Buddhism @ the British Library

Buddhism is a major exhibition at the British Library, bringing together objects and artefacts, folding books and scrolls and manuscripts, paintings and pictures, wall hangings early printed works, along with not one but two displays of the tools which have been used to make precious Buddhist scriptures for centuries, interspersed with half a dozen films (interviews with practicing Buddhists, demonstrations of chanting and praying, how the ancient texts are preserved nowadays), plus an enchanting video installation of a contemporary Buddhist artist painting holy texts on pavements and walls.

It’s a lot of information to take in at once. My review is in four parts:

  1. The life of the Buddha and Buddhism
  2. Myths and legends, preachings and practices
  3. The importance of numbers in Buddhism
  4. The exhibition itself

The life of Buddha and Buddhism

A copy of the Lotus Sūtra in a lavishly decorated scroll from Japan, written in gold and silver ink on indigo-dyed paper in 1636, one of the most popular and most influential Buddhist texts of Mahayana Buddhism © British Library Board

A brief outline of the Buddha and his teachings is relatively simple. Born into a royal family in what is now Nepal 2,500 years ago, young Prince Siddhārtha Gautama lived a coddled protected wife, which included undergoing an arranged marriage, and living entirely within the palace walls. However, he grew restless and managed to make several journeys into the big wide world where he was shocked for the first time to encounter poverty, hunger, decrepit old age and squalor.

He finally broke free from his gilded life and spent years wandering India, pondering the human condition and one day, seated under a bodhi tree, he achieved enlightenment.

‘Buddha’ is a title, which means ‘one who is awake’ in the sense of ‘having woken up to reality’.

He realised that the world is a bubble of transient appearances. Nothing lasts. All of us die and are reincarnated (here he was basing himself on far more ancient Hindu beliefs) back into this world of woe.

What causes all the pain and suffering? It is attachment to things of this world, it is desire, want, letting our physiological urges drive us to try and own or achieve things which are themselves only passing and delusory, which most of the time we fail to attain anyway.

Therefore, the secret of enlightenment, is to strive for a condition of complete detachment from the things of this world. One should begin by observing The Middle Way, not going to extremes of self-deprivation or sensual indulgence. But the techniques of the Middle Way will lead, ultimately, to complete detachment from the things of the world.

Only then will the enlightened one break free of the endless cycle of Samsara – of rebirth, suffering, death, and more rebirth – and their soul achieve nirvana.

Myths and legends surrounding the Buddha

The most comprehensive woodblock-printed work depicting and describing scenes from the life of the Buddha, including 208 beautiful hand-coloured illustrations from China, created in 1808 © British Library Board

If this is all there were to it, Buddhism really would be a simple belief system. But one of the most fascinating things about it is not its teachings per se, it is that so many teachings can be generated from such a simple premise.

An enormous number of legends grew up about Prince Gautama:

  • stretching back in time (for it turns out that he had been reincarnated many times before, hundreds of times before and each of those previous incarnations had had numerous adventures which are described in the Birth Stories or Jatakas
  • that he would be reincarnated in the future, in the figure called the Maitreya, to bring us all back to the True Way
  • and, moving away from the Prince himself, it turns out that the world has contained other holy ones, boddhisatvas, people are able to reach nirvana but delay doing so through compassion for suffering beings

Many texts were written about the Buddha’s sayings and teachings. These included a steadily growing number of his wonderful deeds and miracles. Monuments were built, stupas, where the relics of the Buddha himself or the lesser enlightened ones – effectively Buddhist saints – are buried, chief among the holy sites being the very Bodhi tree under which Siddhartha achieved enlightenment (where a vast temple complex was built in the third century BC, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site).

There are four first-order holy sites related to the life of the Buddha (as there are a defined number of sites holy to the life of Mohamed and the life of Jesus) but countless others where various legendary events took place, as well as important events for the boddhisatvas, take the annual Procession of Buddha’s Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka.

The Hyakumantō darani or ‘One Million Pagoda Dharani,’ the oldest extant examples of printing in Japan and some of the earliest in the world, dating 764-770 CE © British Library Board

Monasteries were established, communal buildings for Buddhist monks. Elaborate ceremonies grew up to celebrate key dates in the Buddha’s life, and the monasteries required texts to guide and define the rituals as well as texts of teachings and doctrine for students to be taught and masters to meditate on (for example a long list of the Buddha’s many names which could be used for meditation). The monasteries also preserved and expanded on earlier written accounts of the Buddha’s life.

The exhibition includes a wall-sized animated map which shows the spread of Buddhism up into Afghanistan, east into China and then into south-east Asia. At the same time it developed into three major traditions which took flavour from the local cultures, and used the languages of the regions of Asia which they spread into:

  1. Theravada
  2. Mahayana
  3. Vajrayan

And by about this stage of the exhibition I had come a long way from the simple insight at the core of Buddhism and was beginning to feel overwhelmed by numbers.

The importance of numbers in Buddhism

A 7.6 metre-long 19th century Burmese illustrated manuscript detailing the early life of the Buddha, on display at the Library for the first time © British Library Board

The Buddha is one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, the others being his teachings (Dharma) and the monastic order (Sangha).

The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths:

  • life is unsatisfactory and there is suffering
  • the cause of suffering is desire
  • suffering can be overcome
  • this liberation is effected by following the Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path consists of eight practices:

  • right view
  • right resolve
  • right speech
  • right conduct
  • right livelihood
  • right effort
  • right mindfulness
  • and right samadhi (meditative absorption)

The Noble Eightfold path is represented by the dharma wheel (dharmachakra) whose eight spokes represent the eight elements of the path (although a dharmachakra can also have 12, 24 or 31 spokes, representing other sets of holy values).

The Buddha’s first discourse was given in a deer park to five disciples who become the basis of the huge monastic orders which followed.

The Buddha had 547 previous lives all described in the Jataka tales.

The last ten Jatakas or Birth Stories about Buddha are popular in South-East Asia because they illustrate the ten perfections of a Buddha.

The Buddha’s footprint features 108 auspicious symbols such as royal insignia, mythical creatures, rivers, mountains and even continents.

Bodhisattva or Buddha-to-be is characterised by a set of paramita or perfections. The Pāli Canon, the Buddhavaṃsa of the Khuddaka Nikāya, lists ten perfections. Two of these virtues, mettā and upekkhā, also are brahmavihāras.

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Prajñapāramitā sūtras, the Lotus Sutra and a large number of other texts list a different list of six perfections.

The ‘pure illusory body’ is said to be endowed with six perfections (Sanskrit: ṣatpāramitā). The first four of these perfections are ‘skillful means’ practice while the last two are ‘wisdom’ practice.

In the Theravada tradition 28 Buddhas are believed to have appeared in the past and attained Nirvana. The Buddha we know about is the fourth Buddha of the present aeon.

Twenty four of these previous Buddhas gave advice to the Buddha we know about, and they are listed, quoted and depicted in countless manuscripts, illustrations and books.

Rebirths occur in the six realms of existence, three good realms (heavenly, demi-god, human) and three evil realms (animal, ghosts, hellish).

The six realms of rebirth are part of the 31 realms of existence. After death the soul passes through ten stages as described in the Sutra of the Ten Kings before entering the six realms of rebirth.

The mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ has six syllables, symbolising the six realms of rebirth.

There is a heavenly realm named Trayastrimsa with palaces, gardens and parks for the 33 gods who live there. Trayastrimsa is only one of the six heavens or celestial realms.

On Buddhist monasteries, of the Theravada tradition, a bhikkhu (male monk) is expected to follow all 227 rules of monastic disciple, while a bikkhuni (female monk) has to follow 311 rules.

The four dignities are ancient symbols that represent qualities of the windhorse, and are: Garuda, Dragon, Snow Lion, Tiger. Many prayer flags show the four dignities with a windhorse in the center.

The Pancharaksa identifies five female deities and includes spells and rituals to appease them. they are sometimes paired with the Five Wisdom Buddhas.

A monastic is allowed eight personal requisites: three robes in saffron or yellow, an alms bowl, a razor, a needle, a water strainer and a girdle.

Tibetan Buddhists make use of a particular set of eight auspicious symbols, ashtamangala, in household and public art, including the conch shell, the endless knot, a pair of fish, the lotus, the parasol, the vase, the Dharmachakra and the banner of victory.

Maybe you can appreciate why, by this point, I had begun to feel very confused. The basic idea of Buddhism, which I outlined at the top, had long gotten buried in a litter of legends and a bewildering variety of important numbers.

The exhibition itself

You have to like red. The high-ceilinged basement rooms of the Library’s gallery space have all been painted a deep blood red. It is like going down into a torture chamber or maybe a brothel in some red light district.

Installation view of Buddhism at the British Library. Very red

Except that the space is packed with display cases showing a very wide range of types of object – concertina books made of mulberry leaves and manuscripts and paintings and sculptures, bells and drinking bowls, manuscript writing tools and materials, a full calligraphy set, amulet boxes, offering bowls, manuscript cabinets, sacred scriptures written on tree bark, palm leaves, gold plates, illuminated texts and silk scrolls of the major sutras, a Buddhist protective jacket, a rare copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead – it’s a feast of Buddhist texts and textures.

A rare Buddhist manuscript in the shape of a bar of gold from Thailand dated 1917, known as Sankhara bhajani kyam, going on display for the first time © British Library Board

TV monitors dot the exhibition showing interviews with current practicing Buddhists, techniques of manuscript conservation and a contemporary artist painting Buddhist texts in what I took to be Japanese letters.

At one point hidden loudspeakers are playing a loop which includes traditional Buddhist monk chanting interspersed with the sound of streams and birdsong.

I didn’t realise that the lotus is the symbol of the Buddha because lotus flowers often grow in pretty muddy, dirty ponds. So they symbolise a state of complete purity and calm which can be achieved despite the mind’s origins in the messy realities of the physical body.

The section on the physical technique of creating, writing, preserving and storing monastic texts was fascinating and set above or apart from the rather oppressive barrage of sacred numbers, a specialist sub-set of the overall subject which gave you interest and respect for the ancient craftspeople who dedicated their lives to preserving and beautifying the holy scriptures.

The display of materials and tools used to make the earliest Buddhist texts, at Buddhism at the British Library

Conclusion

I went intending to like this exhibition but, if I’m honest, I found it a bit difficult.

a) There’s so much factual content to it, from the outline of the core story, to the incredible profusion of legendary events which have accrued to it; the actual history of its spread and development throughout Asia, to over 20 countries.

b) A long and complicated history which is reflected in the sheer variety of items on display, from paintings, manuscripts and scrolls, through to the displays showing the tools used to make manuscript chests and so on.

But c) I think the thing which overwhelmed me was the sheer profusion of Holy Numbers and Perfections and Jatakas and the Three Jewels and the Eightfold Path, and so on. I quickly got lost and confused in the mathematical maze of Buddhist doctrine.

I felt overwhelmed by stuff when, ironically, I thought the whole point of Buddhism is to clear your head of clutter, and focus on your own existence, cleared of all distractions.

Still, if you’re at all interested in the subject, it is beautifully laid out, with its biography and legends and explanation of the teachings, its maps of Buddhism’s spread, its history, the techniques used to make its manuscripts, as well as beautiful objects like the metal statues of bodhisattvas, a monastery bell, and some exquisite carved chests.

As long as you like red!

Installation view of Buddhism at the British Library

The promo video


Related links

  • Buddhism continues at the British Library until 23 February 2020

Reviews of other British Library exhibitions

WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade @ Japan House

WOW is a visual arts studio based in Tokyo and Sendai, Japan. Their aim is ‘to reach beyond the boundaries of motion graphics, presenting installations which raise questions of how we interpret and express the modern world.’

WOW has been involved in a wide field of design work, including advertising and commercial works for brands including Sony, Suntory, Aston Martin, Dior, Chandon, Pokémon, Issey Miyake and Shiseido.

Until the end of March, Japan House in High Street Kensington is home to two installations by WOW studios, amounting to the company’s first UK solo exhibition.

Both installations are in the downstairs gallery space (although there is a display of the carved wooden dolls filling Japan House’s shop windows) and both are completely FREE. The one large gallery space has been partitioned in two.

POPPO – part of the WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade exhibition at Japan House London. Credit: Image by WOW

Room 1 – Tokyo Light Odyssey

You walk through curtains into a pitch-black space with curved walls shaped like a teardrop – you’ve walked into the pointed end and the walls curve away from you and then form a half circle at the far end, about ten yards way.

Onto the walls on both sides of you and facing you, in one seamless image, is projected a fantastic, five-and-a-half-minute long, 360-degree journey through Japan’s capital city by night. Remember the space travel ending of 2001 A Space Odyssey, or any footage you’ve seen of cars driving at speed through cityscapes? It’s like that, only better, and totally immersive. A lot of artists talk about immersive but this is a genuinely sensaround film experience.

