The New Sobriety: Art and Politics in the Weimar Period 1917-33 by John Willett (1978)

Willett was born in 1917. He attended Winchester public school and then Christ Church, Oxford (the grandest and poshest of all the Oxford colleges). He was just beginning a career in set design when the Second World War came along. He served in British Intelligence. After the war he worked at the Manchester Guardian, before becoming assistant to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, writing scores of reviews and articles, until he went freelance in 1967.

He had travelled to Germany just before the war and become fascinated by its culture. He met and befriended Bertolt Brecht whose plays he later translated into English. As a freelance writer Willett authored two books about the Weimar period. This is the first of the pair, published by the well-known art publisher Thames and Hudson. Like most T&H art books it has the advantage of lots of illustrations (216 in this case) and the disadvantage that most of them (in this case, all of them) are in black and white.

The New Sobriety is divided into 22 shortish chapters, followed by a 30-page-long, highly detailed Chronological Table, and a shorter bibliography. There’s also a couple of stylish one-page diagrams showing the interconnection of all the arts across Europe during the period.

Several points:

  • Though it has ‘Weimar’ in the title, the text is only partly about the Weimar Republic. It also contains lots about art in revolutionary Russia, as well as Switzerland and France. At this point you realise that the title says the Weimar Period.
  • The period covered is given as starting in 1917, but that’s not strictly true: the early chapters start with Expressionism and Fauvism and Futurism which were all established before 1910, followed by a section dealing with the original Swiss Dada, which started around 1915.

Cool and left wing

The real point to make about this book is that it reflects Willett’s own interest in the avant-garde movements all across Europe of the period, and especially in the politically committed ones. At several points he claims that all the different trends come together into a kind of Gestalt, to form the promise of a new ‘civilisation’.

It was during the second half of the 1920s that the threads which we have followed were drawn together to form something very like a new civilisation… (p.95)

The core of the book is a fantastically detailed account of the cross-fertilisation of trends in fine art, theatre, photography, graphic design, film and architecture between the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany.

In the introduction Willett confesses that he would love to see a really thorough study which related the arts to the main political and philosophical and cultural ideas of the era, but that he personally is not capable of it (p.11). Instead, his book will be:

a largely personal attempt to make sense of those mid-European works of art, in many fields and media, which came into being between the end of the First War and the start of Hitler’s dictatorship in 1933. It is neither an art-historical study of movements and artistic innovations, nor a general cultural history of the Weimar Republic, but a more selective account which picks up on those aspects of the period which the writer feels to be at once the most original and the most clearly interrelated, and tries to see how and why they came about. (p.10)

‘Selective’ and ‘interrelated’ – they’re the key ideas.

When I was a student I loved this book because it opened my eyes to the extraordinary range of new avant-garde movements of the period: Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, and then the burst of new ideas in theatre, graphic design, magazines, poetry and architecture which are still influential to this day.

Although Willett doesn’t come across as particularly left wing himself, the focus on the ‘radical’ innovations of Brecht and Piscator in Germany, or of Proletkult and Agitprop in Soviet Russia, give the whole book a fashionable, cool, left-wing vibe. And if you don’t know much about the period it is an eye-opening experience.

But now, as a middle-aged man, I have all kinds of reservations.

1. Willett’s account is biased and partial

As long as you remember that it is a ‘personal’ view, deliberately bringing together the most avant-garde artists of the time and showing the extraordinary interconnectedness (directors, playwrights, film-makers travelling back and forth between Germany and Russia, bringing with them new books, new magazines, new ideas) it is fine. But it isn’t the whole story. I’m glad I read Walter Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture just before this, because Laqueur’s account is much more complete and more balanced.

For example, Laqueur’s book included a lot about the right-wing thought of the period. It’s not that I’m sympathetic to those beliefs, but that otherwise the rise of Hitler seems inexplicable, like a tsunami coming out of nowhere. Laqueur’s book makes it very clear that all kinds of cultural and intellectual strongholds never ceased to be nationalistic, militaristic, anti-democratic and anti-the Weimar Republic.

Laqueur’s book also plays to my middle-aged and realistic (or tired and jaundiced) opinion that all these fancy left-wing experiments in theatre (in particular), the arty provocations by Dada, the experimental films and so on, were in fact only ever seen by a vanishingly small percentage of the population, and most of them were (ironically) wealthy and bourgeois enough to afford theatre tickets or know about avant-garde art exhibitions.

Laqueur makes the common-sense point that a lot of the books, plays and films which really characterise the period were the popular, accessible works which sold well at the time but have mostly sunk into oblivion. It’s only in retrospect and fired up by the political radicalism of the 1960s, that latterday academics and historians select from the wide range of intellectual and artistic activity of the period those strands which appeal to them in a more modern context.

2. Willett’s modernism versus Art Deco and Surrealism

You realise how selective and partial his point of view is on the rare occasions when the wider world intrudes. Because of Willett’s compelling enthusiasm for ‘the impersonal utilitarian design’ of the Bauhaus or Russian collectivism, because of his praise of Gropius or Le Corbusier, it is easy to forget that all these ideas were in a notable minority during the period.

Thus it came as a genuine shock to me when Willett devotes half a chapter to slagging off Art Deco and Surrealism, because I’d almost forgotten they existed during this period, so narrow is his focus.

It is amusing, and significant, how much he despises both of them. The chapter (18) is called ‘Retrograde symptoms: modishness in France’ and goes on to describe the ‘capitulation and compromise’ of the French avant-garde in the mid-1920s. 1925 in particular was ‘a year of retreat all down the line’, epitomised by the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes exhibition which gave its name to the style of applied arts of the period, Art Deco.

Willett is disgusted that dressmakers sat on the selecting committees ‘alongside obscure establishment architects and rubbishy artists like Jean-Gabriel Domergue’. Not a single German artist or designer was featured (it was a patriotic French affair after all) and Theo van Doesberg’s avant-garde movement, de Stijl, was not even represented in the Dutch stand.

Willet hates all this soft luxury Frenchy stuff, this ‘wishy-washy extremely mondain setting’ which was the milieu of gifted amateurs and dilettantes. It was a hateful commercialisation of cubism and fauvism, it was skin-deep modernism.

What took place here was a diffusing of the modern movement for the benefit not of the less well-off but of the luxury consumer. (p.170)

It’s only because I happen to have recently read Andrew Duncan’s encyclopedic book about Art Deco that I know that there was a vast, a truly huge world of visual arts completely separate from the avant-garde Willett is championing – a world of architects, designers and craftsmen who built buildings, designed the interiors of shops and homes, created fixtures and fittings, lamps and tables and chairs and beds and curtains and wallpapers, all in the luxury, colourful style we now refer to as Art Deco.

Thousands of people bought the stylish originals and millions of people bought the affordable copies of all kinds of objects in this style.

So who is right?

When I was a student I also was on the side of the radical left, excited by Willett’s portrait of a world of hard-headed, functional design in homes and household goods, of agit-prop theatre and experimental film, all designed to mobilise the workers to overthrow the ruling classes and create a perfect world. Indeed the same chapter which dismisses French culture and opens with photos of elegantly-titled French aristocratic connoisseurs and patrons, ends with a photo of a parade by the Communist Roterfront in 1926. That’s the real people, you see, that’s real commitment for you!

