looked up and saw another one of his overgrown baby toys and told myself to stop feeling so tragic. A lot of his work is fun and inventive and colourful and interesting. Looking back on the exhibition afterwards, I realised I had under-appreciated the long line of posters he produced, initially publicising small art events or friends’ music concerts, eventually he developed a recognisable brand or style of poster which he used to publicise his numerous exhibitions. As the curators put it:

West showed at major museums and large galleries, and would always produce collages and posters to accompany his exhibitions. He loved to combine photographic images with paint, and to use kitschy and crass typography. In this way, he refused the elegant design so often used to brand art institutions.

They’re deliberately scrappy, messy, amateurish and anti-polish… but oddly effective, strangely more-ish.

Plakatentwurf (Die Aluskulptur) 2000. Franz West Privatstiftung/Estate Franz West, Vienna © Estate Franz West © Archiv Franz West

Every rebel becomes a darling

What started out as anti-Establishment rebellion in the late 60s had turned into the art for a new kind of freewheeling post-modern Establishment by the later 1980s, certainly by the 1990s.

So that, in West’s final years, all his themes and tendencies came together in a series of large, brightly coloured and absurdist sculptures designed to adorn galleries and public spaces. In the right environment, some of these look strangely apt and appropriate. As so often, big bright modern art looks great in American cities.

Mostly West, an exhibition of Franz West’s sculpture outside the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts, New York, 2004 © Estate Franz West © Archiv Franz West. Photo by Reinhard Bernsteiner / Atelier Franz West

But in other contexts – like the horrible rear entrance to the Tate Modern extension – they look a bit more spooky, like the incomprehensible relics of a ruined civilisation, or like the baubles of demented giants or – more precisely – like the grimly desperate attempts of modern architects and planners to persuade us poor victims of their heartless designs that we don’t live in a barren, loveless, windswept world of brutalist car parks and soulless shopping centres.

Some Franz West sculptures round the back of the Tate Modern extension on a grim, grey London day (photo by the author)

Do West’s big sculptural statements enliven and brighten up civic life? Or make it all too obvious that we live in a world of brightly coloured tat?

Promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Christmas slugs @ Tate Britain

Monster Chetwynd is the pseudonym of  Alalia Chetwynd, born in 1973, a British artist known for reworkings of iconic moments from cultural history in improvised performances. In 2012, she was nominated for the Turner Prize. In the past she has gone under the names of Spartacus Chetwynd and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd. (This immediately reminded me of the punk band Spizz Energi who, in their heyday, changed their name every year, rotating through Athletico Spizz 80, Spizzoil and The Spizzles.)

Tate invited her to create a special Christmas installation and she has come up with the idea of two enormous soft sculptures of slugs, which currently decorate the main steps and entrance to Tate Britain.

Monster Chetwynd’s installation at Tate Britain. Photograph by the author

Monster Chetwynd’s installation at Tate Britain. Photograph by the author

To be precise, they are huge mock-ups of ‘leopard slugs’, their fabric bodies dotted with spots and lined with blue and white LED lights. Monster has explained to the Tate press people, the Guardian, the Telegraph and everyone else who’s interviewed her, that she got the idea after watching leopard slugs mate on Life in the Undergrowth, a television documentary series by David Attenborough.

Monster Chetwynd’s installation at Tate Britain. Photograph by the author

Monster Chetwynd’s installation at Tate Britain. Photograph by the author

In the wild leopard slugs slowly rotate together, dangling from the branch of a tree by a glittering rope of mucus. The idea is that this night-time mating ritual can be reimagined to show that the darkness of winter can also be a time of renewal and rebirth. And that giant slugs can show us how.

Indeed, after dark, not only the slugs themselves light up, but the entire facade of Tate Britain is illuminated as if covered by a great web of limacine slime.

The facade of Tate Britain flanked by giant slugs and illuminated by limacine slime

The facade of Tate Britain flanked by giant slugs and illuminated by slime-like lianas of fairy lights

Merry Christmas!


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

I’m Still Here @ Royal Festival Hall

On the ground floor (Level 1) of the Royal Festival Hall is a suite of rooms rather hidden away opposite the loos and cloakroom. It turns out to be a linear and surprisingly big exhibition space. It is currently displaying artworks from the 2018 Koestler Awards.

The Koestler Trust is the UK’s best known prison arts charity. Each year, it encourages over 3,000 people from inside the criminal justice system, as well as ‘secure forensic and immigration removal settings’, to express themselves creatively, and learn new skills by entering work to the annual Koestler Awards.

The Mental Health Hydra, a collaborative work by members of the Bluebird House secure mental health unit

The Mental Health Hydra, a collaborative work by members of the Bluebird House secure mental health unit

This year there were 7,236 entries. Rather then whittle this down themselves, the curators asked three wives and two families who’ve each supported a family member though a prison sentence, to select the works from this huge array which really spoke to them about the experience.

Since the five groups each chose around 40 works, the exhibition contains some 200 pieces, many of them for sale, many of them profoundly imaginative and moving.

