Women artists in the 20th and 21st century ed. Uta Grosenick (2003)

Taschen is an art book publisher founded in 1980 by Benedikt Taschen in Cologne, Germany. They specialise in publishing art books about less well-covered topics including queer, fetish and erotic art. This relatively small-format (15.3 x 20 cm), high-gloss art book does what it says on the tin and features four-page spreads on 46 women artists of the 20th and 21st centuries – each gets two pages of text about them facing two pages of representative images, whether paintings, sculptures, photos of installations or performances etc.

German

The text is sourced from a range of experts on the various artists, but they and the introduction by Ute Grosenick, are all translated from the German. The resulting prose often feels heavy, in fact is sometimes incomprehensible – and is not helped by the liberal use of the kind of artbollocks which is required to explain and make sense of most of the artists from the 1960s onwards.

Wordy yet uninformative

Here’s the opening of the article about Andrea Zittel.

An inundation of stimuli and pressure to consume are two of the operative terms continually used with regard to the influence of mass culture on the individual. The former supposedly leads to distraction and nervous overloading, the latter to an awakening of futile needs, prestige thinking, and meaningless superficiality. Andreas Zittel’s blithe ‘applied art’, at first glance ascetic but in fact quite sensuous, can be interpreted against the background of this discussion. She stands, as it were, on the other shore and her mundane ‘art world’ lacks every form of moralising attack, overhasty critique, or complaining cultural pessimism. Rather, the lifestyle she offers is rife with both pragmatic and utopian aspects, and upholds the dignity of the individual within mass culture without losing sight of the factor of desire. (p.186)

On the basis of this passage what do you think Zittel’s art consists of or looks like? Would you expect to see paintings, installations, sculptures, film or video?

For me the key word in this verbose, pseudo-intellectual but strangely prim (‘with regard to’) and ultimately uninformative style is ‘supposedly’. The use of this word in the second sentence undermines the whole of the remainder of the paragraph. It indicates that the writer (Raimar Stange) is hedging their bets. Mass culture and consumer culture ‘supposedly’ lead to nervous overload and superficiality.

Stange invokes these concepts (which are key to understanding Zittel’s resistance to them) but is anxious to emphasise that she is not so naive as to actually ‘believe’ in them. No, the use of ‘supposedly’ indicates that she is dealing with ideas which may satisfy the mainstream media and uneducated plebs, but that you and I – who have read our Foucault and Lacan and Barthes and Derrida and Deleuze (heavily referenced in her text) always use with forceps (even if we are forced by the demands of publishing and writing for morons) to base our entire analysis of a living artist on them.

She wants to use pretty straightforward banal truisms of our time to explain Zittel’s work – but she is painfully aware that the ideas she’s invoking are, well, pretty commonplace, and so writes supposedly just to let us know that she’s cleverer than that. She’s having her cake and eating it.

(If you want to understand what Zittel’s very distinctive ‘art’ is like and how it ‘lacks every form of moralising attack, overhasty critique, or complaining cultural pessimism [but ] rather …. offers a lifestyle rife with both pragmatic and utopian aspects, and upholds the dignity of the individual within mass culture without losing sight of the factor of desire’ check out her Wikipedia page, where you will discover that some of those descriptions are actually very accurate – once her project has actually been explained a bit.)

Clichés

Alternatively, the writers resort to clichés and truisms. Admittedly, writing about art is difficult. Having read all the introductions and all the wall labels for over 100 exhibitions over the past five years I am all-too-aware of how you have to say something, and so there is a terrible temptation to just fill up the space with plausible-sounding padding. Still, there’s no excuse for just writing empty clichés.

Which artist would you say this is describing?

This is an art on a continual search for the meaning and possibility of personal identity, which both emotionally appeals to and intellectually challenges the viewer. (p.44)

It could be quite literally about any artist, ever.

Alphabetic order

The artists are arranged in alphabetical order, which is one way to do it. But an unintended consequence is that the first 40 or 50 pages are of modern artists, whose work, dating from the 1960s and afterwards, tends to be highly experimental, with lots of installations, photos of performances, film and video and so on.

