Impressionists in London @ Tate Britain

Mention ‘impressionism’ and the ears of a million grey-haired ladies across the Home Counties prick up. Coach parties are organised, lunch dates diarised and crowds descend. I got there ten minutes after opening time and this EY Exhibition of ‘Impressionists in London’ was already so packed you couldn’t see some of the exhibits.

Still, it’s a hugely enjoyable show, a chocolate box full of old favourites and new wonders, many loaned from private collections and so only available to view this once.

Disparate themes

The most striking thing is the way the curators have managed to pack into the eight and a bit rooms of the downstairs exhibition space at Tate Britain about four different themes or ideas, a good deal of which – maybe half – has nothing at all to do with impressionism.

First there’s a room entirely about the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), linking on to one about the early experiences of the French painters who fled to England.

Then there are three rooms about artists who are in no way impressionists: James Tissot, Alphonse Legros and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.

It’s only in room five that we finally get to see impressionists paintings in significant numbers, with depictions of London and surrounding suburbs by the likes of Monet, Pissarro and Sisley.

Room six is a small space devoted to Whistler, poet of London fogs.

Room seven is, from the impressionist addict’s point of view, the highlight, with eight big canvases by Monet at the height of his powers depicting the Thames and Houses of Parliament, through London fogs, with the shimmering orange sun at various heights and angles. Most of them appear to be on loan from private collections i.e. this is a unique opportunity to see them. This is the Room of Rooms.

The show could easily have ended there, but in an odd postscript, or ‘coda’ as the curators call it, they have hung three super-vibrant works by the Fauvist painter André Derain, who was commissioned in 1906 to paint London scenes.

Acknowledging his debt to Monet, Derain painted many of the same scenes as the master had in  his London series, but in a completely different style, using the wild vibrant colours of the Fauves.

The curators’ idea is to demonstrate how certain views in London – specifically the House of Parliament from the river – became a recurring motif in French art, and almost a kind of manifesto in which succeeding generations of artists declared their colours (literally) by doing their version of London.

Nice idea, maybe, but the small white room and wild colours were quite a change of gear after the mushroom-coloured walls and muted lighting of the Monet room.

So, let’s start at the beginning:

The Franco-Prussian War and the Commune

The Emperor Napoleon III of France was fool enough to let himself be goaded by Chancellor Bismarck of Prussia into declaring war in July 1870. All Europe thought the vast and gaily coloured French army would stomp the Germans, but the reverse happened. The Prussians slaughtered the French at a series of lightning strikes into France, demolishing their main army at the Battle of Sedan and eventually marching all the way to Paris. The Emperor abdicated and fled to England. The government fled to Versailles. The Second Empire was over. The Germans besieged Paris for three terrible months at the end of which the government (in exile in Versailles) surrendered. The Germans marched up and down the Champs Elysees then retired to positions surrounding the city. At which point a bloody uprising took place within Paris, led by proto-communists who set up a Commune. First they went on the warpath, trying and executing their political opponents. Then the French army set about recapturing Paris from the revolutionaries, a battle which descended into fierce street-to-street fighting, followed by summary reprisals and executions. In just one week some 20,000 civilians died. Nightmare.

The Rue de Rivoli in Paris after the suppression of the Commune in May 1871

The Rue de Rivoli in Paris after the suppression of the Commune in May 1871

I’ve described the events at length in reviews of two classic books on the subject.

The first room of the exhibition collects together illustrations of the war and of the Bloody Week at the end of the Commune during which some 3,000 Parisians were massacred. They include a haunting symbolic painting by Corot, a set of early photographs of the ruins (apparently, a book was published titled A Guide Through The Ruins of Paris). There are some excellent prints by James Tissot, who served as a stretcher bearer, of injured soldiers and makeshift hospitals.

The wounded soldier (1870) by James Tissot

The wounded soldier (1870) by James Tissot

There are some vivid sketches done in charcoal on paper by Manet who witnessed shooting squads at first hand. Apparently, he had a nervous breakdown.

Civil war by Édouard Manet

Civil war by Édouard Manet

Emigres and exiles in England

Thousands of French nationals fled to England, then, as later, a sanctuary from violent mayhem on the Continent. Among their number were many of the painters who would go on to form the core of the Impressionist movement.

(N.B. The impressionists got their name in 1874 when the satirical Parisian magazine Charivari singled out qualities of Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise, to form the basis of a witheringly satirical view of the first joint exhibition which Degas, Monet et al, held in 1874. The name ‘impressionist’ stuck and spread to all the painters involved. I.e. at the time they fled to England and painted London, none of these painters were known as or thought of themselves as ‘impressionists’ and there was no such movement as ‘impressionism’).

The room explaining this includes the fairly well-known paintings Camille Pissarro did of Sydenham and Dulwich, familiar because they are owned by the National Gallery and are routinely trotted out for this kind of show. Poor Pissarro lost his entire life’s work in the war when his house was taken over by the Prussian army and ransacked, paintings used as kindling for fires or to wipe soldiers’ bottoms.

The exhibition is heavy on biography and anecdote. Besides the usual room introduction and wall labels for each painting, each room also includes biographical panels about specific artists, often very interesting.

Monet also moved to London, fleeing conscription with Mrs Monet, who he had only just married. He didn’t paint much because apparently he didn’t have enough money to buy materials.

Meditation, Madame Monet Sitting on a Sofa (1870 - 1871) Claude Monet

Meditation, Madame Monet Sitting on a Sofa (1870 – 1871) Claude Monet

The commentary picks up on the Japanese vase on the mantlepiece, hinting at the massive influence of Japanese decoration and design on this generation. I was more impressed by the rucked-up folds of the chintz sofa. God, you can smell the dust and mustiness.

James Tissot

To my immense surprise, room three is devoted to lots of wonderful works by James Tissot (with a Millais (The Huguenot) thrown in, because Millais was among the English artists who helped James) and several paintings by Giusseppe de Nittis, who I’d never heard of before. De Nittis was a friend of Tissot’s, like him, became a member of the select Arts Club in Hanover Square and, like him, painted large, super-realistic pictures of modern English life and urban landscapes, though Tissot tended to focus on River Thames-based scenes whereas de Nittis liked the grimy streets.

St Martin-in-the-Fields and the National Gallery (1846 – 1884) by Giuseppe De Nittis

St Martin-in-the-Fields and the National Gallery (1846 – 1884) by Giuseppe De Nittis

When I was a teenager I was mad about the Impressionists and rejected everything else – but over the years I’ve come to appreciate late-Victorian art, whether its anecdotal realism or pre-Raphaelite visions or the strain of high aestheticism which mutated into the Roman fantasies of the so-called ‘Olympian’ painters (Leighton, Alma-Tadema et al). And, despite being French, Tissot and de Nittis fit right into that world.

Tissot covered a range of subjects:

Tissot may well have been French, and he was certainly a refugee from the war, and I really enjoyed getting to see a dozen or so of his wonderfully naturalistic paintings, as well as some intriguing prints of the East End of the Thames – but he is no impressionist, almost the opposite. He was painting nin the highly naturalistic style of the Salon painters of his day, albeit of everyday folk, not heroes and historical figures.

And the same is even more true of the subjects of the next two rooms. They are not impressionists at all.

Alphonse Legros had settled in London in 1863 where he became friends with luminaries of the art world such as Whistler, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts. He was appointed Slade Professor of Art in 1876 and so, as a well-established and well-connected artist he was a port of call for the impoverished young painters fleeing Paris. He was especially supportive of the Communard sculptor Jules Dalou and so this is a pretext for the room to feature a number of big sculptures by Dalou.