But therein lies the rub. The radical, anti-traditionalist, anti-bourgeois, up-the-workers movement in architecture, design, film and theatre which Willett loves did not usher in a new workers’ paradise, a new age of peace and equality – the exact opposite.

The sustained left-wing attacks on the status quo in Germany had the net effect of helping to undermine the Weimar Republic and making the advent of Hitler easier. All the funky film innovations of Eisenstein and the theatrical novelties of Meyerhold failed to create an educated, informed and critical working class in Russia, failed to establish new standards of political and social discourse – instead the extreme cliquishness of its exponents made it all the easier to round them up and control (or just execute) them, as Stalin slowly accumulated power from 1928 onwards.

Older and a bit less naive than I used to be, I am also more relaxed about political ‘commitment’. I have learned what I consider to be the big lesson in life which is that – There are a lot of people in the world. Which means a lot of people who disagree – profoundly and completely disagree – with your own beliefs, ideas and convictions. Disagree with everything you and all your friends and your favourite magazines and newspapers and TV shows and movies think. And that they have as much right to live and think and talk and meet and discuss their stuff, as you do. And so democracy is the permanently messy, impure task of creating a public, political, cultural and artistic space in which all kinds of beliefs and ideas can rub along.

Willett exemplifies what I take to be the central idea of Modernism: that there is only one narrative, one avant-garde, one movement: you have to be on the bus. He identifies his Weimar Germany-Soviet Russia axis as the movement. The French weren’t signed up to it. So he despises the French.

But we now, in 2018, live in a thoroughly post-Modernist world and the best explanation I’ve heard of the difference between modernism and post-modernism is that, in the latter, we no longer believe there is only one narrative, One Movement which you simply must, must, must belong to. There are thousands of movements. There are all types of music, looks, fashions and lifestyles.

Willett’s division of the cultural world of the 1920s into Modernist (his Bauhaus-Constructivist heroes) versus the Rest (wishy-washy, degenerate French fashion) itself seems part of the problem. It’s the same insistence on binary extremes which underlay the mentality of a Hitler or a Stalin (either you are for the Great Leader or against him). And it was the same need to push political opinions and movements to extremes which undermined the centre and led to dictatorship.

By contrast the fashionably arty French world (let alone the philistine, public school world of English culture) was simply more relaxed, less extreme. They had more shopping in them. The Art Deco world which Willett despises was the world of visual and applied art which most people, most shoppers, and most of the rich and the aspiring middle classes would have known about. (And I learned from Duncan’s book that Art Deco really was about shops, about Tiffany’s and Liberty’s and Lalique’s and the design and the shop windows of these top boutiques.)

On the evidence of Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture and Duncan’s account of the Art Deco world, I now see Willett’s world of Bauhaus and Constructivism – which I once considered the be-all and end-all of 1920s art – as only one strand, just one part of a much bigger artistic and decorative universe.

Same goes for Willett’s couple of pages about Surrealism. Boy, he despises those guys. Again it was a bit of a shock to snap out of Willett’s wonderworld of Bauhaus-Constructivism to remember that there was this whole separate and different art movement afoot. Reading Ruth Brandon’s book, Surreal Lives would lead you to believe that it, Surrealism, was the big anti-bourgeois artistic movement of the day. Yet, from Willett’s point of view, focused on the Germany-Russia axis, Surrealism comes over as pitifully superficial froggy play acting.

He says it was unclear throughout the 1920s whether Surrealism even existed outside a handful of books made with ‘automatic writing’. When Hans Arp or Max Ernst went over to the Surrealist camp their work had nothing to tell the German avant-garde. They were German, so it was more a case of the German avant-garde coming to the rescue of a pitifully under-resourced French movement.

There was in fact something slightly factitious about the very idea of Surrealist painting right up to the point when Dali arrived with his distinctively creepy academicism. (p.172)

Surrealism’s moving force, the dominating poet André Breton, is contrasted with Willett’s heroes.

Breton’s romantic irrationalism, his belief in mysterious forces and the quasi-mediumistic use of the imagination could scarcely have been more opposed to the open-eyed utilitarianism of the younger Germans, with their respect for objective facts. (p.172)

I was pleased to read that Willett, like me, finds the Surrealists ‘anti-bourgeois’ antics simply stupid schoolboy posturing.

As for his group’s aggressive public gestures, like Georges Sadoul’s insulting postcard to a Saint-Cyr colonel or the wanton breaking-up of a nightclub that dared to call itself after Les Chants de Maldoror, one of their cult books, these were bound to seem trivial to anyone who had experienced serious political violence. (p.172)

Although the Surrealists bandied around the term ‘revolution’ they didn’t know what it meant, they had no idea what it was like to live through the revolutionary turmoil of Soviet Russia or the troubled years 1918 to 1923 in post-war Germany which saw repeated attempts at communist coups in Munich and Berlin, accompanied by savage street fighting between left and right.

Although the Surrealists pretentiously incorporated the world ‘revolution’ into the title of their magazine, La Révolution surréaliste, none of them knew what a revolution really entailed, and

Breton, Aragon and Eluard remained none the less bourgeois in their life styles and their concern with bella figura. (p.172)

There were no massacres in the streets of comfortable Paris, and certainly nothing to disturb the salon of the Princess Edmond de Polignac, who subsidised the first performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex or to upset the Comtesse de Noailles, who commissioned Léger to decorate her villa at Hyères and later underwrote the ‘daring’ Surrealist film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, L’Age d’Or (1930).

In this, as in so many other things, French intellectuals come across as stylish poseurs performing for impeccably aristocratic patrons.

3. Willett’s account is clotted and cluttered

The text is clotted with names, absolutely stuffed. To give two symptoms, each chapter begins with a paragraph-long summary of its content, which is itself often quite exhausting to read; and then the text itself suffers from being rammed full of as many names as Willett can squeeze in.

Almost every sentence has at least one if not more subordinate clauses which add in details about the subject’s other activities, or another organisation they were part of, or a list of other people they were connected to, or examples of other artists doing the same kind of thing.

Here’s a typical chapter summary, of ‘Chapter 16 Theatre for the machine age: Piscator, Brecht, the Bauhaus, agitprop‘:

Middlebrow entertainment and the revaluation of the classics. The challenge of cinema. Piscator’s first political productions and his development of documentary theatre; splitting of the Volksbühne and formation of his own company; his historic productions of 1927-8 with their use of machinery and film. The new dramaturgy and the problem of suitable plays. Brecht’s reflection of technology, notably in Mann ist Mann; his collaboration with Kurt Weill and the success of the Threepenny Opera; epic theatre and the collective approach. Boom of ‘the theatre of the times’ in 1928-9. Experiments at the Bauhaus: Schlemmer, Moholy, Nagy, Gropius’s ‘Totaltheater’ etc;. The Communist agitprop movement. Parallel developments in Russia: Meyerhold, TRAM, Tretiakoff.

Quite tiring to read, isn’t it? And that’s before you get to the actual text itself.