Women’s bodies / sex

Also women artists from this era often depicted the naked female body in ways designed to subvert the way it’s depicted in ‘traditional’ male art, undermine ‘the male gaze’ and so on. But the unintended cumulative effect is of lots of chaotic scenes and naked women. The Vanessa Beecroft entry features 16 colour photographs of extremely attractive naked or scantily clad woman. We’re still on B and this tends to set the tone for the way we read – and see the images of women in – the rest of the book.

Take, for example, the work of Viennese artist Elke Krystufek (b.1970). Her entry begins by describing  how, at a 1994 group exhibition JETZTZEIT, she bared her breasts and masturbated in a mock-up of a comfortable bathroom in front of gallery guests, starting with her hand and progressing to using a dildo and vibrator. After she climaxed in front of everyone, she got into the bathwater and relaxed.

As in many of Krystufek’s works, the performance addressed the interrelationship between (male) gaze and (auto)erotic pleasure, as well as the interplay between artistically staged identity, feminist emancipation, and the female body. What at first sight may seem like a crude and narcissistic provocation, brusquely ignoring the distinction between the public and private spheres, turns out in the end to be a deliberate game in which social orders and their unconscious normative ascription – intent on authoritatively determining all expressions of sexuality – are consciously subverted. (p.116)

I know plenty of men who’d love to have watched their ‘unconscious normative ascriptions’ being subverted in this way. I wonder if she videoed it? Can’t find it on YouTube, but there is this work, which, I think you’ll agree, pretty much annihilates the Male Gaze.

Here’s another ‘subversive’ work by Marlene Dumas.

‘Because the images are culled from porn magazines, sex in Dumas’ paintings is stripped of its erotic charge’. Got that? These images have no erotic content whatsoever.

Phallocentrism and the castrated woman

In  a 1973 essay titled ‘Visual pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, the film director, scholar and feminist Laura Mulvey examined the relationship between the patriarchal unconscious, the pleasure derived from looking , and the conventional image of woman in cinema and society. Male phallocentrism, Mulvey observed, has defined woman’s role in society as ‘an image of the castrated woman.’ In order to ‘arrive at a new language of desire’, this definition must first be analysed, after which the (visual) pleasure derived from perceiving these images should be destroyed. (p.116)

44 years later I wonder how the project to destroy the visual pleasure to be derived from viewing ‘the conventional image of woman in cinema and society’ is getting on. Maybe it will take a few years more. Or decades. Or centuries.

Traditional art

Away from hard core sexual imagery, ‘traditional’ art – in the form of oil painting – is relatively rare in this book. The names which stand out are Sonia Delaunay, Natalia Goncharova, Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner, Tamara de Lempicka, Georgia O’Keeffe and Bridget Riley, with Barbara Hepworth as a ‘traditional’ Modernist sculptor. Reading their entries is a relief because there is a lot less about masturbation, sex, vaginas, gender and identity.

Also their work, being so traditionally restricted to painting and sculpture, has been thoroughly assimilated and so is easy and so is a ‘pleasure’ to read.

Middle way

But there is another group, a sort of middle way of plenty of women artists who don’t feel the need to masturbate in public, paint themselves or other women naked or generally harp on about female sexuality. There are plenty of strange and interesting women artists.

Hanne Darboven’s obsession with numbers which seems to have led to walls covered with sheets of papers with various mathematical formulae or combinations of numbers all over them – Wunschkonzert (1984)

Isa Genzken’s abstract sculptures – Guardini (1987)

Mona Hatoum’s cool detached sculptural objects – Kapan (2012). She is now widely acknowledged as one of the leading living artists in the world.