Thus every piece in this big room tells a story about Legros’ network of friends and connections in the London art world, which are all interesting, biographical snippets and anecdotes (the portrait Laurence Alma-Tadema did of Dalou, his wife and daughter which was reciprocated by a bust Dalou did of Alma-Tadema’s wife, Laura). Legros and Dalou were instrumental in introducing the work of the young Rodin to the British, and this justifies the presence of a rather wonderful portrait of Rodin.

Portrait of Rodin (1882) by Alphonse Legros

Portrait of Rodin (1882) by Alphonse Legros

All very interesting, but almost the opposite of impressionism – extremely realistic, figurative Salon art.

Which is even more true of the room about the most famous sculptor of the Second Empire (1853-1870), Jean-Baptiste Carpaux who arrived in England in March 1871, shortly before the defeated and overthrown French emperor Napoleon III.

Once again, we are given a lot of detail about the social networks he brought with him from France and the patrons and collectors he soon found in London. The biggest thing in this room is his sculpture of Flora.

Flora by Jean-Baptiste Carpaux (1873)

Flora by Jean-Baptiste Carpaux (1873)

When I saw that this statue is owned by Tate I had a strong sense of déjà vu, remembering the long line of exhibitions at Tate Britain (Ruin Lust, Folk Art) which have often seemed like excuses to dust off some of the more obscure and unfashionable items in their vast collection and find a pretext to put them on display.

Fair enough, in a way, since they do have a remit to show and display the collection. And it would explain what Carpeaux, Legros and Tissot are doing in an exhibition ostensibly about impressionism. The exhibitions sub-title, French Artists in Exile, is a far more accurate description of the central half of this show.

British society through outsiders’ eyes

After all this polite and decorous Salon art it is quite a shock to walk into the next room, which genuinely is filled with impressionist art, with painters like Monet, Sisley and Pissarro depicting scenes like Kew Gardens, Westminster bridge, Hampton Court and so on.

Pissarro rented a flat at Kew Green (I used to walk past the blue plaque on the wall on the way to work) which he used as a base to paint Kew Green, St Anne’s church and the environs.

Saint Anne’s Church at Kew (1892) by Camille Pissarro

Saint Anne’s Church at Kew (1892) by Camille Pissarro

Sisley painted rowers at Hampton Court bridge (the label points out that he avoided painting the historic Court whatsoever, but instead used the relatively new cast-iron bridge as a key element in the design. Despite their dreamy reputation today, it’s always worth remembering that the impressionists painted the contemporary world.)

Monet painted Hyde Park and the rhododendron walk at Kew Gardens.

But still mixed in among these authentic impressionist works, were a number of further hyper-realistic scenes by Tissot and de Nittis. We learn in this room that de Nittis, in particular, was commissioned to paint twelve large street scenes of London by his patron Kaye Knowles. They are highly evocative and totally naturalistic.

Piccadilly: Wintry Walk in London (1875) by Giuseppe De Nittis

Piccadilly: Wintry Walk in London (1875) by Giuseppe De Nittis

I doubt if it was the intention but putting the hyper-realism of de Nittis and Tissot in the same room as the soft impressionism of Sisley, Pissarro and Monet sort of prompts the visitor to choose: which vision of the world do you prefer?

Which do you prefer?

The fog master

Oscar Wilde asserted the primacy of art over life in his 1891 essay, The Decay of Lying:

At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say they were. But no one saw them. They did not exist until Art had invented them.

I laughed out loud when the audio guide claimed that the American expatriate artist in London, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, was the master of fogs, or the Fog Master. Thus this room shows a trio of Whistler’s nocturnes, the Thames through evening fogs.

Three Thames views by the Fog Master, James Whistler

Three Thames views by the Fog Master, James Whistler

I know they’re famous but I’ve never really liked them. I prefer Whistler’s women, like the Symphony in white, or his etchings of ramshackle London slums, which I saw in an exhibition some years ago. Again, the exhibition contrasted hard core impressionist works with the realist Tissot (surely there’s more Tissot here than any other painter).

I feel like I’m failing some kind of aesthetic test, but it was the realists I preferred.

Westminster (1878) by Giuseppe De Nittis

Westminster (1878) by Giuseppe De Nittis

Monet’s Thames series

Around his 60th birthday (1900) Monet expressed an interest in exploring earlier motifs ‘to sum up impressions and sensations of the past’. For three consecutive winters (1899, 1890, 1901) he took rooms in the Savoy Hotel and painted the River Thames. At one point he had some 100 canvases on the go at the same time. Imagine the visual sensation of walking into those rooms!

Eight of them are gathered here, many from private collections, hung in a room with dimmed lighting on mushroom-coloured walls and the effect is completely magical. What a genius. From the envelop of London fog the orange sun appears, in some paintings high and dominant, in others remote and wintry, in some not in vision but casting a refulgent light over the foggy silhouette of the House of Parliament.

It’s worth the admission price just to be able to walk round this room inspecting each painting carefully, and then sitting quietly, letting the achievement of the Impression Master, the luxe, calme et volupté, really sink in.

Derain

The show could easily have stopped at this climax, letting the dazed visitor stumble out into the cold light of day with visions of Monet swirling round their minds. Instead there is this odd ‘coda’, a white room displaying three vibrant, bright paintings by the Fauvist painter André Derain designed to make the point that London landscapes remained a kind of litmus test of the vision and style of French artists. Derain explicitly mentioned the Monet London series in correspondence about his set, but then goes on to defend his own very different style.

It’s a vivid if slightly odd end to an exhibition which feels like it has only intermittently been about the impressionists.

Again, I failed the impressionist test, by preferring the Derain to most of the Sisley and Pissarro, which I nowadays find a little washed-out and pallid.

Conclusion

Looking back, it’s an odd, uneven exhibition but:

  • it contains a whole load of sumptuous wonderful paintings, many many works of really stunning beauty
  • it does give a strong sense of the artistic networks among French exiles and emigres in England, before during and after the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War
  • and it allows you to compare and contrast a range of artistic styles and visions available around the 1870s, prompting you to decide which ones you like, and why
Installation view of the Tissot room

Installation view of the Tissot room (with Millais’s The Huguenot in the middle)

Impressionist merchandise

My daughter is 16. When she goes to gigs she and her friends always buy a few pieces of merchandise, or ‘merch’. As usual, I was staggered by the amount of merch you can get at art exhibitions these days. Just for Derain, one of his vibrant London scenes was available on a scarf, a bag, a glasses case, a jigsaw, you could buy a Derain coaster, table mat, fridge magnet, mug, print, shortbread tin, tea towel, key ring, book mark, oyster card holder, tea tray, post card or set of postcards. Same for Monet and Whistler, whose foggy bridge image was available as all the above plus lavender soap, a ring, a pair of ear rings, a pocket mirror, a diary and calendar.

I do find it funny that there is also a special Impressionist lunch available to accompany your visit, as well as a cheese and wine pop-up, and a one-off ‘Taste of France’ experience.

Desire

The audio guide by curator Caroline Corbeau-Parsons is admirably informative, clear and sensible. I thought I’d got right to the end of a contemporary exhibition without anyone mentioning sex, eroticism, bodies, gender or desire, but I see that, among all the talks and events to accompany the show, there is one on ‘Buildings and Bodies in France and London’: a ‘discussion on how gender and sexuality have shaped experiences of London and Paris’. Phew. They managed to squeeze it in.

Video

Here’s a BBC report on the show, featuring co-curator Caroline Corbeau-Parsons.


Related links

Book reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Basquiat: Boom for Real @ the Barbican

This exhibition is great!

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) was cool and street in a way hardly any artists are, even today. He did graffiti, made goofy postcards, he was in bands, he DJed at clubs, he liked bebop, hung out with early rappers, painted, drew and created art constantly out of the bombardment of signs, images, words and phrases which surrounded him in the grimy, vibrant New York of the early 1980s.