AAAAARGH! by Michael at Bolton Probation Office

AAAAARGH! by Michael at Bolton Probation Office

There’s a really wide range of styles and types and sizes of work on display, including paintings and sculpture, poems and videos, animation and craft.

Left: Lift by the Spinney (secure mental health unit) Right: Circle by Gordon from HM Prison Edinburgh

Left: Life by the Spinney (secure mental health unit) Right: Circle of Life by Gordon from HM Prison Edinburgh

Many of the works are done to a very high standard indeed. Anthony Gormley curated last year’s show. This work – Night at the chippy by ‘Brian’- won the Grayson Perry Highly Commended Award for ceramics. In other words, the project has secured the co-operation of some of Britain’s leading artists.

Night at the chippy by Brian (The State Hospital)

Night at the chippy by Brian (The State Hospital)

I don’t know why, but writing that sentence made me cry. So much talent, so many young lives, gone astray.

Disconnected by Peter at HM Prison Dovegate

Disconnected by Peter at HM Prison Dovegate

If you’re passing by the South Bank Centre, make the effort to go visit this exhibition. It’s open from 10am till 11pm, and is FREE.


Related links

Space Shifters @ the Hayward Gallery

I went to see Space Shifters during half-term so the exhibition was packed with mums, dads and lots of toddlers running round, whooping in amazement, smiling, poking their tongues out and pulling funny faces. Why? Because this is an extremely open, light and interactive exhibition of modern art which plays with space and perception.

Installation view of WeltenLinie (2017) by Alicja Kwade © the artist. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of WeltenLinie (2017) by Alicja Kwade © the artist. Photo by Mark Blower

Take WeltenLinie (2017) by Alicja Kwade, a set of black frames big enough to walk through, some of which contain mirrors, most of which do not, with abstract sculptures or blocks of material dotted among them. According to the free pamphlet given to every visitor, Kwade’s

sculptural installations, objects and films illustrate or attempt to give material form to abstract questions and scientific principles. Addressing the relationship between reality and illusion, they ask us to think about what we know and how we know it.

To be honest, I don’t think ‘they ask us to think about what we know and what we don’t know at all’. I found it much more fun watching kids tentatively exploring to see if the next frame was a mirror or a blank space, before stepping through the blanks, posing in front of the mirrors and pulling silly faces, and running round the back and hiding.

This is a brilliant exhibition to bring kids to.

Installation view of Space Shifters

Installation view of Space Shifters

Space Shifters features works by 20 ‘leading international artists’ that ‘alter or disrupt the visitor’s sense of space’. In case you’re wondering, these artists are:

  • Leonor Antunes
  • Larry Bell
  • Fred Eversley
  • Felix Gonzalez-Torres
  • Jeppe Hein
  • Roni Horn
  • Robert Irwin
  • Ann Veronica Janssens
  • Anish Kapoor
  • Yayoi Kusama
  • Alicja Kwade
  • John McCracken
  • Josiah McElheny
  • Helen Pashgian
  • Charlotte Posenenske
  • Fred Sandback
  • Monika Sosnowska
  • Daniel Steegmann Mangrané
  • De Wain Valentine
  • Richard Wilson

At one point I heard a little boy running round an exhibit shouting ‘mirrors, mirrors, mirrors’ and there are, indeed a lot of mirrors – distorting mirrors, see-through mirrors, polished balls which are, in effect, mirrors.

For example there’s a set of free-standing mirrors which look like the type you get on old-fashioned wardrobes, stuck onto round wooden frames. It turns out that these are costumes – rather heavy costumes – designed to be worn by performers, who walk slowly along straight lines indicated on the gallery floor. Here is a very poor photo of just such a performer,wearing the mirrors, walking the line.

Abstract Bodies by Josiah McElheny

Abstract Bodies by Josiah McElheny. Photo by the author

Down on the ground floor is an entire room devoted to the work Narcissus Garden by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. This consists of stainless steel balls arranged in an organic pattern a little like the shore of a lake, inviting you to wander into the ‘inlets’, to view the balls from different perspectives or to settle down amid the sea of reflections, like this family was doing.

Installation view of Narcissus Garden by Yayoi Kusama

Installation view of Narcissus Garden by Yayoi Kusama

In the first gallery there are beanbags supplied so you can lie back and watch two big mirrors shaped into a sort of butterfly wing, which is attached high up on the wall and slowly rotates. From the beanbags you are given a slowly moving panoramic reflection of the gallery interior and everyone in it.

Installation view of 360° Illusion V (2018) by Jeppe Hein © the artist. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of 360° Illusion V (2018) by Jeppe Hein © the artist. Note the bead curtains on the upper right. Photo by Mark Blower

Some of these works are old – the first version of the Narcissus Garden dates back to 1966. Others have been created specially for this exhibition. What’s interesting is that you can’t tell the difference. In many key ways ‘modern’ art hasn’t really developed much since the extraordinary breakthroughs of the 1960s.