Eva Hesse’s minimalist sculptures – Right After (1969)

Rebecca Horn – admittedly more naked women, but in a genuinely beautiful, aesthetic way – Unicorn (1969), and the later work seems entirely abstract – High Noon (1991)

Kiki Smith – disturbing installations featuring animals and birds – Jersey Crows (1995)

The list of artists

I’ve read criticism saying there’s a bias in the artists selected towards German and European artists, though the bias I noticed was towards American artists. A third of them are or were based in New York, testimony to the centrality of that city – centre of global capitalism, awash with bankers’ money – to the post-war art world.

Here’s the full list. I indicate country of origin and country where they ended up working, link off to some works, and link their names to reviews of exhibitions about or featuring them:

  1. Marina Abramovic – b. 1946 birthplace Yugoslavia, Workplace Amsterdam – Performances
  2. Eija-Liisa Ahtila – b.1959 Finland, Finland – The House (2002) 14 min DVD
  3. Laurie Anderson – b.1947 Chicago, New YorkHome of the brave
  4. Vanessa Beecroft – b.1969 Italy, New York – VB45 (2001)
  5. Louise Bourgeois – b.1911 Paris, New YorkCell
  6. Lygia Clark – b.1920 Brazil, Brazil – A Morte do Plano (1960)
  7. Hanne Darboven – b.1941 Germany, New York
  8. Sonia Delaunay – b.1885 Ukraine, Paris
  9. Rineke Dijkstra – b.1959 Netherlands, Netherlands
  10. Marlene Dumas – b.1953 South Africa, Amsterdam
  11. Tracey Emin – b.1963 England, London
  12. VALIE EXPORT – b.1940 Austria, Cologne – Action Pants, Genital Panic (1969)
  13. Sylvie Fleury – b. 1961 Geneva, Geneva
  14. Isa Genzken – b.1948 Germany, Germany
  15. Nan Goldin – b.1953 Washington, New York
  16. Natalia Goncharova – b.1881 Russia, Paris
  17. Guerilla Girls –
  18. Mona Hatoum – b.1952 Beirut, London
  19. Barbara Hepworth – b.1903 Yorkshire, St Ives
  20. Eva Hesse – b.1936 Hamburg, New York
  21. Hannah Höch – b.1889 Germany, Berlin
  22. Candida Höfer – b.1944 Germany, Germany
  23. Jenny Holzer – b.1950 Ohio, New York
  24. Rebecca Horn – b.1944 Germany, Germany
  25. Frida Kahlo – b.1907 Mexico, Mexico
  26. Lee Krasner – b. 1908 New York, New York
  27. Barbara Kruger – b.1945 New Jersey, New York
  28. Elke Krystufek – b.1970 Vienna, Vienna
  29. Tamara de Lempicka – b.1898 Warsaw, Mexico
  30. Sarah Lucas – b.1962 London, London
  31. Annette Messager – b.1943 France, Paris
  32. Mariko Mori – b.1967 Tokyo, New York
  33. Shirin Neshat – b.1957 Iran, New York
  34. Louise Nevelson – b.1899 Kiev, New York
  35. Georgia O’Keeffe – b.1887 Wisconsin, Santa Fe
  36. Meret Oppenheim – b.1913 Berlin, Basle
  37. Elizabeth Peyton – b.1965 Connecticut, New York
  38. Adrian Piper – b.1948 New York, Cape Cod
  39. Bridget Riley – b.1931 London, London
  40. Pipilotti Rist – b.1962 Switzerland, Switzerland
  41. Niki de Saint Phalle – b.1930 France, California
  42. Cindy Sherman – b.1954 New Jersey, New York
  43. Kiki Smith – b.1954 Nuremberg, New York
  44. Rosemarie Trockel – b.1952 Germany, Germany
  45. Rachel Whiteread – b.1963 London, London – House (1993)
  46. Andrea Zittel – b. 1965 California, New YorkA-Z

Insights from Ute Grosenick’s introduction

In the second paragraph of the introduction Ute Grosenick says there is a ‘gender war’ going on. Alright. It does seem likely when you read any academic work about modern art or any newspaper.