So Eisenstein could legitimately adopt circus techniques, just as Grosz and Mehring could appear in cabaret and Brecht before leaving Munich worked on the stage and film sketches of that great comic Karl Valentin. In 1925 a certain Walter von Hollander proposed what he called ‘education by revue’, the recruiting of writers like Mehring, Tucholsky and Weinert to ‘fill the marvellous revue form with the wit and vigour of our time’. This form was itself a kind of montage, and Reinhardt seems to have planned a ‘Revue for the Ruhr’ to which Brecht would contribute – ‘A workers’ revue’ was the critic Herbert Ihering’s description – while Piscator too hoped to open his first season with his own company in 1927 by a revue drawing on the mixed talents of his new ‘dramaturgical collective’. This scheme came to nothing, though Piscator’s earlier ‘red Revue’ – the Revue roter Rummel of 1924 – became important for the travelling agit-prop groups which various communist bodies now began forming on the model of the Soviet ‘Blue Blouses’. (p.110)

Breathless long sentences packed with names and works ranging across places and people and theatres and countries, all about everything. This is because Willett is at pains to convey his one big idea – the astonishing interconnectedness of the world of the 1920s European avant-garde – at every possible opportunity, and so embodies it in the chapter summaries, in his diagrams of interconnectedness, extending it even down to the level of individual sentences.

The tendency to prose overstuffed with facts is not helped by another key aspect of the subject matter which was the proliferation of acronyms and initialisms. For example the tendency of left-wing organisations to endlessly fragment and reorganise, especially in Russia where, as revolutionary excitement slowly morphed into totalitarian bureaucracy, there was no stopping the endless setting up of organisations and departments.

Becher, Anor Gabór and the Young Communist functionary Alfred Kurella, who that autumn [of 1927] were part of a delegation to the tenth anniversary celebrations [of the October Revolution] in Moscow, also attended the IBRL’s foundation meeting and undertook to form a German section of the body. Simultaneously some of the surviving adherents of the earlier Red Group decided to set up a sister organisation which would correspond to the Association of Artists of the Russian Revolution, an essentially academic body now posing as Proletarian. Both plans materialised in the following year, when the new German Revolutionary Artists Association (or ARBKD) was founded in March and the Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers’ League (BPRS) in October. (p.173)

Every paragraph is like that.

4. Very historical

Willett’s approach is very historical. As a student I found it thrilling the way he relates the evolving ideas of his galaxy of avant-garde writers, artists and architects – Grosz and Dix, Gropius and Le Corbusier, Moholy-Nagy and Meyerhold, Rodchenko and Eistenstein, Piscator and Brecht – to the fast-changing political situations in Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, which, being equally ignorant of, I also found a revelation.

Now, more familiar with this sorry history, I found the book a little obviously chronological. Thus:

  • Chapter six – Revolution and the arts: Germany 1918-20, from Arbeitsrat to Dada
  • Chapter seven – Paris postwar: Dada, Les Six, the Swedish ballet, Le Corbusier
  • Chapter eight – The crucial period 1921-3; international relations and development of the media; Lenin and the New Economic Policy; Stresemann and German stabilisation

It proceeds with very much the straightforward chronology of a school textbook.

5. Not very analytical

The helter-skelter of fraught political developments in both countries – the long lists of names, their interconnections emphasised at every opportunity – these give a tremendous sense of excitement to his account, a sense that scores of exciting artists were involved in all these fast-moving and radically experimental movements.

But, at the end of the day, I didn’t come away with any new ideas or sense of enlightenment. All the avant-garde artists he describes were responding to two basic impulses:

  1. The advent of the Machine Age (meaning gramophone, cars, airplanes, cruise ships, portable cameras, film) which prompted experiments in all the new media and the sense that all previous art was redundant.
  2. The Bolshevik Revolution – which inspired far-left opinions among the artists he deals with and inspired, most obviously, the agitprop experiments in Russia and Piscator and Brecht’s experiments in Germany – theatre in the round, with few if any props, the projection onto the walls of moving pictures or graphs or newspaper headlines – all designed to make the audience think (i.e. agree with the playwright and the director’s communist views).

But we sort of know about these already. From Peter Gay’s book, and then even more so Walter Laqueur’s book, I came away with a strong sense of the achievement and importance of particular individuals, and their distinctive ideas. Thomas Mann emerges as the representative novelist of the period and Laqueur’s book gives you a sense of the development of his political or social thought (the way he slowly came round to support the Republic) and of his works, especially the complex of currents found in his masterpiece, The Magic Mountain.

Willett just doesn’t give himself the space or time to do that. In the relentless blizzard of lists and connections only relatively superficial aspects of the countless works referenced are ever mentioned. Thus Piscator’s main theatrical innovation was to project moving pictures, graphs and statistics onto the backdrops of the stage, accompanying or counter-pointing the action. That’s it. We nowhere get a sense of the specific images or facts used in any one production, rather a quick list of the productions, of the involvement of Brecht or whoever in the writing, of Weill or Eisler in the music, before Willett is off comparing it with similar productions by Meyerhold in Moscow. Always he is hurrying off to make comparisons and links.

Thus there is:

6. Very little analysis of specific works

I think the book would have benefited from slowing down and studying half a dozen key works in a little more detail. Given the funky design of the book into pages with double columns of text, with each chapter introduced by a functionalist summary in bold black type, it wouldn’t have been going much further to insert page-long special features on, say, The Threepenny Opera (1928) or Le Corbusier’s Weissenhof Estate housing in Stuttgart (1927).

Just some concrete examples of what the style was about, how it worked, and what kind of legacy it left would have significantly lifted the book and left the reader with concrete, specific instances. As it is the blizzard of names, acronyms and historical events is overwhelming and, ultimately, numbing.

The Wall Street Crash leads to the end of the Weimar experiment

In the last chapters Willett, as per his basic chronological structure, deals with the end of the Weimar Republic.

America started it, by having the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. American banks were plunged into crisis and clawed back all their outstanding loans in order to stay solvent. Businesses all across America went bankrupt, but America had also been the main lender to the German government during the reconstruction years after the War.

It had been an American, Charles G. Dawes, who chaired the committee which came up with the Dawes Plan of 1924. This arranged for loans to be made to the German government, which it would invest to boost industry, which would increase the tax revenue, which it would then use to pay off the punishing reparations which France demanded at the end of the war. And these reparations France would use to pay off the large debts to America which France had incurred during the war.

It was the guarantee of American money which stabilised the German currency after the hyper-inflation crisis of 1923, and enabled the five years of economic and social stability which followed, 1924-29, the high point for Willett of the Republic’s artistic and cultural output. All funded, let it be remembered, by capitalist America’s money.

The Wall Street Crash ended that. American banks demanded their loans back. German industry collapsed. Unemployment shot up from a few hundred thousand to six million at the point where Hitler took power. Six million! People voted, logically enough, for the man who promised economic and national salvation.

In this respect, the failure of American capitalism, which the crash represented, directly led to the rise of Hitler, to the Second World War, to the invasion of Russia, the partition of Europe and the Cold War. No Wall Street Crash, none of that would have happened.