Two of the most striking mirror-based artworks are upstairs. One can be seen through windows, situated on one of the terraces or ‘sculpture courts’ outside the gallery. It is Sky Mirror, Blue by Anish Kapoor who made it in 2016. This big blue concave mirror reflects a section of the sky and, as you watch, you can see England’s distinctive clouds moving slowly across it. Quite restful and entrancing.

Sky Mirror, Blue (2016) by Anish Kapoor. Photo by the author

Sky Mirror, Blue (2016) by Anish Kapoor. Photo by the author

Probably the most stunning exhibit, and the only one which truly qualifies as a profoundly disorientating experience, is 20:50 by Richard Wilson, which was premiered as long ago as 1987.

Into one entire room of the gallery, carefully lined and sealed, have been poured thousands of litres of recycled oil which rise right up till the surface is exactly flush with the v-shaped walkway which visitors can go along.

As you walk ‘out’ into this gangway, the ‘lake’ of completely flat, completely placid oil, works as a room-sized mirror and perfectly reflects everything above it, the walls and ceiling, as well as the views out the window. It is a genuinely disorientating and wonderful experience – which is why a queue forms for it as soon as the gallery opens (at 11am, by the way).

Installation view of 20:50 by Richard Wilson (1987) at Space Shifters © the artist. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of 20:50 by Richard Wilson (1987) at Space Shifters © the artist. Photo by Mark Blower

It’s not all mirrors, though. In several rooms whole areas had been partitioned off by heavy metal bead curtains, downstairs a set made of lead grey metal, upstairs a lighter set painted golden.

Kids loved running back and forwards through these. I’m amazed they hadn’t been pulled off their hangings.

There were a number of rather more subtle sculptures, experimenting with tall vertical and spindly feel, or a big circular purple blob which looked like an enormous half-melted candle, the central crater, rather like 20:50, brimful of fluid.

Another striking piece was Handrail by Monika Sosnowska (2016). There is, apparently, an order to the show: you are meant to go round the first room, lie on the beanbags to admire 360° Illusion V, then progress up the ramp and through the lead curtains into the space containing WeltenLinie and other works, before going up the stairs to the upper floor.

As you do so, you may or may not notice that the standard black handrail lining the staircase is, at some point, taken over by a lithe red handrail which twists around it like a snake and then, as you emerge into the large upstairs gallery, you discover that the red handrail suddenly goes mad and runs all over an entire wall in a crazy scrawl.

Handrail (2016) by Monika Sosnowska © the artist. Photo by the author

Handrail (2016) by Monika Sosnowska © the artist. Photo by the author

But I think my favourite work – or the one which made me smile and I remember best – is the very modest work by Fred Sandback. Born in 1945, Sandback began making minimalist sculptures out of elastic cord and wire back in the 1960s. In the exhibition guide Sandback explains that he got frustrated with sculpture which got ‘bogged down in its own materiality’, so he set out to make something ‘without an inside’ that could exist on an equal footing with the viewer.

The idea was to have the work right there along with everything else in the world, not up on a spatial pedestal.

For decades he’s simply been using off-the-shelf acrylic yarn to create simple shapes and spaces. And so his piece in this exhibition consists of one string of red yarn pinned out to form a triangle, one side across one wall, changing angle where the wall joins the next, both lines extending down to the floor where the third side of the triangle runs across the floor.

Untitled by Fred Sandback

Untitled by Fred Sandback

So minimal it’s almost not there – which is exactly what I like about it. In a world full of ever-escalating clamour and rage, Sandback ‘performs choreographies without words or scripts’. It’s a matter of

conjuring up a form and then getting comfortable with it and seeing where it may take you.

As I stood enjoying it, several other visitors came up and stepped over the barely visible red line on the floor ‘into’ the art work – and the gallery assistant had to ask each of them to please step back out of it because if they stepped ‘into’ it they destroyed its Zen-like purity. A totally relaxed, open and permissive art work which – however – requires strict policing!

This is a great show, mind-opening, eye-widening, light and airy, and hugely enjoyable. Bring the kids. If you don’t have any, borrow some. They’ll love it, and you’ll love watching their reactions.

The promotional video


Related links

  • Space Shifters continues at the Hayward Gallery until 6 January 2019

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The most memorable (for me) were:

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

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

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

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

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

Part one – Christo and barrels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painted bronze (Ballantine Ale) by Jasper Johns, 1960

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part two – Christo and the Mastaba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think it’s wonderful.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 (2017)

The Great Man theory…

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

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

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

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

… versus the hunger for change

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

I spent an afternoon flicking through it (and dipping into the 16 intense and detailed essays which address every genre and type of art influenced by the Revolution). And it dawned on me that the extraordinary explosion of high and popular art, all across the nation, art for factories and workshops and steelyards and barracks, radical innovations in film and design and posters and graphics – mitigates against the Great Man theory. One man didn’t do all this.