It’s interesting to learn that the first women-only exhibition was held in Amsterdam in 1884. Women-only exhibitions were held in Paris in 1908 and 1918. But there were few female art teachers, women members of national art academies, women art dealers networking among women artists, as well as bans on women attending some or all classes in most art schools.

Grosenick gives the impression that there were two great boom periods in 20th century art:

  • The decade from just before to just after the Great War saw Art Nouveau, Expressionism, Fauvism, Futurism, Cubism, Vorticism, Constructivism, Dada, Abstract Art, Neue Sachlichkeit and Surrealism.
  • The decade from the mid-60s to the mid-70s saw an explosion in the possibilities and definitions of art, exemplified by Pop Art, Op Art, Conceptual Art, Land Art, Fluxus, Arte Povera, Happenings, Performance Art, Body Art and Minimalism.

She says the 1980s were ‘a decade of disillusionment for most women artists’.

She says that the rise of gender studies in universities reflects the way ‘the critical examination of the significance of one’s own and other people’s gender… is becoming ever more central to art’. In my experience of recent exhibitions, I would say that gender and identity are becoming almost the only way in which gallerists and curators can now relate to art.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of exhibitions of women artists I’ve been to

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers @ Barbican Art

This is an absolutely brilliant exhibition, packed with poignant, arresting, funny and striking images, beautifully laid out, thoughtfully designed and carefully displayed.

The exhibition

It is an exhibition of photographs of Britain in the 20th century as observed by foreigners. 

Leading British photographer Martin Parr has chosen generous selections from 23 international photographers who visited Britain between the 1930s and the 2000s to convey how they captured the social, cultural, and political identity of the UK through the camera lens. As Parr explains, the subject matter maybe familiar (or over-familiar) to us inhabitants of these rainy islands – but seen through alien eyes and lenses it becomes something new and unexpected. Hence both familiar and strange at the same time.

Each photographer has an alcove or room to themselves with a selection of around 20 images each. Reading the lengthy wall labels about each photographer and then paying careful attention to each image is a profoundly pleasurable and satisfying experience but also very filling. It took me a good hour and a half just to do the top floor (13 photographers).

Photobooks

Alongside the photos on the wall, the exhibition is lined with display cases containing rare and out-of-print 20th century photobooks. In fact Parr, in his introductory speech at the opening of the exhibition, explained that the whole project arose from his habit of showing and sharing his own extensive collection of photobooks about Britain and wondering what a wonderful idea it would be to display their images more publicly.

Some of the photobooks are directly related to the exhibits on the walls; but others include work by photographers not actually included in the show (like several featuring the work of László Moholy-Nagy and, the one that caught my eye, The Battle for Waterloo Road with photos of bombed-out London by American photo legend Robert Capa). It is another element which adds to the feeling of profusion, of a super-abundance of imagery and art.

Accessible design

The exhibition is designed by London-based architects Witherford, Watson, Mann, and is noticeably stylish, subtly varying the colours of the walls, the way the photos are hung (different patterns and layouts for each photographer), for the way there are benches scattered about for the strolling punter to sit and reflect and, most strikingly, for the big ‘library’ space on the ground floor with tables and chairs and a generous selection of photobooks to sit and leaf through. It is a photography fan’s dream come true.


Part one – the first floor

Edith Tudor-Hart (1908-73) (15 photos) studied at the Bauhaus and was a communist émigré from Germany who married an English doctor and then used photography as a left-wing instrument to awaken social consciences. She took photos of the poor in London, south Wales and the industrial North East, among the slum housing of Tyneside.

Edith Tudor-Hart. Gee Street, Finsbury, London, ca. 1936 © Edith Tudor-Hart / National Galleries of Scotland

Edith Tudor-Hart – Gee Street, Finsbury, London, ca. 1936 © Edith Tudor-Hart / National Galleries of Scotland

She was also, the exhibition casually mentions, a world class spy for the USSR, who helped in the recruitment of Kim Philby and the Cambridge spies, which muddies your perception of her imagery and your sense of her motivations. But there’s no doubting the power of her photos and the variety of locations she was able to access.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) (24 photos) One of the most famous photographers of the 20th century, Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book The Decisive Moment set out a theory of how to capture a moment which tells a story, and the 24 photos here are certainly vivid and telling moments in the great civic pageants he chose to attend (the coronation, Royal Ascot etc).