King of the Zulus (1984-85) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

King of the Zulus (1984-85) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Born in 1960, the son of a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat grew up in the post-punk scene in Lower Manhattan. New Wave/No Wave they called it. He attended the alternative school, City-As-School High School, where he came to attention after he developed the moniker SAMO©, along with Al Diaz and other friends, to use in graffiti all across the city. They covered buildings all over the Lower East Side with witty, snappy, poetic or satirical slogans.

SAMO originated in the stoned 17-year-olds talking about smoking the ‘same old shit’ but quickly became a cult movement, with claims and counter-claims about ‘original’ SAMOs, with other artists on the scene photographing the graffitos, exhibiting them and so on. Examples include:

SAMO© AS A CONGLOMERATE OF DORMANT GENIOUS

MY MOUTH / THEREFORE AN ERROR

Not your usual graffiti – it was puzzling, elliptical, intriguing. From really early on everything Basquiat touched had a kind of magic about it. And right from the start he was ambitious, concentrating the graffiti around the SoHo art galleries, currying attention with curators. When the Village Voice magazine finally revealed the identities of the hitherto anonymous authors, Basquiat and Diaz declared SAM dead, fellow artist Keith Haring delivered a mock eulogy at the bohemian Club 57, and Basquiat painted SAMO© IS DEAD over the old graffitos. But he continued to use the identity and the celebrity it had brought. At an arty party in 1979 Basquiat agreed to be captured on film creating a one-off SAMO© graffito on the wall of the art space where the party was happening.

A wall of photos of SAMO© graffiti by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

A wall of photos of SAMO© graffiti by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

With Jennifer Stein Basquiat started producing hand-made postcards – again from the detritus of the street – newspaper headlines, polaroid selfies, cigarette butts, posters, ads, random texts. Hard to imagine, but photocopying was a new technology, and their use of a rare colour photocopier showed an innovative approach to using mundane, workaday technology. On a now famous occasion Basquiat plucked up the courage to approach his hero Andy Warhol in a bar and sold him a card for one dollar.

By the turn of the decade Basquiat scraped together the resources to make paintings in an extremely rough, crude style, incorporating lots of text, phrases, slogans, street poetry, misspelled or misspelt, scrubbed out, as well as countless faces, graffiti with ambition, the street experience on canvas.

Hollywood Africans (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Hollywood Africans (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

The graffiti is always there as a kind of substratum in the work, but after he exhibited in the scene-defining 1981 exhibition New York/New Wave, Basquiat began to sell pieces and get access to more resources, bigger canvases to mark with acrylics, oil, crayon, pen, using not just paint but wood, scrap metal, foam rubber, all sorts.

The results are scrappy, patchy, quick and dirty, but many are also stunning, stunningly alive, colourful, vibrant, spontaneous, magnificent, in your face, spooky. Of the 1,600 works on show from artists like Warhol, Mapplethorpe, David Byrne and so on, Basquiat was singled out by nearly all the critics. Galleries approached him with contracts, magazines wanted interviews.

Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Numerous urban legends quickly gathered round him: a particularly entertaining one is that after his first formal introduction to Warhol at his Factory studio in October 1982, Basquiat rushed back to his gallery and knocked off a painting of himself and Warhol in just two hours and had his assistant take it round to Warhol’s studio still wet. The godfather of Pop was delighted and the two became firm friends. In fact, they went on to collaborate on some 100 works together.

Dos Cabezas (1982) by ean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Dos Cabezas (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

The exhibition includes out-takes from the episode of Warhol’s TV show in the 80s where the Bewigged One interviews Basquiat with his arm familiarly round his shoulders, joking and riffing. I see modern bloggers refer to it as a classic ‘bromance’. They collaborated, Warhol creating pop images which Basquiat defaced, rewrote, reinterpreted, remodelled. They did stylish photoshoots.

Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat July 10, 1985, by Michael Halsband

Later on in the show, there’s a viewing room where you can see one of the few extended interviews Basquiat did, an amateur effort by some art world friends. Here and in almost all the images – photos, film clips, interviews, TV stuff and some rare footage of him dancing in the studio – he comes over as full of life. You rarely see artists in any medium smile so much – he has a hugely infectious boyish smile. In the scrappy New Wave vibe of Downtown New York, glamour was as important as talent and Basquiat has charisma in buckets.

Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club (1979) © Nicholas Taylor © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club (1979) © Nicholas Taylor © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

But it’s not empty or baseless fame – this astonishingly young man was a fountain of creativity, graffiti turning into postcards and then overflowing into myriads of paintings, drawings, graffitied objects and readymades large and small, scrap-book montages, tell-tale silhouettes, endless self-portraits, notebooks packed full of poetry, film scripts and the bands he was in writing experimental music and lyrics, the DJing, hanging with early rap pioneers, a vortex of energy and exuberance.

Glenn (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Glenn (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

I returned to this particular pair of works again and again. In the century of Picasso, Klee, Kokoschka and hundreds of other semi-figurative modernists, I hadn’t seen anything quite like these, the intuitive use of completely different palettes of colours, the confidence, the lack of fear, the forcefulness of the images blew me away.

Untitled (1983) and Self Portrait (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Untitled (1983) and Self Portrait (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

This is a major exhibition, with both floors of the Barbican’s gallery packed with over 100 works – 14 rooms in all. The eight rooms on the top floor describe a chronological survey of Basquiat’s short life and prodigious output, while the six rooms on the ground floor investigate his influences, a dazzling kaleidoscope of material, from junk TV to the old textbook Gray’s Anatomy, from Picasso and Matisse (paid homage to with Basquiatesque portraits).

Untitled (Pablo Picasso), 1984 by Jean-Michel Basquiat © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Untitled (Pablo Picasso), 1984 by Jean-Michel Basquiat © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Basquiat had an intense involvement with the bebop jazz of Charlie Parker and the other lead boppers (he had a collection of some 3,000 jazz records), but this was just one source of references in a kaleidoscope of ideas and motifs which included anything from Western art which caught his fancy, a dizzying range of African and tribal art, fashion magazines, ad slogans, TV programmes, black sports stars, Hollywood movies, anything he saw, processed and incorporated into his quick vivid works.

Leonardo da Vinci's Greatest Hits (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Artwork. Collection of Jonathan Schorr © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Artwork. Collection of Jonathan Schorr © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

In the endless vortex of the self-referential New York art world, countless hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Basquiat, raving, promoting, analysing, knocking and dismissing him – but the best summary I’ve read was from his friend, Glenn O’Brien, music columnist in Warhol’s Interview magazine. This quote from him brings out the way Basquiat’s work lets everything in. I think this is much easier for us to understand now, in the age of solid, wall-to-wall social media saturation with images and junk text, than back in the pre-digital 1980s.

He ate up every image, every word, every bit of data that appeared in front of him and he processed it all into a bebop cubist pop art cartoon gospel that synthesised the whole overload we lived under into something that made an astonishing new sense.

‘The whole overload’. Exactly.

In 1980 some of the crowd Basquiat had met at the Mudd Club decided to make a movie about a day in the life of a Boho artist, with Basquiat playing the lead role. When shooting began in December 1980 he was 19 years old! Here’s a clip. God, isn’t he beautiful!

A room is devoted to Basquiat’s involvement with the relatively new music genre of hip-hop. In the late 70s Basquiat was introduced to early cassettes of the new music and found he had much in common with experimental musician-musicians like Rammellzee and graffiti artist Toxic. The painting above (Hollywood Africans) is a portrait of the trio on a trip to California for Basquiat’s exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles. Back in New York Basquiat and Rammellzee produced a single, ‘Beat Bop’, with J-M doing the cover art. Only 500 copies were pressed. If you own a copy with the original sleeve art, that’s your retirement sorted.