A closed worldview leads to failure

Anyway, given that all this is relatively well known (it was all taught to my kids for their history GCSEs) what Willett’s account brings out is the short-sighted stupidity of the Communist Party of Germany and their Soviet masters.

Right up till the end of the Weimar Republic, the Communists (the KPD) refused to co-operate with the more centrist socialists (the SPD) in forming a government, and often campaigned against them. Willett quotes a contemporary communist paper saying an SPD government and a disunited working class would be a vastly worse evil than a fascist government and a unified working class. Well, they got the fascist government they hoped for.

In fact, the communists wanted a Big Crisis to come because they were convinced that it would bring about the German Revolution (which would itself trigger revolution across Europe and the triumph of communism).

How could they have been so stupid?

Because they lived in a bubble of self-reaffirming views. I thought this passage was eerily relevant to discussions today about people’s use of the internet, about modern digital citizens tending to select the news media, journalism and art and movies and so on, which reinforce their views and convince them that everyone thinks like them.

To some extent the extreme unreality of this attitude, with its deceptive aura of do-or-die militancy, sprang from the old left-wing tendency to underrate the non-urban population, which is where the Nazis had so much of their strength. At the same time it reflects a certain social and cultural isolation which sprang from the KPD’s own successes. For the German Communists lived in a world of their own, where the party catered for every interest. Once committed to the movement you not only read AIZ and the party political press: your literary tastes were catered for by the Büchergilde Gutenberg and the Malik-Verlag and corrected by Die Linkskurve; your entertainment was provided by Piscator’s and other collectives, by the agitprop groups, the Soviet cinema, the Lehrstück and the music of Eisler and Weill; your ideology was formed by Radványi’s MASch or Marxist Workers’ School; your visual standards by Grosz and Kollwitz and the CIAM; your view of Russia by the IAH. If you were a photographer, you joined a Workers-Photographers’ group; if a sportsman, some kind of Workers’ Sports Association; whatever your special interests Münzenberg [the German communist publisher and propagandist] had a journal for you. You followed the same issues, you lobbied for the same causes. (p.204)

And you failed. Your cause failed and everyone you knew was arrested, murdered or fled abroad.

A worldview which is based on a self-confirming bubble of like-minded information is proto-totalitarian, inevitably seeks to ban or suppress any opposing points of view, and is doomed to fail in an ever-changing world where people with views unlike yours outnumber you.

A democratic culture is one where people acknowledge the utter difference of other people’s views, no matter how vile and distasteful, and commit to argument, debate and so on, but also to conceding the point where the opponents are, quite simply, in the majority. You can’t always win, no matter how God-given you think your views of the world. But you can’t even hope to win unless you concede that your opponents are people, too, with deeply held views. Just calling them ‘social-fascists’ (as the KPD called the SPD) or ‘racists’ or ‘sexists’ (as bienpensant liberals call anyone who opposes them today) won’t change anything. You don’t stand a chance of prevailing unless you listen to, learn from, and sympathise with, the beliefs of people you profoundly oppose.

A third of the German population voted for Hitler in 1932 and the majority switched to Führer worship once he came to power. The avant-garde artists Willett catalogues in such mind-numbing profusion pioneered techniques of design and architecture, theatre production and photography, which still seem astonishingly modern to us today. But theirs was an entirely urban movement created among a hard core of like-minded bohemians. They didn’t even reach out to university students (as Laqueur’s chapter on universities makes abundantly clear), let alone the majority of Germany’s population, which didn’t live in fashionable cities.

Over the three days it took to read this book, I’ve also read newspapers packed with stories about Donald Trump and listened to radio features about Trump’s first year in office, so it’s been difficult not to draw the obvious comparisons between Willett’s right-thinking urban artists who failed to stop Hitler and the American urban liberals who failed to stop Trump.

American liberals – middle class, mainly confined to the big cities, convinced of the rightness of their virtuous views on sexism and racism – snobbishly dismissing Trump as a flashy businessman with a weird haircut who never got a degree, throwing up their hands in horror at his racist, sexist remarks. And utterly failing to realise that these were all precisely the tokens which made him appeal to non-urban, non-university-educated, non-middle class, and economically suffering, small-town populations.

Also, as in Weimar, the left devoted so much energy to tearing itself apart – Hillary versus Sanders – that it only woke up to the threat from the right-wing contender too late.

Ditto Brexit in Britain. The liberal elite (Guardian, BBC) based in London just couldn’t believe it could happen, led as it was by obvious buffoons like Farage and Johnson, people who make ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ comments and so, therefore, obviously didn’t count and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Because only people who talk like us, think like us, are politically correct like us, can possibly count or matter.

Well, they were proved wrong. In a democracy everyone’s vote counts as precisely ‘1’, no matter whether they’re a professor of gender studies at Cambridge (which had the highest Remain vote) or a drug dealer in Middlesborough (which had the highest Leave vote).

Dismissing Farage and Johnson as idiots, and anyone who voted Leave as a racist, was simply a way of avoiding looking into and trying to address the profound social and economic issues which drove the vote.

Well, the extremely clever sophisticates of Berlin also thought Hitler was a provincial bumpkin, a ludicrous loudmouth spouting absurd opinions about Jews which no sensible person could believe, who didn’t stand a chance of gaining power. And by focusing on the (ridiculous little) man they consistently failed to address the vast economic and social crisis which underpinned his support and brought him to power. Ditto Trump. Ditto Brexit.

Some optimists believe the reason for studying history is so we can learn from it. But my impression is that the key lesson of history is that – people never learn from history.


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Every room in Tate Modern

Tate Modern, housed in the famous converted power station building on the South Bank near London Bridge, contains six levels. But as levels 0 and 1 are shops and cafes, and 5 and 6 are, respectively, the members’ level and restaurant, that leaves only 2, 3 and 4 to actually display art. Level 3 is given over to temporary exhibitions (currently Alexander Calder and The World Goes Pop) and some small, one-room displays (currently George Baselitz) – which leaves floors 2 and 4 to house the permanent collection.

Each level is divided into two wings, west and east, grouped around a broad theme and housing 10 or 11 rooms: thus level 2 west is Citizens and States, level 2 east is Making Traces; level 4 east is Energy and Process and level 4 west is Material Worlds.

So Tate Modern contains about 42 rooms, plus 3 or 4 one-room displays between each wing, say 46 in all.

Audio guide

The audio guide costs £4.25 (£3.75 for concessions eg students). It has audio commentary on a relatively small number of selected works. The woman selling it said it lasts 45 minutes but that can’t be true. My one had one or two minute-long items on 38 works, and half or more of the entries consisted of more than one track eg 90 seconds on the art work, with an additional quote from the artist, and then maybe some music (the Mark Rothko item has two pieces of music, one of which was five minutes long). Surely more than 45 mins – and very useful…

Personal highlights

As with my recent trips to the British MuseumNational Gallery and Tate Britain, the following are obviously not any kind of official highlights, just a list of things that made me stop and think or admire or want to make a note.

I used to think I knew about modern art, but this visit confirmed my feeling that I have been completely overtaken by the explosion of post-modern art since the 1980s. There has been a vast expansion in the numbers of artists and artworks and types and styles of practice over the last thirty years, as well as a massive expansion in the types of discourses available to make sense of new movements and artists from around the world.

