Mary Sibande @ Somerset House

Mary Sibande (b.1982) is one of South Africa’s most notable contemporary artists, which makes it all the more surprising that this is her first solo exhibition in the UK.

Sibande calls herself a sculptor but she is also a very good photographer. In fact she mainly works with fabric, sewing her own fabric-based sculpture, and the friend I visited the exhibition with described her as a fabulous seamstress – hence, presumably, the show’s title, I Came Apart at the Seams.

For Sibande hit upon an idea early on in her career and has been producing variations on it for over a decade. The idea was to create life-size mannequins of herself, except

  1. imagined as an alter-ego or avatar, who she named Sophie
  2. to pose these sculptures in striking postures and activities
  3. and to dress them in elaborate, sometimes fantastical, almost science-fiction garments

Over the years she’s used this simple-sounding idea to produce some quite simply staggering works of art. I’m amazed she’s not better known and hasn’t been snapped up by one of the major galleries. This is a FREE exhibition at Somerset House so if you’re passing along the Embankment or through Covent Garden it’s well worth making a detour to visit.

Blue

Long Live The Dead Queen (2008-13) was the series in which we first met Sibande’s avatar, Sophie, conceived as a domestic servant – as Sibande’s mother and grandmother were before her. In various iterations Sophie is seen either as a sculpture or in enormous crystal-clear digital photos, transforming her servant costume (in one iteration she is embroidering the Superman logo onto it) in a series of dreams of escaping her lowly status and gender.

I Put A Spell On Me by Mary Sibande (2009)

Purple

Sibande’s next series was titled The Purple Shall Govern (2013-17). In these Sophie is embodied as ‘The Purple Figure’.

The title is a play on words, making two references, mashing up the opening principle of the 1955 Freedom Charter of the African National Congress stated that ‘The People Shall Govern!’ – with the 1989 anti-apartheid Purple Rain protests.

During these, thousands of anti-apartheid protesters marched on the parliament building in Cape Town and the police sprayed the protesters with water cannon marked with purple dye so that they could be identified and arrested later. However, some of the marchers got their hands on the water cannon and turned it back onto the police and authorities, spraying them and thus symbolically equalising everyone.

Anyway, in Sibande’s hands the colour purple is the inspiration for a series of absolutely wild photos and fabric-sculptures, in which the Sophie figure is transfigured into a force of nature out of whose body and clothes and hair, wild dreadlocks or roots or tendrils cascade and explode in a twirling confusion.

A Terrible Beauty is Born (Long Live The Dead Queen series) by Mary Sibande (2013) Copyright the artist

The above is an enormous digital print which is a) of wonderful clarity and precision b) printed onto fabric not paper and hung across one whole wall and c) is totally wild.

The po-faced seriousness of the political commentary on her works – the references to apartheid and this or that protest – in no way prepares you for the wild, crazed, science fiction pullulation of her imaginings.

It is extravagant, operatic – dreams, nightmares or visions on an epic scale and all the more weird and compelling for having been made, created, carefully and time-consumingly sewn out of fabric.

One entire room in the show consists of an absolutely amazing piece of sculpture – the black woman Sophie wrapped in purple fabric, while her hair appears to be exploding backwards into a huge tangled skein which is itself intertwining to form something like the roots of a tree. It is as if the human being is metamorphosing into an awesome, phantasmagorical force of nature.

It’s one of the weirdest and most powerful works of art I’ve ever seen.

A Reversed Retrogress Scene 2 by Mary Sibande (2013)

Red

Sibande’s latest series is titled In The Midst of Chaos There Is Also Opportunity (2017-). In these Sophie has transformed into ‘The Red Figure’ – red to express the collective disillusionment and anger of many South Africans at the enduring poverty in post-apartheid South Africa.

So blood-red is for anger, but also the power to heal and restore – there’s something of the priestess and healer in the Red Figure. She is sad, she is angry – but she is also empowered by the legacy and memory of all those who gave their lives to overthrow apartheid.

Come, you spirits of the land and the skies by Mary Sibande (2019)

As I say, the commentators, the curators, and Sibande herself, are happy to describe her art in terms of South Africa’s apartheid and post-apartheid history, the struggle for liberation and the long disappointment that came afterwards, and so on.

Maybe that’s where her art starts. But in my opinion where it goes to is somewhere altogether different, somewhere weird, strange and entrancing, to a zone which is disturbing, upsetting, amazing and supremely memorable.

Look closely and you’ll see that Sophie’s eyes, in all her reincarnations, are always closed: she is dreaming, according to the curators, dreaming of freedom and equality etc.

But the way I read it, Sophie is having dreams far bigger than paltry ones about politics and justice – dreams which are far more disruptive and uncontrolled and weird and enthralling, about human nature itself.

A Terrible Beauty and A Reversed Retrogress show humanity morphing into something much bigger and more cosmic than petty concerns about this or that cause or country –  in them the purple and red figures are becoming cosmic, entwining with the natural world, seizing power and going beyond the human into an extraordinary new realm of the imagination.


Related links

Reviews of other Somerset House exhibitions

Year 3 by Steve McQueen @ Tate Britain

Steve McQueen

The black British artist and film director Steven Rodney McQueen CBE was born 1969 and is probably best known for writing and directing the big budget movie 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of an 1853 slave narrative memoir for which he won an Oscar.

McQueen won the Turner Prize back in 1999. In 2006, he went to Iraq as an official war artist and the following year presented Queen and Country, a piece that commemorated the deaths of British soldiers who died in the Iraq War by presenting their portraits as sheets of stamps.

So he’s had quite a long, varied and successful career.

Year 3

Now a new exhibition has opened in the big long central atrium of Tate Britain titled Year 3. To art fans bewildered by years of conceptual, or politically correct, or otherwise demanding ‘art’, the idea is disarmingly simple.

McQueen invited every Year 3 pupil in London to have their photograph taken by a team of specially trained Tate photographers. They included children from state primaries, independent schools, faith schools, special schools, pupil referral units and home-educated pupils.

These class photos are brought together into a single large-scale installation, capturing tens of thousands of Year 3 pupils in a milestone year in their development.

All the photo were shot in the same identical style. The teachers were all told to assemble their pupils in the same kind of official photo layout, very prim and formal, with teacher embedded in the middle. The pupils are wearing school uniforms.

Clifton Primary School © Steve McQueen & Tate

The resulting prints are a uniform shape (landscape) and size. And they are hung in rigidly geometric grids, twelve photos high and fifteen wide in such a way as to completely wallpaper the entire Tate atrium.

Portrait of Steve McQueen in Year 3 at Tate Britain © Tate. Photo Jessica McDermott

There are no fewer than 3,000 class photographs depicting 76,000 children, although this represents only two-thirds of London’s year 3 pupils.