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

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

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

Maybe Lenin could have been stopped and the Bolsheviks banned. But the evidence of this exhibition and book suggest that whoever took power in Russia in late 1917 would still have been compelled to make wide-ranging and sweeping changes, which would have led to much the same end – a dictator force-marching Russia through agricultural and industrial modernisation, in its bid to catch up with America and Germany.

Given Russia’s long history of secret police and prison camps, any faction which had come to power – on the right or left – would probably have deployed them just as ruthlessly as the Bolsheviks.

In other words – speculation about how much the German High Command funded the Bolsheviks, with its corollary, would the Bolsheviks have come to power without the aid of the German High Command – make for interesting reading, and lead to high-level, alternative history-style speculation – but I don’t think it would have changed the fact that Russia would have undergone some kind of transformative social revolution.


Completely new visual styles

Here is just a tiny sample of the art which featured in the exhibition and which is included in the book. I could add a paragraph or so about each of them, but all of them can be looked up on google. I just want to convey the variety and the energy of the art of the period.

Constructivist art

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

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

Figurative art

After the battle by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1923)

After the battle by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1923)

Architecture

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

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

Ceramics

Russian revolutionary plate (1921)

Russian revolutionary plate (1921)

Design

Propaganda poster by Alexander Rodchenko

Propaganda poster by Alexander Rodchenko

Fabrics

Red spinner by Andrey Golubev (1930)

Red spinner by Andrey Golubev (1930)

Film

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

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

Avante-garde photography

Osip Bril by Alexander Rodchenko (1924)

Osip Bril by Alexander Rodchenko (1924)

Socialist realist photography

A Komsomol at the wheel (1929) by Arkady Shaikhet

A Komsomol at the wheel (1929) by Arkady Shaikhet

Posters

Poster for Man with a movie camera (1929)

Poster for Man with a movie camera (1929)

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of books about communism and the Cold War

Reviews of other Russian art exhibitions

Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece @ the British Museum

In my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum. (Rodin, 1892)

Rodin and the British Museum

François Auguste René Rodin (1840 – 1917), known as Auguste Rodin, is widely seen as the godfather of modern sculpture. He visited London for the first time in 1841. On a trip to the British Museum, he discovered the so-called Elgin Marbles, the supersize Greek sculptures of men horses and mythical creatures which once lined the Parthenon in Athens – and was immediately captivated by their scale and power.

For this exhibition the Museum has had the strikingly simple and effective idea of borrowing a substantial number of Rodin’s classic works from the Rodin Museum in Paris, and placing them next to and among a generous selection of original Parthenon sculptures. Over 80 works by Rodin in marble, bronze and plaster, along with some 13 of Rodin’s sketches, are displayed alongside major pieces of ancient Greek art from the Museum collection.

Thus the exhibition includes a number of Rodin’s greatest hits, iconic sculptures which are part of the Western imaginarium, such as The Thinker, The Kiss, The Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais.

Years ago, when a teenager, I hitch-hiked to Paris, kipped in the Bois de Boulogne,and spent the days going on pilgrimages to all the art galleries and museums. I remember being bitterly disappointed by the Musée Rodin and that disappointment has lasted to this day. The exhibition was an opportunity to see if my largely negative image of Rodin stood up to the evidence or was just a personal prejudice.

The ancient Greeks

Between 1800 to 1812 workmen employed by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin – British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, or ‘the Sublime Porte’ as it was referred to in those days –  removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, the vast temple to Athena in Athens, as well as sculptures from the nearby buildings Propylaea and Erechtheum. These were shipped to Britain and put on display but, even at the time, contemporaries were critical enough for Parliament to hold an enquiry into his actions. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Elgin sold the marbles to the British Government who passed them along to the recently created British Museum where, despite vocal lobbying by the Greek government, they remain to this day.

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Throughout the nineteenth century the art of ancient Greece, and especially the statuary, was seen as the peak of human creativity and art. Renaissance giants like Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo had attempted to recreate some of their magic in painting, but the Greeks remained the source of artistic ideas of Beauty, which were built around realism – the realistic depiction of the human and animal body, with accuracy, elegance and grace.

The Parthenon figures were carved to fill the triangular pediment at the west and east of the building, as well as to fill the metopes or square alcoves roughly above each of the 46 outer columns. There was also a set of inner columns supporting an inner wall, and above these ran a continuous frieze of figures carved in relief.

There was, in other words, a huge amount of space to be filled by more than life size carvings of gods and heroes and animals (mostly horses being ridden in battle). Hence the fact that, even though the Elgin Marbles only represent a fraction of the originals, they still fill a vast gallery at the Museum.

Because all the statues we have now are worn to a kind of perfect white, people forget that Greek sculpture was originally brightly painted, and sometimes had gold leaf applied. This is a fanciful imagining of how the Parthenon would have looked when new. At this end we can see the pediment filled with freestanding statues of gods, small in the narrow ends, growing larger in size to gesture up towards the King of the Gods at the apex. And underneath you can see a set of 14 metopes above each column, each with an individual carving of an incident from Greek myth.At the Museum the curators tried to recreate the effect of the arched pediment by placing the scattered fragments in their correct positions relative to each other, with the metope carvings placed separately. This is how Rodin saw and was overwhelmed by them.