The ‘bop’ in Beat Bop indicates Basquiat’s unexpected devotion to the bebop of the 1940s, and to its tragic genius Charlie Parker (died in 1955, aged just 35, after years of intense drug abuse). Alas, Basquiat also died young, from a heroin overdose in 1988, aged just 27.

Themes

Race Some parts of the exhibition dwell on Basquiat’s colour. In 1985 he was the first black artist ever to appear on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. In the international art world a black face was a tremendous rarity. There are sections in the show about his references to black sporting heroes, to black jazz heroes, and to the new forms of expression developed by black rap music and hip hop.

This is a massive subject, especially in the fraught context of America’s ongoing problems with its black population (I mean by this the relative poverty of Afro-Americans, the disproportionate number of African-American males in prison, and the seemingly unstoppable cases of American cops beating up and shooting dead black men). I note its presence but I’m not expert enough to comment, apart from to notice the presence in many of the works of the recurrent image of a jet black silhouette, presumably a self-portrait, really powerful in its intensity, a mask, a memento, a magus.

Self-Portrait (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Self-Portrait (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Sex There’s less about gender and sexuality than you might expect. In fact there’s a striking absence of sexual imagery or anxiety in his paintings. I wasn’t absolutely clear whether he was gay or straight, until I read references to girlfriends in online articles. Given his punk attitude it’s surprising there isn’t more stuff, even about ‘love’, let alone the vast world of sexual imagery.

Signs Much more evident are the unstoppable flood of signs and symbols. For once a ‘semiotic’ interpretation of an artist would be justified, because Basquiat himself was quite clearly fascinated and obsessed with the strange power of signs and symbols, and the literally infinite combinations which can be made of them. In the rooms on his source materials there’s his copy of Henry Dreyfuss’s book Symbol Sourcebook.

His works are plastered with words and phrases which don’t necessarily mean anything or mean as much as they appear to, starting with SAMO’s deliberately opaque messages. For example, quite a lot of ink has been spilt trying to tease the meaning out of this phrase:

JIMMY BEST ON HIS BACK TO THE SUCKERPUNCH OF HIS CHILDHOOD FILES

which appears in graffitos and in a number of paintings and drawings. He wrote literally thousands of phrases and fragments of phrases across his works. Piecing together the puzzles, themes, meanings or avoidances of meanings strewn across this vast terrain will keep Basquiat scholars in conference invitations for the rest of their lives.

Identity Identity is one of those themes curators and art critics love to invoke but, again, it is for once justified by Basquiat’s work. From SAMO onwards he played with identities and names for himself and his work. For example, the exhibition devotes some space to his mysterious use of the name ‘Aaron’ written across numerous works – including on the redecorated American football helmet, the image which provides the iconic poster for the whole exhibition. Probably it refers to the Afro-American baseball player and all-time home run king, Hank Aaron.

Basquiat wearing his Aaron football helmet

Music Another major theme in Basquiat’s output is music – evidenced by the band he was in, Gray, whose album you can still buy, the hip hop single embedded in this review, and all the theme nights he organised at the trendy Area Club, to name just some output. Music appears in his art as reference to his hip hop friends but also as a major thread of works circling around bebop and the great jazz musicians who he worshipped.

Post-modernism I remember how back in the 1980s we all spent a lot of time discussing what post-modernism meant. I am aware of its derivation from a specific movement in architecture and then its application to literature. But another, popular, interpretation was that it meant the end of High Art as a specially privileged realm. High and low art could be combined and juxtaposed for the sheer hell of it. On this interpretation Basquiat seems a textbook case of an artist who naturally inhabited this new realm, maybe helped to create it. Warhol may have taken commercial products and po-facedly turned them into art objects – Campbell’s soup, the brillo pad box, various iconic movie posters – but these artefacts were themselves highly designed – Warhol’s genius was in recognising beautiful design in the mundane.

Basquiat takes that to the next level, finding – and creating – weird, hypnotically compelling art out of street trash, a graffiti style, spray-can spontaneity, the deliberately undesigned. The Canadian art curator Marc Mayer seems to me to put his finger on it when he notes in Basquiat’s work

a calculated incoherence

teasing, puzzling, refracting, resisting meanings, resisting a simplistic definition of him as a black artist or a musician or a provocateur or a street artist or a naive artist. It seems to me precisely Basquiat’s genius that he was all those things, plus more, much more than the critics can still really get their heads around.

Beautiful And he was beautiful. You’re just having serious sensible thoughts about his references to the Western Tradition when you turn a corner and there’s some film of him dancing in his studio with a massive smile on his face. I took my 16 year-old daughter and she fell in love with Basquiat. I’ve dragged her along to numerous art shows but she told me this is the only one which has ever made her feel that art can be exciting, fun and cool.

Video

There are quite a few video relics of Basquiat, interviews, documentaries, the full-length indie movie he appears in – Downtown 81 – and the more recent full-length biopic, Basquiat directed by Julian Schnabel.

Here’s a documentary about his life & times in which you can hear the man speak for himself.


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Purple by John Akomfrah @ The Curve, The Barbican

The Curve is the long, narrow, curving, dark, subterranean exhibition space at the Barbican. It is currently hosting several works by British artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah.

The first thing you see on walking down the steps, is a massive pile of car tyres reaching to the ceiling. This gave me a warm feeling as I grew up in a petrol station which did tyre repairs and had a huge shed with stacks of every kind of car tyre then on the market. Us kids used to play hide and seek in it.

Preliminal Rites

The first pictorial display is Preliminal Rites, two enormous triptychs i.e. sets of three very big stunningly detailed photos taken in a beautifully unspoilt hilly landscape (the Peaks, the Lake District?) in which a handful of humans stand in model-like poses, wearing old-fashioned dress, and dotted around at their feet are incongruous objects, most strikingly a big old-fashioned clock face. Time. Tempus fugitSic transit gloria mundi. An old idea, but conveyed in a striking composition in stunning digital clarity.

Preliminal Rites by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Preliminal Rites by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

A world of plastic

As you continue walking along the dark, rather intimidating space, you come to a section entirely made up of scores of old, heavy-duty, white plastic canisters hanging upside down from the ceiling, with white lights above them. The effect is of a heaven of plastic shining down, pushing down, illuminatingly or threateningly, down on all of us. I stood beneath this junk firmament and reached up my arms to pray to the universe of synthetic polymers.

Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Installation view of Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Purple

After plastic heaven you walk through a sort of doorway into the final section where a row of comfortable benches is lined up facing an array of six enormous screens on which is playing the one-hour long video, which gives the show its overall title – Purple.

Akomfrah has ransacked hundreds of hours of archive footage from numerous sources to edit together this vast portrait of man’s impact on the natural world. The images on each screen are all different, cut from scene to scene at different moments, and sequences on one screen jump to other screens then back again, and so forth – so on one level it is quite disorientating. But on another, quite hypnotic.

Installation view of Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Installation view of Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Broadly speaking there are two types of image or sequence: the archive footage, mostly in black and white, showing society from 50, 60, 70 years ago, faces, streets, cars, factories, power stations, coal mines, and so on — and a series of brand spanking new, up-to-date sequences which Akomfrah shot himself in a dozen or so locations around the world.

The aim of the whole thing is to convey the depth and reach of man’s impact on the natural world. I’ve written about this in other blog posts, the idea is simple: humanity is destroying the natural environment and wiping out our fellow species at a phenomenal speed, at a rate only matched by the previous big five extinction events in the history of life on earth.

The sixth extinction

As such we are responsible for what geologists are now widely referring to as the Anthropocene Age and biologists refer to as the Sixth Extinction.

