Breath by Samuel Beckett (1969)

In 1969 Kenneth Tynan wrote to Beckett asking for a contribution to his hit stage revue, Oh! Calcutta!, which made headlines because of the extensive use of full-frontal nudity.

Beckett replied with the stage directions for what must be one of the shortest plays ever written. Some versions barely last a minute. Longer ones stretch it out to two minutes. Here are the directions:

Curtain.
1. Faint light on stage littered with miscellaneous rubbish. Hold for about five seconds.
2. Faint brief cry and immediately inspiration and slow increase of light together reaching maximum together in about ten seconds. Silence and hold about five seconds.
3. Expiration and slow decrease of light together reaching minimum together (light as in 1.) in about ten seconds and immediately cry as before. Silence and hold for about five seconds.

Rubbish No verticals, all scattered and lying.
Cry Instant of recorded vagitus. Important that two cries be identical, switching on and off strictly synchronized light and breath.
Breath Amplified recording.
Maximum light Not bright. If 0 = dark and 10 = bright, light should move from about 3 to 6 and back.

That’s the full text in its entirety. In other words, the stage lighting comes up on a pile of rubbish for a few seconds, there is the distant sound of the cry of a newborn baby followed by a big breath in accompanied by the light growing, followed by a big breath out as the light fades, a repeat of the cry of a newborn baby, then fade to black.

There are quite a few versions on YouTube and one of the funny things about them, taken as a group, is how few of them adhere strictly to Beckett’s directions, but feel the need to add and elaborate and embroider the bleak simplicity of the original.

Absurdist joke

On one level it’s clearly a sort of joke, in the same sort of absurdist spirit as John Cage’s 4’33” or Marcel Duchamp’s urinal – a reduction of theatre to almost its minimal possible components in order to see what the bare bones look like, to see what the most reduced idea of a theatrical piece can be. And yet at the same time be a work which is interesting in its own right – just like John Cage’s 4’33” or Marcel Duchamp’s urinal.

The unsustainability of a nihilistic attitude

At the same time it’s also a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the nihilistic attitude (I hesitate to use the word ‘philosophy’ because although Beckett likes to refer to canonical philosophers and difficult philosophical ideas in his works, he is not a philosopher and doesn’t propound a philosophy) expressed in the famous line from Waiting For Godot:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

In other words, we are born into a heap of rubbish, cry at our entrance, our entire existence can be summarised as a couple of breaths, and then there is the second cry of our death. Here’s another version, clearly inspired by Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi.

But as I remarked of that line in my review of Waiting For Godot, this nihilistic worldview is simply not true and everyone knows it’s not true. Lots of people live long, complex and fulfilling lives. People play computer games and chess, make discoveries, run theatres, write plays, go to art festivals and galleries and football matches, go scuba diving and skiing, build houses and cars, drive across America, join the army, join the navy, go to school, go to church, have children, grandchildren and quite a bit more.

It takes a special kind of imagination to see human life as simply a matter of two cries of pain and a handful of breaths set against a pile of rubbish, and a special kind of mindset to think this could possibly be true. It takes quite a bit of education to be quite this self-deluded.

Of course as a simplified allegory of human existence, as a symbol of a particular worldview, then fine. Paint what you like, draw what you like, write what you like. But as a depiction of the so-called ‘human condition’, it is profoundly untrue.

The unstoppable human instinct to tinker

And this is exactly the point driven home when you watch the half dozen or so short productions of Breath on YouTube – not one of them does it straight, just films Beckett’s simple directions; almost all of them feel compelled to add and embroider and elaborate in all kinds of ways, whether it’s bringing in the music of Philip Glass or a load of slides about the Nazis and the Holocaust.

Now there is where you have the real human spirit or experience – the endless urge to tell stories, tell anecdotes and jokes, harrow with horror, set to music, hum, sing, dance, plunge into grief, gossip about work colleagues, keep a diary, share instagram photos.

The multiplicity of productions which betray Beckett’s simple spartan and crystal clear stage directions, they’re the ones which tell you about ‘the human spirit’, the spirit which can’t stop itself adding, embroidering, inventing, yakking on, adding a new bit, what about some music, hey let’s project some slides, shall we add wheels, how about a flashing light on top and a siren. Humans: incorrigibly gabby.

In fact this betrayal of Beckett’s vision occurred right at the start, when the creator of Oh Calcutta, Kenneth Tynan, gratefully received Beckett’s contribution but thought, ‘Well, that’s a bit boring, let’s adapt it to suit the vibe of our bravely nude stage show’ and added a number of naked men and women to the production. As Beckett’s biographer, Deirdre Blair put it:

‘In one of his few displays of public anger, Beckett called Tynan a “liar” and a “cheat”, prompting Tynan to send a formal notice through his lawyers that he was not responsible for the travesty, which he claimed was due to others … Beckett decided the incident wasn’t worth the argument and dropped it.’