Still from the Tokyo Light Odyssey installation at the WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade exhibition at Japan House London. Credit: Image by WOW

The ‘camera’ moves seamlessly through the neon lights of a subway station, which morph into the lights of convenience stores, then down into a tube train of the Yamanote Line, moving forwards over the head of the strap-hangars then the camera’s point of view swivels through 180 degrees so it’s travelling back the way it came then bursts free of the train to fly through the night sky between skyscrapers which change shape as in a kaleidoscope before shooting through the window of a hotel, across a room, through a door and then through a sequence of corridors of numerous ‘capsule’ hotels, pausing for a view of the iconic Tokyo Tower which changes and distorts before your eyes and then shooting forward to confront a vision of the world as one watery orb on which a series of illuminated ocean liners are railing, before flying past their lit portholes.

Wow, indeed. The five minutes pass in a flash. I loved it so much I watched it three times, the third time actively walking round the room-sized space, experimenting on my own perception as I walked either towards or backwards away from the fast-moving imagery, adding a further level of dizziness to the vertiginous visual journey. It’s brilliant.

Room 2 – POPPO

The second room is a more conventional display, with a range of objects and few interactive activities. It introduces us to the wooden folk craft of Tohoku – a region in the north east of Japan damaged by the large scale 2011 earthquake and tsunami. There are three main parts to POPPO.

This digital display includes three different installations focusing on kokeshi – wooden dolls – and poppo – the popular word for small carved wooden toys.

Poppo woods

In the POPPO Woods section there is a wall where people (mainly children) can place magnetic ‘tree segments’ against the wall, and after they’ve built their tree stump, digital birds will come and land on them.

A child places a magnetic mat against the Poppo Woods projected graphic in order to build a tree which an animated bird will then come and land on, at WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade exhibition at Japan House London. Credit: Image by WOW

The birds are native to Tohoku and there’s a display of half a dozen sweet, non-digital, carved birds, explaining that each one has a symbolic meaning, for example the hawk is an image of business success and prosperity, the owl is an image of happiness and good fortune, the wagtail a sign of fertility (!)

Bird poppo, small, hand-carved wooden toys made in the Tōhoku region of Japan, at WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade exhibition at Japan House London. Photo by the author

Rokuro

In the second part, Rokuro, visitors are presented with a couple of digital screens. The screen prompts you to activate it and then a computer animation of a circular piece of wood appears spinning at high speed on a lathe. By touching the screen, you decide where the lathe-cutting instrument interacts with the spinning wood pole, carving rings into it – these can be deep or shallow, wide or narrow, just one or many. And so you carve your own digital kokeshi, or wooden doll.

After thirty seconds the process is complete and the program automatically colours in the curved shape you’ve made and then it appears on the wall-sized computer-generated screen behind the little screens, a wall-sized projected gallery of all the carvings visitors have made to the exhibition so far.

A child uses an interactive screen to ‘carve’ a kokeshi doll, which will then be coloured and appear on the shelves full of similar dolls projected on the wall. Part of WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade exhibition at Japan House London. Credit: Image by WOW

Yadoru

In the final part, Yadoru, there are 130 unpainted kokeshi dolls which have the faces of 130 Tohoku residents (pulling a variety of faces) projected on to them. The body of the dolls are imbued with ‘auspicious meaning’ and have been decorated using designs from a veteran Japanese kokeshi maker based in Zao Onsen.

Some of the 130 kokeshi dolls with real faces projected onto them at the WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade exhibition at Japan House London

To one side of this display is a screen and chair. You sit and line up your face with the cam above the screen, as in a passport photo machine, get is just so and click the button. The computer saves the image of your face and any silly expression you were making, then projects it onto the blank face of one of the half dozen dolls in a special display away from the main collection…. So that you have projected your own face onto the kokeshi to create their own unique doll.

Project your own face onto a kokeshi doll in the WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade exhibition at Japan House London

It’s not an academic exhibition. It’s a small, fun, interactive display and, as the photos with kids suggest, it is probably one for people with kids below the age of about 11. But if you’re an adult with an interest in Japanese crafts, or know enough to be interested in kokeshi dolls, then it’s for you, too.


Related links

Other exhibitions at Japan House

Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency @ the Royal Academy

This is an exhibition of art and architecture on the theme of climate change and environmental destruction. It begins with the usual alarming facts and figures, which any educated person who reads a newspaper or watches the news or listens to the radio, should already know almost off by heart:

  • the world is facing an ecological catastrophe
  • the ten warmest years ever recorded have all occurred since 1998
  • we must reduce CO2 emissions to zero by 2050 (at the very latest) to avoid catastrophic global warming
  • which is already resulting in melting ice caps, retreating glaciers, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events
  • humans have accelerated the ‘normal’ background rate of species extinctions 1,000-fold with the result that we are living during the Sixth Great Extinction
  • the world’s population is predicted to grow by 20% over the next three decades to reach 9.7 billion
  • yadda yadda yadda

21 works

Rather than editorialise, I will list the exhibitions 21 works, giving links to their websites, where available, for you to follow up and read about yourself.

Texts in single quotations marks are from the wall labels or the artist’s own explanations. My own occasional comments are in italics.

Introduction

The curators introduce the exhibition thus:

‘Eco-Visionaries examines humankind’s impact on the planet and presents innovative approaches that reframe our relationship with nature. Through film, installation, architectural models and photography, the works in this exhibition interrogate how architecture, art and design are reacting to a rapidly changing world, beyond mainstream notions of sustainability.’

In the corridor leading towards the show there’s a simple timeline of dates from the industrial revolution onwards, recording natural disasters, growing awareness of how human activity devastates the natural world, the first theorising about global warming, the setting up of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988 (1988!) and so on down to this year.

1. Domestic Catastrophe No.3  by HeHe (2018)

“An aquarium containing a domestic globe, a motor to turn the globe and electronic valve or drip feed which releases a fluoresceine tracing dye onto the sphere. As the sphere turns, the green dye wraps itself around the sphere, enveloping it in what appears to be a thin gas or atmosphere that surrounds the planet Earth. The difference between emissions and atmosphere, the ‘man-influenced’ and the ‘natural’ climate cannot be easily defined.”

This is like a big cubic aquarium with a school-globe of the world-sized model of the world slowly turning within a thick liquid. On the bottom of the aquarium is a thin layer of sand and the slowly turning globe spins this sand into little dust devils and typhoons which is rather entrancing.

2. A Film, Reclaimed by Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera (2015)

“The ecologic crisis is a political, economic and social crisis. It is also cinematographic, as cinema coincides historically and in a critical and descriptive way with the development of the Anthropocene.”

The bit of the film I saw included clips from Hollywood movies, including some end-of-the-world film with buildings exploding and, soon after that, a clip from Blade Runner, a pleasingly random selection which could come from any one of thousands of art films, documentaries or even loops of movie clips you see played in nightclubs. As in, it didn’t convey any meaning whatsoever to me.

3. Tilapia by Tue Greenfort

A set of depictions of fish in black and white on paper, done to make them look like fossils. It’s based on human interference in the ecosystem of Lake Victoria which has led to the almost complete extermination of tilaplia fish. They were made by covering dead tilaplia specimens with inks and pressing them against the paper.

“A series of black-and-white prints arranged as a shoal of tilapia fish, one of the most consumed varieties of fish in the world but also one of the most invasive and predatory species.”

Tilapia by Tue Greenfort

4. Serpent River Book by Carolina Caycedo (2017)

“A 72-page accordion fold artist-book, that combines archival images, maps, poems, lyrics, satellite photos, with the artist’s own images and texts on river bio-cultural diversity, in a long and meandering collage. The fluctuating publication can frame many narratives. As a book it can be opened, pleated and read in many directions, and has a performatic potential to it, functioning as a score, or as a workshop tool. Serpent River Book gathers visual and written materials compiled by the artist while working in Colombian, Brazilian, and Mexican communities affected by the industrialization and privatization of river systems.”

5. Madrid in the air: 24 Hours by Nerea Calvillo (2019)

Madrid in the Air: 24 Hours monitors the skyline of Madrid over a 24-hour period, uncovering the almost invisible veil of pollutants in the air.”

In the Air is a visualization project which aims to make visible the microscopic and invisible agents of Madrid´s air (gases, particles, pollen, diseases, etc), to see how they perform, react and interact with the rest of the city. The visualization tool is a web-based dynamic model which builds up the space the components generate, where through data crossing behavior patterns emerge. The results of these data feed a physical prototype of what we have called a “diffuse façade”, a massive indicator of the air´s components through a changing cloud, blurring architecture with the atmosphere it has invaded and mediating the activity of the participants it envelops.”

“The project highlights the contamination of air in cities caused by vehicle engines, industry, factories and farming.”

It was a film of a camera fixed in a static position at roof level looking out over Madrid and a strange pink or green gauze-like veil hovering over the city, sometimes thickening or advancing – being a visualisation of the soup of pollution we all live in.

6. The ice melting series by Olafur Eliasson (2002)

A series of 20 black and white photos showing very small pieces of glacial ice (four to 10 inches long) melting into the black stones and rubble of a terminal moraine in Iceland.

The Ice Melting series by Olafur Eliasson (2002)

7. Alaska Chair by Virgil Abloh (2018)

“Originally designed as a wooden chair for IKEA, the Alaska Chair is a paradoxical commentary on the effects of our everyday lives and mass-consumption habits on the global rising sea levels and climate change. This work was inspired by the concept of acqua alta, an Italian term used to describe regular floods in Venice, caused by high tides and warm winds. The chair is partly submerged by the rising flood waters, with a doorstep wedge symbolically representing the short-term, makeshift solutions we have for tackling climate change. Yet by casting the work in bronze, a material intended to last, the work reflects on how environmental catastrophe is a tough, long-term problem that is not easily fixed by simple solutions.”

Alaska Chair by Virgil Abloh (2018)

I liked the ‘Do not touch’ sign. The environment is going up in flames but ‘Don’t you dare touch my lovely work of art with your grubby fingers!’

8. The Breast Milk of the Volcano by Unknown Fields (2017)

“Over half the world’s reserves of lithium, a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries in phones, laptops, electric cars and drone technology, is found in the salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. This film poignantly examines how even the cleanest energy utopias can have dramatic consequences in material, resource and economic exploitation. Accompanying the film is a lithium battery designed by the artists. It refers to an Inca origin myth of the Salar de Uyuni in which the salt flats were formed by the breast milk and tears of a mother volcano mourning the loss of her child.”

(If you’re wondering why this sad and plaintive video appears to have the half-stoned voice of Elon Musk presenting Tesla Energy over it, you’re not the only one but it’s the same with all the versions of the video scattered across the internet.)

9. The Substitute by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (2019)

The Substitute draws upon rare zoological archival footage as well as experimental data from artificial intelligence company DeepMind, will enable visitors to come faceto-face with a life-size digital reproduction of a northern white rhinoceros. The last male of the subspecies died in 2018.”

“On March 20, 2018, headlines announced the death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). We briefly mourned a subspecies lost to human desire for the imagined life-enhancing properties of its horn, comforted that it might be brought back using biotechnology, albeit gestated by a different subspecies. But would humans protect a resurrected rhino, having decimated an entire species? And would this new rhino be real?”

10. P-Plastoceptor: Organ for Sensing Plastic by Pinar Yoldas (2014)

“Polypropylene is the second most common plastic after polyethylene. P-Plasticeptor is a sense organ which can detect polypropylene polymers in the ocean. The organ takes its name from its sensing capabilities for polypropylene and its shape that almost resembles the letter P.”

An Ecosystem of Excess: P-Plastoceptor: Organ For Sensing Plastics by Pinar Yoldas (2019)

There are two works, the P-Plastoceptor, and another fictitious organ, Somaximums presented in vitrines as if in pickled alcohol specimen jars. I think they’ve both been invented, made up with rather arcane satirical intent.

11. Our Prehistoric Fate by Basim Magdy (2011)

“Our Prehistoric Fate, 2011 was commissioned by the 1st Time Machine Biennale of Contemporary Art. D-O ARK Underground in Konjic, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The biennale took place inside a massive nuclear bunker in the mountains 60 km. away from Sarajevo. The bunker was commissioned by Josip Broz Tito as a last refuge for him, his family and top Yugoslavian generals in case of a nuclear attack. It took almost 30 years to finish the project. Tito died a year after its completion without ever setting foot in it. Needless to say, the nuclear attack never happened. Two large Duraclear prints hang on Yugoslavian military lightbox displays with clamps in the war strategy room of the bunker where decisions were meant to be made and maps of the situation on the ground were meant to be evaluated. The first claims ‘The Future Belongs To Us’ in large bold letters, the second is an encyclopedia illustration from the 60s that captures an Ankylosaurus, a prehistoric creature we know very little about, as it approaches a pond to drink.”