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum

What is so special about the sculptures from the Parthenon? They were thought, even by the Greeks themselves, to be the peak of their artistic achievement. The sculptor in charge of the works, Phidias, was credited with a godlike power for realism, for his ability to summon the gods from Olympus, and heroes from the Elysian Fields, and place them before the viewer.

For me the important factors are:

  1. They are larger than life. They had to be since they were embedded 30 metres high on walls.
  2. As a result their gestures are clear and distinct. The overall positioning of all the figures creates harmonies and rhythms which are perceivable even at a distance.
  3. Counter-intuitively, maybe, there is a staggering amount of detail in the sculptures. Observed down at eye level in an exhibition like this (as they were never intended to be seen), you can see the amount of effort that has gone in to depicting the muscles, ligaments and veins of, for example, this wonderful horse’s head, with its flared nostrils and bulging eyes. It’s called the Selene horse’s head because it is part of a frieze depicting the moon goddess, Selene.
Selene horse's head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

Selene horse’s head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

There is therefore, to my mind, a kind of super realism about the figures. They are larger than life in both senses – the subjects are gods of heroes of legend, and the figures are all larger than life size – yet they include finely carved details which also work to ennoble, expand and aggrandise the figures. They are images of power, imaginative, political and cultural power.

Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910 Photo: Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910
Photo by Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

By the 1880s Rodin had made his reputation as a sculpture and was gaining public commissions. He had always been fascinated by the sculpture of the ancient Greeks, still in his day held up as the absolute peak of human artistic achievement.

He had already studied Greek sculpture from books, sketches and casts available to him in Paris (he never, in fact, went to Greece). After all the Louvre in Paris has a large collection of ancient Green sculpture. Where possible Rodin collected fragments of ancient sculpture when they became available, placing them around the garden of his property in Meudon. Apparently he moved and repositioned them among the trees and bushes to create changing artistic effects.

Eventually he amassed a collection of some 6,000 fragments and he never ceased sketching and drawing them, from all angles. The result is a vast archive of sketches, drawings, half-finished carvings and completed sculptures.

Rodin’s aesthetic

But Rodin wasn’t slavishly devoted to simply making copies of ancient Greek perfection. He had a more modern aesthetic than that. He came to believe that sculptures had a life cycle of their own, an inner artistic integrity. If many had been damaged, well, that was their fate, and their current damaged state was somehow ‘true’ to their inner destiny. Thus Rodin resisted various suggestions that ancient Greek statues be ‘repaired’. You can see what he’s getting at.

Rodin liked the way that powerful expression was conveyed through the fragmented bodies of the Greek statues. He even removed the heads and limbs from his own figures to make them closer to the broken relics of the past. By doing so, he created a new genre of contemporary art – the headless, limbless torso.

This explains the prominence of process in Rodin’s own work. Many of his pieces seem to be emerging from the stone they are carved in, often with struggle. Similarly his ‘finished’ pieces often betray the work and effort required to make them.

The exhibition displays a massive male torso from the Parthenon next to a similar sized male torso by Rodin. The Parthenon one is smooth (though with pockmarks and gouges caused over time) but the Rodin one has a deliberately knobbly bobbly surface – at its core it is a realistic depiction of the male body, muscles and all, but in Rodin’s hands the sculpture also preserves the sense of effort which went into making it. The statue is not so much an image of Perfection as a symbol of the human effort to create Perfection.

Torso by Auguste Rodin

Torso by Auguste Rodin

On reflection, it is this deliberate favouring of a muddy, impure, less than precise, deliberately knobbly, bulgy, imperfect surface, which I don’t like about Rodin.

You see it in individual works and in his larger compositions.

The gates of hell

In the same year he visited the British Museum, 1881, aged 41, Rodin received his first big public commission, to create the bronze gates for a new museum of the decorative arts in Paris. Inspired by Dante, Rodin decided to create a set of gates on the theme of hell (‘Abandon hope all ye that enter here’ being the motto carved above the gates of hell in Dante’s medieval poetic epic, The Divine Comedy).

To this day I remember the massive build-up given to this piece at the Musée Rodin in Paris, and then my massive disappointment on seeing it. Instead of clarity and order – the clarity and rhythm you see so perfectly achieved in the Parthenon friezes – what I was immediately struck by was what a mess it is.

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

I defy you to figure out what is going on here. Your eye is drawn to the three figures at the top (themselves in a demoralising, broken backed huddle) then to the figure of the Thinker beneath them and beneath him? What the devil is going on in the two panels of the doors? And what is happening on the two columns either side of the doorway? I still find it as muddy and confusing as I did forty years ago.

The exhibition has a large section devoted to the gates. Rodin worked on it for decades, even after the planned museum was abandoned and the commission rendered redundant. He continued tinkering with all the small figures, taking many of them out of the gates and blowing them up into full-scale figures.