There are no name plaques or notes of any kind identifying any of the children or schools. Instead (as one of the Tate ‘visitor assistants’ pointed out to me), right down on the stone skirting board beneath each grid there’s a small number (we were standing next to grid 23 when she explained this). She told me that each school will have been told which grid their school photo is in, and then its grid reference (e.g. grid 23, row 4, 7 from the left).

Tyssen Community Primary School © Steve McQueen & Tate

This, of course, makes a fairly good game: bring your children along your kids who had their photo taken and see if they can find the photo. And so by 11am, as I emerged dazed from the Mark Leckey installation, I found the atrium absolutely packed with parents, buggies and small kids racing round. It was a lovely atmosphere. It’s a great idea. I’m not sure where you go with it, though, after you’ve found your school photo and looked at half a dozen, or a dozen others, or a dozen more…

Year 3 Class Photograph © Steve McQueen & Tate

What is year 3?

I had to google to find out what year 3 actually means:

In schools in England Year 3 is the third year after Reception. It is the third full year of compulsory education, with children being admitted who are aged 7 before 1 September in any given academic year. It is also the first year of Key Stage 2 in which the National Curriculum is taught.

Year 3 kids. They’re small. They’re cute. Looking at the backdrops is mildly interesting, or assessing the schoolteacher included in the photo: over 80% of infant and junior school teachers are female and the photos reflect that. At that age your teacher is the world and the photos made me strain back through the mists of time to remember my year three teacher. Memories.

Since we know that a good deal of a child’s future life chances are established by the age of five, it’s also interesting to compare and contrast the atmosphere, the vibe and appearance of the various groups. I couldn’t help be impressed by the spiffily smart uniforms of some of the schools, and compare them with the rough and ready sweatshirts of other classes.

Alpha Preparatory School © Steve McQueen & Tate

Who knows if these are decisive social and educational factors – I don’t. I’m just pointing out that this was one of the obvious visual elements which your eye is drawn to compare and contrast.

Maybe I’m not getting the sense of optimism and hope the photos are obviously meant to generate. The Artangel website explains that:

Year 3 is considered a milestone year in a child’s development and sense of identity. It’s when children aged 7–8 years old become more conscious of a much bigger world beyond their immediate family. This portrait of London captures that moment of excitement, anticipation and hope. It’s a celebration of the young people who will make London their own, and a meditation on the personal circumstances and social forces that shape all our lives.

Maybe this resonates with many of the young families with small children running all round the Tate atrium who I saw enjoying the exhibition.

Visiting Tate

And there is also an art educational element for the children themselves.

Over the months ahead, pupils featured in the exhibition will be visiting Tate Britain with their schools. As part of this learning experience, pupils will see their photograph up close in dedicated learning spaces around the gallery and take part in activities that explore the exhibition themes.

Sounds like a worthy idea: introducing fairly small children to the world of art and imaginative opportunity. Who could quibble?

Billboards

Running in parallel to the exhibition at Tate Britain, Artangel is staging an outdoor exhibition of the photos i.e. hanging them on no fewer than 600 billboards across all of 33 London boroughs in a rather forlorn attempt to brighten up our shitty city.

Steve McQueen Year 3 billboard at Camden Road, London Borough of Camden. Photo by Theo Christelis

And:

At the end of the exhibition each picture will be returned to the school where the photograph was taken.

Sweet.

The video

Curators

Year 3 at Tate Britain is curated by Clarrie Wallis, Senior Curator of Contemporary British Art and Nathan Ladd, Assistant Curator of Contemporary British Art; and is produced by Erin Barnes and Gemma Clarke.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Nam June Paik at Tate Modern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV robots by Nam June Paik

Room by room

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

Introduction

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

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

TV Garden

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

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

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

Global Groove

According to the wall label:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electronic music

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

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

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

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

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

Installation view of Nam June Paik at Tate Modern

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

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

Merce Cunningham

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

Charlotte Moorman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Beuys

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

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

Mongolian tent by Nam June Paik (1993)

The Sistine Chapel

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

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

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

Nothing dates faster than old TV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curators

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


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

William Blake @ Tate Britain

This is the largest survey of work by William Blake to be held in the UK for a generation. It brings together over 300 famous and rarely seen works, from the whole of his career, from all of his publications and projects, and sets them alongside works by contemporaries, friends and influences, in a blockbuster exhibition which spreads over 13 rooms.

Engraving

Blake was born in 1757 into a poor family in London’s Soho – his father was a hosier – who, nonetheless, supported his ambitions to be an artist. Aged 15 he got an apprenticeship to an engraver. At the age of 21 he became a student at the Royal Academy. He appears to have been studious, the exhibition contains a typical plaster cast classical statue which students had to sketch along with Blake’s drawings of it.

Distinctive style

Muscles But from early on Blake developed an idiosyncratic and eccentric way of depicting the human body. Most of his work is depictions of the human body. Most of the bodies in question are naked or draped in simple Biblical robes, and all of them are extremely muscley, with a heavy, musclebound weight which is reminiscent of Michelangelo. Although the curators don’t mention it I’ve read somewhere that this striking musculature is in fact anatomically inaccurate, and designed purely for expressive purposes.

Capaneus the Blasphemer (1824-1827) by William Blake © National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Flat and close Other elements of his style include the lack of perspective. Figures almost always appear in a flat space. This gives them dramatic immediacy and directness, as in this striking image.

The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea by William Blake (1805)

Noses In both these images note the strikingly aquiline noses of his figures. Sounds trivial but its a trademark of his style.

Anti-commercial art Blake rejected much of the commercial art of his day, came to despise the Royal Academy, hated the way late 18th century art was dominated by society portraits or landscapes of rich people’s properties.

Visual purity He wanted to forge something much more visionary and pure. This search for a kind of revolutionary purity reminds me of the Republican phase of the art of the French painter Jacques-Louis David, which also features: legendary, classical or mythical subject matter; half naked men showing off their six-packs; in striking poses; flowing robes and togas.

Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

Drawings not paintings

But a comparison with David vividly brings out the difference: Blake was never an oil painter. None of his works evince the kind of lavish, luxurious depth and perspective and colour and light and shade of an oil painter like David.

Most of Blake’s images are engravings, of which he produced over a thousand, and a central quality of an engraving is its flatness.

There are also watercolours but, as the curators point out, these have the clarity of line, formality and flatness of engravings which have simply been coloured in.

There is rarely any perspective or depth. The backgrounds are generally sketchy. All the focus is on the (generally melodramatic postures) of the foreground figures.