When you think about it it’s a delicious irony, because lovely naked young men and nubile young women, powerful symbols of fertility and sex and the Life Force are pretty much the exact opposite of the nihilistic and bleak ‘philosophy’ the piece supposedly exemplifies.

Drop it, Sam. Walk away. It’s just people, Sam, doing what they do, adding bells and whistles and go-faster stripes. I know you intended it as a searing indictment of the human condition, but the producer wanted boobs and bums.

Beckett as writer not ‘philosopher’

I am interested in Beckett, I am reading my way through his complete works, because I think he is an extraordinary writer – he conceives of language and the scenarios language can conjure and the tension between what can barely be called its ‘subject’ and the wrecked tatters of language it is conveyed in, with extraordinary originality. He repeatedly takes language to entirely new places, creating a kind of powerful and original dynamic interplay between form and content which is unparalleled.

But I don’t think his subject matter is true, good grief, what an idea. It is merely the subject matter he needs to create in order to develop the linguistic effects he is interested in. The white boxes which the narrative finds its protagonists stuck inside in the so-called ‘skullscapes’ or the people crawling through the mud in How It Is are objective correlatives or symbols or scenarios or setups which justify the extreme linguistic experimentation, the phenomenally strange and eerie way he handles the language.

The producers of the Beckett On Film project asked artist Damian Hirst to film it but even though part of an attempt to produce canonical versions, Hirst’s version simply omits the baby’s cry, the vagitus at beginning and end. It’s almost as if the text’s brevity and simplicity taunts producers to over-ride it.

The triumph of stage directions

And, quite obviously, this micro-drama also represents the triumph of stage directions over content. It’s easy to find critics and commentators lauding Beckett as among the greatest prose explorers of the 20th century, and I would whole-heartedly agree. But not so many people make the just-as-obvious point, that he was one of the greatest writers of stage directions.

All of the plays contain very, very detailed stage instructions specifying every aspect of the set, of props, what the characters are wearing, the kind of lighting, exactly how they move, how they speak or whisper or pause.

There’s the story of the hapless Americans who had the bright idea of staging Endgame but setting it in a disused New York subway station. Oops. It is comic and instructive to read the outraged response this prompted from Beckett himself, who tried to get the production stopped and, when that failed, got his lawyers to ensure that the following note was inserted into the programmes for the production:

Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this.
(quoted in the Wikipedia article)

What I’m driving at is that many of the later plays can be seen as the triumph of stage directions over prose content. Thus the short work Come And Go really consists of the tightly choreographed movements of the three women. The two Acts Without Words cease to have any dialogue at all, and are what they say on the tin, mimes. Similarly, Quad consists of the wordless movement of four humans dressed in shrouds through a complex series of positions on a stage set conceived as a mathematical quadrant, not really resembling anything we associate with the word ‘play’.

Even some of Beckett’s most famous works can be seen as the triumph of mise-en-scène over content. The only thing most people know or remember about Happy Days is that it’s about a woman trapped up to her waist in a mound of sand trying to look on the bright side of the situation.

Similarly, it’s not really necessary to understand any the text spoken in Not I to be dazzled by the beautiful simplicity of having the stage (or camera) focused entirely and only on a disconcerting close-up of the yammering mouth.

And Krapp’s Last Tape can be summed up as a knackered old man listening in anguish to tape recordings of his much younger, more confident self.

Prose there might have to be, language might be required, to make plays go, to allow a production to go ahead. I’m just suggesting that the stage setups and the fantastically detailed stage directions Beckett supplied to all his dramatic works is at least as, and sometimes maybe more, important than the supposed semantic content of the texts, their so-called ‘philosophy’ and so on. The setup and the actions are the play.

So, to repeat, a minute-long work in which we simply hear the cry of a newborn baby set against a rubbish dump, is brilliantly minimalistic, reduces Beckett’s so-called philosophy of life to one piercing image – but is also a kind of epitome of his theatrical practice.

The law of unintended adaptations

Last point. I suppose there is a cheeky connection between Beckett’s minimalism and the way so many of the interpreters on YouTube and elsewhere have felt free to embroider it. Maybe Beckett’s work survives and his reputation endures precisely because, contrary to his emphatic and repeated directions, the very minimalism, especially of the later plays, allows directors and producers a surprising amount of creative freedom.

More, as I hinted earlier, it’s almost as if the super-precise stage directions are tempting producers to ignore this or that aspect of them, and to improve on Beckett’s vision – to make it contemporary, make it diverse, bring it up to date, make it relevant to the age of social media, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and so on.

There’s some kind of perverse law of human nature at play, almost as if the more precise Beckett’s directions became, the more free later generations of producers have felt to bugger about with them,


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The Bristol Museum & Art Gallery opened in 1906 with money donated by Sir William Henry Wills, scion of the extensive Wills family which had made its fortune in the tobacco trade and was also instrumental in founding Bristol University. Their contribution is commemorated in the inscription on the museum’s monumental neo-classical facade, and also in the vast, neo-Gothic Wills Memorial Building built next door. The university, art gallery and the nearby Royal Western Academy all owe their existence to tobacco money.