The most famous is The Thinker and there is a huge cast of it here. For me it epitomises Rodin’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

On the pro side it captures an archetypally human action in such a profound way that it quickly became an icon of Western art, and is probably among the half dozen most famous art images in the world (along with the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David etc).

But, up close and personal, I don’t like it. It looks lumpy and unfinished. (Alas it reminded me a bit of The Thing from the Fantastic Four comics in the way the surface, though polished and shiny, is ridged and gnarled and patched with what look like strips of clay used to build up the figure, rather than the actual lineaments of cartilage and muscle.)

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

It looks unfinished in exactly the way that the Gates of Hell look unfinished to me – muddy and indistinct.

This, I’m sure, is part of Rodin’s conscious aesthetic, a muscular, sculptural style which makes a virtue of flagging up its own effort, the struggle of creation.

Aesthetic of the unfinished

Among other aspects of this, Rodin encouraged the assistants and students who often helped him to carve his figures (he ran a workshop full of assistants) to leave secondary parts of the sculpture unfinished, and even to emphasise the physicality of the work by marking secondary areas with notches created by claw hammers and chisels.

This is perfectly obvious in Rodin’s other supersonically famous work, The Kiss of 1882. The exhibition curators a) are proud to have borrowed this larger-than-lifesize plaster cast of the kiss from the Rodin Museum. And b) make the ingenious suggestion that the pose of the two lovers (actually a scene from Dante’s Inferno of two adulterous lovers about to be discovered and murdered by the cuckolded husband) is based on the pose of two female goddesses, originally on the East Pediment of the Parthenon, one of which reclines luxuriously in the lap of her companion.

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

But for me the really dominant motif is the deliberately rough unfinished nature of the rock they’re sitting on. On the plus side I suppose the proximity of the gouged and hacked rock emphasises and brings out the luxurious smooth polished surface of the lovers’ two young bodies. But I still don’t like it.

To clarify further, here are two works which are directly related. The first one is a scene from the fight between the lapiths and the centaurs, which takes up a large part of one of the friezes on the Parthenon and is thought to be an allegory of the struggle between reason and animality. Note the clarity, even the stylised nature of the pose, and the clarity of line of each of the figures.

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Next to it the exhibition places a sculpture titled The Centauress (1904), a figure Rodin expanded from a minor position on the gates of hell.

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

I found this object particularly ugly and clumsy. The device of having the figure emerge from heavily-notched stone really doesn’t work for me at all. The way her overlong arms are merging with the pillar strikes me as some kind of horrifying physical deformity or mutation. It is not a very good depiction of either a horse’s body or a woman’s torso, and the less said about the unformed / melting head the better.

To summarise – Rodin’s attempt to assimilate the Greek influence and go beyond it to create a new ‘modern’ aesthetic of fragments which foreground the effort of their own creation has, in my opinion, very hit and miss results. Mostly miss.

His large masterpiece, The Burghers of Calais, is here – as a complete piece showing six larger-than-lifesize statues of the six men, alongside individual preparatory studies of some of the figures.

If you are a student of sculpture or a fan of Rodin this is a really thrilling opportunity to study his sketches, his inspiration, his working practices and the models which go towards creating a masterpiece. But for me, set among the light and clarity of line and design of the Greeks, they felt clumsy and hulking, their postures contrived and awkward.

Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

Phidias

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble © The Trustees of the British Museum

On the cusp of modernism

Rodin lived long enough to see the advent of full-blown Modernism. By 1905 Matisse and Picasso in their different ways were experiencing the influence of ‘primitive’ masks from Africa and the Pacific which were suggesting entire new ways of seeing and thinking about ‘art’.

Within a few years a new generation of sculptors would break decisively with the entire Western tradition and its indebtedness to the naturalism of the ancient Greeks – the ones that spring to mind being Jacob Epstein (b.1880), Eric Gill (b.1882), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (b.1891) and Alberto Giacometti (b.1901).

I suppose it’s unfair to compare Rodin to what came after him, but for me this next generation of sculptors blow the world apart, open the doors to an infinity of possibilities, and are the true creators of modern sculpture.

For me, a piece like Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (c.1913) is worth more than everything Rodin did put together. I like clarity of line and design as against muddiness and vagueness, crisp geometry as against random lumpiness, and energy as against languid kissing, dull thinking and the hapless, demoralised postures of the Calais Burghers.

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

For me the Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is sensuous but with a virile, alert, energetic sensuality, the sensuality of athletic life.

Light and airy exhibition space

By far the most striking thing about the exhibition is that the Museum has opened up the big windows at the end of the Sainsbury Gallery in order to let light flood in.

The partitions between different sections of the show do not extend to the ceiling so the effect is not of separate ‘rooms’ – rather dark and gloomy rooms as they had for, say, the Scythians exhibition – but of light flooding throughout the space, showing the Greek works, in particular, in something more like the fierce Mediterranean light of their homeland.

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

I’m afraid this isn’t a very good photo, but enough to show how the individual statues are staged at the window end of the exhibition, building up to the full cast of the Burghers of Calais in the middle distance of the shot.