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London, 12 May 1937 © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London, 12 May 1937 © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Just from these first two photographers you get a strong sense of:

  1. England (not the rest of the UK)
  2. in fact, lots of London
  3. the weather’s awful, grey skies or rain
  4. toffs in hats…
  5. … contrasted with abject poverty

Robert Frank (b.1924) American photographer and film director (15 photos) the selection here is taken from his work London/Wales, a photobook resulting from his photographic forays into London (top hats, posh) and the coal mining districts of South Wales (bleak, poverty-stricken).

Six of his 15 photos were of miner Ben James or his family, depicted in their knackered poverty. There’s one of him washing his upper body in a tin baby bath in the front room which really brings home the privations of the period.

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Of strong left-wing sympathies, American photographer Strand visited the Outer Hebrides in 1954 and took a series of photos there. Compared to the naked poverty recorded by Tudor-Hart, Strand’s portraits of the islanders seem highly posed, and they radiate the pride and dignity of their subjects. He is one of the few photographers in the exhibition to snap inanimate objects, framing square-on shots of natural or man-made material which powerfully captures their grittiness, their feltness. He feels more consciously artistic than the previous three.

Cas Oorthuys (1908-75) (24 photos) Dutch photographer Oorthuys was a left-wing artist in the 1930s. In the 1950s he collaborated on a series of pocket travel books featuring, among other locations, London and Oxford. There were the usual London buses, relaxers in Hyde Park, students at Oxford, they are all very well done, but I found his images a little posed.

Cas Oorthuys - London, 1953 © Cas Oorthuys / Nederlands Fotomuseum

Cas Oorthuys – London, 1953 © Cas Oorthuys / Nederlands Fotomuseum

Sergio Larrain (1931-2012) (22 photos) Larrain was from Chile and came to visit and photograph Britain in the winter of 1958-59. He brought a consciously modernist or arty approach, with shots deliberately taken at angles, from odd vantage points, with deliberately out of focus elements, all giving a sense of buzzy black-and-white dynamism.

Sergio Larrain - London. Baker Street underground station. 1958-1959. © Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

Sergio Larrain – London, Baker Street underground station 1958-1959. © Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

Larrain’s photos (and the preceding works) all give the accumulated sense of a hard-pressed, dogged people living in a cold, depressing climate, and dominated by the top hats of the effortlessly posh.

Evelyn Hofer (1922-2009) (20 photos) a German émigré to the US, Hofer provided the pictures to several 1960s photobooks, text by V.S.Pritchett, made during visits to England in 1962 (black and white) and 1974 (colour). She used a 4 x 5 viewfinder camera which was, apparently, cumbersome and slow. Hence her photos, especially of people, look very static and posed which, cumulatively, gives them a distinctively formal and rather solemn feel. Posing at a wedding.

Bruce Davidson (b.1933) The American Davidson is represented by 13 b&w shots from his trip here in 1960, and five colour pics from 1965. His photos of Brighton and Hastings beach make the English seaside look the forlorn pitiful thing it so often is.

Gian Butturini (b.1935) The Italian Butturini visited England in 1969 and captured images of the late-period Swinging city, hippies, stoned parties and loud gigs, which resulted in his coolly laid-out photobook, London. After soaking up 150 powerful images of poverty and discomfort, it is a relief to see some people actually enjoying themselves.