Facade of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Facade of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The modern museum contains a bewildering variety of exhibitions and displays: it’s Bristol’s equivalent of the Natural History Museum, the V&A and the National Gallery all rolled into one. I walked through a display on the geology and geography of the Bristol area, past another on local dinosaur fossils, past the Chinese silver, ignoring the lure of the Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, and bypassing an exhibition about objects from the British Empire…

Because my focus was on climbing up to the second floor where a series of five rooms house a lovely collection of fine art. The gallery owns some 1,300 paintings and 200 sculptures. The selection on display is arranged chronologically in rooms covering the Renaissance to the Baroque, the 18th century to Romanticism, Victorian art, contemporary and modern art, with a room devoted to French 19th century art. Lots of beautiful pieces by a wide variety of artists over an immense period, touching on countless stories, ideas and issues. The art alone is a feast for the eyes and mind.

European Old Masters: From religious devotion to artistic discovery 1300 – 1700

There’s a vast difference between the still-cranky, half-medieval, exploratory art of the early Renaissance, and the full-bodied Titian and Rubens style from the 1600s, those artists usually referred to as the Old Masters. This one room shows the development from the early Renaissance to the full-blown European style.

Personally, I prefer the earlier period, and art from the Northern as opposed to the Italian Renaissance. I’ve explored this fully in my review of a book about Art of the Northern Renaissance. For me Northern Renaissance art still has its roots in the best of the medieval worldview: it is humane, its portraits are realistic and characterful, the North eschews mathematically correct perspective for compositions which foreground gorgeous patterns on tiling or fabrics, and in the background are sumptuously green and fertile north European landscapes, the kind of countryside I love going for walks in. All these elements are present in this work from the second half of the fifteenth century.

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child (1440-75) from the workshop of Dieric Bouts

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child (1440-75) from the workshop of Dieric Bouts

Compare and contrast with the works, especially anything with a landscape, of the Italian Renaissance. These tend to lack the gorgeous medieval interest in fabrics or tilework; the landscapes are harsh, barren, dry and rocky; the deployment of perspective and vanishing points may be more mathematically correct (as in the tunnel in the work below) but, in my view, create an arid perfection. It is psychologically more intense (the way Christ has his back turned toward us is very dramatic, as is the figure holding his hands over his ears to block the horrific trumpeting of the devils); but visually less pleasing.

The Descent of Christ into Limbo by Giovanni Bellini (1475-80)

The Descent of Christ into Limbo by Giovanni Bellini (1475-80)

The Age of Enlightenment and the Birth of Romanticism

The 18th century is the great age of ‘civilised’ behaviour, of polite gentility in art and culture, the age of China tea sets, coffee rooms where bewigged gentlemen debated a form of politics characterised by dominant characters rather than by the political parties we have nowadays, an age of royal scandals and almost permanent war against the French for control of the world. The heyday of historic paintings depicting thousands of naval and land battles which we have completely forgotten about.

For example, the Saints are a group of islands which lie between Dominica and Guadeloupe, where the Royal Navy won a famous victory over the French in 1782. This victory put us into a better bargaining position for the peace negotiations when the American War of Independence ended two years later – and it was considered a fitting subject for a history painter like Nicholas Pocock.

The Close of the Battle of the Saints (1782) by Nicholas Pocock

The Close of the Battle of the Saints (1782) by Nicholas Pocock

Sensitive portraiture flourished, the two giants of the mid-century being Thomas Gainsborough and the prolific Joshua Reynolds. Here is Gainsborough setting the unrealistically smooth complexion of his sitter against the luxurious folds of her expensive blue silk dress. The pearl choker gives definition to both face and costume. In her left hand, she is keeping the pink roses fresh by holding them in what I’ve just learned was called a ‘bosom bottle’.

Ann Leyborne Leyborne (1763) by Thomas Gainsborough

Ann Leyborne (1763) by Thomas Gainsborough

Further along the same wall is Gainsborough’s rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder and first president of the Royal Academy, with a frankly so-so portrait of Frances Courtenay (Lady Honeywood) and her daughter. White skin, rouged cheeks, big dress and – the great clichés of this kind of portrait – the hint of classical architecture in the background (here a classical balustrade, usually a classical column) and the sumptuous red curtain as if for a stage set. All the ingredients are here, but it’s not his best – the depiction of the little girl is poor, isn’t it?

Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood and her daughter (1784) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood and her daughter (1784) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Places of desire: Victorian and Edwardian Art 1840 – 1920

I am a bit weary of modern curators and literary critics talking about ‘desire’: it’s a prissy, bourgeois, drawing room way of indicating ‘sex’ without being vulgar enough to come straight out and say so. It’s an easy term to attach to any depiction of the human body, as if you’re making an illuminating comment. It’s a dispiriting euphemism for an age which is obsessed with sex but hasn’t got the guts to confront it head on, which doesn’t want to face up to the ragged embarrassments of sex and libido, which wants to smooth messy human activities out into a polite term which is acceptable to the most prudish of academics. Whether or not you agree with my view, there’s no doubt that modern academics, scholars and curators often impose their bloodless notion of ‘desire’ onto the very different values and ideals of artists far removed in time and space from our sex-obsessed culture.