Cain Fleeing from the Wrath of God by William Blake (1799-1809) © The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

Illustrations

Cain Fleeing exemplifies a major fact about Blake’s visual work, which is that the majority of was illustrations for classic works. Over his life he was commissioned to produce illustrations for:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft – Original Stories from Real Life (1791)
  • John Gay – Fables by John Gay with a Life of the Author, John Stockdale, Picadilly (1793)
  • Edward Young – Night-Thoughts (1797)
  • Thomas Gray – Poems (1798)
  • Robert Blair – The Grave (1805–1808)
  • John Milton – Paradise Lost (1808)
  • John Varley – Visionary Heads (1819–1820)
  • Robert John Thornton – Virgil (1821)
  • The Book of Job (1823–1826)
  • John Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress (1824–1827, unfinished)
  • Dante – Divine Comedy (1825–1827)

The exhibition features generous selections from most of these works, for example ten or more of Blake’s illustrations for the Grave or Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, etc.

Bad pictures

What comes over from many of these obscure and little exhibited illustrations is how bad they are. Milky, washed out, strangely lacking in the dynamism which Blake, in his written works, claimed for his art.

Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, Design 113 by William Blake (1797-8)

Bad, isn’t it? All the illustrations for the Elegy are like this.

Towards the end of his life Blake made 29 watercolour illustrations of the Pilgrim’s Progress which are similarly not much mentioned in his oeuvre. Being woke, the curators suggest this might be because his loyal, hard-working and artistic wife, Catherine, is said to have had a say in designing and colouring them, so their neglect is a sexist conspiracy. Maybe. Or maybe it’s just because they’re not very good. Here’s an example.

Illustration four for the Pilgrim’s Progress by William Blake

The composition, the use of perspective, the crappy buildings, the ludicrous posture of the figures, and the badness of their faces – everything conspires to make this picture, in my opinion, poor. And there are lots more of this low standard in the exhibition.

Good pictures

But what makes it impossible to dismiss and hard to evaluate is that Blake was also capable of coming up with images which turned his manifold weaknesses – the lack of depth, the odd stylised postures, the inaccurate anatomy – into strengths. This is true of many of the illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Take this depiction of the fate of the corrupt pope – the very unnaturalness of the postures and the weirdness of the setting work in its favour. To make it a deeply strange and troubling image.

The Simoniac Pope’ by William Blake (1824-7) Tate

Take another of his archetypal images, Newton. The closer you look, the weirder it becomes – not least his musculature which makes him look more like an insect with a segmented back than a human being – and yet, and yet… it’s so weird that it’s true – true not to lived life or anything anyone’s ever seen, but to something stranger, more mysterious and more visionary.

Newton by William Blake (1795-1805) Tate

The illustrated books

Of course Blake was also a poet, an epic poet, a writer of immense long epics featuring a mythology and mythological characters he made up out of a strange mishmash of the Bible, the classics and Milton. Not many people read these long poems nowadays although, as it happens, as a schoolboy I read all of them cover to cover in the Penguin Complete Blake edition, so I have a feel for the vastness and strangeness of his imaginary world.

Blake produced the poems in books which featured his own line illustrations and decorations of the handwritten texts.

  • Songs of Innocence and of Experience (edited 1794)
  • Songs of Innocence (edited 1789)
  • The Book of Thel (written 1788–1790, edited 1789–1793)
  • The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (written 1790–1793)
  • Visions of the Daughters of Albion (edited 1793)
  • Continental prophecies
  • America a Prophecy (edited 1793)
  • Europe a Prophecy (edited 1794–1821)
  • The Song of Los (edited 1795)
  • There is No Natural Religion (written 1788, possible edited 1794–1795)
  • The First Book of Urizen (edited 1794–1818)
  • All Religions are One (written 1788, possible edited 1795)
  • The Book of Los (edited 1795)
  • The Book of Ahania (edited 1795)
  • Milton (written 1804–1810)
  • Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion (written 1804–1820, edited 1820–1827 and 1832)

The exhibition features many of these illustrations to his own verse. There is, for example, half a room devoted to individual pages from America a Prophecy, which have been removed from the book and framed as prints. Some of them are displayed in doublesided cases set up on plinths so that visitors can walk around and see both sides. The most immediate thing you notice is how very small they are, old-fashioned paperback book size, which makes much of the writing very hard to read without a maginifying glass.

Title page of America a Prophecy, copy A (printed 1795) by William Blake © The Morgan Library

The shorter works

Even his contemporaries struggled with the obscure mythology, strangely named characters (Los, Urizen) and difficult-to-make-out plots of the longer poems. By contrast, two of the shorter works have always been popular, namely the pithy proverbs gathered in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

  • “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”
  • “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

and the short and simple poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which contain his best-known and most anthologised poems. Of these probably the most famous is 

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

It is undoubtedly a classic, but there is an odd and telling thing about it, which is that has become, over time, essentially, a children’s poem.

And this is emphasised by the illustration Blake did for it, which often comes as a shock to people who are familiar with it as an isolated text before they come to it in Blake’s illustrated version. It’s not just a children’s book illustration. It’s almost a baby‘s book illustration.

Tyger Tyger from Songs of Experience (designed after 1789, printed in 1794) by William Blake

Extremely hit and miss

And I think at some stage during the exhibition, it struck me that at some level, Blake is not a serious artist. He took himself very seriously, the small group of acolytes who gathered round him in his last years – the self-styled Ancients – took him very seriously, and critics and curators ditto, but… his long poems are all but incomprehensible and his own illustrations to his books are strange but often curiously childish and amateurish. His illustrations for Pilgrims Progress or the Elegy are deeply damaging to your sense of him as an artist. Some of the illustrations of Paradise Lost or Dante have a peculiar power, but many feel weak or half-finished. And strange random images throughout the exhibition leap out as expressing something no-one else had conceived or tried.

The Ancient of Days

Because every now and then, his peculiarities of style and technique (he pioneered new methods of acid engraving which the exhibition explains) come together to create something magical and genuinely visionary, something of depth and maturity.

‘Europe’ Plate i Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days’ (1827) by William Blake (1757-1827) The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

The curators end the exhibition with this painting, which Blake was working on right up to his final days, at his house overlooking the Thames. Who is it, what is he doing, nobody is sure, although the hand gesture which seems to be creating a sort of compass is, unexpectedly, a negative gesture in Blake’s symbolism, because mathematics and science are the enemies of the liberated and revolutionary imagination which Blake defended and praised.

Still, as with so much of the rest of his ‘thought’ and personal opinions, it doesn’t matter. Again and again the curators have had to admit that nobody knows what this or that picture really means or whether it is illustrating this or that scene from one of his vast mythological books – so much about Blake’s output is scattered, broken up and mysterious, that one more mystery doesn’t make any difference.

At his best, Blake created images of startling power and resonance which, even if we don’t understand their intention or meaning, have stood the test of time. But the high risk this exhibition has taken is placing that dozen or so brilliant imagines amid a sea of ok, so-so, mediocre and downright poor images which do a lot to dilute their impact.