Our Prehistoric Fate by Basim Magdy (2011)

12. Designs for an overpopulated planet by Dunne and Raby (2009)

“Based on United Nations predictions that at the current rate of ecological transformations there will not be enough food to feed the planet in 2050, Foragers, from the series Designs for an Overpopulated Planet, are speculative full-scale models proposing how to radically change the human diet and digestive system to ensure survival. These devices would allow humans to extract nutritional value from synthetic biology and develop new digestive systems like those of other mammals, birds, fish and insects which are able to digest and process barely edible resources such as tough roots and plant matter.”

Installation view of Designs for an overpopulated planet by Dunne and Raby (2009) Photograph by the author.

Two surreal ‘eating tubes’ along with a photo of how to use one out in the wild.

13. Pollutive Matter-s (three scenarios) by New Territories (S/he) (1997-2002)

14. The Dolphin Embassy by Ant Farm (1974-78)

“The Dolphin Embassy was a research project that never was built and that attempted to study the communication between the human being and the dolphins. It would have been built with asbestos cement and it moved with a solar panel and a motor. Besides the quality of the drawings, the interest of this proposal was in the social relations that the Dolphin Embassy was proposing between humans and the dolphins”

15. 3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise by WORKac and Ant Farm (2015)

“3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise is a speculative design for a floating city inspired by different architectural projects created by collective Ant Farm in the 1970s, including the drawings for The Dolphin Embassy. The city is designed to facilitate dialogue and debate between humans and other species, blurring the boundaries between ecology and infrastructure, public and private, the individual and the collective. Unbound by national allegiances, the design includes a vessel with housing, a research lab and an interspecies congress hall. The programme is completed with greenhouse and garden areas, an algae farm for biofuel production and a water-collection river, all covered by an inflatable wall and solar panel shingles.”

WORKac’s long section of Dolphin Embassy

“The idea is that it’s a floating city not bound by any national borders. People can come together to live in a different way and discuss important issues of the day.”

16. Biogas Power Plant by SKREI (2017)

“According to the London Assembly one year’s worth of the average urban borough’s food waste could generate enough electricity to power a local primary school for over ten years. Biogas Power Plant is a prototype for an individual biogas production unit which could use domestic waste to create and store energy to make houses self-sufficient. The unit is designed to be connected to the National Grid yet able to operate without relying on an external power supply or waste-management system.”

Biogas Power Plant by SKREI (2017) Photograph by the author.

17. Island House In Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas by Andres Jaque/Office for Political Innovation, with Patrick Craine (2015-ongoing)

“The fifty-island archipelago of Laguna Grande, on the south coast of Texas, is one of the biggest wild island-barriers of the world. This archipelago contains some of the most ancient animal and vegetal species adapted to saline aquatic ecosystems and protects the lagoon from the pollution resulting from the nearby presence of oil platforms. The islands are the habitats where mammals and other coastal species overnight, and they are endangered by the combined effects of climate change and the incremental increase in the acidity of the water. Island House in Laguna Grande is not designed as an architecture for humans, but built instead to empower the environmental diversity of Laguna Grande. The structure collects and preserves rainwater and, through the mediation of sensors on the ground, sprays water to dilute toxicity and combat drought.”

Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation with Patrick Craine, Island House in Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas, 2015-ongoing © Courtesy of the artists

18. Soil Procession by Futurefarmers (2015)

“On June 13, 2015 a procession of farmers carried soil from their farms through the city of Oslo to its new home at Losæter. Soil Procession was a GROUND BUILDING ceremony that used the soil collected from over 50 Norwegian farms from as far north as Tromsø and as far south as Stokke, to build the foundation of the Flatbread Society Grain Field and Bakehouse. A procession of soil and people through Oslo drew attention to this historical, symbolic moment of the transition of a piece of land into a permanent stage for art and action related to food production. At high noon, farmers gathered at the Oslo Botanical Gardens joined by city dwellers. Tractors, horses, wagons, wheelbarrows, musical instruments, voices, sheep, boats, backpacks and bikes processed to Losæter where the farmers’ soil offerings were laid out upon the site and a Land Declaration was signed.”

Seed Procession 2016 by Futurefarmers. Part of Seed Journey (2016–ongoing). Photograph by Monica Lovdahl. Courtesy of Futurefarmers

19. The Meteorological Garden / Central Park, Taichung, Taiwan, 2012– 2019 by Philippe Rahm architectes, in collaboration with mosbach paysagistes and Ricky Liu & Associates

“The ambition of our project is to give back the outdoors to the inhabitants and visitors by proposing to create exterior spaces where the excesses of the subtropical warm and humid climate of Taichung are lessened. The exterior climate of the park is thus modulated so to propose spaces less hot (more cold, in the shade), less humid (by lowering humid air, sheltered from the rain and flood) and less polluted (by adding filtered air from gases and particle matters pollution, less noisy, less mosquitoes presence).”

Installation view of photos and models of The Meteorological Garden / Central Park, Taichung, Taiwan (2011 – 2019) by Philippe Rahm architectes in collaboration with mosbach paysagistes, Ricky Liu & Associates. Photograph by the author.

20. The Green Machine by Studio Malka Architecture (2014)

“The Green Machine is a mobile structure intended to regenerate and fertilise the ground of the Sahara Desert, one of the world’s most inhospitable climates. Resembling an oil platform that has been made redundant by dried-up seas, the project is a self-sufficient urban oasis able both to exploit the rich resources of the desert and to provide food, water, housing and energy for a local community. This concept resembles available technologies to generate a structure that could produce 20 million tonnes of crops each year in a hostile environment. Solar towers, wind turbines and balloons that capture water through condensation come together with the inventive use of modified caterpillar treads that plough, water and sow the soil as the autonomous structure slowly moves across the land.”

The Green Machine (2014) by Studio Malka Architecture. Courtesy of the artist

21. win >< win by Rimini Protokoll (Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel)

The last exhibit in the show requires you to wait in a queue to go through a sliding door. There’s a roped off queue stations, like in my local post office, and a big digital clock counting off the seconds till the next batch of visitors can go in. What are you queueing for?

Once through the sliding door, a small number of people (nine, I think) can sit on two low, shallow curved benches only a couple of yards away from a wall, and into that wall has been cut an enormous circle of glass. It is an aquarium! A massive aquarium in which are swimming quite a few, maybe as many as twenty beautiful jellyfish, about a foot in diameter, slowly wafting around what is clearly a large space behind the wall, lit by a gentle blue illumination.

There are headphones for each visitor and if you put them on you then listen to a 16-minute-long audiopiece about these jellyfish. You learn that they are Moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) and that they can be found in oceans around the world. And the audioguide goes on to give a dramatic description of the fight or survival which is coming, which has already started, among the world’s species as air and sea temperatures increase, CO2 levels increase, and ecosystems around the world are devastated.

And guess who many ecologists think are likely to win? As far as I can tell this video includes the entire audio track.

Exhibition participants

  • Virgil Abloh (Rockford, US)
  • Ant Farm (Chip Lord, Doug Michels and Curtis Schreier) (California, US)
  • Nerea Calvillo (Madrid, Spain)
  • Carolina Caycedo (London, UK)
  • Dunne & Raby (London, UK / New York City, US)
  • Olafur Eliasson Hon RA (Copenhagen, Denmark)
  • Futurefarmers (San Francisco, US and Gent, Belgium)
  • Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (London, UK)
  • Tue Greenfort (Holbæk, Denmark)
  • HeHe (Le Havre, France)
  • Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation (Madrid, Spain / New York City, US)
  • Basim Magdy (Asyut, Egypt)
  • Malka Architecture (Paris, France)
  • Philippe Rahm architectes (Paris, France)
  • Rimini Protokoll (Berlin, Germany)
  • SKREI (Porto, Portugal)
  • Unknown Fields (London, UK)
  • Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera (Brasília, Brazil / Paris, France)
  • WORKac (New York City, US)
  • Pinar Yoldas (Denizli, Turkey)

Thoughts

I laughed out loud when I read the wall label claiming that the exhibits are ‘provocative responses’ which amount to ‘a wake-up call – urging us to acknowledge and become conscious of our impact on our environment’.

A wake-up call to who? To the several thousand middle-aged, middle-class, well-educated types who visit the Royal Academy? They are already super-awake, over-awake. It’s not the behaviour of a few score thousand posh people in London you have to influence: it is the behaviour of billions and billions of poor people around the world.

As for us rich people, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 2010 to 2016, a few years ago gave a simple recipe:

  • become vegetarian
  • sell your car
  • never take another plane flight
  • review all your investments, pensions and savings and transfer them to carbon-free, environmentally friendly sectors

That’s the most basic, elementary steps which all of us should take. And will we? No.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits @ the Royal Academy

‘By the turn of the millennium, Freud was widely acknowledged to be Britain’s greatest living painter.’
(Alex Branczik, Head of Contemporary Art for Sotheby’s Europe)

Contrary to the implications of the title, this exhibition does not include all of Lucian Freud’s self-portraits, nowhere near. Given that Freud was interested in self portraiture throughout his long career, the selection here is a only relatively small percentage. Also, contrary to the title, the exhibition also includes a number of portraits not of himself, in fact arguably the best room is the one devoted to portraits of other people.

Lucian and me

I don’t like Lucian Freud. I associate him with Frank Auerbach and the other dreary, depressing post-war British artists, a kind of visual equivalent of Harold Pinter, who I was force-fed at school. Their dreary, depressed, rainy English miserabilism nearly put me off contemporary art and literature for life.

But this exhibition made me change my mind (a bit) for two reasons:

1. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, which allows us to see the quite remarkable evolution of his style over 60 years of painting. Stories are always interesting and, by stopping to investigate each stage along his journey, the exhibition does a good job of making his development interesting.

2. By luck I got into conversation with another visitor who happened to be an amateur painter and she, for the first time, made me understand how his journey had been one of technique. It dawned on me that, to use a cliché, he may be a painter’s painter. Certainly the last couple of rooms make you think that his paintings may well depict men or women, naked or clothed, including himself, as subjects – but the real subject is the adventure of painting itself.

And this made me go back and really examine the technique of the paintings in the last few rooms and come to respect, in fact to marvel, at the complex painterly effects of his mature style.

A brief outline

Freud was born in Berlin in 1922 and fled Nazi Germany with his family in 1933, coming to London. He held his first solo show as early as 1944. In the late 1940s he chose to make portraiture the focus of his practice.

Drawing

Drawing was central to Freud’s style from the late 30s through to the early 1950s. His drawings from this era are strikingly different from the later work. This is a rare opportunity to see a whole roomful of them together and they come from a different world. They have a graphic sharpness, an economy of line which makes them very like cartoons. Look at the careful shading in the ears and on the cheek, and the extraordinary attention he’s devoted to each individual hair. Critic Herbert Read called him ‘the Ingres of Existentialism’.

Startled Man: Self-portrait (1948) by Lucian Freud © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

This clear style lent itself to illustration so it’s no surprise to learn that he illustrated a number of books, several of which are in a display case here, Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis (1955) and Two Plays and a Preface by Nigel Dennis (1958) and that Startled Man was one of five illustrations for a novella by William Sansmon titled The Equilibriad (1948).

Apart from the strikingly clean graphic style, what’s obvious is how performative these pictures are – the male head in them is always striking a pose, adopting an attitude, sometimes with props like a feather, in one dramatic case posing as Actaeon for a book on Greek myths.

Back to painting

Around the mid-1950s Freud turned his attention from drawing to painting and for a period of seven years or so stopped drawing altogether. Initially he painted sitting down using fine brushes. This enabled a smooth finished graphic style, very much in line with the clean defined outlines of his drawings, and the people in them share the same slightly distorted, rather frog-like faces as many of the drawings, more like caricatures than paintings.

Hotel Bedroom by Lucian Freud (1954) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

The wall label tells us that Freud associated with fellow painters Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon. Like him they were figurative painters working against the grain of Abstract Expressionism and, later on, ignoring experimental and conceptual art. That, in a sentence, explains precisely why I don’t like them.

Bigger brushes

Anyway, Bacon inspired Freud to switch from soft sable-hair brushes to hog’s hair brushes which are capable of carrying more paint. This, it seems, was the physical, technical spur for the decisive change in his style. Between the late 1950s and mid-1960s his painting left behind the draughtsmanlike precision, so close to drawing, of paintings like Hotel Bedroom, and became far looser, a matter of large looser brushstrokes, which create more angular images, images made out of clashing planes and angles with an almost modernist feel about them.

Man’s Head (Self-portrait III) by Lucian Freud (1963) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

This is the third of three self-portraits which the exhibition reunites for the first time since they were shown together in 1963. You can see how the interest is now in structure more than likeness. There is no attempt to create a realistic background (his studio or a bedroom) which is now a plain matt surface. Similarly, his face has its familiar long, rather hawkish look, but here transformed into a semi-abstract mask.