In fact, in this whistle stop overview of the Victorian room, I’d say there’s little or no actual desire in evidence – far more obvious is a lovely dreamy sensuality.

The Garden Court (1892) by Edward Burne-Jones

The Garden Court (1892) by Edward Burne-Jones

By this late stage of his career Burne-Jones had perfected the ‘look’ of his paintings which combined multiple copies of the same blank-eyed maidens with their rather triangular heads, apparelled in simple, chaste but sumptuously folded dresses, in settings usually drenched in flowers and natural imagery. Maybe there is ‘desire’ in this painting, if you’re determined to find it anywhere there’s a depiction of the human body – but, to my eye, it’s far more a depiction of the characteristically Victorian taste for simple, sensuous dreaminess.

Similarly, the most striking painting in the collection is of a knight being quite literally entranced and put into a hypnotic, dream-like state – La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1901) by Frank Dicksee

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1901) by Frank Dicksee

The Victorian room was quite empty so I had a go at standing with my hands in the same posture as the knight, arms outstretched, looking up. It’s a highly unnatural pose, it feels like a peculiar trance position as of a man, maybe as per the fictions of our own time, taken over by aliens or turned into a zombie.

It’s a massive painting and you can walk right up and see that his eyes seem to have become silvered over, like a man in a sci-fi story. The more you look the more you see the strange power flowing from the Lady’s eyes directly into those of the damned knight, bewitched and enslaved.

Close-up of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee

Close-up of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee

This was my favourite room. As I’ve grown older and soaked up more stories of the world’s empires, slaveries, holocausts, massacres and murders, of its endless wars and pogroms, of man’s escalating destruction of the planet and all the species on it – I feel less embarrassed about enjoying the good things, the beautiful things, the luxury and sensuality of life. It’s over quickly enough. Celebrate.

Daedalus equipping Icarus (1895) by Francis Derwent Wood

Daedalus equipping Icarus (1895) by Francis Derwent Wood

And late Victorian statuary achieved a perfection of detail which eluded even the ancient Greeks. I was in Bristol to visit my grown-up son and having a son adds layers of meaning and poignancy to this sculpture of Daedalus equipping Icarus because, of course, Daedalus is lovingly and carefully and unwittingly preparing Icarus for his death.

1895 was the year when science fiction arrived in England in the form of H.G. Wells’s masterpiece, The Time Machine. I took a Wellsian interest in the precise nature of the flying equipment Daedalus is tying to his son’s arms. Would it work? It appears to be eminently practical: the straps round Icarus’s (perfectly shaped) chest secure the majority of the wing equipment to his body, while the straps over the biceps attach the upper wings to the arms, and the hands grasp lanyards attached lower down the wing. What could possibly go wrong?

Detail of Daedalus equipping Icarus by Francis Derwent Wood

Detail of Daedalus equipping Icarus by Francis Derwent Wood

A shiny marble statue of a woman sleeping might be pressed into being an image of ‘desire’, but for my money is, again, much better described as an aspect of dream. Militating against the description of ‘desire’ is the simple fact that she is fully clothed. After all, much of Victorian poetry, under the influence of Tennyson, was similarly dreamy, escapist, seeking marmoreal perfection amid the filthy clatter of the Industrial Revolution.

<em>Sleeping nymph</em>(1850) by E.H Bailey

Sleeping nymph (1850) by E.H Bailey

This mood of refined and rather upper-class sensibility continued on past the death of Victoria. This late example from 1910 shows the influence of Whistler’s fin-de-siècle experiments in tone, making the palette conform to one register, depicting a soulful upper-class lady, such as drift sensitively through the pages of Henry James.

The Mackerel Shawl (1910) by Algernon Talmage

The Mackerel Shawl (1910) by Algernon Talmage

After all this richesse, these dreamy myths and lazing ladies, I myself was feeling rich and dreamy — but there were two rooms left to explore.

French art and impact

In the French room 23 paintings and one sculpture capture the development of French 19th century painting from salon and realist art towards the early days of impressionism, featuring less well-known works by Vuillard, Ribot, Boudin, Carriere, Daubigny and Fourain. There is a work apiece by the well-known Seurat, Corot, Sisley, Pissarro, Sickert and Monet. Having settled into a lazy late Victorian groove I warmed to A River Landscape by Karl Dabigny.

A River Landscape (1880) by Karl Daubigny

A River Landscape (1880) by Karl Daubigny

It reminds me of some of the haunting late landscapes set in Scotland by Millais. If you like Impressionism there are a handful of characteristic works, like The Entrance to the village by Alfred Sisley.