Two gaps

No explanation of Blake’s politics The curators mention in several places that Blake was a revolutionary thinker who engaged with the Great Issues of his day, and list those Great Issues as political revolution, sexual politics, and slavery, and he certainly did, in his long radical poems and his notes and essays.

The odd thing is you’d expect there to be, in such a big exhibition, some sections devoted to Blake the Revolutionary, explaining his revolutionary  views, his support of the American and French revolutions, his ideas of the power of the unfettered Imagination, sexual liberty and his violent anti-slavery sentiments.

But panels or sections devoted to Blake’s beliefs are strangely absent. His views are mentioned in passing, in the context of t his or that work, but you can’t make sense of a work like America A Prophecy without some explanation of the attitude English radicals took to the war their own government was fighting to put down men committed to freedom & Liberty.

No explanation of Blake’s mythology More importantly you can’t understand a lot of his images without delving into Blake’s own mythology, which was built around praising the power of the unfettered Imagination, in the arts and politics and private life, and which he elaborated out inventing a whole cast of pseudo-Biblical gods and goddesses.

This also was strangely absent – I mean all it would have taken was a panel explaining the symbolic roles of the characters he invented for the epic poems:

  • Urizen is the embodiment of conventional reason and law
  • his daughters Eleth, Uveth and Ona represent the three parts of the human body
  • his sons Thiriel, Utha, Grodna, Fuzon match the four elements but are also aligned with the signs of the Zodiac
  • Los is the fallen (earthly or human) form of Urthona, one of the four Zoas

and so on, to at least give you a flavour of how strange, eccentric, but oddly beguiling his personal mythology could be.

Maybe – I’m guessing – the curators wanted to focus narrowly on his art, and on the technical ways in which he experimented with techniques of engraving, and with the immediate facts of his biography. That would explain why there were rooms devoted to particular patrons such as John and Ann Flaxman, Thomas Stothard and George Cumberland, Thomas Butts and the Reverend Joseph Thomas.

I bought the audioguide. At the end of several sections on specific series of works, it said; ‘If you want to know more about the relationship between Blake and John Flaxman, press the green button’. My point being that all the additional information was biographical. Not one of them said: ‘If you want to hear more about Blake and the French Revolution, Blake and slavery, Blake and sexual Liberty, Blake’s theories of the imagination’ – all topics I’d love to have heard given a modern summary.

This biographical approach also explains why there is a big reproduction of a period map of London with markers indicating where Blake lived over the years. And even an entire room recreating the room in the family home in Broad Street where Blake staged a quirky one-man show in 1809, a show which was a disaster as hardly anyone showed up and the one critic who wrote about it dismissed Blake as ‘an unfortunate lunatic’.

I may be wrong but it seems to me that the curators have opted for a heavily biographical approach to Blake’s work, placing the works in the context of his real life career and biography, his houses and wife and friends and champions and critics. This is all interesting in its way, but not as interesting as Blake’s imaginative universe.

At the age of eight William Blake saw the prophet Ezekiel under a bush in Peckham Rye, then a rural backwater south of London. A few years later he had a vision of a tree full of angels nearby and, a month after that, a third vision of angels, walking towards him through the rye.

Blake really meant it. All through is life he claimed to have visions of angels and other divine beings, dancing and cavorting in London fields and streets. He was a visionary in the most literal sense of the word.

Although – with over 300 images – this exhibition is thoroughly documented and copiously illustrated, maybe the reason I left feeling so frustrated and dissatisfied was because I felt that Blake’s weird, peculiar and compelling imaginative universe had been almost completely left out of it.

There were plenty of framed pages taken from the illustrated versions of his ‘prophetic books’ covered with verse. But the verse itself wasn’t printed out on a label on the wall for us to actually read. There was an introduction to the subject matter of each one, but little explanation of what they meant or what he was trying to achieve.

This exhibition feels like a big, elaborately assembled, beautifully curated and presented catalogue of all Blake’s visual works. A list. A documentation of his works. But somehow, with all the fiery life, rebellion and pride of the Imagination taken out.

Blake’s life is presented as a story of professional frustration – rather than as a life of extraordinary imaginative triumph.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

50 Women Artists You Should Know (2008)

This is a much better book than the Taschen volume which I’ve just read – Women artists in the 20th and 21st century edited by Uta Grosenick (2003) – for several reasons:

1. Although, like the Taschen book, this was also originally a German publication, it has been translated into much better English. It reads far more fluently and easily.

2. It is much bigger at 24cm by 19cm, so the illustrations are much bigger, clearer and more impactful. There is more art and less text and that, somehow, irrationally, but visually, makes women’s art seem a lot more significant and big and important.

Judith beheading Holofernes (1602) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Judith beheading Holofernes (1602) by Artemisia Gentileschi

3. It is a chronological overview of the last 500 years of women’s art. As I explained in my review of the Taschen book, because so many female artists have come to prominence since the 1960s and 70s when traditional art more or less collapsed into a welter of performance art, body art, conceptual art, video, photography, digital art and so on, that book gave an overall impression that 20th century women’s art was chaotic, messy and sex-obsessed, with only occasional oases of old-style painting to cling on to.

By contrast, this book gives a straightforward chronological list of important women artists starting with Catharina Van Hemessen born in 1528 and moving systematically forwards through all the major movements of Western art – Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical, Romantic, Victorian Realist, Impressionist, Fauvist and so on. It kind of establishes and beds you in to the long line of successful women artists who worked in all the Western styles, long before it arrives at the chaotic 60s and beyond.

4. The Taschen book – again because of its modern focus – invoked a lot of critical theory to analyse and explicate its artists. Here, in stark contrast, the entries are overwhelming factual and biographical, focusing on family background, cultural and historical context, the careers and achievements of these women artists. Although this is, in principle, a more traditional and conservative way of writing about art, the net result is the opposite. Whereas you can dismiss great swathes of the Taschen book for being written in barely-comprehensible artspeak, this book states clearly and objectively the facts about a long succession of tremendously successful and influential women artists. It’s all the more effective for telling it straight.

To sum up, 50 Women Artists You Should Know makes a really powerful argument for asserting that there have been major women artists at every stage of Western art, holding important positions, forging successful careers, creating really great works, influencing others, contributing and shaping the whole tradition.

It is the History of Western Art, but done through women, and women only.

Self-Portrait (1790) by Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Self-Portrait (1790) by Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Quite simply it destroys forever the idea that there haven’t been any significant women artists until the modern era. There were loads.