The archive footage Akomfrah has selected is fascinating. I sat enraptured watching old black-and-white footage of coal miners working underground, of old geezers in muffled up coats walking the grim streets of some Northern town, then old men in doctors’ clinics having lung capacity tests, cut-away views of a human lung under a microscope – presumably damaged by coal dust inhalation and general pollution – a scientist kneeling down to scoop up some of the black filth lying in a gutter with a spoon to put in a sample bag. You get the idea. No commentary. No sub-titles. No explanation. Just the footage. You draw your own conclusions and make your own connections.

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Beautiful world

But what lifts the film onto a completely different visual level is the astonishing, haunting beauty of the footage Akomfrah himself has shot, positioning solitary human figures in remote and stunning landscapes around the world.

These range from the vast open landscapes of Alaska and Arctic Greenland to the volcanic Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. Apparently, they were all chosen as sites demonstrating climate change or acute pollution or environmental degradation – but they are shot with breath-taking, super-digital clarity which slightly overawes the ostensible purpose.

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

The benches facing the screens were packed. Nobody moved. Everyone was transfixed by the haunting beauty of these truly dazzling sequences.

Ambient soundtrack

The impact is increased by the soundtrack. The music was composed by Tandis Jenhudson and David Julyan. Waves of very slow, ambient sound, sometimes rising to distinct piano melodies then fading back into washes of electronic sounds, designed to be assimilable, haunting, moody, sad and reminiscent (to me) of the slow sad music of Twin Peaks.

You can see the images, hear the sounds and listen to the man himself explaining it all in this Barbican video.

And…?

Are we meant to be happy or sad? I, personally, realised we are destroying the current environment when I read Silent Spring back in the 1970s – obviously new patterns and balances will eventually arise, new equilibriums be established, with or without humanity – but in our little lifetimes it is hugely distressing to realise how many beautiful, intricate species and life forms we are devastating and driving extinct, now, as you read this.

But what can you do? Everyone wants a mobile phone, a car, a colour TV, a home with running water and fresh food shipped in from around the world. More people want more stuff, and there’s more and more of these people – 3 billion when I was born, 7.6 billion now, 9 billion by the time my son will be my age.

I try to live modestly, avoid driving, flying, recycle my trash, cycle everywhere, but… well… I know it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. My life is an insignificant drop, a minuscule fraction of the vast pullulating population of locusts which is stripping the planet. We really are a plague on the earth.

Maybe you disagree. Either way, Purple is a really beautiful, haunting show about a vastly important topic, and it’s completely FREE!

So if you’re passing anywhere near the Barbican, set aside half an hour to drop in and be enraptured, inspired, maybe depressed, certainly affected.

Still frame from Purple by John Akomfrah (2017) © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah (2017) © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions at the Barbican

Metamorphoses by PJ Crook @ The Royal West of England Academy

PJ (no full stops) lives and works in the West Country, is a member of the Royal West of England Academy and, over a long career, has not only created works across a wide range of media, but also been active in supporting numerous art organisations and initiatives, resulting in the recent award of an MBE for services to art.

PJ Crook at work

PJ Crook at work

This exhibition of recent work, titled Metamorphoses, fills one downstairs room at the RWA’s Bristol gallery with 20 or so (generally quite small) paintings and six or so (quite large) assemblages.

Soundscape by Robert Fripp

The exhibition is accompanied by a ‘soundscape’ created by PJ’s long-standing friend, the guitarist and composer Robert Fripp. From hidden speakers Fripp’s ambient waves of sound wash slowly over the visitor. Since the entire show is housed in one, bare, white room, the overall affect is soothing and relaxing, slowing you down enough to soak up PJ’s dream-like fantasias.

Paintings and assemblages

There’s a big visual difference between the paintings and the assemblages. The paintings are small, the size of a large format book – whereas the assemblages consist of stools or mannekins or tables, thrusting out of the wall which they’re often attached to, intruding into the visitor space, festooned with stuffed birds, shoes and other objects.

The day I visited the artist was there herself and I was lucky enough to be able to ask her a few questions. PJ explained that an initial thought had been to display just the assemblages, but that by themselves they created a rather craggy, pointy, threatening experience. So the small and smooth paintings were put in between them to create rhythm, light and shade, a contrast between the assemblages, which you have to step back to really take in, and the paintings, which you have to lean into to enjoy the detail.

A wood near Athens by PJ Crook

A wood near Athens by PJ Crook

The paintings

The wall labels and catalogue quote from the opening of Ovid’s long poem Metamorphoses, a wonderful collection of all the ancient Greek myths in which people turn into trees or animals or clouds, and so on, which has been translated and quoted by English poets from Shakespeare to Ted Hughes.

Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme my spirit impels me now to recite.
Inspire me, O gods (it is you who have even transformed my art), and spin me a thread
from the world’s beginning down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.

And PJ herself explained, some of the paintings were directly inspired by a recent visit to Greece, such as the myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus.

Salmacis and Hermaphroditus by PJ Crook

Salmacis and Hermaphroditus by PJ Crook

But, to this visitor, what came over much more powerfully was the sequence of dark and mysterious images which seem to emanate from a northern imagination of forests and fairy tales.

Grandma by PJ Crook

Grandma by PJ Crook

Even the sequence obviously taken from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (originally set in Greece) and showing Bottom with his ass’s head, have more the feel of a dreamy northern night – it is a world of sensible shirt and ties (as below) or waistcoat, trousers and laced shoes (in A wood near Athens, above) rather than the bare rock and bare bodies of hot Greece. Part of the dreamlike state is that the animal has been tamed.

Enchanted by PJ Crook

Enchanted by PJ Crook

These could be illustrations to Angela Carter’s feminist retellings of fairy tales, a night-time world of dream women somehow in control of mannekin men, leading the dance, seeing the world in their own terms, all floating beneath the mysterious, female power of the moon (traditionally associated with the female principle, as opposed to the harsh male sun).

Style

As you can see from these examples, the paintings are in a sort of ‘naively’ realistic style, an impression of innocent artlessness which is emphasised by the way all of the paintings overflow to include the heavy wooden frames.

PJ told me she’s been called a surrealist artist, a naive artist and so on. Certainly there are juxtapositions of incongruous objects, as in the early Surrealist manifestos, and these odd visions are painted in a very finished, figurative style. But their powerful dreamlike vibe is entirely her own.

One consistent element I noticed is the blankness of the faces. Strange things are happening – a woman dances with a donkey-headed man or sees herself as a bear in a mirror – and make no comment. The girls’ or women’s faces remain placid and accepting. ‘Yes, of course, why not,’ they seem to be saying. Or thinking.

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor by PJ Crook

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor by PJ Crook

Then I realised that, although there are a few naked people, you don’t see any nipples or other private parts. They would make the pictures too… too real, give too much of an edge to pictures which are intended to be edgeless, to take us away from the harsh world of the sexualised body and into a desexualised world of dreamy imagination.

On the contrary, the lack of naked bodies or, to be precise, the way the bodies are often so chastely dressed – adds to the incongruity, to the surrealism, of the images. Bottom may well be an ancient Greek workman with a donkey’s head – but he is wearing the waistcoat, shirt, tie and bell-bottomed trousers that remind me of the roll-your-own folk singers of the 1970s; the girl turning into a stag is wearing a sensible summer dress buttoned to the throat and a carefully tied ribbon, as of a 1950s children’s book illustration.

Metamorphses by PJ Crook

Metamorphoses by PJ Crook

The decorum and the chasteness of the figures is part of their lack of affect, their lack of emotional response, to the strange things happening to them, which help to create the all-prevading dream-like mood.

(I recently came across the idea of sticking butterflies to the picture frame in a 1926 work by Francis Picabia, Machaon, where it is explained that the butterfly was a Christian symbol for rebirth i.e. a form of metamorphosis).