Also there has been a significant movement to reconsider and revalue the past, especially as regards rediscovering or rehabilitating women artists – a process exemplified by the current The World Goes Pop exhibition, which is designed to promote hitherto little-known artists from around the world, and goes out of its way to foreground women artists and gender issues.

So this attempt to visit every room at Tate Modern felt like it shed a bit of new light on some old favourites and familiar faces, but mostly introduced me to new names. A lot of new names.

1. Citizens and States

  • Who doesn’t love Piet Mondrian? But I didn’t know he was a theosophist nor that the calm grids of black lines dividing rectangles of white or red or yellow or blue are representations of an ideal society. A psychologist was interviewed to say they’ve done experiments turning Mondrian squares onto the diagonal and people really don’t like them: there’s something powerful about horizontal and vertical lines, our brains react to them more deeply than to diagonals. Compare the impact, the pleasing sense of order and clarity in any Mondrian, with that of fellow De Stijl member Theo van Doesburg’s Counter-Composition VI (1925). Not nearly so pleasing.
  • Composition B (No.II) with Red 1935 The cool structured grids can be interpreted as a way of establishing order on a chaotic world. That aim reminded me of the images I saw recently in the British Museum, the wall paintings of Nebamun hunting and the friezes of king Ashurbanipal of Assyria’s lion hunt. In both, hunting is a way for aristocratic or royal man to establish order out of nature’s chaos and the painting re-enacts that function. Striking that the same impulse links painting from 800BC and 1940AD.
  • The movement he belonged to in Holland, de Stijl, is pronounced ‘dare stale’.
  • When Barbara Hepworth moved to Cornwall, ovals replaced circles in her work, which gave them two centres or focal points, instead of one, making them more complex and interesting. Oval Sculpture (No. 2) 1943, cast 1958
  • Tate had an exhibition of Hélio Oiticica back in 2007, which I was fool enough not to go to. The three abstracts by her here, from the 1950s, show not quite perfect geometric shapes jostling and balanced on plain backgrounds, creating a lovely impression of jazzy movement. Metaesquema 1958
  • Tate also had an exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair a few years ago, another show by a woman artist which I should have gone to. In room two I liked Composition with Two Ovals 1951. On the audio guide we hear her insisting her work comes from Islamic, not Western, sources of inspiration. A couple of her works were included in 2015’s Adventures of the Black Square show at the Whitechapel art gallery last year, where I liked Poem (1965).
  • Joseph Beuys was one of the dour Germans who put me off contemporary art in the 1970s and 80s. There are not one but two whole rooms devoted to him at Tate Modern, mainly documenting his tireless activities as an educator, organiser of student events, giver of marathon interviews, supporter of alternative political parties, green enthusiast and so on. How tiresome all that 1970s student politics looks now; how ultimately futile. The main artwork is the massive Lightning with Stag in its Glare (1958-85). The audio commentary usefully explained Beuys’s cryptic personal mythology: the metal sheet is the lightning, the ironing board is the stag, the clay lumps represent lumpish unintelligent creatures.
  • A lot more up to date, Theaster Gates’s Civil Tapestry 4 (2011) is a tapestry made of vertical strips taken from the fire hoses which were turned on civil rights protesters in the deep south of America in May 1963. Reminded me of Ai Weiwei’s enormous sculpture made of steel poles salvaged from the wreckage of schools destroyed in the Szichuan earthquake. A similar sense of unimpeachable righteousness.
  • Artur Zmijewski (b.1966) has made various films, including the one featured here, Democracies (2009), splicing together footage shot at a variety of political rallies in his native Poland, from feminist and environmentalist campaigners, to right-wing nationalist rallies. Watching the Catholic nationalist rallies, I recall political commentators interpreting last October’s election of the Law and Justice Party to government in Poland as a ‘lurch to the right’. Zmijewski’s film shows you why. It is an interesting documentary film but, like all film and video, I wonder about its relevance as ‘art’.
  • A room devoted to Latin American Photobooks, testament to the turmoil in Latin America throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, collected by British photographer Martin Parr.
  • I saw Richard Hamilton’s The Citizen (1981-3) in Tate Britain’s recent Fighting History exhibition. The audio commentary here made the neat point that the patterns the dirty protesters made with their own faeces on their prison walls echoed the patterns of Celtic designs – although what Celtic art is turns out to be hard to define, as the British Museum’s exhibition on Celtic Art and Identity showed. How genuinely subversive it would have been it Tate had bought an actual prison wall covered in IRA prisoner shit, and exhibited it, smell and all.
  • Sheba Chhachhi b.1958, was represented by Seven lives and a dream, photos inspired by the rape of an Indian woman in the 1970s, and other large b&w photos of Indian women.
  • Teresa Margolles (b.1963) is represented by Flag I, a big flag coloured with blood, earth and other matter from the murder sites of various people killed in Mexico’s bloody drug wars, a death rate which currently runs at around 20,000 a year.

Reflections on Citizens and States – ie the failure of radical politics

It is my belief that the forces for radical change have everywhere been comprehensively defeated and, in fact, that even moderately liberal bourgeois democracy is itself under attack from religious extremists at one end and home-grown nationalists at the other. Neo-liberal capitalism defeated and buried not only the communist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe but the very idea of any kind of socialist / communist alternative.

The student radicalism of the Joseph Beuys rooms, and in evidence throughout the Pop Art exhibition from the heady 1960s, is irrelevant to the world of Putin, growing right-wing forces in eastern Europe, to the Refugee Crisis, to the permanent collapse of big parts of the Middle East and the state of terrorist threat which we are going to have to live with indefinitely.

The economic engine of the world, China, whose meteoric industrialisation has been underpinning rising standards of living throughout the West for the last generation, is coming stuttering to a halt. If you haven’t done well over the past twenty years, that was a one-off golden age and chances are you’re going to get a lot worse off in the coming era.

And underlying everything is evidence that man-made climate change is kicking in now, unchangeable and unavoidable, with unforeseeable but potentially cataclysmic consequences.

Against this backdrop it’s hard to avoid thinking that much of the art in this section is trivial or, at best, irrelevant. Nothing is going to stop Mexicans (or Colombians) murdering each other over drugs. President Nixon announced his nationwide War on Drugs as long ago as 1971: how’s that war progressing? Nothing is going to stop Indian men raping Indian women. Sheba Chhachhi’s photographs were sparked by rapes in the 1970s but gang rapes by Indian men have been in the news for the past few years. And Theaster Gates’s sentiments about historical injustices in the Alabama of the 1960s might be impeccably correct, but seem irrelevant in light of the ongoing inability of American police to stop their officers beating up and shooting dead a seemingly endless stream of unarmed black men.

Activists have been protesting these issues for decades and not only has nothing changed, lots of things have got worse. Considered as political activism, then, most of this art is a complete failure. Considered as art, it relies so much on the worthiness and impeccable liberalism of its credentials, that the failure of its causes in the real world makes it almost comical. Nice flag. Shame even more Mexicans will be murdered his year. Nice hoses. Shame even more black men will be shot by police.