Ironically, this goes a long way to undermining the common feminist argument that women have been banned, held back, suppressed and prevented from engaging in art for most of history. This book proves the opposite is the case: again and again we read of women artists in the 17th and 18th centuries being encouraged by their fathers and families, supported through art school, securing important official positions (many becoming court painters), being given full membership of art academies, awarded prestigious prizes, and making lots of money. It’s quite a revelation. I never knew so many women artists were so very successful, rich and famous in their times.

Take some examples:

Surprisingly successful woman artists

1. Old Mistresses

Catharina Van Hemessen (1528-1587) Trained in the Netherlands by her father Jan van Hemessen, Catharina specialised in portraits which fetched a good price. She was invited to the court of Spain by the art-loving Mary of Hungary.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) her art studies paid for by her father who networked with rulers and artists to promote her career, Sofonisba was invited to Spain by King Philip II to become art teacher to 14-year-old Queen Isabella of Valois. By the time Isabella died, young Sofonisba had painted portraits of the entire Spanish court. She went to Italy where she taught pupils and was sought out by Rubens and Van Dyck.

Three Sisters playing chess (1555) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Three Sisters playing chess (1555) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) Trained by her artist father, Fontana became a sought-after portraitist, even being commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII to paint his portrait. She married a fellow artist who recognised her superior talent and became her manager, helping her paint a number of altar paintings. – Venus and Cupid (1592)

Artemisia Gentileschi (1598-1652) Taught by her father who was a successful baroque painter, Artemisia moved to Florence and was the only woman admitted to the Accademia del Disegno. She painted dynamic and strikingly realistic Bible scenes. In her 40s she was invited to paint at the court of King Charles I of England. – Susanna and the Elders (1610)

Judith Leyster (1609-1660) Unusually, Judith wasn’t the daughter of an artist but made her way independently, studying with the master of the Haarlem school, Frans Hals, before at the age of 24 applying to join the Guild of St Luke. – Boy playing the flute (1635)

Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757) forged a lucrative career as a portraitist in pastels in her native Venice with a clientele which included the Elector Maximilian of Bavaria, the Danish King Frederick IV. In 1739 the Elector Frederick Augustus II of Saxony bought her entire output of paintings which is why Dresden Art Gallery has 150 of her pastels. In 1720 she was invited to Paris by an eminent banker who gave her a large suite of rooms and introduced her to the court. – The Air (1746)

Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721-1782) Seventh child of the Prussian court painter Georg Lisiewski, Anna received a thorough training and went on to a successful career painting portraits around the courts of Europe, being admitted to the Stuttgart Academy of Arts, the Academy in Bologna, the Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture in Paris, the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, working at the end of  her life for Tsarina Catherine II of Russia. – Self-portrait (1776)

Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) Kauffman was encouraged from an early age by her father, himself a portrait and fresco painter, who helped his child prodigy daughter go on to become one of the leading painters of her day, known across Europe as a painter of feminine subjects, of sensibility and feeling, praised by Goethe and all who met her. – Self-portrait torn between music and Painting (1792)

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) was taught by her father the painter Louis Vigée, soon attracted the attention of aristocratic French society and was invited to Versailles by Marie-Antoinette to paint her portrait, eventually doing no fewer than 20. Forced into exile by the French revolution, she eventually returned to France, continuing to paint, in total some 800 works in the new classical, unadorned style and published three volumes of memoirs. – Portrait of Countess Golovine (1800)

Rosa Bonheur‘s father was a drawing master who encouraged her artistic tendencies. She sketched and then painted the animals of her native Bordeaux and struck it rich with a work called The Horse Market which made a sensation at the Salon of 1853. An enterprising dealer had it displayed all round the country, then sent to England where Queen Victoria gave it her endorsement, and then on to America. It toured for three years made her a name and rich. She bought a farmhouse with the proceeds and carried on working in it with her partner Nathalie Micas.

Horse Fair (1835) by Rosa Bonheur

Horse Fair (1835) by Rosa Bonheur

2. Modern women painters

Somewhere in the later 19th century in France, Modern Art starts and carries on for 50 or so years, till the end of the Great War.

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was the female Impressionist, her family being close to that of Manet, so that she got to meet his circle which included Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne, Sisley, Monet and Renoir. She had nine paintings in the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874 and exhibited in each of the subsequent Impressionist shows until 1886. – Reading with green umbrella (1873).

Lady at her Toilette (1875) by Berthe Morisot

Lady at her Toilette (1875) by Berthe Morisot

Mary Cassatt (1845-1926) studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia before moving to Paris where she was taken up by Degas and exhibited in the 1879 Impressionist exhibition. Later in life she was awarded the Legion d’Honneur and the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts Gold Medal. – Woman in a loge (1879)

By the time Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) was 30 she was one of the leading portrait painters in America. I love Reverie or the Dreamer (1894).

Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (1859-1912) was Canadian, moved to New York, Venice, Munich, to Pont Aven where she experimented with the new plein air technique, but it was only when she moved on from London to Newlyn in Cornwall and married the artist Stanhope Alexander Forbes, that Elizabeth found a permanent home. The couple went ton to establish the Newlyn School of open air painting in Cornwall. – A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach (1885)

Gabriele Münter (1877-1962) progressed through the Munich Art Academy and is famous for the affair she had with Russian avant-garde painter Wassily Kandinsky. They bought a house in 1909 which became a focal point for the painters of the Blue Rider movement, Franz Marc, August Macke and so on. Her clear bold draughtsmanship and forceful colours are well suited to reproduction. – Self-portrait (1909), Jawlensky and Werefkin (1909).

3. Twentieth century great women artists

Summer Days (1937) by Georgia O'Keeffe

Summer Days (1937) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was the first woman to be the subject of a major retrospective at the New York Museum of Modern Art (1946). Her paintings are super-real, occasionally sur-real, images of desert landscapes and flowers.

Hannah Höch (1889-1978) famous for the photomontages she produced as part of the Dada movement. – Cut with Kitchen Knife DADA through Germany’s Last Weimar Beer Belly Culture Era (1920)

Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) fabulously stylish images of 1920s women caught in a kind of shiny metallic blend of Art Deco and Futurism. What is not to worship? – The telephone (1930) Auto-portrait (1929)

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) politically active Mexican artist who painted herself obsessively, often in surreal settings although she denied being a Surrealist. – The Broken Column (1944).