The Entrance to the village (1870s) by Alfred Sisley

The Entrance to the village (1870s) by Alfred Sisley

I think my favourite was the pre-Impressionist work by the great realist painter Gustave Courbet, a coastal view titled Eternity. A photo doesn’t do justice to the depth of colour and the ominous sense of cloud, sky and surf.

Eternity (1869) Gustave Courbet

Eternity (1869) Gustave Courbet

Off to one side of these developments in what is, essentially, one genre – landscape painting – stand the experimental, highly symbolic paintings of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, vague and amateurish-seeming – the catalogue describes them as ‘fragmentary and intimate’ – but strange and hypnotic.

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) by Gustave Moreau

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) by Gustave Moreau

Modern and contemporary art

Definitely feeling super-saturated with wonderful images, I stumbled into the final room, a survey of modern and contemporary art. This bright white room contains 15 paintings and five sculptures by big names such as Richard long, David Nash, Victor Pasmore, Howard Hodgkin, Spencer Gore. Barbara Hepworth was represented by a characteristic wired sculpture.

Winged Figure I (1957) by Barbara Hepworth

Winged Figure I (1957) by Barbara Hepworth

Bringing us right up to date is a gee-whizz painting by Damien Hirst, aged 52 and said to be the richest artist now or who has ever lived, with an estimated worth of around £1 billion.

Beautiful hours spin painting IX (2008) by Damien Hirst

Beautiful hours spin painting IX (2008) by Damien Hirst

And everyone’s favourite Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, who is represented by A ton of tea shaped into a cube. Having visited Ai’s big retrospective at the Royal Academy, I know that Ai, like Hirst, works in sets or series, and so this cube of tea is just one of countless other cubes made from numerous other materials.

A ton of tea (2007) by Ai Weiwei

A ton of tea (2007) by Ai Weiwei

Summary

This is a really fabulous collection of West European art from the last five hundred years, including and referencing numerous periods and schools, traditions and histories. It is well worth travelling to Bristol to see, especially considering the fact that admission is totally free!

Beyond the rooms, the corridors and landings are also dotted with striking paintings and more sculptures. Probably the most popular is this work by Banksy, the street artist born and bred in Bristol. It is a Victorian stone statue of an angel with a pot of red paint thrown over its head.

Paint Pot Angel (2009) by Banksy

Paint Pot Angel (2009) by Banksy

According to the wall label:

The intention is to challenge what people expect to see in a museum like this and question the value we place on art. Banksy displayed this work amongst the museum collections during the 2009 exhibition ‘Banksy versus Bristol Museum’, after which he donated it to Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives.

Much more ‘challenging’ would be to explain to visitors the completely different worldviews, the cultural, social, technological, moral and religious values of historic periods remote from ours like the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the 18th century or the Victorian period – their anxieties, their moral panics, the values they admired and looked up to – but that would take time, a lot of time, a lot of study and reading, and sensitive sympathetic imagination.


Related links

Other Bristol reviews

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2015

The 247th Royal Academy Summer show and about the sixth one I’ve visited. Maybe familiarity is dulling the impact but nothing here really set me alight, as I’m sure it has in the past. The reverse: I am getting used to seeing the same names, styles and approaches cropping up year after year, which gives it rather the feel of a local school fete, with all the usual stalls, manned by the usual enthusiastic volunteers.

Still, with 1,131 items on display, in almost every conceivable medium, in every size and covering a vast range of subject matter, most of them for sale at prices from bargain basement to outrageous, there is plenty to like, dislike or say ‘My God, how much?’ to.


In the courtyard, an enormous metal assemblage of rusting metal girders arranged in Vorticist rectangles, cubes and geometrical shapes – The Dappled Light of The Sun by Conrad Shawcross RA (b.1977). The sun came out and did, in fact, dapple us as we walked under it.

Inside, the steps leading up from the foyer to the main galleries had been painted with crazy day-glo stripes by Jim Lambie (b.1964). Looks good from above.

Michael Craig-Martin CBE RA unveiling a new site-specific artwork by Jim Lambie for the Summer Exhibition 2015  © David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Michael Craig-Martin CBE RA unveiling a new site-specific artwork by Jim Lambie for the Summer Exhibition 2015 © David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Part of the hang is, apparently, to have painted the rooms in bold colours – turquoise, magenta – which I thought were simply the kind of Farrow & Ball pastel backdrops you get at any exhibition until I read about them. Each of the rooms is allotted to a different curator to make a personal selection and all have a wall panel explaining the thinking behind the selection and layout. Though some of the rooms have a distinct feel – a few felt empty apart from a small number of large works, the sculpture room felt cluttered with objects on racks, plinths and the floor, the architecture room was filled with tables supporting utopian cityscapes – for the most part the wall panel explanations bore little relationship to the actual sensory experience.

I liked, or at least noticed, the following:

In the first room, the hexagonal Wohl Central Hall, centrally placed on a plinth is a life-size replica of a Greek statue made out of slices of coloured plastic – Captcha No.11 (Doryphoros) by Matthew Darbyshire (b.1977). Above it hung Liam Gillick’s Applied Projection Rig, the use of bright colour and plastic, in this, the statue and the painted stairs, all feeling a bit 1960s.