Watercolours

Surprisingly, in 1961 he took up watercolours alongside paint. Both were ways of escaping from the linearity of pen-and-ink drawing. The exhibition includes a number of watercolours where he is obviously exploring the effect of broad washes, and the dynamic contrast that creates with more sharply defined faces.

In both types of work he drops the symbols and props which had abounded in the drawings. The subject matter is simpler and in a way starker. The paintings still feel pregnant with meaning but their force or charge is achieved by different means, purely by the arrangement of brushstrokes.

Mirrors

Mirrors have been used by artists since time immemorial to paint accurate self-portraits, and countless artists have gone one step further to include mirrors in their paintings to highlight the artifice and paradox or making images which, on one level, claim to be true, claim to be reality, but on another, are patent artifice.

Quite a few Freud self portraits include mirrors or depict himself from angles clearly designed to bring out the mirrorly artifice. When you learn that he did this increasingly from the mid-1960s it makes a kind of sense; you can see the echo of similar experiments going on in in contemporary film posters and album covers. This instance using a mirror on or near the floor is striking enough, but made disturbing by the inclusion of small portraits of two of his children perched ‘outside’ the main frame.

Reflection with Two Children (Self-portrait) by Lucian Freud (1965) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

In the studio

The penultimate room is the best and it’s the one which has no self portraits. Instead there’s two massive portraits of naked women on sofas, a huge standing male nude (his son, Freddy), and an eerie portrait of two fully clothed Irish gentlemen.

The wall label emphasises that by the 1970s Freud had established a definite approach. He painted people he had some kind of connection with, himself, some members of his family and friends, and sometimes people he met through chance encounters but who held a special visual importance for him.

They are all painted indoors, in his studios, not outside, not at their houses or in a neutral space. They are always in the familiar space of his studio, whose props and space and dimensions he knows inside out. This allowed him to focus on what he stated in interviews was his aim, which was to recreate in paint a physical presence.

So the obvious things about the paintings you see as you walk into this room of late works is that:

  • they’re huge, compared to what came before
  • they’re of other people
  • they’re full length instead of face portraits
  • they’re (mostly) naked

But, among this surfeit of impressions, maybe the most striking is the extraordinary poses and postures he has put his naked subjects in. In his mature works, this became his trademark – the rather tortured and certainly uncomfortable poses of naked women, which creates an uncomfortable, unsettling psychological affect on the viewer.

Naked Portrait with Reflection by Lucian Freud (1980)

What is going on? Is he torturing and exploiting these naked women, demonstrating his male power, as feminist critics have it? Or is he twisting their bodies round to create symbols of his personal unhappiness or anguish, as psychological critics might have it? Or had he stumbled across a new kind of motif, which he realised he could make uniquely his own, a ‘look’ which he could use to consolidate his ‘brand’ in the highly competitive London art market, as a Marxist critic might have it? (It is rather staggering to learn that this painting fetched over £11 million at auction in 2008. God knows what it’s worth now.)

Cremnitz white

But the wall label draws attention another, more technical feature of his painting from this period.

In 1975 he began using Cremnitz white, a heavy paint which, when mixed with other paints, creates a thick granular affect. Armed with this information, look again at the sprawling nude above. Look at the white highlights on her body. Two things:

1. Identifying the area of pure white prompts you to look closely at how they relate to the other colours around them. Obviously there’s a lot of pink but, when you look closely, there’s a lot of yellow and, looking more closely, brown and grey and even green. In fact, the more you look, the more entranced you become by the interplay of colours which make up her flesh, a panoply of creams and ochres and bistre tones.

It dawns on you that maybe Freud posed his naked women (and men, he painted a lot of naked men, too) in this contorted sprawling style and lying down rather than sitting up, because this way he exposes the maximum amount of flesh. Maybe these distorted poses have nothing to do with misogynist exploitation or twisted sexuality or psychological symbolism. Maybe they simply create the largest possible expanse of human flesh for him to paint.

2. Go up close, right up to the painting, and what becomes strikingly obvious is the immensely contoured, nubbly, grainy nature of the surface of the work. It is as if someone has thrown small gravel or stones onto the surface which have got embedded in the paint. It is immensely grainy and rubbly and tactile.

Here’s a close-up of the shadow along the right-hand side of the model’s body. You can see:

1. the lumps and bobbles of solid matter in the paint of the darker shadow near the middle of the image

2. the grooves of the thick brushstrokes moving up out of that dark patch to form her tummy or, at the bottom left, the long smooth but very visible and ridged strokes which create her thigh

3. the tremendous variety of colours and tints: granted, they’re all from the same tonal range of brown: but when you look closely you can see the extraordinary dynamism and interplay of shades. There’s barely a square inch of the same colour, but a continual variety, and a tremendous interest and even excitement created by the plastic, three-dimensional, raised and very tactile way different areas of colours stroke and swadge and brush, and daub and paste and are modelled and placed over and against each other.

Detail from Naked Portrait with Reflection by Lucian Freud (1980)

As I mentioned above, this was partly the result of chatting to the painter I met at the show. It was her enthusiastic description of Freud as a painter as a handler of paint, as the creator of such drama on the canvas, which made me go back and look at these last paintings in more detail.

Same thing can be seen in the other big nude in the room, Flora with Blue Toenails. Armed with this new way of seeing, what I noticed about this painting were 1. that the surface is so granular and lumpy you can see it even in a reproduction 2. the striking difference in timbre between her light torso and her much darker, more shaded legs. The keynote seemed to me to be grey. Follow the lines of grey. A solid line of grey goes from her cleavage, down her sternum and snakes around the top of her tummy almost creating a circle, where it almost joins to another long serpent of the same grey which snakes across her left thigh and curls round at her knee before reappearing across her right shin.

Flora with Blue Toe Nails by Lucian Freud (2000-1)

My point is that, by this stage I was seeing these compositions as adventures in paint, as incredibly complex interplays of an astonishing range of colours, applied in a thick dense impasto, with heavy brushstrokes and entire regions raised and nubbled with grains and lumps of solid matter.

Here’s a close-up of Flora’s elbow, as transformed by Freud’s painterly prestidigitation. I found it quite thrilling to step right up to the painting and examine small areas in great detail, revelling in the adventures of the tones and surfaces – look at the myriad colours intermingling in the broad horizontal strokes at the top of her forearm, it’s almost like a rainbow, the multi-levelled mixing of colours is so advanced. And all this combined with the gnarly gritty, deliberately granular surface.

Detail of Flora with Blue Toe Nails by Lucian Freud (2000-1)

Which meant that by the time I entered the final room, a collection of self-portraits from his final years, I wasn’t at all interested in either the biographical or supposedly psychological elements to them (‘ruthlessly honest, apparently) but instead was riveted by the extraordinarily vibrant, confident, sweeping, dashing painterliness of the things.

Here’s a medium close-up of the 1985 work, Reflection (Self portrait) which is a prime example of his thickly-painted and complex technique. Note the green – green blodges either side of his nose and the pouches under his eyes.

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

I became irrationally fascinated by the patterned edge to the image, to his shoulders which is presumably created by a spatula of some kind to model the border between the figure and the background, and which created the kind of crimping effect you see around the edge of pies.

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

But everywhere you look in the painting you see the same supremely confident use of paint, applied in apparently slapdash thick strokes and in a blather and combo of colours which seems almost chaotic when seen from really close up…

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

… but you only have to step back a few paces to see how these thick, spattered applications meld, at the ideal viewing distance, into extremely powerful, and even haunting, images.

Reflection (Self-portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

So I’m still not sure that I particularly like Lucian Freud’s paintings, but now, thanks to this handy exhibition, I have a much better grasp of the shape of his career, and a completely different way of seeing and conceptualising his paintings – not as the grim and dreary products of a troubled claustrophobe with dubious psychosexual issues, but as thrilling and masterly exercises in painterly technique.

I am not very interested in him as a painter of portraits per se – I couldn’t care less about the various marriages or children which the wall labels tell us about. But this exhibition did help me see how Freud really was one of the greatest painters of human flesh who ever put brush to canvas.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Lina Iris Viktor @ Autograph

Lina Iris Viktor was born in 1987, in Britain, to parents from Liberia, West Africa. She now lives and works in New York.

This wonderful FREE exhibition of her stunning art at the Autograph gallery in Shoreditch is Viktor’s first major solo show in the UK, with more than 60 works on display.

It’s in two parts, the downstairs gallery and the upstairs gallery.

Downstairs – Dark Continent

First, they have created a special atmosphere by painting the walls white and installing an elaborate metal grilled partition, designed as the outlines of zoomorphic shapes. In fact it is titled The Black Ark and its latticed, modular design is inspired by the nets of Liberian fishermen. Beside it is dotted metallic tropical foliage which appears in her Dark Continent paintings, transformed into sculptures (and titled Black Botanica).

In and out of this installation you wander as you take in the half dozen or so massive paintings and the 50 or so wonderful prints.

Installation view of Lina Iris Viktor at Autograph showing The Black Ark latticework. Photo by the author

Both the large pictures and the normal-sized prints begin with striking photos Viktor has taken of herself nude. But not au naturel. She has painted her naked body the deepest darkest shade of black possible.

She adopts a pose (lying down, sitting towards us, sideways-on, yawning, apparently moaning or sleeping or reaching out – there are over 50 different poses) and the prints the resulting large digital photo onto canvas. But the photo is only the start of a long and arduous process. Viktor then paints in:

  • a deep jet black background
  • an orange-golden head-dress (and a sly touch of gold at her loins, sometimes visible sometimes not)
  • a burnished beaten golden sun image
  • in the foreground a flutter of short flowers and grasses painted in whitish-grey

II. For Some Are Born to Endless Night. Dark Matter from the series Dark Continent: The Seven (2015-9) by Lina Iris Viktor. Courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery

The black really is deep jet black. Viktor’s work explores the notion and fact of blackness: as colour, as material and as political statement. Viktor is quoted as calling black ‘the proverbial materia prima: the source, the dark matter that birthed everything’.

Upstairs – The Blue Void

The room upstairs is painted a solid, opulent ultramarine blue (emulating the ‘Blue Room’ in Viktor’s New York studio). In it hang four massive paintings, except that ‘painting’ doesn’t do justice to the immensely ornate, decorated, raised surfaces of these highly ornamented artifacts.

Installation view of Syzygy by Lina Iris Viktor at Autograph. Photo by the author

Only by going up close to the paintings can you see the extraordinary care and attention which has gone into creating and raised and embossed surfaces. Those patterns on the cloak or kaftan she’s wearing in the painting above have been created by arranging hundreds of individual tiny balls into shapes and patterns, and then painting them silver.

Take this work, from the series A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred and titled Eleventh. The words embossed across the surface of the work refer to tribes in Liberia, the sinuous golden lines refer to maps and tribal borders, and so the whole thing can be interpreted in a political or sociological way as a comment on the creation and tribulations of the free slave state of Liberia.

Eleventh from the series A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred by Lina Iris Viktor (2018) Courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery

In the words of the wall label:

The A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred. works reinterpret the Libyan Sybil, a prophetess from antiquity invoked by eighteenth-century abolitionists as a mythical oracle who foresaw the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

But the real artistic point (for me, at any rate) is the incredible detailing of the raised surfaces. The big golden pillar behind the woman’s head looks as if it has been beaten and hammered into elaborate shapes and reliefs. And the golden lines aren’t painted flat – they are raised lines, as if created out of clay or plasticine, and then carefully gilded.

Detail from Eleventh from the series A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred by Lina Iris Viktor (2018) Courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery. Photo by the author

In fact these shapes are formed of copolymer resin which has been used to build up all manner of relief surfaces across the work, from the waving lines, to the outlines of the flowers, or the wording, as you can see from this close-up detail. The whole surface is incredibly elaborately constructed, built up from a mind-bogglingly three-dimensional elements.

It’s almost always true that it’s better to see works of art in the flesh rather than as reproductions, precisely because of the added excitement, interest and dynamism conveyed by big three-dimensional objects, but it is especially true of Viktor’s work.

As a man I openly admit that the initial ‘hit’ from most of the Dark Continent pieces is the impression of an attractive naked woman in a variety of poses – but get beyond that first impression and you are free to respond to the dazzlingly complex, strange, mysterious and entrancing symbols and motifs which Viktor has surrounded herself with, the shimmering lines and spirals and triangles and whorls picked out in thick 24-karat gold, gleaming and shimmering against the primal blackness.

It creates a rich and deep and wonderful visual experience. Go and see.

Materia Prima II by Lina Iris Viktor (2015) Courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery

Video

In this interview Viktor explains the importance to her art of 24-karat gold leaf (and ultramarine blue and black and white).