The effect of this natural light, and the clean lines and clarity of the modern floor-to-ceiling windows, are wonderfully uplifting. It was relaxing to just sit on the benches conveniently placed next to them, and to enjoy the precise, geometrical architecture of the Georgian houses opposite, and the bright patio space with its carefully tended shrubs and small trees.

The video


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Modigliani by Doris Krystof (1996)

Taschen Publishing specialise in medium-sized art books (23 cm tall x 18.5 cm wide). They’re all originally written in German, this one was translated into English by Christina Rathgeber. I picked it up for a fiver in some art shop years ago, and dusted it off and reread it to coincide with visiting the big Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern.

The text is eminently readable and it has 88 good quality colour reproductions, not just of paintings and sculptures by the man himself but of works by contemporaries like Picasso, Kirchner and Brancusi, as well as classic nudes by Titian and Giorgione, quoted to compare and contrast with Modigliani’s famous nude paintings.

It is a real visual treat just slowly flipping through the pictures and soaking them up.

Biography

The outline of Modigliani’s life is clear enough. Born in 1884 to an arty Jewish family in northern Italy (his mother translated poetry, wrote essays and book reviews), his creative tendencies were encouraged so that by age 14 he was studying at the art academy in Livorno. He studied from books and attended a life drawing class; he visited Rome and Florence and Venice where he revelled in the Old Masters. He attended the Venice Biennale of 1903 and stayed there two years.

By which point it was time to move on and he headed for the Mecca of modern artists, Paris, arriving in 1906. Quite quickly he made important friends, not least the Spaniard Picasso and the Romanian sculptor Brancusi. For the next few years he experimented with a number of styles, from Cézanne (who had died in 1906 and quickly had several exhibitions devoted to his late work) to Edvard Munch, who impressed everyone with the work displayed at the Salon d’Automne of 1908 – although he avoided the main new movement of the day, Fauvism (given its name in 1905 and which flourished for the next few years).

Similarly, Modigliani was well aware of, but avoided, the arrival of Cubism in 1908, pioneered by Picasso and Braque, which swept up many lesser talents. Instead, he pursued his core interest of depicting the human form using outlines of graceful arabesques.

From about 1909 to 1912 Modigliani devoted himself entirely to sculpture, heavily influenced by the new taste for ‘primitive’ art from Africa and Oceania which became modish from around 1905, and by his friendship with the modernist sculptor, Brancusi.

Although some of his sculptures are obviously influenced by (copies) of African fetish masks which were becoming popular in artistic circles, Modigliani was just as obsessed by the idea of the caryatid, the statue of a woman bearing the weight of a building which had been developed in ancient Greece. He produced scores of sketches and variations on this crouching, hunched-up, female shape.

Eventually Modigliani gave up sculpting, maybe because the dust was bad for his chronic tuberculosis, but his painting style was now purified of the earlier variety and experimentalism – the faces in particular from now on were all variations on the elongated, oval shape with schematic, one-line features (eyes, eyelids and mouth all drawn with a crisp elegant line) which he had perfected in the sculptures and in the numerous preparatory sketches he made for them.

He continued to paint a wide variety of portraits of friends, lovers, fellow artists, collectors and patrons, and in the middle of the Great War began to paint a series of nudes. These differ from the portraits in being really simplified – the skin tone is generally a consistent warm orange colour, and the facial features are purified down to a handful of lines. They sold well – what’s not to like?

Towards the end of the War, Modigliani was advised to head south by his dealer and set up shop in Nice, along with his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, mother of his daughter. Here he painted lots more portraits, but in a noticeably lighter style, and of ordinary people – instead of the rich and famous of Paris’s art world – of peasants, hotel cleaners, and even of children. These, along with the nudes, became his most popular images.

By 1919 he was back in Paris, and the final portraits of his mistress and patrons show a further tendency to elongate both the neck and the face even more, making each person even more of an abstract collection of lines and colours.

Modigliani died after a long decline in his health on 24 June 1920. Soon afterwards friends and acquaintances, lovers and patrons began writing their memoirs, and quite quickly the myth grew up of the handsome, charming Wunderkind artist, who endured great poverty in his undying devotion to his art. And his paintings began to sell.

The works

Early paintings

Having seen a lot of the ‘greatest hits’ at the Tate Modern exhibition, I was taken by the more out-of-the-way works included in this book, especially of the early works before he’d perfected the Modigliani ‘look’.

Sketches

From early on he developed a hyper-simplified line, which comes over in nude sketches and then very much in the sketches he made from African artefacts in the Louvre and the Museum of Ethnography.

Sculptures

He took up sculpture in 1909, nobody knows why. Perhaps because he had always revered the sculptural legacy of his native Italy, perhaps because his paintings weren’t selling, perhaps because he moved to a bigger workspace in Montparnasse, perhaps because he met Constantin Brancusi in 19090 and was hugely influenced by him. Or all of the above.