The Central Hall of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

The Central Hall of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

The second room was painted a shocking pink. Above the door were hung half a dozen fluorescent tubes shaped into circles with writing, as pioneered above American diners in the 1950s – Homo Bulla (Man Is A Bubble) by Michael Landy RA (b.1963). The writing was in a cursive script so neither of us could read what they said, but they were pretty.

On the left, in the photo below, you can see Untitled (Watch) by Michael Craig-Martin CBE RA (b.1941). Craig-Martin specialises in turning ordinary objects into highly stylised square-on line drawings, slightly like the precise technical drawing style of the later Tintin cartoons, filled in with bright unshaded primary colours. Later rooms featured Fragment Coffee Cup (screenprint £3,000), Fragment Briefcase (£3,000) and so on.

Gallery III of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Gallery III of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

A small panel of arrow shapes in a rigid geometric lines and bright colours created an optical illusion. Thorns 11 (£6,000) was one of a series of related works by Tessa Jaray RA (b.1937), which also included Borromini’s Balustrade (£12,000) and Light 2 (Diptych) (£18,000). Jagged, entrancing.

My son liked a big painting of a red tree, Tree No.7 by Tony Bevan RA (b.1951), visible on the right in the pink photo above. In a later room I liked Cork Dome by David Nash OBE RA (b.1945). A few years ago an exhibition of his large wood sculptures was hosted at Kew Gardens, where they fitted right in. This one would have sat better in a large room full of similar works.

I liked A Fall of Ordinariness and Light by Jessie Brennan (b.1982) which looked like a charcoal sketch of a 1960s Brutalist council block but is in fact a treated digital print, but had then been rumpled and creased. I’m a sucker for any painting or image which has been degraded, has fraying edges, bits of newspaper, card or wood or real-world detritus stuck on it, a key characteristic of Modern Art since Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Picasso and Braque pasted newspaper fragments onto canvas, but which always excites me. As if the work is reaching out of its frame into the real world. Or is infected by the universal crappiness of the dusty, diesel-fume, swirling-litter-and-peeling-posters-on-broken-hoardings reality of the cityscapes which imprison us.

I write a blog about walks in the country on which I take photos of landscapes and buildings, generally adopting the same square-on approach, carefully framing the subject so it has equal space above and below and to either side. Which explains why I warmed to Red Roof (£345) a photo by Rachel Mallalieu. You can hear the sea and feel the cracking of the shingle as you walk across it.

Waiting for Spring (£525) a linocut by Louise Stebbing, charming prints following in the footsteps of Ravilious and a thousand others hymning the English countryside. Follow Louise Stebbing on twitter.

My son particularly liked this atmospheric oil painting of what you see in the car headlights alone at night in the middle of nowhere – the kind of scene you see in movies hundreds of times but rarely see depicted in ‘art’ – Luther Road by Donna McLeanwho was also represented by Sarah Lund.

Round the corner, in the relatively small Gallery I, hung an enormous tapestry by everyone’s favourite cross-dresser, Grayson Perry CBE RA (b.1960). Julie and Rob is a large cartoon, is it not, a deliberate reduction of line and colour to an almost Simpsons-like level of simplicity. A snip at £69,600, but then – it is enormous!

Julie and Rob (2013) Grayson Perry CBE RA Courtesy the artist, Paragon/Contemporary Editions and Victoria Miro, London

Julie and Rob (2013)
Grayson Perry CBE RA
Courtesy the artist, Paragon/Contemporary Editions and Victoria Miro, London

Hanging on the wall next to the tapestry, my son really liked Window With Screen No.2 (£10,000) by David Tindle RA (b.1932). He thought it was nice and relaxing. Near it was a watercolour of the small figure of a man walking across burning fields, Fire Burnt The Land Like A Language (£5,000) by David Firmstone MBE. I like Modernist angularity in paintings and sculptures, and a certain amount of dirty realism ie showing the world as it actually is, and I liked the poignancy of the smallness of the human figure.

In the same spirit I liked Forsaken in acrylic and pen (£1,000) by Deborah Batt. It has the squareness I like and the realism of a graffiti-covered world but transmuted into something clearer and simpler, on the way towards the style of a graphic comic, maybe.

Liking objets trouvés and applied to the surface of a work, I liked Periscope Dazzle (£450) by Stuart Newman, a round hollow metal cog used to frame the image of a battleship as seen from a U-boat periscope. I liked the tarnished rust effect round the outside of the cog.


The Architecture room

There’s always a room devoted to architecture which I humorously think of as the Room of Shame, where high-minded fantasists create utopian cityscapes made of perfect loops and shapes, completely ignoring the reality of the dirty, polluted, congested cityscapes they have so far managed to create for us lowly proles to actually inhabit.