Solitary

Continuing along the same line of thought, PJ’s Wikipedia and RWA profiles emphasise that she often paints crowds. Once it was pointed out to me I realised that I’ve seen her artwork on the cover of a lot of the later album covers of King Crimson, the 1970s prog rock group founded by Robert Fripp, which still records and tours. In fact, PJ has provided artwork for no fewer than 13 KC albums:

List of King Crimson albums with cover art by PJ Crook

Most of these feature multiple figures, and some have large crowds, marching in the street or making up the audience at theatres or the circus. Whereas all of the works in this show do not show crowds: two is generally as many ‘people’ who feature, and a number only show one isolated figure. In other words, this appears to be a selection of works deliberately distinct from the crowd pictures.

This solitariness, the relative isolation and singleness of the figures in these Metamorphoses paintings is another element which adds to their sense of dreamy drifting. Instead of being packed into a crowd reading newspapers or cheering at the theatre, individuals are isolated, looking into mirrors, or dancing with donkeys under the moon, or calmly turning into a stag – unattached, unattended, profoundly untroubled.

The assemblages

The assemblages are wildly different in presence and impact from the paintings. Only on closer examination do you see how they bear the imprint of PJ’s style. Several things are notable about them, first of all, their sheer variety. There are:

  • enormous antique shelf units designed to hold curios and trinkets
  • a tailor’s dummy painted with a cloudy blue sky
  • an antique, 18th century-looking corner table
  • a stool with a guitar placed on it and a cockerel sitting on the guitar
  • a picture frame around a painting of shoes, with shoes stuck on the canvas and around the frame

 

Stepping Out (in my shows) by PJ Crook

Stepping Out (in my shoes) by PJ Crook

What unifies them is:

  • the stuffed birds
  • the colourful decoration of the objects
  • text painted onto the objects
  • the humorously factual titles

The stuffed birds

PJ told me she didn’t have the birds stuffed specially but rescued them from curio shops around the area. I counted 21 stuffed birds, perching not only on the assemblages but poking out from some of the paintings, as well as birds in the paintings.

The ubiquity of the birds is as much of a theme as classical metamorphoses. They it link together apparently disparate works across the exhibition and give the show a visual and avian uniformity.

Bird by PJ Crook

Bird by PJ Crook

The most avian work is Bird Table (below) which neatly illustrates some of the other characteristics, namely the humorous titles and the use of text. It is titled Bird table because it is a table with birds on. I really liked that. As to text, I could see that she’d painted the words ‘one x bird 4 sorrow, 2 x bird for joy’ etc onto the table, and this matched the fact that the two dominant stuffed birds are magpies. But PJ also explained the meaning of the images on the table legs which – being slow – I initially took for pop culture references. The Blue bird logo, Bird’s instant custard, the twitter bird logo, Daffy duck, Robin from Batman and Robin – all birds :).

Bird Table by PJ Crook

Bird Table by PJ Crook

So: an antique shop ready-made object, festooned with stuffed birds (and a bird book and a globe indicating the migratory flights of birds), with painted text relevant to the birds (the magpies) across the table drawers, and visual puns (‘4’ on the left hand leg, ‘& 20’ on the next leg, the image of a blackbird on the third leg).

Having learned to ‘read’ this example I was ready to enjoy deciphering Cock a doodle, but it needed PJ herself to tell me that this stool was sat on by Robert Fripp when he came and did a performance at a hall near her. This explains the guitar (and the mannekin hand – maybe it’s in the position of making a guitar chord?) but it was only when I looked closely that I saw that the titles of various King Crimson tracks are painted along the legs and frame of the stool.

The cockerel itself? The black gloved hands reaching up from the floor? I don’t know, but I don’t care. It’s fun, bright and confident, colourful and jokey.

Cock a doodle doo by PJ Crook

Cock a doodle by PJ Crook

Sea urchin is a great title for a shop mannekin of a child which has miraculously grown silver scales and has a big fish stuck on its head. And a bird on its hand, one of the many birds which thematically bind the exhibits together. Is it a curlew, I wonder, the solitary bird of seaside strands?

Sea urchin by PJ Crook

Sea urchin by PJ Crook

Buy your own

The pieces are all for sale (though many have already been bought). The paintings cost from around £2,500 to £4,000, while the assemblages cost significantly more; for example Bird table costs £18,850.

I went to the exhibition with my son. His favourite work was this small painting of a sad-looking Minotaur at the centre of his maze, a snip at £1,125.

Minotaur by PJ Crook

Minotaur by PJ Crook

This is a very enjoyable, intriguing, other-worldly exhibition – with the Frippscape in the background, a spell of pure pleasure.

Related links

Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

This massive exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s first album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, and debut single, Arnold Layne, way back in 1967. It follows last year’s big exhibition about the 60s (You Say You Want A Revolution) and 2013’s David Bowie exhibition, which broke attendance records. There’s gold in them thar 60s icons. ‘Dad Rock’, my daughter calls it.

Pink Floyd: a brief introduction

You can learn everything you need to know and more from their Wikipedia article or the band’s own website. Nice middle-class boys from Cambridge who met in London art schools in the mid-60s, they formed a four-piece band based round charismatic front man, guitarist and songwriter, Syd Barrett, released a couple of singles and their debut album – dominated by their trademark composition Interstellar Overdrive – and headlined ‘scene’-defining ‘underground’ gigs in the Summer of Love.

But Syd took too much LSD, becoming wildly unreliable, so in 1968 the band gently dropped him and replaced him with their friend and lead guitar supremo, David Gilmour. You can hear the change in the second album – A Saucerful of Secrets. Only one of the songs is by Syd and all the others lack his rackety inspiration. In its way it’s more experimental than their debut, with many more electronic soundscapes – witness the sustained weirdness of the title track, A Saucerful of Secrets. Conversely, other tracks sound much smoother and idyllic, and it’s notable how the lyrics fit smoothly into the songs instead of sticking out at unexpected angles, as they did in Syd’s songs. An example of this smoothness is See-Saw.

Between 1968 and 1973 the Floyd drifted, making a series of experimental albums and soundtracks to films. The film soundtracks are More (1969), Zabriskie Point (1971) and Obscured by Clouds (1972), the last one of which they knocked off in an intense week, apparently.

Ummagumma (1969) was an experimental double album, with one disk carrying a live album and the other featuring four tracks, each written by one of the band, and rarely listened to now.

Atom Heart Mother (1970) was a collection of so-so tracks on one side, including Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast, in which one of their roadies is taped mooching about in his kitchen fixing a fry-up. The other side is devoted to the title track, a 23-minute-long piece in which the group integrate their sound into an experimental orchestral work by composer Ron Geesin. I’ve a soft spot for Summer ’68, written by the group’s keyboardist, Rick Wright.

Meddle (1971) follows the same formula with a side-long piece – Echoes – accompanied on the other side by a very uneven collection of songs.

So in the six or seven years of their existence they had morphed from being the soundtrack to 1967, all paisley shirts, purple scarves and Afghan waistcoats – to being long-haired purveyors of 25-minute-long ‘art’ pieces to the stonedocracy of the 70s.

Dark Side of the Moon and after

Then in 1973 they released Dark Side of the Moon and everything changed, big time.

As usual, at a bit of a loss for inspiration, they had the idea to write songs about the Big Issues of Life – like Death, Money, Madness – and link them using the panoply of tricks they’d picked up on their various experimental forays.

The album begins and ends with a (very slow) heart beat, on which are superimposed the sound effects of cash tills (used on the track Money) and snippets of interviews they conducted with roadies and anyone they could find around the Abbey Road studios, which leads into s suite of beautifully and imaginatively linked ultra-melodic tunes. The result is still astonishing, a smash hit ‘concept album’, combining ‘experimental’ features with Weighty Issues which make stone sixth formers feel intense, all on a bed of sumptuously slow and simple songs. It stayed in the charts for decades and still defines an epoch.