The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo

The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo

Lee Krasner (1908-1984) American abstract expressionist, worked as a mural painting assistant for socially conscious works commissioned by the Federal Art Project before developing an interest in abstract art and exhibiting in the 1941 show by the Association of American Abstract Artists. In that year she met the king of the abstract expressionists, Jackson Pollock, and married him four years later leading to an intense period where they influenced each other. After his death in 1956 she developed a new style taking the natural world as subject. – Abstract number 2 (1948)

Louise Bourgeois (1911-1993)

Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985) was only 23 when she created the work she’s known for, Object – a cup, saucer and spoon covered in the furry skin of a gazelle. – Object (1936)

Eva Hesse (1936-1970) died tragically young but not before making a range of stimulating abstract sculptures. – Accession II (1967)

4. Contemporary women artists

With Hesse’s work (maybe with Louise Bourgeois’s) the book swings decisively away from traditional art, from oil painting and recognisable sculptures, into the world of installations, happenings, performances, body art, conceptual art, the style of art we still live among. This means, in practice, fewer reproductions of 2-D works and a lot of photographs.

Rebecca Horn (b.1944) German. Rooms filled with objects, photographs, films, video, mechanical works made from everyday objects. – River of the moon (1992)

The Feathered Prison Fan ( 1978) by Rebecca Horn

The Feathered Prison Fan ( 1978) by Rebecca Horn

Barbara Kruger (b.1945) American leading conceptual artist noted for large-format collages of images and texts. – Your body is a battleground (1989), We don’t need another hero (1987).

Marina Abramovic (b. 1946) Yugoslav performance artist often directly using her body, sometimes going to extremes and inflicting pain. In The Lovers: walk on the great wall of China her boyfriend started walking in the Gobi desert while she started from the Yellow Sea and they walked towards each other, meeting on the Great Wall whereupon they split up. In Balkan Baroque she spent four days surrounded by video installations and copper basins cleaning with a handbrush 5,500 pounds of cattle bones. – Balkan Baroque (1997)

Isa Genzken (b.1948) German artist producing abstract sculptures and large-scale installations. – Schauspieler II (2014)

Jenny Holzer (b.1950) American ‘neo-conceptualist’ famous for her projection of texts, often pretty trite, in large public spaces. – Jenny Holzer webpage. In her hands art really does become as trite and meaningless as T-shirt slogans.

Abuse of power comes as no surprise (2017)

Abuse of power comes as no surprise (2017) by Jenny Holzer

Mona Hatoum (b.1952) Palestinian video and installation artist, producing dramatic performances, videos and unnerving installations. – Undercurrent (2008). In 1982 she did a performance, standing naked in a plastic box half full of mud struggling to stand up and ‘escape’ for fours hours. – Under siege (1982) I love the look of the crowd, the sense of complete disengagement as a pack of blokes watch a naked woman covered in mud.

Kiki Smith (b.1954) German-born American who, like so many modern women artists, is obsessed with the female body, in this version stripped and flayed as per Gray’s Anatomy. – Untitled (1990)

Cindy Sherman (b.1954) American photographer and art film director. Lots of photos of herself dressed as historical characters or as stereotypical ‘types’ from Hollywood movies, ‘questioning stereotypical depictions of “the feminine”‘. As she’s gotten older her the subjects have changed to spoofing Old Master paintings, and she increasingly uses dummies and models in her mock-ups. – Untitled film still #206 (1989)

Shirin Neshat (b.1957) Iranian visual artist producing black and white photos of women in Iran e.g. her series Women of Allah. Her videos emphasise the distinction between West and East, men and women.

Still from Rapture (2000) by Shirin Neshat

Still from Rapture (2000) by Shirin Neshat

Pipilotti Rist (b.1962) Video artist who works with video, film and moving images, generally of herself. – Selfless in the bath of lava (1994)

Tracey Emin CBE (b.1963) English artist making provocations, interventions, installations which are often powerfully autobiographical, like the tent, the unmade bed. Also hundreds of scratchy prints. – Everyone I have ever slept with (1995), My bed (1999).

Tacita Dean OBE (b.1965) English visual artist working in film and photography. – Bubble House (1999), The Green Ray (2001).

End thought

I’m not sure – it may be because I’m simply exhausted at the end of this thorough survey – but it does feel to me as if the contemporary art of women born in the 40s, 50s and 60s, with its interventions, installations, film and video and photos and happenings and performances – is somehow much the most unhappy, most neurotic, self-punishing and self-flagellating body of work, than that of any previous era.

Maybe their work simply reflects Western society as a whole, which has got richer and richer and somehow, as in a children’s fable, more and more miserable.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of exhibitions of women artists I’ve been to

The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe (1975)

I bought this as a Bantam paperback back in 1976 when it cost 65p. Now it costs nearly £11.

Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism

Tom Wolfe was one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism, a style of reporting which became fashionable in the 1960s, in which the ‘reporter’ a) was increasingly central to the story itself b) reported in the loose, slangy street style of the day. I recently read Michael Herr’s Dispatches, whose phantasmagorical prose style tried to capture the deranged, trippy experience of the Vietnam War. In fact,  it was only a few years earlier, in 1973, that Wolfe had edited and published the collection, The New Journalism, which crystallised the movement’s reputation.

Wolfe’s version was always urban and urbane. He used literary devices – sarcasm, irony, outrageously subjective opinions, and a dandy style incorporating onomatopoeia, multiple ornate phrases piled up between ellipses or dashes – to cover his subjects. His breakthrough piece in 1963 was a magazine piece about Californian hot rod and custom car culture titled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He followed this with 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a highly experimental account of the counter-culture author Ken Kesey and his hippy Merry Pranksters.

In 1970 he published Radical Chic, a scathing description of a party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the radical Black Panther Party, in which classy, upper class New York intellectuals bathed in the glory of consorting with radical revolutionaries and – my dear! – such charming young black men!!

The Painted Word

The Painted Word continues the theme of skewering the pretentions of New York’s glitzy upper-class liberal elite. In this short book (actually just a long article printed in Harper’s Magazine in April 1975) Wolfe rips into the pretentiousness of the New York art scene, its struggling artists and its oh-so-precious upper-class devotees.

Wolfe identifies several trends in the art world.

The Boho Dance Since the end of the 19th century the myth had grown up about struggling artists making do with bread and candles in unheated attics while they grind their brains to portray the Truth. Above all the Bohemian (shortened to ‘boho’) artist knows that a key part of the character is scorning the despised bourgeois values, being anti-respectability, dressing scruffy, identifying with the people and so on.

The Consummation But in fact, without exception, all these struggling artists yearn for one thing and one thing only which is to be recognised and acknowledged. How does that happen? You are taken up by the rich elite, particularly the elite of gallery owners and their very rich sponsors.

Schizophrenia But having spent a lifetime cultivating the personality of the struggling artist, many find it difficult to cope with suddenly being showered with prizes, grants, exhibitions, books and magazine articles. Especially since a lot of the showering comes from the very people you’ve spent tour adult life despising and denigrating.