For example, Silicon Roundabout is the title of a shiny photograph by Grant Smith of the Old Street roundabout in London, centre of a lot of hype about London becoming a hub of digital/internet technology as important as Silicon Valley in California. I commute via this tube station twice a day and walk along the side of the hoarding in the centre of the photo which has the words ‘White Collar Factory’ printed on it, and the experience is one of jostling overcrowding, diesel pollution from the endless buses, and grit, sand and dust filling eyes, nose and hair from the permanent building sites surrounding the roundabout. This photo makes it look stylish and modern but it is a horrible, anti-human space. How many of the other shiny photos, architects designs and ‘artists’ sketches’ in this room conceal similarly degraded realities.

On the walls and liberally displayed on angular tables were the usual science fiction fantasies of vast air terminals or futuristic cities (some of which have actually been built in China or some such far-off places). In addition, this year, the walls were lined with the wise sayings of various architects and critics. Far more than artists, architects fancy themselves as gurus, as designers of life, as creators of whole ideal environments for people to live in (strangely heedless of the traffic-dominated, windswept, plastic-shopping-centre nightmares most English towns have become under their guidance).

‘Where people meet, ideas collide and inventions begin,’ was the contribution from Richard George Rogers, Baron Rogers of Riverside, CH, Kt, FRIBA, FCSD, HonFREng (b.1933). Next to it these words from Piers Gough (b.1946): ‘Of course, architecture is really inventive land escape.’ The ‘of course’ says everything, everything you need to know about the lofty, de haut en bas, guru-to-his-disciples spirit in which World Architecture and its superstars operate. The play on words in ‘land escape’, well…

The funniest thing about the Room of Shame was the way these engineers of the human soul, these people who claim to understand human nature intimately and deeply enough to create entire city and townscapes catering to our every need, had designed tables holding their fantastical designs which featured gaps between the models at about bum height…

Since this was the fifth or six room in the show, quite obviously a number of visitors had done the entirely natural thing and leant or even perched on these empty bits of table. With the result that big signs had had to be fixed to the tables in every possible perching space shouting DO NOT SIT – beautifully epitomising the failure of groovy modern design to understand the most basic of human needs, the need for a bit of a sit-down and a rest. Reminding me of the NO BALL GAMES, NO PLAYING signs on the green spaces of a thousand council blocks I’ve seen over the decades. ‘We have designed these masterpieces of philosophical architecture,’ the signs say: ‘Now don’t you dare mess them up by actually living in them’.

My son – who is studying biology – really liked the Urban Flora Propagation Field Box (£4,000) by Laurence Pinn, Ben Kirk and Andrew Diggle, and was genuinely upset by the strident DO NOT TOUCH sign next to it. God forbid children should get interested in science or try out, test and play with a bit of scientific equipment. Our work is to admire, not to use.

In the same spirit we both liked the chess set where the pieces were miniature versions of famous buildings and – we realised – black represented modern buildings (the Shard, the Gherkin, the Mobile Phone) and white represented old (Tower Bridge, St Paul’s). Franklin’s Morals of Chess (Jade) (£1,960) by Karl Singporewala, a nifty reworking of the perennial theme of the Battle of Ancient and Moderns. But which, inevitably, had a big sign next to it saying DO NOT TOUCH. God forbid people should actually play a game with it…

Explore more images from the architecture room


Back to art

Oddly for a room of architecture designs, on one wall hung 40 etchings of the Galapagos islands in the distinctive black-and-white and easily enjoyable style of Norman Ackroyd CBE RA (b.1938). Birds wheeling, guano-covered cliffs, crashing waves. His etchings appear every year but are usually seascapes of the Orkney and Shetland islands and, sure enough, in another room are works with titles like Whitby, Gannets on Flannen, Thirsk Hall in winter, Morning Sunlight Bempton. Priced from £500 to £1,000 these would be lovely objects to own.

In the next room was an example of the instantly recognisable style of Cathy de Monchaux  (b.1960) – Asylum (£28,000) – a kind of shallow vitrine containing a miniature scene constructed from copper wire, medical plasters, pigment, feathers and silk, the delicacy and medieval fantasy subject matter – apparently some unicorns in a wood – contrasting vividly? poignantly? strikingly? with the metallic modern-ness of the materials.

My son liked what looked like two big boards or sides of wooden crates, onto whose visible grain small images had been painted – Noon Fishing and Dawn Fishing by Mick Moon RA (b.1937). So did I for the reasons outlined above about enjoying the involvement of rough or raw materials in art.

Michael Craig-Martin (b.1941) who I mentioned earlier, has always seemed to me the artistic father of cool Young British Artist Julian Opie (b.1958); whereas C-M applies a hard-outlined brightly-coloured approach to objects, Opie creates large bright cartoon-style images of people, most famously in his cover art for the Best of Blur album back in 2000. This year he is represented by Tourist with Beard (screenprint with hand painting) (£8,600) and Walking in the Rain, Seoul (£23,500).