It was a relief to emerge from the politically charged, fraught, upsetting and ultimately depressing Citizens and States wing and cross over to the less contentious Making Traces.

2. Making Traces

  • Magda Cordell (Hungary 1921-2008). Woman artist, her Figure (Woman) is, according to the wall label, ‘an image of heroic femininity’.
  • Korean woman artist Lee Bul’s Untitled (Craving White) (2011) is a gargoyle assembly of sacks of fabric, with wood and steel, twisted into weird shapes. She wore it to do performances, the weird bulges and squiggles intended to ‘deconstruct ideals of the female body’.
  • Avis Newman, woman artist born 1946, is represented by The Wing of the Wind of Madness (1982).
  • Lee Krasner, woman artist apparently overshadowed in her lifetime by her husband, Jackson Pollock, is now being rediscovered with works like Gothic Landscape (1961).
  • Woman artist Hilla Becher (1931-2007) spent most of her adult career travelling with husband Bernd around Europe and America taking series of b&w photos of industrial buildings eg Coal bunkers (1974). I wonder whether they inspired the b&w photos of abandoned nuclear bunkers and wartime defences by Jane and Louise Wilson?
  • Woman artist Hedda Sterne made lovely semi-abstracts, including NY No. X (1948).
  • Joan Miro is a big name from the modernist mid-century and represented here by the large and colourful Letter from a friend. After the post-modern works in the previous gallery, this type of Modernism looks reassuringly old-fashioned.
  • At the heart of this display is the big room showing Mark Rothko’s Seagram paintings (1958-60). Rothko was commissioned to decorate the restaurant in the new Seagram building in New York and was half way through making them when he went along to the restaurant himself, and was horrified to find it full of ‘rich bastards’, as he described them, eating dinner. What did he expect? He turned down the commission, returned the money and was contacted by various museums who wanted to buy them, of whom he favoured Tate because of a sentimental fondness for British art. He committed suicide the same day in 1970 that the paintings arrived in London. The audio guide plays Perilous Night by John Cage, favourite composer of so many modern artists. Of the 8 or so works here, my favourite was Red on Maroon, Mural Section 4 (1959).
  • By complete contrast, woman artist Rebecca Horn (b.1944) specialised in making strange imaginative extensions of the human body, for example Cockfeather Mask (1973). A room is devoted to her strange inspiring creations. A film shows cockfeather being used to do a sort of fan dance-cum-striptease over a man’s penis, a rare appearance of the male member in these galleries.
  • Simryn Gill (b.1959) has a whole room devoted to a series of large colour photos he took in the Malaysian town of Port Dickson, A Small Town at the Turn of the Century (1999–2000) showing its citizens in normal or portrait style poses but with large fruits concealing their faces. I liked number 5, number 34, number 24.
  • The American artist Mark Bradford (b.1961) is represented by Riding the cut vein, an entrancing large image, owing something to the street layout of Los Angeles where, according to the wall label, freeways cut through the city dividing rich neighbourhoods from poor ones.
  • The last room in this mind-bending tour of 20th century art is devoted to six massive paintings by Gerhard Richter (b.1932) Cage I-VI, named after the American composer and philosopher John Cage, ever-popular with the avant-garde. Prepared for them to be dirty smears, I was in fact entranced. There’s a film showing Richter at work using a metre-wide squeegee to smear the paint across the surfaces, which sounds unpromising, but the results are actually full of countless details, imperfections, unknown unnameable elements, insights and peculiarities. Close up.

3. Energy and Process

The wall labels explain that this suite of rooms is based around the 1960s Italian art movement, Arte povera, which used industrial by-products, or found materials, to create large, generally abstract sculptures. It was deliberately distinct from the grandiosely ‘heroic’ American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s, but also different from the American Minimalism of the 1960s, which is smooth and cerebral. The main works are in the big, well-lit room 3:

  • Lynda Benglis Quartered meteor (1969) This woman artist’s lump of dull lead is a deliberate riposte to the smooth geometric shapes of American minimalism.
  • Kishio Suga’s Ren-Shiki-Tai
  • Giuseppe Penone’s Tree of 12 Metres (1980–2)

According to the wall labels, Arte Povera ‘upset traditional ideas’ about how art should be distributed and displayed. Well, here they are being displayed in an international art gallery. Doesn’t seem to have upset or challenged that pretty traditional idea.

  • Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) was a groovy French woman artist whose website shows the full range of her colourful imaginative oeuvre and who is represented here by one of her ‘shooting paintings’. She filled bags with colour pigment, attached them to a canvas and covered the lot in white plaster, hung the canvas outside on a wall and then invited friends to shoot it with .22 rifles. The colour bags exploded and spurted colour over the work. Shooting Picture (1961)
  • Michael Baldwin is represented by a board with a mirror attached, Untitled Painting (1965). The commentary tells us with a straight face that this work is ‘questioning a long-held action of painting transcending reality’. OK.
  • In a similar radical, subversive, revolutionary etc vein is the anti-art tea tray of Július Koller (1939-2007), Question Mark b. (Anti-Painting, Anti-Text) 1969. Here it is in a major art gallery, subverting away like mad. Funny in its way, but also funny in its quaint utopianism.
  • Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) experimented with lots of slits in otherwise untouched canvas. Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’ (1960).
  • In room ten is the rather marvellous motor engine covered in crystals of copper sulphate, known as Untitled 2006 by Roger Hiorns, born in 1975.
  • Nicholas Hlobo is a gay black man, born in 1975 in South Africa. I enjoyed the works where he’s used embroidery or sewing using pink ribbon onto canvas to create shapes and flows, although I was disappointed that the curators instantly say this work ‘challenges gender-based assumptions about the division of labour’. Does it? Really? Ikhonkco (2010)
  • A small room is devoted to Emilio Prini (b.1943), who took countless experimental b&w photos in the 60s and 70s. According to the label, ‘Throughout his career Emilio Prini was engaged intensively with photography and photographic processes.’ Not ‘experimented with photographic techniques’, but was engaged with… And not just engaged. Engaged intensively. Lots of photos of parts of his body.

In these rooms, as in various other exhibitions of 20th century art, you get a powerful feeling from the wall labels and commentary of the curators’ nostalgia and regret for an era when art really meant something, when it was part of wider social movements genuinely upsetting old traditions and assumptions.

Now, when there is more art and more artists than ever before, more women artists, more artists from around the world, working in every conceivable medium, all trying to establish a marketable brand which can be sold to Saudi oil and Russian mafia and Colombian drug lord investors, it is impossible to recapture the heady idealism of, in particular, the 1960s and early 70s.

These galleries reek not of revolutionary exhilaration, but of the mournful nostalgia for, and the comic over-excitement about, the truly ‘revolutionary’ art of a bygone era, on the part of a generation of curators and critics born too late to experience it.


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Other museums

Adventures of the Black Square @ Whitechapel Art Gallery

I wrote about the big retrospective of Malevich at Tate Modern in August last year. This is rather like the sequel: Malevich II – The Square Goes Global.

Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) was a Russian avant-garde artist, architect, designer and writer. From early naturalistic paintings of peasants, farm scenes etc he evolved quickly towards the legendary exhibition – titled The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10 – in 1915 which exhibited 39 paintings of black squares, rectangles and other geometric shapes on a pale cream background.

Up in the corner of the room, where the Russian icon was traditionally situated, was placed the famous black square painting. Famous because it declared the end of four or five centuries of Western art struggling to create and exploit the idea of depth and perspective in an oil painting. Malevich tore up the entire notion that a painting is a realistic window onto the world. Painting is shapes on a flat plane. Shapes, colours, whatever you want. They can do anything. There is infinite scope. Painting set free. He called his version of the new, geometric art, Suprematism.

(The work below isn’t the black square, but one of Malevich’s other black and white geometric works which featured in the famous show.)

Kazimir Malevich Black and White. Suprematist Composition 1915 Oil on canvas 80 x 80 cm Moderna Museet, Stockholm Donation 2004 from Bengt and Jelena Jangfeldt

Kazimir Malevich – Black and White. Suprematist Composition (1915)
Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Oil on canvas
Donation 2004 from Bengt and Jelena Jangfeldt

This exhibition at the lovely, airy Whitechapel Gallery, right next to Aldgate East tube, takes Malevich’s iconic square and tracks its influence through the hundred years since its début, right up to the present day. 1915-2015. The catalogue says the show is divided into four themes:

  • ‘Utopia’ – the black square as founder of new aesthetic and political horizons
  • ‘Architectonics’ – floating geometries that suggest new social spaces as imagined by Lyubov Popova or Piet Mondrian
  • ‘Communication’ – the flood of early 20th century manifestos and avant-garde graphics
  • The ‘Everyday’ – the square around us, for example in textiles by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, in abstract motifs painted on Peruvian lorries, in random white squares photographed in cities around the world etc

In practice the show consists of one or two works each by over a hundred artists. A hundred! From the past hundred years. From all around the world (Europe, America, Brazil, China). That’s a lot of names, a lot of countries, a lot of styles, to get anywhere near grasping.

Therefore, I found it easier to manage – and I found the division of four rooms fell easily into – a simpler, binary schema: the first room shows the Early Modernism of Malevich and his generation of likeminded experimenters, in painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, ballet and music, in Europe (and Russia).

The other three rooms show geometric art from The Rest of the Twentieth Century, from around the world, in all its bewildering variety.

Part 1. Early Modernism

Malevich’s name is one among a flood of other innovators from the period just before the Great War to the mid-1930s. Other pioneers given passing mention or featured by one choice work here include El Lissitsky and the Hungarian-born Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (who took up a post at the Bauhaus when it was formed in 1919) and Wassily Kandinsky – breath-taking experimenters, as well as the often overlooked woman artist Lyubov Popova.

Lyubov Popova Painterly Architectonic 1916 Oil on board 59.4 × 39.4 cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Lyubov Popova – Painterly Architectonic (1916)
Oil on board
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Gustav Klutsis produced a number of designs and images which make clear the avant-garde’s association with revolutionary politics, with the wish to use new ways of seeing, building and designing to create a new society, whose socialist mechanistic schemas have been revived periodically ever since, in posters, and album covers, and other art school-inspired media.

Gustav Klutsis Design for Loudspeaker No.5 1922 Coloured ink and pencil on paper 26.6 × 14.7 cm Greek State Museum of Contemporary Art – Costakis Collection, Thessaloniki © ARS, New York and DACS, London 2014

Gustav Klutsis – Design for Loudspeaker No.5 (1922)
Coloured ink and pencil on paper
Greek State Museum of Contemporary Art – Costakis Collection, Thessaloniki
© ARS, New York and DACS, London 2014

Surprisingly, maybe, alongside the German and Russian avant-garde was a thriving Dutch one, epitomised in De Stijl, founded in 1917. Its most famous member was indubitably Piet Mondrian, who developed the grid paintings of rectangles of white, yellow, red or blue which are one of Modernism’s most immediately recognisable achievements.

Piet Mondrian Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937–42 Oil paint on canvas 72.7 × 69.2 cm © DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2014 Courtesy Tate Collection: Purchased 1964

Piet Mondrian – Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red (1937–42)
Oil paint on canvas
© DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2014
Courtesy Tate Collection: Purchased 1964

Modernist magazines

The show features quite an array of magazines from Germany, Russia, France, Britain, from the Modernist moment during the Great War until well into the 1930s, including Ezra Pound’s Blast, which I reverenced at school in the 1970s; the Little Review, home to Eliot and Pound; transition, containing another instalment of the long experimental work by James Joyce which became Finnegan’s Wake – these I know from their literary associations – but also on display were a lot of others I’d never heard of from across Europe, featuring the trademark experimental typefaces, designs and layouts of the period.

Modernist photos

As well as paintings and magazines, the exhibition has a fine selection of photos pinned to the wall as well as a large video screen showing a large slideshow selection of early modernist pioneers at work. the visitor can spend a happy 6 or 7 minutes just standing watching the procession of wonderful black and white photos from the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. Most memorable from the slideshow were shots of Piet Mondrian’s apartment-cum-studio and Wassily Kandinsky supervising students at the Bauhaus painting sets for a theatrical production.

But it also made me think all over again (like the Malevich exhibition, like the Bauhaus exhibition did) that whereas a lot of these super-famous paintings turn out to be quite small and quite amateurish, and a lot of the buildings were never built or are crumbling Art Deco ruins that you’d walk past without a second look, and all the magazines seem surprisingly small, plain and dusty – the photographs of the period still pack a tremendous punch and are maybe the best medium for conveying the unbridled energy and experimentalism of the 1920s and 1930s.

I especially liked three by Werner Mantz, who I’d never heard of before. ‘During the 1920s and ’30s Mantz photographed functionalist architecture such as houses, factories, bridge constructions and motorways. The pictures are extremely detailed with .. bold cropping and angles.’ Wonderful.

Photos like this made architecture far more exciting than it could possibly be in real life, and helped to encourage the notion that architecture could create new societies, new politics, new human nature. All of which turned out to be desperately wrong.

Room 1 with its priceless examples of early Modernist geometric art

Room 1 with its priceless examples of early Modernist geometric art

Part 2. The rest of the century

So far the show is a highly enjoyable refresher course in Modernist Art. You could leave now, pick up a book on the subject in the airy bookshop, and spend the rest of the day reminding yourself of the glories of European Modernist art.

But the real point of the show is the remaining rooms, which contain a bewildering smörgåsbord of styles and approaches and media and artists, old and young, male and female, from Europe, the Middle East, South America, from schools and movements I had never heard of, from the 60 plethoric years since the end of World War Two.