Frank Habicht (b.1938) A German, Habicht was a freelance photographer in the 1960s when he came to London and produced the photos which went into the photobook, We Live In London. London was, by all accounts, a permissive paradise, which means lots of beautiful young women took their clothes off, and his 12 photos here are the first to show a bare boob. The sight of these happy, scantily clad young women makes you stop and reflect what an incredibly long way the country had come in just thirty years from the bleak 1930s poverty so powerfully depicted by Tudor-Hart. (Not that we should make the common mistake of forgetting that lots of the country continued to live in one-up, one-down, outside toilet squalor for decades to come.)

In 1967 and again in 1969 American photographer Garry Winogrand (1928-84) travelled through the UK, using a wide angle lens and creating deliberately askew compositions.

  • man in bowler hat
  • posh man wearing monocle
  • man in kilt playing bagpipes in a public toilet
  • woman in top hat standing by a huge phonogram

Winogrand’s 24 images confirm the cumulative sense that England is neither nice nor lovable, and how little its essential infrastructure has changed: terraces of brick houses, cracked paving stones, ugly unhappy people, dogs barking at each other. The commentary says these photos are little known and this appears to be confirmed by the way I can’t find any trace of them on the internet.

Candida Höfer (b.1944) German photographer Höfer takes a very conceptual approach to photography, exemplified by her visit to Liverpool in 1968, the city of poets and the Beatles. But instead of bohemian hi-jinks, this installation shows precisely 22 square black and white photos arranged in a Teutonic grid shape, which strongly convey a sense of loneliness and alienation among the 1960s developments, in the windy bus stations, the grimly functional waiting rooms, the soon-to-be-demolished tenements and eerily empty docks.

Candida Höfer - Liverpool IX (1968) © Candida Höfer, Köln; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015

Candida Höfer – Liverpool IX (1968) © Candida Höfer, Köln; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015

Akihiko Okamura (1929-85) Japanese photojournalist Okamura moved to Dublin to cover the conflict in Northern Ireland right at the end of the 1960s. His work from this time is represented by 23 low-key, colour photos which I found absolutely brilliant – showing army barricades, road blocks, demonstrations and bombed out streets, and spots where civilians have been wounded or killed – but all underplayed and understated. Probably the most powerful is a simple image of six milk bottles on a doorstep – amid so much mayhem and death, it is impossible not to feel terrified by their fragility and vulnerability.

Akihiko Okamura - Northern Ireland, 1970s © Akihiko Okamura / Courtesy of the Estate of Akihiko Okamura, Hakodate, Japan

Akihiko Okamura – Northern Ireland, 1970s © Akihiko Okamura / Courtesy of the Estate of Akihiko Okamura, Hakodate, Japan

Gilles Peress (b.1946) Frenchman Gilles Peress is represented by an installation of 51 black and white photos presented as a continuous band along the wall, titled The Prods, the result of annual visits over nearly two decades to Northern Ireland. These were brilliant, ad hoc snaps, blurred, exposed, capturing people, life, a culture, in a stream-of-consciousness visual narrative, bowler-hatted Orangemen marching, two kids standing on the crappy brick gateway to a church, Protestant couples snogging after a march or lying in the sunshine.

Part two – Downstairs

Downstairs are ten photographers covering the period from 1977 to the present day, these works are generally a) in colour b) shown as massive prints.

Shinro Ohtake (b.1955) Ohtake is ‘one of Japan’s leading contemporary artists’. He came to England in 1977, year of the Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols, understanding nothing of the language and began photographing everything he saw, and also collecting detritus and ephemera and pasting them into scrapbooks. He is represented here by 24 big b&w photos arranged in a 4 x 6 grid of so-so scenes, plus display cases with maybe 100 small prints – so-so because they descend to almost everyday level ie are not as strikingly special as much of the work on offer elsewhere.

Tina Barney (b.1945) American, Barney’s portraits of the British upper classes are huge, three or four foot tall, colour photos of people posed in semi-formal surroundings. Because of their scale and colour, the commentary refers the tradition of big formal oil portraits and maybe there is the ghost of John Singer Sargent buried deep in these images (very deep). Big shots of two Eton boys, a waiter and customer in a posh restaurant, the butler attending on the owner of a big country house in the drawing room by a formally laid table. The commentary says they ‘touch’ on class ie they record the rich. The example below is the only one which doesn’t capture an overtly well-heeled subject.