Julian Opie  Walking in the rain, Seoul  From Walking in the rain (2015)

Julian Opie – Walking in the rain, Seoul
From Walking in the rain (2015)

Allen Jones RA (b.1937), recently the beneficiary of a major retrospective at the RA, featured with some of the yellow, cartoon-like, soft porn paintings he does nowadays – Second Thoughts and Salome. Writing ‘cartoon’ reminds me of the Craig-Martin and Opie and, indeed, the Grayson Perry. Is it a trend to treat objects and the human figure as if they were idealised shop window mannekins?

Anthony Green RA always appears in the show, with six of his quirky, cartoony (that word again) portrayals of domestic life (often his own) – a kind of ruder, hairier, male version of Beryl Cook. The Birds: A Second Marriage and The Bureau: Afternoon Sun give you the flavour of his comic realism, often with the canvas or surface itself cut out around the shape of an object in the image, like the artist’s face or glasses. Maybe there is no trend. Maybe I’m just realising that I like cartoons. Cartoons and photographs.

Professor David Mach RA (b.1956)’s enormous sculpture of a gorilla made from coathangers was the outstanding work of the 2010 show. This year he was represented by six works of which I only noticed Sunimi and a golden Buddha, both a tad pricey at £29,500. (Article about Mach)

Because I like novelty, sculpture and harsh subject matter, I immediately liked Margaret Proudfoot’s War Work (Ypres), a three-yard-square map of the field boundaries of a patch of the Ypres battlefield made entirely of barbed wire (£3,500), striking, original, entirely fitting, horrible to contemplate (or touch) yet totally fragile, the photo doesn’t do its scale or its delicacy justice.

In front of it was an over-lifesize dominating sculpture by Michael Sandle RA (b.1936) – As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap: An Allegory (Acknowledgements to Holman Hunt) – a parody or spoof of Holman Hunt’s famous 1853 pre-Raphaelite painting, The Light of The Worldin which the figure of Jesus has been dressed in modern fighter pilot outfit and helmet, clutching the decapitated heads of the innocent children he’s bombed to death, and with Hunt’s illuminating lantern converted into some kind of death ray machine. It’s almost as if the artist is telling us that War is Bad.

On the wall, to the left of the pilot’s head, you can see I Just Want To Be Held, a c-type print by Deborah Brown (£700) a photo of the torso of a (lean shapely) young woman with what appeared to be the hairs or shoots of cactus buds emerging from her smooth skin. My son liked the title, I liked the smooth contours, we both liked the ‘conceit’ or ‘concept’ or ‘gag’. In the past I’ve complained to my companions about the prevalence of boring old painted nudes at the show: mention of this example prompts me to comment there were surprisingly few, if any, full female nudes this year.

My son liked two photos of ruined buildings with incongruous objects in them – Chaise in Morning Room (£495) by Sara Qualter & Bill Baillie, and Thicket by Susanne Moxhay (£795). I know what he meant, but they were a little too stagey for me. Room IX might have been my favourite, with the barbed wire, the cactus nude, and a whole load of striking photos, including two by Robin Friend – Gaewern Slate Mine (Abandoned 1970) (£8,500) and Exit Test (£5,500).

Back in room II, the guide highlighted (among many other works all hung close together) three portraits – of Simon Cowell, Damian Hirst and Grayson Perry (see below). I thought they were all dire, and indicative of the very wide range of ability, success and failure, which is always on display here. You pays your money and you really does take your choice.

Works on display in Gallery II of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Works on display in Gallery II of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

The final gallery (X) is entirely dedicated to a work by Tom Phillips titled A Humument: he has spent thirty years systematically decorating, defacing and redesigning the pages of an obscure second-hand book, A Human Document by W.H. Mallock. We are invited a) to understand this, and then b) to examine 40 or 50 of the the fairly small (6 inches by 4 inches?) pages thus artified. According to the website linked to above, he has completed some 367 pages so far, and still hasn’t finished. This is how they were hung.

And after this, the Exit and the brightly-lit Shop, full of all sorts of attractive merchandise.


The Summer Exhibition Explorer

For the first time the RA has made all 1,131 items available to view via the Summer Exhibition Online Explorer, which you can explore by gallery or by artist, where you can take tours or sample selections. This allows a completely new relationship with the art because you could, for example, surf every single piece before you go, and seek out ‘in real life’ what you fancied as a 2-inch-square photo. Or, after visiting, you can check back on something you thought you liked to see if you still do. You could just surf the images and decide you’d ‘done’ the show but this would be a mistake, as works of art a) are (obviously) all much bigger than depicted on a little computer screen b) have an impact in real life, to do with size and texture and presence and feel, which can only be felt in their presence.

What surfing it did for me, after returning from the show, was made me realise just how many pieces I hadn’t really seen or engaged with because, in any one visit, you can only notice so much, be engaged with so many works. Made me realise I should probably go back, in a different mood, at a different time of day, and I would probably enjoy a completely different selection of the vast array of art on show.


 

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