Related links

Reviews of other Autograph shows

Quentin Blake: From the Studio @ the House of Illustration

Sir Quentin Blake helped set up the House of Illustration which opened in 2014. One of the perks is that the third and smallest of the exhibition spaces is a permanent Quentin Blake gallery which is given over to a rotating series of small exhibitions and displays.

At the moment it’s hosting the latest iteration of a project titled simply ‘From the studio’. England’s favourite illustrator (born in 1932 and so now 87 years old) draws every day. In this little L-shaped room are gathered samples of several of his recent projects.

The mouse on a tricycle

Words cannot really convey how fantastic Blake’s work is. With a few strokes of the pen he creates characters and situations which transport you. Not only that, but almost everything he draws is funny.

Take the adventures of the mouse on a tricycle. That’s just a brilliant idea, but he then submits it to a series of hilarious variations, with the eponymous mouse, a tiny figure on his little trike, being: cheered on by football supporters with rattles and a megaphone; inspiring a flowery poet to song; having his photo taken by the paparazzi; being given a stern telling off by an elderly teacher; being made the subject of a learned disquisition by a science professor to his students accompanied by a barrage of graphs and statistics by a businessman, and so on.

Each one is brilliant. The cumulative effect is genius.

The Mouse on a Tricycle by Quentin Blake

The art of conversation

Just as simple is the idea of ‘the conversation’, which gives rise to a florid variety of different people conversing in wildly different ways, from muttered asides, to arm-waving rants, to jolly chaps with legs crossed in the park, to two people talking over the head of a disgruntled neighbour at a dinner party.

The Art of Conversation by Quentin Blake

In fact both mouse and conversation are part of a series QB has been published called the QB Papers, relatively short, large format paperbacks containing a series of drawings based on a single topic. There is no text and no story, so you are free to browse and free-associate. To date the Art of Conversation and Mouse on a Tricycle have been joined by Constant Readers, Scenes at Twilight, A Comfortable Fit, Free in the Water and so on.

The King of the Golden River

Blake has previously shown some of the illustrations he’s done for a luxury edition of John Ruskin’s 1842 children’s story, The King of the Golden River. This time round he’s showing the coloured versions, and explains that he waited some time after doing the initial drawings, for the correct colouring schemes to come to him.

Illustration for The King of the Golden River by Quentin Blake

The Lost City Challenge

There are drawings done for the Lost City Challenge, which was an instagram campaign organised by Greenpeace, the ‘lost city’ being the vibrant ecosystem surrounding chimney-shaped hydrothermal vents located in the middle of the Atlantic which are under threat from mining companies planning to extract rare earth minerals from the area. Blake contributed a picture of a vibrant oceanic scene and another one showing a lifeless seascape after the drilling has killed everything.

Moonlight travellers

This began as a personal project in 2017, the notion of a group of anonymous people journeying through a moonlit landscape. Slowly they grew into a series of watercolours depicting journeys through unknown landscapes which capture, with vivid immediacy, the mystery and intrigue of the dead of night. This years the series was published accompanied by a prose text by novelist Will Self mediating on the mystery of the moonlight.

Illustrations to Moonlight Travellers by Quentin Blake

There are only twenty or so drawings and watercolours in all, but every single one is a thing of pure delight.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives @ the House of Illustration

W.E.B. Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) was a sociologist and historian. He helped co-found the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and was author of the seminal book, The Souls of Black Folk. He was one of the most important black activists and intellectuals of the 20th century.

The commission

His status was confirmed when, in 1900, Du Bois was invited to create an exhibition for the world fair in Paris – the Exposition Universelle – about the condition of black people in contemporary America.

Du Bois and his sociology students from the University of Alabama were well aware that black people were going to be overwhelmingly portrayed at the world fair as primitives and savages, living in mud huts in Africa and photographed wearing picturesque tribal costumes, with long descriptions of their customs and rites which were all written to underpin and justify continued colonial rule over all of Africa.

So Du Bois and the team set out to refute all the racist stereotypes and slurs of the day by emphasising the solid achievements of Afro-Americans in the forty years since Emancipation.

In less than four months he and his sociology students assembled a display of 63 hand-drawn charts designed to convey solid data and information about the role and position of blacks in 1900 America.

They developed highly inventive visual techniques for conveying a wide variety of information about the experience of black Americans, many of them anticipating the kind of infographics we use now by over a century.

Assessed Valuation of All Taxable Property Owned by Georgia Negroes © WEB Du Bois

The aim of Du Bois and his team was to combat racist stereotypes about black poverty, laziness, lack of initiative, lack of ability in business, disinterest in education and so on, by supplying a wealth of solid statistical evidence to prove the exact contrary.

The charts show how turn-of-the-century Afro-Americans were flourishing in education, buying land, starting businesses and becoming economically independent, despite the full might of institutionalised racism and segregation designed to hold them back.

The charts were divided into two categories – a set about the USA in general, and another set about the situation in the state of Georgia.

Part 1. Black lives in Georgia

In 1900 the state with the largest black population was Georgia, 44% of whose population were African-Americans, making it a statistical test bed for Du Bois and his team. The 36 charts show Georgia’s black population growth, density and age distribution, compared with other states.

They show how wealth, literacy and land ownership had increased since Emancipation and compared how occupations compared with the white population.

Income and Expenditure of 150 Negro Families in Atlanta, Georgia, USA © WEB Du Bois

Part 2. Black lives in the USA

The second set of charts examined aspects of Afro-American life across the USA.

In 1900 there were around nine million blacks in America, 12% of the population. The charts show achievements by Africa-Americans, but also highlight the ways the community as a whole was being held back by the Jim Crow segregation laws which were to remain in place until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

City and Rural Population, 1890 © WEB Du Bois

Infographics

Cool, aren’t they? Part of their appeal is in their variety. As far as I could see, no two of the charts uses the same design and layout.

Each one is attached to a big board attached to the wall and hinged so you can work your way steadily through them. Each one is numbered and has a label which contains the background information about the chart and comments on the design, for example snippets such as the Georgia town of Darien had a large African American population due to its shipping or lumber trades, or the percentage of religious faiths among the black population.

Installation view of W. E. B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives: Pioneering infographics from turn-of-the-century America at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

Mona Chalabi

There’s another thread to the exhibition: House of Illustration invited Mona Chalabi who is a New York-based journalist and producer and data editor at The Guardian USA to review Du Bois’s charts and update them.

The result was just four charts in which Chalabi reprises the original designs but with current data, thus showing what has changed in the past 120 years. It’s a mixed story. Her updating of Du Bois’ population chart reveals that the percentage of the US population which is African American has, surprisingly, stayed static – it was 12% in 1900, it is 12% now.

Her update of the literacy chart shows that black illiteracy has fallen to just 1.6%, but current research suggests there is still a gap between white and black literacy because of differences in quality of education.

Her update of the occupations chart shows the most evenness: grouping jobs into five categories shows that black and white Americans now work in similar sectors.

Occupations © W. E. B. Du Bois and Mona Chalabi

Less hopeful is her update of the chart showing the net worth of US households, which suggests that for every dollar in net assets which a black household has, a white household has $16.50 more.

Photos of black folks

So much for the information, then – but there’s yet another strand to the exhibition which, if I’m honest, I found by far the most attractive — and this was a set of contemporary photographs of African Americans from the year 1900.

The original exhibition in Paris contained no fewer than three bound volumes of photographs most of which were taken by photographer Thomas E. Askew, and including some 500 photos. The one public statement Du Bois made concerning these photographs was that visitors to the American Negro exhibit would find ‘several volumes of photographs of typical Negro faces, which hardly square with conventional American ideas.’

The aim, once again, was to utterly refute the racist stereotypes about the poverty, broken homes, alcoholism and shiftlessness of African Americans, and to show them as smartly dressed, well educated, professional people – in other words, as good Edwardian bourgeois.

Intriguing and creative and innovative as the data charts are, it was the little display of nine contemporary photographs which really did it for me – which brought to life the families and communities and real people behind the graphs and spirals and pie charts and statistics. The face of the young woman sitting at the front centre, in particular, has haunted me for days.

Roger Williams University, Nashville, Tennessee, Normal class 1899


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Gauguin Portraits @ the National Gallery

This is a spectacular exhibition, bringing together a range of masterpieces by Gauguin from collections around the world to give you a really deep, rich sense of his boundary-breaking artistic attitude and achievement.

The exhibition is beautifully staged and arranged, with a generous free booklet giving a paragraph or two of informative explanation about each of the show’s 55 exhibits, many of which are mind-blowingly beautiful – the whole thing only slightly spoiled by the nagging political correctness of the audioguide.

Portraits and self portraits

For a start there are two categories: self portraits and portraits of others, which can themselves further be divided into paintings and sculptures.

Gauguin painted a lot of self portraits and it is clear that right from the start he dramatised himself, creating and embroidering various strands of self-mythology. This took several forms. He played on the fact that, as a child, he had been taken to live in South America, and thereafter claimed to have Incan or Peruvian blood, being especially proud of his strong hook nose. In the later 1880s, he also took to deliberately comparing himself to Christ, as a victim, martyr and outsider – as in the extraordinarily strange and vivid Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889).

What appeals to me in all these paintings is his use of paint, the heavy visibly brushstrokes reminiscent of Cézanne, the strong black outlines a bit reminiscent of Degas, and the counter-intuitive use of stark colours (blue trees, red hair) which anticipates the Fauves.

Christ in the Garden of Olives by Paul Gauguin (1889) © Norton Museum of Art

Gauguin’s careful nurturing of the image of himself as outsider, primitive and ‘savage’ went into overdrive as a result of his two trips to French Polynesia (1891-1893, and 1895 till his death in 1903). Reporting back by letter, or arriving back in Paris 1893-5 he justifiably presented himself as a man with a unique knowledge of, and identification with, the more backward ‘primitive’ natives, and yet…

It’s a striking fact that during both his South Sea stays it seems that Gauguin stopped painting self portraits, striking evidence that the numerous self-portraits he made in Europe were made for social reasons:

  • as gifts to other artists
  • as calling cards to dealers and potential buyers
  • and to fashion an image of himself, to create a brand with which to position himself within the Paris art market

Props

And what vivid and effective branding he created. Haunting images of the hook-nosed outsider, an image we see again and again in this exhibition.

Self Portrait with Yellow Christ by Paul Gauguin (1890-1891) © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / René-Gabriel Ojéda

But this time, look at the background.  Once you look, you see the backdrop isn’t just a room or wallpaper, but is entirely filled with two artifacts. On our left as we look, is the yellow Christ, itself bizarrely coloured. And on our right what looks to be a version of the primitive-style ceramic pot in the shape of a face which is also included in the exhibition.

The point is that, above and beyond the image of himself, Gauguin is using props – and not casual props, but extremely significant and meaningful props. Here is the artist caught between Europe and Christianity and the savage and primitive. Even more simply, between light on the left, and dark on the right.

You or I are free to interpret their precise meaning at our leisure, but there is no doubting the intention that the chosen objects charge the painting.

Symbolism

Gauguin’s habit or tendency or aim in placing and positioning props and (quite often) text into his paintings, is part of the reason he’s sometimes seen as a forebear of Symbolism, the movement in art and poetry and prose which aimed to hint or suggest at deeper and, generally, hidden meanings.

It’s at work in even his earliest paintings. Take this apparently innocent painting of his son, Clovis, asleep. Innocent until you really start looking at it — at which point you notice three things.

Clovis Asleep by Paul Gauguin (1884) Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

One: the post-impressionist use of very broad, highly visible brushstrokes, laid on in rows, and using vivid colours.

Two: the tankard. The longer you look at it the more you realise how grotesquely over-large it is, as if it is growing, looming, almost threatening.

Three: the swirling patterns on the vivid blue wallpaper. What are they, birds, fish? Or… are they creatures emerging from Clovis’s dreams? Are they dream animals playing on the wall?

Tahitian meanings

This brings us to the numerous paintings he made on his two stays in the Pacific, where this technique of symbolic props and writing come into their own.

Every aspect of this painting is eerie with meaning. For a start it is surreal to see a Tahitian woman dressed in the ankle to neck dresses forced on them by the French Christian missionaries. Especially when you connect the covered woman with the painting of the naked woman apparently on some kind of frieze in the background – the women in the foreground is not only totally covered but unnaturally still, sitting in a missionary-approved polite posture; while the woman in the frieze is not only mostly naked but has her arms raised as if in some meaningful gesture, and appears to be interacting with at least two other figures we can glimpse. And all of that is going on before you begin to interpret what look like golden letters on the upper wall, and smaller black letters written at the bottom left.

The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana Has Many Parents (Merahi metua no Tehamana) by Paul Gauguin (1893) © The Art Institute of Chicago

In other words, like many of his self portraits, this painting is brimful of meanings, overflowing with significant poses, prose and props.