Brancusi (b.1876) had perfected a smooth highly stylised way of working in stone which anticipates Art Deco.

Modigliani’s sculptures are of two types, a squat square type, which could fit at the top of a column –

And the much-better known, highly elongated, ‘primitive’ mask like heads. Although the politically correct like to raise the issue of ‘cultural appropriation’ and the way so many of the avant-garde artists of the 1900s looked to sculptures from Africa or Oceania, the book points out that there are also strong European origins for this look, in the stunningly abstract heads carved in the Cycladic islands of Greece thousands of years BC.

Apparently he conceived of the sculptures, these stone heads, as all being together in one place, creating a kind of temple of beauty. This may partly explain their thematic unity, that they were designed to be displayed and seen as an ensemble.

Nudes

Krystof makes a simple but effective point that it’s not so much in the sculptures but in the sketches for the sculptures, and especially in the sketches of caryatids, that we see Modigliani really simplifying his technique, perfecting a way of depicting the human body entirely made up of simple, one-line, shallow curves – no sketching, and repeated lines or cross-hatching – just one pure line to create the body’s outline, another to distinguish to the two legs, meeting another curve which creates the loins, two simple curves, maybe a bit pointed, to indicate the breasts, a curve for the mouth, a long narrow triangle for the nose, two almonds for eyes – in many ways a child’s eye view of the human body.

She also makes the good point that these curves are consciously not like the focus on blocks and squares and diagonals and geometric shapes of the suddenly fashionable Cubists. It is in pursuit of shallow curves that Modigliani is at odds with the art of his own times, a one-off.

And so to the female nudes which make up about 10% of his output – about 30 nudes in total – and in their simple outlines, as well as their very simple orange flesh colouring, present a kind of cartoon simplicity and pleasingness.

He began painting them in 1916, helped by the important patronage of dealer and friend Léopold Zborowski, who lent the artist use of his apartment, supplied models and painting materials, and paid him between fifteen and twenty francs each day for his work.

The simple graceful outlines, the soft orange skin and pink nipples, the simplified facial features, and the tonal unity of the paintings (compare and contrast with the violent garish colouring of the Fauves) makes Modigliani’s nudes understandably popular even among opponents of modern art.

Krystof also takes some time to explain another reason for their sense of familiarity, the reason they seem so assimilable. It’s because the poses are often based on established classics of Western art.

Quite systematic copying or borrowing or pastiching, isn’t it?

Krystof makes another, subtler, point. In all the classic paintings above you can see the entire body – you, the viewer, are standing some way away. By contrast, all of the Modigliani nudes are cropped, at least part of the arms or legs are out of the frame – as if you were really close up to the model, not so much contemplating them as about to fall over them. Immediacy.

Portraits

But the 20 or so nudes mark a sort of apricot-coloured interlude in Modigiliani’s core activity during his final years, which was the obsessive painting of hundreds of portraits.

Krystof divides them into two categories – one of friends, lovers, patrons, fellow artists and named individuals – the other category of scores of anonymous models, peasants and children.

They are all rougher and harsher, in design and finish, than the nudes.

To get at the essence of the Modigliani approach, Krystof compares his portrait of Jean Cocteau with a portrait done at exactly the same time and place by Moise Kisling.

The immediate and obvious conclusion is the huge amount of clutter Modigliani has chucked out – the window, shutters, table, vase, stove, chair, dog and rug are all not there – and the way he has zoomed in to focus on the top half of the body to create an image which is much simpler, sparer and more intense.

Hence Krystof’s suggestion that Modigliani developed in his portraits ‘the art of omission’ (p.53)

The same technique – cropping sitters at the bust and showing no interest in the details of the backdrop – characterises many of the portraits, which are more varied and interesting than the nudes.

Flight south

In the spring of 1918 the Germans began a final offensive. Planes and Zeppelins bombed Paris and many feared the city would fall. Up to a million people fled the capital, including Modigliani and his mistress / common-law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, who gave birth to their daughter in 1918. The young family spent over a year in Nice and Cagnes-sur-Mer, where Modigliani painted more feverishly and intensely than ever before.

The light of the South of France lightened his palette and the texture of the paint he used, the paint is thinner. Also the local people he got to model for him lack the specificity of the Paris portraits, becoming more generic – which may account for their later popularity.

Jeanne Hébuterne

Modigliani painted at least 25 portraits of the mother of his children. Photographs of her make her look absolutely stunning, in fact she has something of the long-tressed, full-lipped beauty beloved of the pre-Raphaelites.

In his last paintings of her, the neck and face are more elongated than ever, the background painted in with lighter sketchier colours than previously.

Conclusion

This is a really handy book, containing not only nearly 90 beautiful full-colour illustrations which give you an immediate and comprehensive feel for Modigliani’s unique style, but also a more thoughtful and insightful text by Doris Krystof, than is usual for Taschen books.

Possibly my favourite portrait comes right at the end of the book, one of the few Modigliani portraits which has even a hint of feeling and emotion, in this case a self-contained, winsome sadness.


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