Tina Barney - The Red Sheath, 2001 © Tina Barney, Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery

Tina Barney – The Red Sheath, 2001 © Tina Barney, Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery

Raymond Depardon (b.1942) Frenchman Raymond Depardon was commissioned to make a photobook of Glasgow and so came to visit in 1980. But his images of a city ravaged by unemployment and industrial decline were, in the end, turned down for being too depressing. The series is represented by 21 colour shots of drunks passed out in the street, urchins in back alleys, derelicts outside gambling shops, more drunks huddled in the gutter, a boy crying against a boarded up shop front. What a terrible place to be a child, or a human being.

Rineke Dijkstra (b.1959) From the Netherlands, Dijkstra came to prominence for her series of teenage girls on a beach (two of them are currently on show at the Botticelli exhibition at the V&A). In 1994 she came across the Buzz Club in Liverpool and was fascinated by the queues of under-dressed teenagers waiting outside in the shivery cold. She took a series of portraits of these young teenagers, represented by three massive colour examples here. I found these heart-breaking examples of the way barely pubescent girls are pushed into wholly inappropriate clothes and behaviour by an adult society obsessed with sex.

Jim Dow (b.1942) American photographer represented by six very big colour photos from his series Corner shops of Britain – no people at all, just the interiors of the disappearing breed of small local shops, a nostalgia for chippies, corner stores, haberdashers,  a general store, a woollen shop. Entirely empty of human presence, the humanity captured in the array of dowdy products.

Axel Hütte (b.1951) is a latterday representative of the so-called Neue Sachlichkeit, the New Objectivity which flourished between the wars, recording with Teutonic precision modern social architecture. His 12 big b&w shots are empty of people, instead recording the lines, spaces and vistas created by Peabody estates, 1960s tower blocks, concrete walkways and stairwells of Brutalist concrete. I like clear lines, squares, rectangles, formality, so I warmed to these frigid images.

Bruce Gilden (b.1946) American Gilden was commissioned to take images of people in and around London, leading to the photobook A Complete Examination of Middlesex (2011), then another project to record the working class of the West Midlands, recorded in Black Country (2014). He is represented by six absolutely enormous colour photos in extremely big close-up of some staggeringly ugly English people, the faces of the men an exploding landscape of skin disease, scars and acne, and the several women all grotesquely made up, spouting hairs and wrinkles. It is quite an assault on the senses to face such ugliness in such unremitting detail.

Hans van der Meer (b.1955) Dutchman van der Meer goes to the other extreme, with his project to photograph Sunday league football matches. From an artfully placed step-ladder he uses a wide angle lens to capture the breadth of muddy football pitches on which the players scamper like matchstick figures, in fact the commentary points out his debt to the Dutch tradition of landscape painting in which teeming figures swarm over, say, an iced-over lake. The eight very big colour photos here were commissioned by the National Media Museum in Bradford in 2004.

Hans van der Meer - Mytholmroyd, England, 2004 © Hans van der Meer / Courtesy of the Artist

Hans van der Meer – Mytholmroyd, England, 2004 © Hans van der Meer / Courtesy of the Artist

The final room in the exhibition is given over to a video which, on closer examination, is a silent slideshow of hundreds of colour photos taken in the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham by Dutch photographer Hans Ejkkelboom (b.1949). He has arranged the images into grids and sequences according to similarities of dress, colour, shape, design, logos, patterns of what people are wearing etc. The commentary says he is ‘questioning the construction of identity and self-representation’, which means he is pointing out that huge numbers of people fondly imagine themselves to be individuals while wearing the same mass-produced tat. The slideshow is haunting and hypnotic and a fitting finale to an amazing show.


Thoughts

What an immense cultural change took place in the 30 years between around 1935 and 1965! It didn’t affect the majority of the population but still, it began opening doors to new ideas and higher expectations of life which are still clanging open for every succeeding generation.