So one of the immense pleasures of the exhibition is being able to walk between the paintings and see how Gauguin develops this visual language of symbolic props.

The commentary goes heavy on how his travels to the South Seas were in pursuit of ‘authenticity’, in quest of a more simple, pure and unsullied form of life. Unfortunately, as any cynic might have told him, by the time he arrived the early ‘unspoilt’ life of the natives was destroyed by Christian missionaries, by European laws and trade and money and capital.

But I suggest we see his travels to Tahiti and then on to the Marquesa Islands as a quest in search of more props and meanings. It’s as if he had created a vivid, unnaturalistic post-impressionist style, a style of vivid powerful primary colours and people drawn in blocky outlines but now… he needed to find a society which suited his style more than boring, commercial Paris.

They tell us he went in search of Paradise. But I think he also went in search of a society and culture which was somehow answerable to, adequate to, appropriate to, the visual style he had forged for himself.

Portraits without people

The curators pick up on the tremendous meaning Gauguin was able to pack into his paintings through the use of props, and in particular the use of other works of art, or his own works of art, in the background — by devoting an entire room to portraits without people.

For if a person’s personality or character can be indicated by the props you place around them (and around yourself) then why couldn’t you indicate a person via props alone? Have nothing but props in a picture to convey the person you’re depicting?

This is the rationale for the exhibition having a roomful of still lives of flowers which, in greater or lesser measure, portray people, people who just happen to be absent from the picture. My favourite among these was a wonderfully vivid vase of colourful flowers behind which, if you looked hard enough, you can see a vague grey portrait of Gauguin’s lifelong friend Meyer de Haan. Once you’ve noticed it you realise its presence suffuses the image.

Even more comprehensive is the still lifes Gauguin painted of sunflowers. In 1888 Gauguin spent a famously intense and tumultuous nine weeks staying with Vincent van Gogh at the latter’s Yellow House in Arles in the South of France. It ended badly with Gauguin storming out but the working, painterly and psychological relationship went so deep that years after van Gogh’s death, in 1890, Gauguin sent a letter from Tahiti asking a friend to send him packets of French flower seeds, including sunflowers, for him to grow in his garden And as late as 1901 and 1902 Gauguin painted a series of still lifes with sunflowers which can be taken as a very moving tribute to his wonderful friend. But note the use of props – the painting in the top left is Hope by Puvis de Chavannes, and the bowl the flowers are in appears to be a hand-carved Tahitian bowl with two carved figures. Vincent is here by default, but so are various other threads and themes in a tangle of meanings.

Still Life with ‘Hope’ by Paul Gauguin (1901) Private collection – Milano, Italy © Photo courtesy of the owner

Carvings and ceramics

There’s a lot more to be said about the paintings, about how he did portraits of useful and important people in the Paris artworld, or what the portraits he did alongside van Gogh show about their respective approaches, or how the images of good friends changed over the years, let alone the world of ideas and issues, from comparative religion to under-age sex which are thrown up by the brilliant South Sea paintings.

but the revelation of the exhibition for me was what an absolute genius sculptor Gauguin was. I was shattered by this massive and chunkily carved portrait of his friend, the Dutch painter Jacob Meyer de Haan. Apparently Gauguin carved it out of a piece of waste wood he found lying around, part of which still shows burn marks, which makes it ten times more attractive to me, as I love art made from waste or industrial products. But, for me, it is quite simply one of the most electrifying and brilliant sculptures I have ever seen.

Bust of Meyer de Haan by Paul Gauguin (1889) © National Gallery of Canada

The exhibition includes several ceramics, including a terrific ‘portrait vase’ of the wife of Gauguin’s friend, Émile Schuffnecker, as well as bronze casts of plaster faces he made of Tahitian friends or lovers which show Gauguin’s restless and experimental side.

But it was the carvings which came as a complete surprise to me and blew my mind. Here’s a carving in a different style, on a polished wood, using a ‘primitive’ style to portray the characters from the the poem by Stephane Mallarmé, Symbolist poet and supporter of Gauguin, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which the artist brought back from the Pacific in 1893 and gave to the poet in person.

L’Apres-midi d’un faune by Paul Gauguin (1892)

There were half a dozen other wood carvings, including a haunting portrait of his young ‘wife’, the fourteen-year-old Teha’amana, and several casts of ‘savage’ masks. But it was my first real introduction to the fact that wood carving, woodcuts and ceramics took at least as much of his energy in his last decade as painting, and it made me want to see a lot, lot more of all of them.

Conclusion

A wonderful bringing-together of rare works of art from collections around the world, which really bring out what an innovator, and what a restless creative force Gauguin was. Huge and enormous pleasure from all parts of his career, in a surprising range of media, including not only oil paintings, but drawings, prints, ceramics and wood carvings, which also allow really penetrating and interesting discussions of what a portrait is, what a portrait is for, and how Gauguin deliberately burst open all kinds of traditional constraints on the genre, to create something utterly new and thrilling.

Tehura (Teha’amana) by Paul Gauguin (1891-1893) Coloured wooden mask © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Gérard Blot


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Pre-Raphaelite Sisters @ the National Portrait Gallery

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was an art movement set up initially by three idealistic young art students (John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt) in 1848 and lasted in its first form until 1853.

However, the initial founders were joined by followers, including the young disciples William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, who evolved a style of medievalising, idealising and spiritualising art which endured till the end of the nineteenth century. In the latters’ hands many of the PRB values evolved into the Arts and Crafts Movement which went on to influence craftspeople across the country and abroad.

Possibly the most memorable style associated with the original Pre-Raphaelites is the depiction of long-gowned, long-necked beautiful women with cupid lips and frizzy hair, brought to perfection in the later paintings of one of the founders and central figures, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877) The model is Jane Burden, daughter of a stableman, who married William Morris, became the iconic beauty of the movement, and for whom Rossetti developed an unhealthy obsession during the 1870s

The Pre-Raphaelite World

Reading about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood often reminds me of the the Bloomsbury Group, the group of writers, artists, critics, historians and economists which loosely associated before, during and after the Great War. The two groupings were:

  • a complex matrices of artists, writers, critics, friends and extended families, and wives and lovers, who all bring with them the complicated stories of their intertwined adulteries and affairs
  • many of the wives or children or grandchildren or greatgrandchildren capitalised on their connection to write biographies or memoirs, which helped to add to the ‘legend’ of the group as a whole

Both are characterised by the very pukka English trait of everyone in the group thinking that everyone else – their friends and partners and lovers – was a genius.

Of course this was partly because they all suffered from attacks by the brutal English critics and, quite naturally, sprang to the defence of the paintings / designs / poems / novels or whatever else, produced by their close friends, or bothers, or sisters, or lovers.

The result is that entering the PRB world, like entering the Bloomsbury world, is to quickly become aware of the legends and well-told stories surrounding each of them, of the way the commented on and supported each other’s work, and of a small industry of secondary and tertiary artworks and criticism and writing devoted to them, with a number of descendants working alongside devoted scholars, to pour out a never-ending stream of PRB-related material.

When you go into the shop (which you have to walk through on the way out, just as you have to walk through the shop on the way out of V&A or British Museum exhibitions) you realise that, in any case, this or that new book about the PRBs – in fact all scholarly or biographical writing about the PRBs – forms only a small subset of the wider merchandising surrounding the movement. Alongside the many biographies and memoirs are the posters and prints, reproductions, cards and label pins, fridge magnets, tote bags, scarves, pillowslips and duvet covers, and much more, much more, extending out to the huge range of William Morris-inspired designs you can buy at Liberty’s for wallpapers and carpets and tapestries and so on.

And that’s before you get to the talismanic geographical locations you can visit connected with the group, such as William Morris’s house in Hammersmith, the William Morris museum in Walthamstow, the Red House (now a National Trust property) in Bexleyheath, the remnants of the Morris and Co fabric factory at Merton Abbey Mills, the restaurant at the Victoria & Albert Museum decorated by Arts & Crafts designers, and so on.

So to engage with one or other of the Pre-Raphaelites is not just to go and see a bunch of paintings, it is to enter a large and complex and multifaceted imaginative world. I think this is part of what draws the PRB devotees: the fact that the PRB world is so large, so complex, there were so many of them, who produced so many works, that once you’re in, you can forget all about the actual world we live in and never come out again.

Georgiana Burne -Jones, long-suffering wife of adulterous Edward Burne-Jones, with her children Philip and Margaret in the background, painted by Edward Burne-Jones (1883)

The Pre-Raphaelite Women

As you might expect, many of the women connected to the Pre-Raphaelites – their wives and lovers and models and muses – have been extensively written about, and even had films made about them (for example, a quick search on Amazon shows that the first woman in this exhibition, the model Effie Gray, has had two books written about her, plus a 2015 movie based on her life).

But, rather surprisingly, this big show at the National Portrait Gallery appears to be the first exhibition ever devoted to putting the female point of view of all the women connected with the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, as a whole, as a group.

Specifically, the exhibition showcases the lives and works of twelve Pre-Raphaelite woman, bringing out the extent to which many of them were not passive models or wives-in-the-background, but were studio managers, businesswomen, promoters, mothers, sisters, lovers and muses, as well as – and this is the key revelation of the exhibition – often being notable artists in their own right.

Having pondered how to convey this information, I’ve fallen back on the actual layout of the exhibition as being the most objective, least subjective way of presenting it. The main NPG exhibition space is divided into 12 rooms or parts of rooms, each devoted to one of the twelve women they are showcasing. These are thumbnail portraits of the women’s biographies and achievements:

1. Effie Gray Millais (1828-97) Model, wife and businesswoman

Euphemia (‘Effie’) Gray married the art critic John Ruskin in 1848. She was very beautiful and John Everett Millais used her as the model for the woman in The Order of Release painted during the movement’s first period, in 1852. This hangs as the centrepiece of the first room and we are drawn to the unusual realism of Effie’s face.

The Order of Release 1746 (1852-3) by John Everett Millais

Millais went on a trip to Scotland with the Ruskins, during which Effie’s profound unhappiness became clear. The exhibition includes sketches made of the couple by other guests on the holiday. While Ruskin was totally absorbed in writing up the notes to his masterpiece about architecture. The Stones of Venice, Millais and Effie fell in love. In 1854, supported by her family, she brought a case to annul her marriage, and the following year married Millais. She became his business partner, helping with research, production and marketing of his artworks, researching locations, sourcing costumes, cultivating clients etc. She became Lady Ruskin in 1885 when her husband was made a baronet and there is a painting of her looking very haughty indeed.

2. Christina Rossetti (1830-94) Poet

Christina was sister to the leading Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and another brother, the critic Michael Rossetti. They were all brought up in an intensely religious atmosphere which is conveyed, here, by the painting of the Annunciation which Dante made in 1850. In 1858 she started working in a home for girls thought to be sexually at risk, an experience which (apparently) inspired her most famous poem, Goblin Market, with its ripe sublimated sexual imagery.

Christina went on to publish three volumes of adult poetry, verse for children and devotional works, was recognised and admired in her time. Fans who gave her good reviews and promoted her works included Tennyson and Browning. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices…’ – Here is an example where that is simply not true.)

Beside portraits of her by others, the exhibition includes some of her own drawings and illustrations, her notebook containing a sonnet on Elizabeth Siddal – In an Artist’s Studio – plus a funny cartoon by her brother of Christina having one of her famous ‘rages’, in the cartoon she is smashing up a Victorian living room with an axe.

There appear to be at least six biographies of Christina, plus umpteen editions of her verse and critical studies

3. Annie Miller (1835-1925) Model and muse

The daughter of a soldier, Annie grew up in poverty in the backstreets of Chelsea, close to the studio of William Holman Hunt, one of the three founders of the RB movement and, arguably, the most conventionally Christian. He was introduced to her and used her as a model for the woman in his astonishing painting, The Awakening Conscience.

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853)

Hunt paid for her to be taught to read and write and good manners and deportment, with a view to marrying her. But then he went off to Palestine for two years (1854-6) to paint meticulously realistic Biblical paintings in the actual scenery of the Holy Land, and while he was away Annie also modelled for Millais, Rossetti, Arthur Hughes and others. On his return Hunt was disillusioned by her character which had become, he thought, lazy and addicted to luxury. He broke off the engagement and offered to send her overseas, but she preferred to stay in London and pursue a career in modelling.

By the early 1860s she had found herself an eligible husband, Thomas Thompson, a cousin of Lord Ranelagh, who she married. They moved to Richmond, had children, and in later life Annie was at pains to play down her association with disreputable bohemian artists.

There appear to be no books specifically about Annie.

4. Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62) Model, artist and poet

The working class daughter of a cutler whose shop was in Southwark, Lizzie Siddal was plucked from the street to model for another Victorian painter, before gravitating into the circle of the PRBs and especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti to whom she became a passionate muse. Her most famous commission was as Ophelia in John Everett Millais’s awesome painting of her floating in full dress amid flowers.