Listen to the opener, Speak to Me/Breathe. Isn’t it carefully crafted, with its multilayers beginning with the calming heartbeat (apparently, anyone with a heartbeat this slow, would be dead), then jingly jangly guitar, soporific bass and, beneath it all, the plodding drums continually on the verge of falling asleep at the wheel. Turn the lights out and pass me that joint, man.

1975’s Wish You Were Here is another combination of songs about Important Issues embedded between great swathes of multi-layered keyboards, swishing and swashing over your aural organs. They’re titled Shine on You Crazy Diamond parts one to 9 and remind me of a sand storm in the desert (probably influenced by the image on the back of the album cover of a mannequin in the desert.

Unhappy music

Something was happening to the boys, which became even clearer on 1977’s Animals – they were getting bitter and twisted. Dark Side of the Moon is full of sixth-form angst about poor people and war (unpleasant, apparently) but if you don’t listen to the words (as I’ve discovered over the years, plenty of rock and pop fans don’t) it is sweet and gorgeous to listen to.

Wish You Were Here had the ultimate symptom of rock star ennui, a song about how awful it is being a rock star – Welcome To the Machine – but still has swathes of beautiful music, not least the simple but affecting title track, Wish You Were Here (everybody at school taught themselves how to play guitar by copying this).

But by Animals three things were clear.

  1. Almost all the writing was now being done by Roger Waters.
  2. He was really pissed off. On Animals he has divided the human race into three types, dogs, sheep and pigs and written a ‘track’ about each. Pigs is a virulent attack on the Christian campaigner, Mary Whitehouse. It was Waters who had had the idea of songs about Big Issues for Dark Side and who wrote the jaded songs about the rock biz on Wish You Were Here, but both albums still contained significant contributions from the rest of the band, not least in the linking sections between the songs. Animals feels like pure Waters, in concept and execution, and it’s miserable.
  3. The paraphernalia, the concepts, the marketing and staging of each album had got more and more elaborate.

And it’s this third element which is the basis for this exhibition – the paraphernalia of performance.

Right from the start the Floyd were interested in using lightshows to amplify the trippy experience of their underground gigs. Apparently they pioneered the use of large lighting rigs and special visual effects. As early as 1969 the cover of Ummagumma featured a photo of the kit their roadies had to unload, set up and then dismantle before and after gigs.

By the mid-1970s stadium rock had become well-established, with other groups like Led Zeppelin or Wings crating round huge amounts of equipment, lights, mixing desks and special amplifiers, but the Floyd were always seen as technical pioneers, for example in the use of quadraphonic sound.

But with Dark Side, music, concept, images, design and presentation was brought together. Previous Floyd album covers (MeddleAtom Heart) had been jokily ‘conceptual’. But the art work on Dark Side, specifically the idea of the beam of white light going into a triangular prism, designed by Hipgnosis and George Hardie, formed the basis for the stage show and merchandising.

The art work for Wish You Were Here was also of a new order, something distinctive and unseen before. The original album cover was covered in black plastic which you had to tear off to reveal the image of two men shaking hands in a Hollywood studio vacant lot, one of them bursting into flames – presumably a reflection of Water’s bitter disillusion with the record business.

It was Animals which took this to a new level when the central image used for the photo shoot, a huge pink inflatable pig suspended by a cable from Battersea Power Station, broke loose and caused enough havoc among planes landing at Heathrow Airport to become an item on the news. This pig, along with sheep, dogs and other characters from the songs now made their appearance at the Floyd’s enormous sell-out stadium tours.

The Wall

Waters’ bitterness reached unparalleled heights in 1979’s The Wall, a concept double album (always a bad sign) featuring the adventures of ‘Pink’, an idealised version of Waters’ own life, a baby in the Blitz whose dad is killed in the War, growing up in austerity England, bullied at school and pushed around by an uncaring society.

Just as Genesis’s concept double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) represented the end of their most creative period, The Wall is a dire, apocalyptic vision of Waters’ unhappiness and alienation. The album spawned the wretched single Another Brick in the Wall, which, God forgive us, made it to number one in the charts. ‘We don’t need no education’, yes, easy to say when you’re a multi-millionaire from Cambridge.

In 1982 they made a full-length feature film out of the album, featuring young punk singer Bob Geldof as the wretched ‘Pink’, thus immediately and forever losing any credibility he ever had.

It was with The Wall that the band’s use of props and imagery in their live shows went off the scale. The band commissioned well-known English satirical cartoonist Gerald Scarfe to devise illustrations for the album’s artwork, for its promotion and marketing, for short videos accompanying tracks, and illustrate the characters which infest the storyline. Hence the screaming head, the cartoon schoolteacher, and the menacing hammers which feature albums went off the scale.

The stage show featured enormous blow-up versions of these figures at the relevant parts of the narrative. Early on an inflatable fighter plane screamed along a wire from the back of the auditorium to crash on stage. At the end of the show an enormous wall is built between the audience and the band, which is eventually blown up and knocked down.

What pretentious twaddle. A friend has all the Pink Floyd albums, has been to gigs launching each of the albums, and his wife hates them. ‘They’re just so depressing,’ she moaned. It’s really that simple. If you listen to their albums in order you find yourself being sucked, step by step, into this nightmarish, paranoid, solipsistic soundworld.

Yet the irony is that as the music grew grimmer and grimmer, the scale and ambition of the artwork and the stage shows escalated to gargantuan proportions.

By this stage the band themselves were falling out, Roger Waters’ attitude (which some called megalomania) alienating the others. Symptomatically, Waters wrote all the songs, lyrics and music for the next album, 1983’s The Final Cut. Keyboardist Rick Wright had been sacked from the band. Singer and guitarist David Gilmour performed but had no songs ready. So was it a Pink Floyd album at all, or – as many have commented – essentially a Roger Waters solo album. In fact, it was solo album time for all. Gilmour made a solo album, About Face. Waters, for his part, made and toured a solo album, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking.

The band then spent 1984 and 1985 briefing lawyers and issuing writs against each other as to who owned the name ‘Pink Floyd’ and trying to untangle contractual obligations, royalty payments and so on. By 1986 Waters had legally left the band, though retaining rights to perform The Wall (which he has gone on to do extensively, around the world, in sell-out shows).

Now the band consisted of singer-guitarist Gilmour, drummer Mason and keyboardist Wright. The trio released A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987. By this stage most normal people had long ceased caring. In 1994 the trio released The Division Bell and the tour to promote it was the last Pink Floyd tour.

Since then, for the last 23 years, Gilmour and Waters – respectively the singer-guitarist, and the conceptualiser-songwriter-lyricist – have been fending off rumours of a reunion. They were offered a reputed £150 million to tour the USA, but turned it down. The general idea is that Gilmour can’t bear to be in the same room as Waters. In an interview with Mojo magazine, Mason said Waters leaving left the others feeling like members of the Soviet Politburo after Stalin died. Wow.

In 2005 the band members were persuaded to reform to play the Live 8 Charity concert, performing Speak to Me/Breathe and Money from Dark Side, Wish You Were Here from the album of the same name, and Comfortably Numb from The Wall. In 2008 the gentle, often overlooked keyboardist Rick Wright passed away. So no complete reunion is now possible.


The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains

And it is this long colourful journey, from rackety underground psychedelic pioneers, through uneven experimentalism, to producing one of the great rock albums of all time which catapulted them into a series of overblown stage sets and middle-aged rock star angst, which this huge, imposing exhibition chronicles in impressive detail.