Picasso is the prime example of an artist who made the transition with style, buying suits at the finest London tailors, living in style with his numerous mistresses, and still managing to convey a raffish bohemian air. Jackson Pollock is a tragic example of the Boho artist who couldn’t cope with this sudden clash of identities. Wolfe describes the time Pollock arrived at the uptown apartment of his mega-rich sponsor Peggy Guggenheim to find a dinner party full of Top People. Pollock promptly stripped naked and pissed in the fireplace – but the Top People were delighted: this was precisely the outrageous artistic antics that, by the 1950s, the haute bourgeoisie expected from its pet artists. Spiralling into alcoholism, Pollock died by crashing a car which he was driving when drunk, in 1956.

No modern artist can escape his fate – which is to a) adopt the Bohemian pose until b) he or she is taken up by the art-loving elite, and finds their anti-bourgeois snarling is rewarded by dinner party invitations and cocktails. Neutered. Caged.

Cultureberg because the art world is run by a tiny clique of super-rich patrons and sponsors, who pay for the little galleries, commission grand works, fund little magazines, hold lavish opening night parties, and support the big museums. In a spirit of mockery Wolfe calculates that the entire global art elite – the culturati, the denizens of Cultureberg – number 750 in Rome, 500 in Milan, 1,750 in Paris, 1,250 in  London, 2,000 in Berlin, Munich and Dusseldorf, 3,000 in New York and maybe 1,000 scattered round the rest of the world. Say, 10,000 in all. A large village-sized population of artistic elite which decide who and what is the New Thing.

Wolfe makes the telling point that their decisions are generally announced in the pages of various magazines, as profiles and features, and in galleries as major shows or retrospectives. The public – which votes with its wallet when it comes to music, theatre, books or movies – has no such choice when it comes to art. The decisions are all made by the tiny art elite and only then do we, the public, get presented with a fait accompli.

Big money and high art

Thus, as he puts it, Modern Art – which was largely begun before the Great War – only became widely known after the Great War, not because anyone understood it better – but because the global elite found a use for it. It was only in the 1920s that the word ‘modern’ became so tremendously fashionable (as, Wolfe points out, ‘now’ was a buzz word of the 1960s – the ‘Now Generation’, and possibly ‘digital’ is the word of our era).

New York’s Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 having been developed by three rich women,  Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil), Lillie P. Bliss (daughter of a U.S. Secretary of the Interior) and Mary Quinn Sullivan (wife of a lawyer specialising in large wealth trusts). Its first president was Anson Conger Goodyear, Director and Vice-President of various railroad companies and he recruited Paul Sachs, son of the founder of Goldman Sachs, and Frank Crowninshield, editor from 1914 to 1935 of Vanity Fair.

Art has always gone hand in hand with money, back through Renaissance princes to medieval kings, through the monuments built to commemorate Caesars and pharaohs. What is distinctive about modern art – and especially in America – is the hilarious contradiction between the aggressively anti-bourgeois stance of so many Boho artists, and the staggering wealth of their patrons and sponsors.

A cartoon history of modern art

Barely had this trend got going, claims Wolfe, than it stalled with the regrettable interruption of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. During the 1930s a lot of artists were put on the spot about their actual anti-bourgeois sentiments and found themselves churning out scores of images of brawny workers and downtrodden blacks. Fortunately (says Wolfe, in his breezily ironic tone) the Second World War came to America’s rescue, destroying Europe and making God’s own country the world’s first superpower but also – from the modern artists point of view – sweeping away the social realism of the 1930s which was now – in the cold light of the Cold War – looked suspiciously like commie art.

And so it was, with a loud whooshing sound, that the forward march of Modern Art resumed its stomp with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, a dazzlingly new style which foxed the general public (as all good new art should) but drove Cultureburg wild with excitement. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman – in their significantly different ways – produced a complete revolution in thinking about art which was a) God’s gift to intellectual theorists b) a specifically American look which Peggy Guggenheim and indeed the Federal Government could back and support c) and whose repercussions are still with us.

The battle of the bergs

The central and longest section of the essay is a deliberately distorted lampoon on the work of the two fashionable critics who promoted Abstract Expressionism – Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. First Wolfe caricatures the way the two men supported different artists in the movement by writing analyses of every-more dizzying intellectual abstruseness. For Greenberg the Cubists et al had correctly rejected Victorian realism and the absurd notion that a painting is a doorway into life, into a scene; but they had not gone far enough – you can still make out sort-of realistic objects in Cubism and related movements.

The Abstract Expressionists had gone one decisive step further and acknowledged that the painting is just a flat surface on which shapes and colours are arranged. In fact the flatter, the better, and Wolfe satirises Greenberg’s writings as increasingly shrill demands for evermore flatness, while at the same time decrying the great American public for not understanding the heroic work being done by this handful of tortured geniuses in Downtown New York.

Rosenberg entered the scene early in the 1950s and is responsible for a crucial extra element – he reintroduced psychology into what was in danger of appearing a very stale formal pursuit by coining the term ‘action painting’ (p.51). The painting isn’t a thing (no matter how flat). It is the record of an event and that event is the heroic manly painter wrestling with the inchoate materials of the universe to express his own deep existential angst.

Wow. So puzzled millionaires could now feel liberated to buy these splats of paint across huge canvasses (Pollock), these shimmering blocks of colour (Rothko), these disturbing lightning flashes against washes of plain colour (Newman), these blown-up black gestures which defied the universe (Franz Kline) because a) this showed how clever and up to the minute they were b) this showed how much soul and feeling and emotion they had and c) it showed how goddam American they were, and proud of it!

As early as 1949 poor Pollock was being hailed as the greatest American painter ever, not only in the art press, but to the wider world in a four-page spread in Life magazine. His famous drip paintings were made in the relatively short period 1947-50 and his later experiments, first with totally black works, then a return to more figurative, were not welcomed by critics or the art coteries who expected him to keep delivering the good. In a way it’s surprising he soldiered on till 1956.

And he died just as the new kids arrived on the block. Apparently Pop Art is dated to Jasper Johns’ one man show at the Castelli Gallery in 1958. American flags, numbers, letters, targets. He was quickly taken up by another berg, this time Leo Steinberg who, in Wolfe’s jokey narrative, manages to trounce both Greenberg and Rosenberg by declaring Abstract Expressionism not flat enough! This was because, despite the fact that it was all about the action on the surface of the canvas, in fact the Abstract Expressionist paintings still – if looked at a certain way – still had a sort of depth. You can be drawn into a Pollock or a Rothko.

However, the new young guys – led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – painted things which were already flat – the flag, numbers, target, letters or the photographs which Rauschenberg liberally sprinkled in his works. It was flat on flat. Flat squared. Ha! Gotcha!