But Lizzie was also an artist. She was the only woman exhibitor in an 1857 PRB exhibition which was held in America, the producer of a series of watercolours taking Tennyson and medieval legends as her subject. She also wrote poetry and the exhibition includes a manuscript of her poem, At Last.

After a long and stormy courtship Siddal finally married Rossetti in 1860, but the next year she had a stillborn son, and was lunged into such a deep depression that she committed suicide by poison. Distraught, Rossetti placed the manuscript of his poems in her coffin. A year later he was reluctantly persuaded to re-excavate the coffin, open it, and retrieve the poems, a taboo actions which oppressed him for the rest of his life.

5. Fanny Cornforth (1835-1909) Model and lover

Born plain Sarah Cox into a blacksmiths family in Sussex Fanny took her name from her sister who died in infancy. She encountered Rossetti, Ford Maddox Brown and Millais in the Surrey Pleasure Gardens in London and quickly began posing as a model for various paintings.

In 1860 when Rossetti married Siddal, Fanny married Timothy Cornforth, but it appears to have been a holding operation because, when Lizzie killed herself, Fanny moved in with the distraught Rossetti.

For over a decade she sat for many of Rossetti’s mature paintings of the classic pre-Raphaelite look – willowy dresses, long neck, strong jawline, cupid lips, billowing tressed hair, such as one included in the exhibition, The Blue Bower.

The Blue Bower by Dante Gabriel Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1865) The model is Fanny Cornforth, famed not only for her strong pre-Raphaelite jawline, but her sumptuous, tressed, blonde hair

Half-time thoughts

The obvious point about the exhibition so far is that, with the outstanding exception of Christina Rossetti, a notable poet in her own right, and maybe Effie Millais for her efforts as a businesswoman on her husband’s behalf, the women covered so far

  1. mostly do conform to the limited stereotype of model and ‘muse’
  2. are extremely well-known, having been on the receiving end of one or more biographies and even films, and featured in at least two BBC TV dramatisations of the lives of the PRBs

So that you begin to wonder a bit in what way this exhibition is overturning any preconceptions.

It’s in the second half that the show – or its polemical purpose – lifts off, with a raft of women who were clearly notable artists in their own right, and/or had much more to them than

6. Joanna Boyce Wells (1831-61) Artist

Joanna was encouraged to paint by her businessman father, artist brother and sister. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices…’ here is another example where that is simply not true.)

Her father paid for her to study art and her first exhibited piece was shown at the Royal Academy in 1855.

Elgiva by Joanna Boyce Wells (1855)

There are half a dozen other paintings and drawing by Joanna in her section, including The Boys Crusade and Head of a Mulatto Woman. Some of them are marvellous, some of them a bit more run of the mill. Difficult to get worked up about this head of an angle. It’s the kind of rather second-rate image you get on umpteen Christmas cards.

Thou Bird of God by Joanna Boyce Wells (1861)

Joanna married Henry Wells during a visit to Italy in 1857-8, and set up a joint a artistic partnership when they returned to England, Lizzie Siddal being quoted approvingly commenting that Joanna was very much the head of the firm’. It was a tragedy when she died aged just 30 from complications of childbirth.

Up till now the exhibition had featured little more than paintings and drawings. Here for the first time was an object, the exact dress which Joanna wore for a portrait of her done by her husband, Henry. This was a fascinating object in itself, with asymmetrical patterns and the jet black Victorian exterior fitted inside with bright scarlet trim.

The presence of objects in the second half of the exhibition made it feel much more interested and rounded – with a dress, a pair of shoes, a handbag, medallions and so on giving a much fuller sense of the times, and of the range of artistic channels which were available.

7. Fanny Eaton (1835-1924) Model

Possibly the most striking revelation of the whole exhibition was the life of Fanny Eaton. She was black, born in Jamaica, came to England with her mother in the 1850s and married working class carter and cabman James Eaton.

By 1859 she had been discovered as a model and sat for Rebecca and Simeon Solomon and Albert Moore. She had a thin face and frizzy hair and one of the best things about this exhibition is the way it’s pulled together half a dozen paintings by different artists which use her as a model, along with her biography and a simply stunning pencil drawing of her by Simeon Solomon.

Fanny Eaton by Joanna Boyce Wells (1861)

8. Georgiana Burne-Jones (1840-1920) Wife and model

Georgiana is one of the core figures of the PRB myth. She was one of five MacDonald sisters who all went on to achieve fame and eminence, one of her sister’s sons, for example, going on to become the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Her main role in the mythology is a) long-suffering wife who b) suppressed her own talent in devotion to her husband. At the age of fifteen she was engaged to Edward Burne-Jones, who gave her craft and engraving lessons, and then was apprenticed to Ford Madox Brown.

She married Burne-Jones and moved into the core of the movement, getting to know Jane Morris and Lizzie Siddel, between them they discussed plans to publish a volume of illustrated fairy tales.

But the birth of her daughter Margaret put a temporary end to her own artistic aspirations. She was then dismayed by her husband’s very public infatuation with the artist Maria Zambaco. While he painted ever more torrid and sensual pictures featuring Maria as model, Georgiana found herself sidelined into the fate of motherhood, managing her husband’s studios and business, and Being There to comfort him when he returned from a series of infatuations and affairs.

A classic example of the wife as Mother and Martyr.

9. Maria Zambaco (1843-1914) Model, muse and sculptor

Maria Cassavetti was born to a wealthy Anglo-Greek businessman based in London, with patron connections with the PRBs. In 1861 she married a Paris-based doctor but the marriage failed and she returned to London with their children. Here she began modelling for Burne-Jones, an activity which quickly developed into ‘an intense love affair’.

Burne-Jones described her as ‘primeval’ and the siting of Maria’s section right next to Georgiana’s beings out Georgiana’s dowdy, proper Victorian demeanour and helps you understand why the uninhibited Greek beauty must have swept Burne-Jones into a new realm.

Georgiana Burne-Jones, née MacDonald (c.1882) photographed by Frederick Hollyer

Now compare and contrast the naked body of Maria, modelling for B-J’s astonishing painting The Tree of Forgiveness.

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones (1882)

This is one of three massive paintings which fill the end wall of the exhibition, the other two being Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin, which also features Maria as model, and Proserpine by Rossetti. If you love PRB painting this is one wall with its trio of massive paintings are worth kneeling and praying to. They make you realise that at their peak, the works of Millais, Burne-Jones and Rossetti were of an other-worldly brillance in the sense that they are consummate exampes of the art of painting, but also that they successfully create an Otherworld of the imagination, vastly more rich and sumptuous and perfect and wonderful than the actual fallen world, in which Burne-Jones looked like a kindlier version of Rasputin and his wife looks like a tired childminder.

The world they all aimed to create utterly transcended this one to take us into a world of perfect bodies, perfect colours and shades, and uplifting stories of noble figures from the Bible, the Middle Ages of Greek legend.

Anyway, after the affair with Burne-Jones ended, Maria became a sculptor, studying with Alphonse Legros in London and Rodin in Paris. She produced figurines (none of which, alas, are in the exhibition) and also became an expert at portrait medallions and there are four spirited examples of portraits set in circular medallions. Apparently, most of them have been lost, these four survive because Maria presented them to the British Museum soon after they were exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy? I thought the nineteenth century was the age of the patriarchy when all women were forbidden from practising art or writing… apparently not.

10. Jane Morris (1839-1914) Model, muse and craftsperson

Jane Burden grew up in poverty and was destined for domestic service until she met the young Pre-Raphaelites who were undertaking a commission to paint a mural at the Oxford Union. Rossetti painted her as a tall elegant noble Queen Guinevere and Morris married her in 1859. She became his partner in what became Morris and Co., managing the embroidery commissions, and a close friend of the Burne-Jones family, whose children called her Auntie Janey. Henry James called her a ‘grand synthesis of all the Pre-Raphaelite paintings ever made’ and photographs of her as a young woman confirm that she had the super-strong features, the strong jaw, cupid lips and tressed hair beloved by the male painters.

Jane Morris at Tudor House (1865) photographed by John Robert Parsons

In 1868 she resumed modelling for Rossetti and they began an affair which lasted until his nervous breakdown in 1876, and inspired a series of his major mature works like Proserpine, above.

Jane was a renowned needlewoman, who also experimented with bookbinding and calligraphy and the exhibition features an evening bag sweetly designed and stitched by her.

11. Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) Model and artist

Born, like Maria Zambaco, into the Anglo-Green community in London, Marie’s sister was painted by James Whistler and Marie herself was then asked to pose for the note Victorian woman photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.  The famous Victorian woman photographer. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices and preventing them expressing themselves…’ here is an example of that simply not being true.)

Spartali decided to become a painter and studied with Ford Madox Brown, who became a lifelong mentor and her first paintings were exhibited in 1867. (So she’s supported by her male father, by her male mentor, given an exhibition by a male gallery owner, and taken up by a male dealer.)

She married an American and went with him to Italy and Greece on business, painting all the while, for her male husband supported her career. She developed a particular style, ‘notable for colour harmony and evocative atmosphere’, depicting late medieval scenes from Chaucer, Dante or Petrarch.

The First meeting of Petrarch and Laura by Marie Spartali Stillman (1889) Note: this work has never been public displayed before so this is a rare opportunity to see it in the flesh

If this painting is anything to go by, her paintings are detailed, colourful and take colourful historical subjects. But they feel weak and underpowered. All the characters are limp-wristed and so are their poses, and the colouring, which is vague and wishy-washy on outline.

Sorry to be predictable, but compare and contrast with The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones, which has a tremendous dynamism, and a pictorial excitement, by which I mean he has total command over the medium of oil paints to create a wonderfully dynamic and involving image.

Back in the Jane Burden section there’d been a painting of Kelmscott Manor, the Oxfordshire home of William Morris, painted by Marie and which, it seemed to me, suited her style more than human compositions – a landscape as if on a rather misty morning, the house and garden a little foggy and unclear, making it all the more poignant and expressive.

Kelmscott Manor by Marie Spartali Stillman

Apparently her landscapes like this sold well, particularly in America, where you can imagine them providing exactly the kind of idealised view of a picture postcard Cotswold England which rich American collectors warmed to.

Objects: The exhibition includes a pair of evening shoes designed and stitched by Spartali, who was an accomplished seamstress.

12. Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919) Artist

Evelyn was born into an aristocratic family, the great-grand-daughter of the Earl of Leicester, her uncle was the Pre-Raphaelite artist J.R. Spencer Stanhope. She was a prize-winning student at the Slade School of Art. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices and preventing them expressing themselves…’ here is another example of that simply not being true.)

She exhibited alongside Marie Spartali and others at the Grosvenor Gallery (hang on, I thought the Victorian patriarchy prevented women from expressing themselves, becoming artists or selling their work) before in 1887 marrying the noted ceramicist William de Morgan. Together they built a close professional and personal relationship, her art sales subsidising his pottery production.

She came a generation after the first PRBs and her style shows a kind of off-shoot of the style. There are several large paintings by her here and their obvious quality is a kind of cartoon simplification of the PRB style.

Night and Sleep by Evelyn De Morgan (1878)

This huge painting, Night and Sleep, is done with consummate skill, the figures, the faces and the drapery all extremely good. And yet, overall, the composition lacks a certain… vigour? Life? I can’t quite put it into words, but – placed amid so many other masterpieces – it didn’t quite do it for me.

Conclusion

1. The art

None of the women artists shown here are as good as the best of the male artists.

Maria Zambaco, Marie Spartali, Evelyn de Morgan and Maria Boyce Wells are often good, sometimes very good – but nothing they made matches the tip-top best of Rossetti, Burne-Jones or Millais. We could argue about this for a long time, but for me, walking from the pallid rather lifeless pictures of de Morgan back to the big works by Rossetti and Burne-Jones was to move from the alright, quite nice, so-so, to supersonic masterpieces.

The exhibition allows you to size up de Morgan’s painting of a dryad:

The Dryad by Evelyn de Morgan (1885)

And then stroll 20 yards back through the gallery to Burne-Jone’s Tree of Forgiveness, above, in order ot make a direct comparison of their treatments of a nearly identical subject.

It was obviously her artistic choice to treat the subject like this, but de Morgan’s painting seems to me thin and cartoony. Good, but… empty and undemanding. Almost naive art. Whereas the Burne-Jones painting has tremendous, muscular energy which lifts you up into the action, like a movie, like a good book.

BUT – all that said – the exhibition DOES work in showing us that these women were not just ciphers and sidekicks. Many of them really were good and notable artists in their own rights and, as new overviews and histories are written, hopefully their achievements will receive a more coverage and understanding.