Quite overwhelmed and spoilt for choice, I could only give them each a fair crack of the whip and see what made an impact, what lingered. I’ve placed the following in chronological order:

Hélio Oiticica Metaesquema 464 1958 Gouache on board 29.8 x 33cm Courtesy of Catherine & Franck Petitgas Photo: Todd White Photography © the Artist. All rights reserved

Hélio Oiticica – Metaesquema 464 (1958)
Gouache on board
Courtesy of Catherine & Franck Petitgas
Photo: Todd White Photography
© The Artist. All rights reserved

  • Swatch of Snap Fasteners by Běla Kolářová (1964) Very funny, very striking, very light and imaginative and visual.
  • Third Syntagmatic by Jeffrey Steele (1965) – his career has been spent creating geometric images according to complex mathematical formulae. BBC slideshow of Jeffrey Steele paintings
  • Poem by Saloua Raouda Choucair (1965) – Simple. Brilliant. Yes. A rounded geometry.
  • Homage to the Square by Joseph Albers – Albers appears to have done quite a few homages to the square, the one exhibited here being in shades of orange.
  • Roberto Burle Marx – never heard of him before, and why not, when he appears to have made wonderfully colourful paintings of abstract but sinuous and organic shapes, very life-full, very Brazilian.
  • 10 x 10 by Carl André (1967) – slender square slate tiles laid out in a square and which we are allowed to walk on (unless we are wearing stilletos). Minimalism. Flat. Open. There. No secrets.
  • Monument for Tatlin (1969) by Dan Flavin – a tribute to the famous ideal Russian avant-garde plan for a vast building-cum-radio transmitter for the new Soviet state, cast in Flavin’s trademark ‘minimalist’ fluorescent tubing. Though a properly trained art student might be able to argue this is subversive of something, from our perspective in 2015 it looks a lot like the real political threat of Tatlin’s building (broadcasting revolutionary propaganda to Europe) has been completely subsumed into the fluorescent department store and office lighting of consumer capitalism.
Dóra Maurer Seven Rotations 1–6 1979 Six gelatin silver prints 20 × 20 cm each Collection of Zsolt Somlói and Katalin Spengler © Dóra Maurer

Dóra Maurer – Seven Rotations 1–6 (1979)
Six gelatin silver prints
Collection of Zsolt Somlói and Katalin Spengler
© Dóra Maurer

This striking image from the eminent Hungarian artist Dóra Maurer consists of seven iterations of her holding a large photo in front of her face, and in each iteration it has become populated by versions of the photo, increasing in number and density. So striking it is used for the poster of the entire exhibition, not Malevich’s square. Another reminder of the power of black and white photography.

  • Dmitri Prigov – locked up in an insane asylum in 1986, Prigov was a post-War dissident Russian artist, represented here by images of books in the cold Russian snow, an image I can’t find on Google.
  • Shrunk by Angela de la Cruz – experiments with breaking up the wooden frames which hold canvases in a rigid rectangle, preserving and sometimes painting the resultant wreckage of the traditional mechanism of Western art.
  • Sceaux Gardens Estate by Keith Coventry (1995) One of less well-known of the 1997 Sensation artists, Coventry has made paintings out of the architect’s designs for big housing estates in London, implicitly satirising the utopian hopes of the early Modernist architects who intended to make Ideals For Living and socialist paradises for the workers with their concrete and steel tower blocks.
Gabriel Orozco Light Signs #1 (Korea) 1995 Synthetic polymer plastic sheet and light box 100 × 100 × 19.7 cm Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York © the Artist

Gabriel Orozco – Light Signs #1 (Korea) (1995)
Synthetic polymer plastic sheet and light box
Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
© the Artist

  • I Don’t Remember by Clay Ketter (2006) There appear to be numerous works with this title, so I’ve linked to a bunch of them on Google Images: I always like painting which is rough-finished, the canvas frayed round the edges like Paul Klee’s, or the readymade painting surfaces of Alfred Wallis, which featured the St Ives exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, or Jasper John’s works with stencils and bits of flag or crate or found material stuck to the surface. Ketter’s are large photographs of the walls of derelict or half-demolished buildings with panels of real world materials stuck on, to create a mix of naturalism and collage. Big. Striking.
  • Rings by Sarah Morris (2008) Now I google it I find Morris seems to have done numerous works featuring rings and titled rings. To be honest, I didn’t like the shiny Duluz gloss finish of what could, possibly, be 1960s Pop Art paintings, but there’s no denying their vigour and impact.
  • Top Secret 32 by Jenny Holzer (2010) a satire on the numerous ‘redacted’ documents which have featured in public life in recent years, from dodgy Iraq dossiers to the Edward Snowden revelations, as well as vast troves of documents involved in bank scandals
  • Leadlight by Adrian Esparza (2012) Esparza appears to have created a mode of art from disassembling woven tapestries and displaying the constituent threads into shapes, squares and so on, displayed across whole walls of galleries.
Zhao Yao Spirit Above All 1-93A 2012 Acrylic on denim 200 × 222 × 8 cm Private Collection © Zhao Yao Courtesy Pace London

Zhao Yao – Spirit Above All 1-93A (2012)
Acrylic on denim
Private Collection
© Zhao Yao
Courtesy Pace London

  • October Colouring-In Book by David Batchelor (2012) The art magazine October has been published since 1976 but never featured an illustration in colour. To take ‘revenge’, British artist David Batchelor dismantled an edition of the magazine and coloured every page with different shapes and outlines and colours, and the 20 or so separate framed pages take up one wall of a room, and are lovely and bright and inventive and unthreatening and funny.
Gallery 8, including works by Keith Coventry, Clay Ketter and Angela de la Cruz.<br /> Photo Stephen White

Gallery 8, including works by Keith Coventry, Clay Ketter and Angela de la Cruz.
Photo Stephen White

Thoughts and reflections

1. Stepping out into the gritty diesel sunlight of Commercial Road and then strolling along the backstreets to Petticoat Lane and so between the forest of tall, commercial buildings towards Liverpool Street Station, made me notice how modern architecture, in particular, is made up of squares and rectangles, whether of glass or concrete slabs, squares and rectangles everywhere. How so much of the hard-edged geometry of the vision of Modernist architecture has been completely assimilated into the buildings that surround us.

2. BUT – as in Hannah Starkey’s large photos of women alienated in the stark steel and glass atriums and waiting rooms of modern commercial buildings – how that Modernist vision of soaring glass and steel buildings, far from offering the liberation from bourgeois convention and society which the early Modernists envisioned, turned out to be the perfect style for fascism, communism or, in our time, corporate capitalism. In all its guises, a style equated with power and control. Sure it successfully replaced the fussy decorativeness of Victorian and Edwardian architecture – with a new brutalism, a physical setting for the worship of youth, power, money, control.

3. One of the last items was a video by Karthik Pandian, bang up to date as it was completed this very year. Reversal Red Square Video (2015) is a highly finished sequence of photos of cool looking dudes in darkened bars or studio spaces, across which float red rectangles of varying sizes and shapes with a minimal humming soundtrack. Simple idea, but with production values much higher than your usual art video, and calmingly mesmeric in effect.

As I sat watching these red shapes drift across the screen I thought, What about the biggest and most blindingly obvious embedding of the black square in our lives today – the screen? Most of us spend most of our day looking at the screens of desktop computers, laptops, ipads, ipods, or our smart phones (as I am as I write this, as you are as you read this).

I was surprised there didn’t appear to be a single work reflecting on the omnipresence of the rectangular screen in every aspect of modern life, and all the issues of power, control, connectivity, superficiality versus depth, speed versus reflection, and so on which we are all having to engage with whether we want to or not.

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