Recurrent images

Certain topics are so recurrent as to become clichés – London with its top- or bowler-hatted gents in the City, and its posh extensions to Ascot or Glyndebourne, private school children and nannies in the park, London buses, the London Tube – compare and contrast with working class poverty, the slums of the East End or Liverpool or Tyneside or Glasgow, the terrible lives of South Wales coal miners, there are lots of urchins in countless back streets. And then a horrible glut of images from our very own civil war in Ulster.

Absent topics

Which makes you reflect on the subjects which aren’t here. Britain had quite a big theatre, classical music and art scene in the second half of the 20th century. Nothing of that here. In fact, Britain along with the United States more or less invented rock music and spawned some of the biggest names in pop and rock and disco and punk. Nothing here.

Although we all live in cities, the British are notoriously sentimental about our countryside which can be ravishing, from the cliffs of Cornwall through the rolling West Country to the mountains of Wales or the spectacular Lake District. Nothing of that here. We are also a nation of gardeners, in love with thousands of species of flower and plant. Not reflected here. We invented football and cricket and rugby. Not here (with the exception of Hans van der Meer’s Sunday league shots, the exception which proves the rule).

People

It’s overwhelmingly an exhibition of people, and people on the streets or in urban settings (with the notable exceptions of Hütte’s empty housing estates, Dow’s empty shops and Höfer’s derelict Liverpool).

I wondered if this is some kind of intrinsic bias in photography itself, which biases it towards the human face and form?

Are people just more interesting than buildings or hills – is the part of the brain which processes faces and expressions and postures capable of infinite stimulation?

Or, if you’re a freelance photographer and paid to produce a photobook on London or England, do you dare not include buses and taxis and men in bowler hats? Is the narrowness of the subject matter a function of the photobook commissioning process?

Or, given that the entire show is curated by Martin Parr who has a well-documented fascination with the strangeness and quirkiness of people, does the focus on people and the absence of many other ‘British’ subjects reflect his particular interests?

Or a bit of all three?

Trends

A few obvious trends emerge over the 70 years the show covers.

  1. The prints get bigger – a LOT bigger, reflecting maybe the technology which allows for bigger prints, maybe the trend for photographers to think of themselves as Artists, commanding the same size and status as painters.
  2. More colour – As you approach the present day more of the photos are in colour. Colour, as I noticed at the exhibition of Martin Parr’s big colour prints at the Guildhall Art Gallery – is more unsparing of its human subjects, showing up blemishes and imperfections. Black and white for romance and glamour (even scenes of poverty have a certain nostalgia in black and white); colour for irony and satire.
  3. Cynicism – As a result of the above two trends, the most obvious thing about the more recent photos is their distance and detachment, bordering on cruelty. Tudor-Hart or Strand’s photos are full of compassion. Modern colour photography, on this showing, is characterised by its heartlessness.

Photography and identity

One wall label suggests that it is a ‘timely’ moment for an exhibition like this to shed light on our national identity, at a time when the independent or devolved nations are threatening the complete unravelling of the United Kingdom. But is it?

That unravelling shows no sign of happening any time soon. And, anyway, the show doesn’t shed any systematic light on cultural identity – instead it captures scattered moments, personal views, or aspects of quite narrowly conceived photographic projects: only tiny aspects of Scotland (the Outer Hebrides in the 1950s, the mean streets of Glasgow circa 1980) or Wales (lots of miners), and only the Ulster of ‘the Troubles’. And time and again England is represented by London and London is represented by the same shots of buses and bowler hats, cheeky chappy market traders or hippies in Notting Hill.

So I don’t think the exhibition sheds that much light on issues of national identity. I just think it’s a massive collection of quite brilliant photos, which can be enjoyed in their own right as works of art and, taken together, comprise a fabulous journey of discovery through the visual worlds of some of the world’s greatest photographers. What’s not to love?


Related links

Reviews of past exhibitions at the Barbican

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