AND it brings together into one place works that have either never been seen before like The First meeting of Petrarch and Laura by Marie Spartali Stillman or have not been seen in public for 25 years like Thou Bird of God by Wells, and the cumulative effect – especially in the more artist-focused second part of the exhibition – is to create a kind of communal critical mass where you realise that there were a lot of them, they were very talented, and they did have a lot to say.

2. The lives

In a different direction, the exhibition fleshes out the lives and achievements of the women it is easy to dismiss or overlook as ‘simply’ wives or models. Thus, even though they were only, in the end, quite small sections about each of them, I nonetheless got a much better feel for the lives, hopes, aspirations, achievements and frustrations of figures who had often been only names to me (not being a PRB or Arts & Craft completist) such as:

  • Annie Miller and Fanny Cornforth
  • Jane Burden and Lizzie Siddel
  • and a sad feel for the quiet mournful figure of Giorgiana MacDonald.

And the complete revelation of the character and importance of the black model, Fanny Eaton, whose life story is presented here for the first time.

The exhibition curator Dr Jan Marsh, writes:

When people think of Pre-Raphaelitism they think of beautiful women with lustrous hair and loose gowns gazing soulfully from the picture frame or in dramatic scenes painted in glowing colours. Far from passive mannequins, as members of an immensely creative social circle, these women actively helped form the Pre-Raphaelite movement as we know it. It is time to acknowledge their agency and explore their contributions.

I suspect people will continue for a long time to associate Pre-Raphaelitism with ‘beautiful women with lustrous hair and loose gowns gazing soulfully from the picture frame or in dramatic scenes painted in glowing colours’ – simply because that’s what the best of their paintings depict and are famous for depicting and nothing is going to change that any time soon.

If you’re already a fan of the PRB and the later Arts & Crafts movement this will already be a must-see exhibition. But even if you’re not, it turns into quite an eye-opening revelation as to the roles and work and achievements of many of the women who have only hovered on the periphery of the stories up till now. I don’t think it will turn the average person’s view of the movement upside down… but this exhibition marks a distinct shift of the dial.


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From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen @ the Barbican

Listen up! Listen up! American artist, geographer, and author Trevor Paglen has big news for everyone! He is here to tell us that artificial intelligence may not be a totally wonderful, life-enhancing, fair and just invention after all! Here he is to explain.

AI networks

Trev takes as his starting point the way Artificial Intelligence networks are taught how to ‘see’, ‘hear’ and ‘perceive’ the world by engineers who feed them vast ‘training sets’.

Standard ‘training sets’ consist of images, video and sound libraries that depict objects, faces, facial expressions, gestures, actions, speech commands, eye movements and more. The point is that the way these objects are categorised, labelled and interpreted are not value-free; in other words, the human categorisers have to bring in all kinds of subjective and value judgements – and that this subjective element can lead to all kinds of wonky outcomes.

Thus Trev wants to point out that the ongoing development of artificial intelligence is rife with hidden prejudices, biases, stereotypes and just wrong assumptions. And that this process starts (in some iterations) with the scanning of vast reservoirs of images. Such as the one he’s created here.

Machine-seeing-for-machines is a ubiquitous phenomenon, encompassing everything from facial-recognition systems conducting automated biometric surveillance at airports to department stores intercepting customers’ mobile phone pings to create intricate maps of movements through the aisles. But all this seeing, all of these images, are essentially invisible to human eyes. These images aren’t meant for us; they’re meant to do things in the world; human eyes aren’t in the loop.

From apple to anomaly

So where’s the work of art?

Well, the Curve is the long tall curving exhibition space at the Barbican which is so uniquely shaped that the curators commission works of art specifically for its shape and structure.

For his Curve work Trev has had the bright idea of plastering the long curving wall with 35,000 (!) individually printed photographs pinned in a complex mosaic of images along the immense length of the curve. It has an awesome impact. That’s a lot of photos.

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

As the core of his research & preparation, Trev spent some time at ImageNet. This is one of the most widely shared, publicly available collection of images out there – and it is also used to train artificial intelligence networks. It’s available online, so you can have a go searching its huge image bank:

Apparently, ImageNet contains more than fourteen-million images organised into more than 21,000 categories or ‘classes’.

In most cases, the connotations of image categories and names are uncontroversial i.e. a ‘strawberry’ or ‘orange’ but many others are ambiguous and/or a question of judgement  – such as ‘debtors’, ‘alcoholics’ and ‘bad people’.

As the old computer programming cliché has it: ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ If artificial intelligence programs are being taught to teach themselves based on highly questionable and subjective premises, we shouldn’t be surprised if they start developing all kinds of errors, extrapolating and exaggerating all kinds of initial biases into wild stereotypes and misjudgements.

So the purpose of From Apple to Anomaly is to ‘questions the content of the images which are chosen for machine learning’. These are just some of the kinds of images which researchers are currently using to teach machines about ‘the world’.

Conceptually, it seemed to me that the work doesn’t really go much further than that.

It has a structure of sorts which is that, when you enter, the first images are of the uncontroversial ‘factual’ type – specifically, the first images you come to are of the simple concept ‘apple’.

Nothing can go wrong with images of an apple, right? Then as you walk along it, the mosaic of images widens like a funnel with a steady increase of other categories of all sorts, until the entire wall is covered and you are being bombarded by images arranged according to (what looks like) a fairly random collection of themes. (The themes are identified by black cards with clear white text, as in ‘apple’ below, which are placed at the centre of each cluster of images.)

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

Having read the blurb about the way words, and AI interpretation of words, becomes increasingly problematic as the words become increasingly abstract, I expected that the concepts would start simple and become increasingly vague. But the work is not, in fact like that – it’s much more random, so that quite specific categories – like paleontologist’ – can be found at the end while quite vague ones crop up very early on.

There was a big cluster of images around the word pizza. These looked revolting, but it was getting close to lunchtime and I found myself mysteriously attracted to the 40 or 50 images which showed fifty or so depictions of ‘ham and eggs’. Mmmm. Ham and eggs, yummy.

Conclusions

Most people are aware that Facebook harvests their data, just like Google and all the other big computer giants, twitter, Instagram blah blah. The disappointing reality for deep thinkers like Trev is that most people, quite obviously, don’t care. As long as they can instant message their mates or post photos of their cats for the world to see, most people don’t appear to give a monkeys what these huge American corporations do with the incalculably vast tracts of date they harvest and hold about us.

I think the same is true of artificial intelligence. Most people don’t care because they don’t think it affects them now or is likely to affect them in the future. Personally, I’m inclined to agree. When I read articles about artificial intelligence, particularly articles about the possible stereotyping of women and blacks i.e. the usual victims

1. American bias The books are written by Americans and feature examples from America. And when you dig deep you tend to find that AI, insofar as it is applied in the real world, tends to exacerbate inequalities and prejudices which already exist. In America. The examples about America’s treatment of its black citizens, or the poor, or the potentially dreadful implications of computerised programmes on healthcare, specifically for the poor – all these examples tend to be taken from America, which is a deeply and distinctively screwed-up country. My point is a lot of the scarifying about AI turns out, on investigation, really to reflect the scary nature of American society, its gross injustices and inequalities.

2. Britain is not America Britain is a different country, with different values, run in different ways. I take the London Underground or sometimes the overground train service every day. Every day I see the chaos and confusion as large-scale systems fail at any number of pressure points. The idea that learning machines are going to make any difference to the basic mismanagement and bad running of most of our organisations seems to me laughable. From time to time I see headlines about self-driving or driverless cars, sometimes taken as an example of artificial intelligence. OK. At what date in the future would you say that the majority of London’s traffic will be driverless cars, lorries, taxis, buses and Deliveroo scooters? In ten years? Twenty years?

3. The triviality of much AI There’s also a problem with the triviality of much AI research. After visiting the exhibition I read a few articles about AI and quickly got bored of reading how supercomputers can now beat grand chessmasters or world champions at the complex game of Go. I can hardly think of anything more irrelevant to the real world. Last year the Barbican itself hosted an exhibition about AI – AI: More Than Human – but the net result of the scores of exhibits and interactive doo-dahs was how trivial and pointless most of them were.

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

4. No machine will ever ‘think’ And this brings us to the core of the case against AI, which is that it’s impossible. Creating any kind of computer programme which ‘thinks’ like a human is, quite obviously impossible. This is because people don’t actually ‘think’ in any narrowly definable sense of the word. People reach decisions, or just do things, based on thousands of cumulated impulses and experiences, unique to each individual, and so complicated and, in general, so irrational, that no programs or models can ever capture it. The long detailed Wikipedia article about artificial intelligence includes this:

Moravec’s paradox generalizes that low-level sensorimotor skills that humans take for granted are, counterintuitively, difficult to program into a robot; the paradox is named after Hans Moravec, who stated in 1988 that ‘it is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility’.

Intelligence tests, chess, Go – tasks with finite rules of the kinds computer programmers understand – relatively easy to programme. The infinitely complex billions of interactions which characterise human behaviour – impossible.

5. People are irrational I’ve been studying art and literature and history for 40 years or so and if there’s one thing that comes over it is how irrational, perverse, weird and unpredictable people can be, as individuals and in crowds (because the behaviour of people is the subject matter of novels, plays, poems and countless art works; the really profound, bottomless irrationality of human beings is – arguably – the subject matter of the arts).

People smoke and drink and get addicted to drugs (and computer games and smart phones), people follow charismatic leaders like Hitler or Slobodan Milosevic or Donald Trump. People, in other words, are semi-rational animals first and only a long long way afterwards, rational, thinking beings and even then, only rational in limited ways, around specific goals set by their life experiences or jobs or current situations.

Hardly any of this can be factored into any computer program. I am currently working in the IT department of a large American corporation, and what I see every day, repeatedly, throughout the day, is what I’ve seen in all my other jobs in IT and websites and data, which is that the ‘users’, damn their eyes, keep coming up with queer and unpredicted ways of using the system which none of the program managers and project managers and designers and programmers had anticipated.

People keep outwitting and outflanking the computer systems because that’s what people do, not because any individual person is particularly clever but because, taken as a whole, people here, there and across the range, stumble across flaws, errors, glitches, bugs, unexpected combinations, don’t do what ultra-rational computer scientists and data analysts expect them to, Dammit!

6. It doesn’t work The most obvious thing about tech, is that it’s always breaking. I am currently working in the IT department of a large American corporation. This means being on the receiving end of a never-ending tide of complaints and queries about why this, that or the other functionality has broken. Same was true of all the other website jobs I’ve had. The biggest eye-opener for me working in this sector was to learn that things are always broken; there are always bugs and glitches and sometimes quite large structural problems, all of which have to be ranked and prioritised and then we get round to fixing them when we have a) developer time b) budget.

As a tiny confirmation, I have been trying to access Imagenet, the online image bank at the core of this work of art, and guess what? For two days in a row it hasn’t been working, I’ve got the message: ImageNet is under maintenance. Only ILSVRC synsets are included in the search results. Exactly. QED.

7. Big government, dumb data I worked for UK government departments and big government agencies for eight years and my tkeaway from the experience is that it isn’t artificial intelligence we should be frightened of – it is human stupidity.

Working inside the civil service was a terrifying insight into how naturally people in groups fall into a kind of bureaucratic mindset, setting up meetings and committees with minutes and notes and spreadsheets and presentations and how, slowly but steadily, the ability to change anything or get anything is strangled to death. No amount of prejudicing or stereotyping in, to take the anti-AI campaigners’ biggest worries, image recognition, will ever compete with the straightforward bad, dumb, badly thought out, terribly implemented and often cack-handedly horrible decisions which governments and their bureaucracies take.

Take Theresa May’s campaign of sending vans round the UK telling unwanted migrants to go home. Or the vast IT catastrophe which is Universal Credit. For me, any remote and highly speculative threat about the possibility that some AI programs may or may not be compromised by partial judgements and bias is dwarfed by the bad judgements and stereotyping which characterise our society and, in particular our governments, in the present, in the here-and-now.

8. Destroying the world Following this line of thought to its conclusion, it isn’t artificial intelligence which is opening a new coal-fired power stations every two weeks, and building a 100 new airports and manufacturing 75 million new cars and burning down tracts of the rainforest the size of Belgium every year. The meaningful application of artificial intelligence is decades away, whereas good-old-fashioned human stupidity is destroying the world here and now in front of our eyes, and nobody cares very much.

Summary

So. I liked this piece not because of the supposed warning it makes about artificial intelligence – and the obvious criticism or comment about From apple to anomaly is that, apart from a few paragraphs on one wall label, it doesn’t really give you very much background information to get your teeth into or ponder — no, I liked it because:

  1. it is huge and awesome and an impressive thing to walk along – so American! so big!
  2. and because its stomach-churning glut of imagery is testimony to the vast, unstoppable, planet-wasting machine which is humanity

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images


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