But while Steinberg developed an arcane theory around Pop – claiming that it didn’t depict household objects in a realistic way, no, no no, no no, that would be a retreat back to figurativism, no no, Pop caught the interplay of signs which were such a feature of American life – a nod to the semiotics and structuralism becoming fashionable over in France – while Steinberg laboured to give Pop a sophisticated intellectual rationale, Wolfe sniggers that in fact rich collectors liked Pop Art because it was about super-recognisable and, ultimately, very reassuring things. It was American, it was fun, it was cool and above all, it was great to look at. Marilyn Monroe’s face blown up big and coloured in. What’s not to love?

Wolfe satirises Steinberg’s own confession that he resisted at first; he clung, like a virgin, onto his old beliefs, his devotion to action painting as revelation of the agonising struggle of the Great Artist. The shallowness of the new work upset him, but then – bang! – he got it. This was the next thing. Abstract Expressionism died overnight and all the galleries filled up with earnest Pops. Who also sold like hot cakes, much to the disgruntlement of the AEs who a) had never in fact sold that much and b) suddenly found themselves in the embarrassing position of being the old fuddy-duddies.

The Turbulence Theorem

Wolfe lampoons Steinberg’s resistance-then-submission story, saying it embodies what could be called the Turbulence Theorem of modern art:

If a work of art or a new style disturbed you, it was probably good work. If you hated it – it was probably great. (p.88)

The ever-increasing pace of art theory

Wolfe remembers attending the 1965 Museum of Modern Art show which launched Op Art, short for Optical Art, but which its practitioners preferred to call Perceptual Abstraction. The catalogue recapitulated the history of modernism – the cubists rejected the window-on-the-world idea, Abstract Expressionists had established the art work as an object as real as a table or chair – now Perceptual Abstraction reduced art to an experiment in the science of perception – to the response of cones and rods within the eye and to synapses of the retinal nerves as they processed the deliberately mesmerising geometric patterns of Perceptual Abstraction. Hence the name.

But Greenberg and Rosenberg fought back with their own post-Pop style, which they christened Post-Painterly Abstraction, also known as Colour Field Abstract or Hard Edge Abstract which was painting with the brushstrokes and everything expressive taken out. Not quick enough, though, because in the mid to late 60s another big school emerged which came to be called Minimalism. In his cartoon way of telling the story, Wolfe invokes the Turbulence Theory i.e. it can’t be any good unless you hate it. Thus the critic Robert Scull was walking down Madison Avenue and saw a wall of pictures which were apparently completely white. They were in fact white paper with a few super-faint words ghostly written in a corner, by someone called Walter de Maria. Scull disliked them so much he realised they must be genius, bought them all, phoned the artist and became his sponsor on the spot!

But even as Op Art got publicity Minimalism was stirring. Colour? Pattern? Canvases? How derriere-garde, how bourgeois! Paint direct on the gallery wall (Sol Lewitt). Put a pile of bricks on the floor (Carl Andre). A stack of metal shelves up the wall (Donald Judd). Neon tubes in a corner (Dan Flavin).

But these can still be bought and sold like any other commodity and displayed in art galleries, yuk, to be silently revered by the hypocritical bourgeoisie! Reject the art gallery, comrades! And so began Earth Art – a circle of rocks in the desert (Richard Long).  A spiral made of mud and salt into the Great Salt Lake (Robert Smithson). Photographs of the work would have to be enough for the smug uptown liberal elite.

But then, why have an actual object at all? How very bourgeois! Why not just have the idea for a work? Conceptual art.

And each successive wave prompted shrieks of outrage from the middle-brow press? Excellent! We must be doing something right. Classic conceptual art reduced the whole enterprise to words – documentation – describing and explaining what the art work would or could be. There was fierce competition to be the most conceptual of the conceptualists, which Wolfe thinks was won by Lawrence Weiner with his Declaration of Intent (1968).

1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

No paint. No canvas. No gallery. Nothing but words. And with this – Wolfe jokes – Art disappeared up its own fundament and re-emerged as pure theory, as words shorn of anything representational at all.

Epilogue

Where do you go after you’ve completely abolished your form? Well, post-modernism turns out to be the answer. The best explanation I heard of this troubled idea is that the core idea of MODERNISM is that there is ONE NARRATIVE – from Cezanne through Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Dada, Suprematism, De Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art, you can argue the case that there has been a steady series of waves, all operating under broadly the same parameters, each one represented by an avant-garde of pioneers who critics, collectors and public perceived as a kind of unified set of experiments on a single journey forwards, towards…

And post-modernism just stepped away from this whole story. Turns out there are hundreds of stories, thousands of stories, why get hung up about this particular one? You can have all or any of them, like flavours in an ice cream parlour. The very idea of ONE avant-garde which everyone had to look out for, keep up with, and which represented the latest step in an exciting voyage of discovery… over. Finished. Kaput!

Maybe the most interesting aspect of Wolfe’s hilarious romp through (then) recent art history is that he shows you how quickly it happened and how long ago all this is – and that by the time he wrote it in 1975, something like post-Modernism had set in. Meaning, a return to guilt-free figurative realism. He singles out the Photo-realism of Richard Estes, who takes colour photos of banal street scenes (generally shop facades) blows them up very big, projects them on a screen and then carefully paints them.

In the recent exhibition of American prints at the British Museum, some prints of Estes’ Photo-realist works follow the black and white lines of the Minimalist room and are accompanied by artists who returned to the deeply unfashionable genre of portrait painting, namely Alex Katz and Chuck Close. Their work just seems very, well, relaxed, after the existential agonies of the Abstract Expressionists. You look back at the tortured artists of the 1950s and think – to use the American expression – ‘Oh, just get over yourselves.’

The return of the repressed Boho

So what happened next? In the British Museum exhibition post-modernism is represented by a return to Estes’ street scenes, a load of portraits and various realistic depictions of the human form. What interested me was that around 1980 the show stopped being chronological and became thematic, collapsing into three isshoos – gay art around AIDS, feminism and gender, and African American art.

The casual viewer can’t help feeling that these represent a return of the wish to épater le bourgeoisie – the rallying cry of the late-19th century French avant-garde – i.e. to shock the middle classes. Reading the captions here and at the numerous other art exhibitions I go to, you get the sense that artists, and especially critics and curators, wish they were back in the age of modernism, when art genuinely did shock and stun and amaze, when it genuinely ‘transgressed’ and ‘subverted’ something, when it counted for something, goddammit, when it did shock and change wider society a little – and weren’t living now, in the age of finance capitalism, the age of Trump and post-factual politics, the age of Instagram and Facebook and instant liking and friending, when nothing much has any meaning or depth.

I looked around at my fellow ageing, white middle-class visitors to the American prints exhibition at the British Museum: were any of them shocked and outraged by graphic depictions of AIDS or slave ships or a feminist from the 1970s subverting gender stereotypes? Nope. To coin a typically powerful American phrase, I think the curators are confusing us with someone who gives a shit.

Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

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