It is mainly a collection of hundreds of artefacts, from the venue posters and newspaper photos of the early days through to rooms full of enormous props from the final albums, interspersed with TV screens showing clips of the band performing at various stages of their career, and interviews with the growing group of collaborators, producers, designers, illustrators, cartoonists and so on who worked with them – including illustrator Gerald Scarfe, architect Mark Fisher, engineer Jonathan Park, animator
Ian Emes and lighting artist Marc Brickman.

You’re given headphones at the start so you can listen to the hour-long mix of tracks and interviewees’ words. It is a little like walking through a BBC Four documentary on Rock Greats.

Installation view: left, a case about A Saucerful of Secrets; a TV monitor showing Syd Barrett; centre the clever-clever artwork for Ummagumma

Installation view: from left to right – a case about A Saucerful of Secrets; a TV monitor showing Syd Barrett; centre the clever-clever artwork for Ummagumma

Having staggered to the end, I turned round and walked through the show backwards, following the story of a group of squabbling middle-aged men who worked with a wide range of similarly-aged male figures in art, design and illustration to produce vast, overblown slabs of narcoleptic music, but who pared away the amount of equipment, the unnecessary props and the middle of the road rock sound to produce some interesting and experimental work in their mid-period, before shedding all the unnecessary clutter to write lovely songs about lazing around in English fields, and then put all their differences aside to come to late fruition as the hyperactive, guitar-driven soundtrack of a small group of underground hipsters in swinging London.

If only.

Props and shops

It is an exhibition of things, some of staggering size. Big props include:

  • a massive representation of ‘The Wall’ stage with the giant inflatable schoolteacher looming over
  • a house-sized recreation of Battersea Power complete with towering chimneys
  • a room devoted to a pitch-black space containing a holographic image of The Dark Side Of The Moon’s famous prism
  • the inflatable TV and refrigerator used on the 1977 In The Flesh tour
  • band face masks from ‘The Wall Live’, 1979
  • the 6-metre-high metallic heads created for the cover of 1994’s The Division Bell
  • a flower petal mirrorball stage prop, 1973 – 5
  • the ‘lightbulb suit’ pictured on the sleeve of 1988’s Delicate Sound of Thunder live album
Props from The Wall

Props from The Wall

More discrete pop trivia includes:

  • The punishment book and cane from the Cambridge And County High School for Boys, original guitarist and vocalist Syd Barrett and bass guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Roger Waters were pupils in the late 1950s.
  • Waters’ and Mason’s technical drawings and sketches from the Regent Street Polytechnic where they both studied architecture.
  • Nick Mason’s annotated gig diary from the early years, playing London’s underground music club UFO and touring Britain’s circuit of Top Rank ballrooms and college halls.
  • Roger Waters’ handwritten lyrics for the songs Wish You Were Here and Have A Cigar.

Famously, the band worked with the Hipgnosis design partnership of Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell and the late Storm Thorgerson. There are sketches and early drafts of what became the iconic covers of Dark Side and Wish You Were Here.

Since the band are also a little tiny bit about music, there are also some of their actual instruments, including several of David Gilmour’s guitars, including his famous Black Stratocaster, alongside Richard Wright’s early-‘70s era Mini Moog synthesiser.

Not one but two rooms are completely filled with amplifiers, speakers and shelves full of all the effects pedals and mixing desks in between. It feels like walking into the basement of a guitar shop. Oooh treasure! Visitors are encouraged to twiddle and play with in order to mix your own customised version of Money. There’s a lot here for sound technicians and hi-fi nerds. The final room is ‘the Performance Zone’, where visitors

“enter an immersive audiovisual space which includes the recreation of the last performance of all four members of the band at Live 8 with Comfortably Numb. The track was specially mixed using Sennheiser’s ground-breaking AMBEO 3D audio technology.”

Interviews with technicians who’ve worked with the Floyd over the years bring out the fact that they pioneered a lot of technology which went on to become standard – the trajectory from shaky psychedelic floorshows to flawless stadium theatre, was mirrored by pioneering of musical sounds to be extracted from synthesisers, innovations in recording techniques, new ways of designing and lighting live performances and a minute attention to the quality of the live sound.

Display case of guitars and technical equipment

Display case of guitars and technical equipment

There’s less sex and drugs in it, but there is a fascinating history of the technology of rock music to be written and the Floyd would play a central role as catalysts and visionaries.

Iconic Entertainment Studios

Interestingly, the exhibition is only part-curated by the V&A (to be precise by by Victoria Broackes, Senior Curator, whose previous exhibitions include David Bowie and You Say You Want a Revolution?). The exhibition is presented in partnership with Michael Cohl’s Iconic Entertainment Studios, led by Pink Floyd’s creative director Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell (of the design partnership Hipgnosis) and Paula Webb Stainton, who worked closely with members of Pink Floyd including Nick Mason (Consultant For
Pink Floyd). Also contributing are “designers Stufish, the leading entertainment architects and the band’s long-serving stage designers, and interpretive exhibition designers Real Studios”.

In other words, the show is a natural extension of its previous product design, marketing and display. This aspect of it, the way it can be staged without any of the musicians due to their extensive music recordings and interview material, suggests the possibility that bands from this era (and maybe later, but these 1960s bands are the classic ones) will potentially have an endless afterlife, even after all the band members are long dead which is, well… eerie. What was once so full of life and warmth and energy becomes… mummified.

Early and late

An exciting three minutes from 1967 – I love Syd’s rackety, scratchy guitar sound:

A very boring ten minutes from 1994, featuring David Gilmour’s trademark, flawlessly soaring sound, sending centrist Dads everywhere into ecstacies of air guitar.

Pink Floyd in photos

Pink Floyd 1967 – left to right keyboardist Rick Wright, drummer Nick Mason, bassist Roger Waters and visionary acid casualty Syd Barrett.

Pink Floyd 1973 – l to r: Rick Wright, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Roger Waters. Far out, man. This is how everyone wanted to look in 1973.

Pink Floyd 1985 – l to r: Wright, Gilmour, Mason. Snappy 80s threads.

Pink Floyd 1994 – Dad Rock epitomised by Mason, Gilmour and Wright.

Pink Floyd 2005 at Live 8 – still crazy after all these years: Gilmour, Waters, Mason, Wright.


Related links

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BP Portrait Award 2017 @ the National Portrait Gallery

The exhibition

The BP portrait competition is in its 38th year. This year it received 2,580 entries by artists from 87 countries around the world. The judges selected a short list of 53 portraits and these are on display at the National Portrait in London. (Entry is FREE so there’s no excuse for not popping in, even for ten minutes.)

From this short list the judges then selected a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize, along with a Young artist and Travel award. There are wall panels next to each painting giving some background to the artist and the sitter. The prize winners have an extra panel explaining what the judges liked about these particular works enough to award them prizes.

Undiverse

Even though there are exactly the same number of works as last year, this year’s exhibition felt somehow smaller to me. The overall standard is still immensely impressive – anybody would be proud to have painted any one of these works – but, taken together, there seemed a bit less variety than I remember from previous years.

For example, having gone round several times, I realised that in the 53 works there were only four black people and one Asian person depicted, plus one painting which showed a Syrian refugee mother and child. That appeared to be ‘it’ in terms of diversity – odd because art galleries are, by and large, hotbeds of political correctness.

The exhibition publicity emphasises that entries come from 87 countries, but you couldn’t really have told just by looking at them. The Syrian refugees were the only people who looked remotely ‘foreign’. And maybe a portrait of an old black guy who looks like he’s from the American Deep South.

So 1. The show feels overwhelmingly white and English.

Reading the wall labels about the artist and the sitter, I quickly got bored of reading that the sitter was a ‘friend’ of the artist and, more often than not, themselves a fellow artist, or writer, or poet, or musician.

2. The subjects were not only predominantly white, but overwhelmingly members of the white, liberal, creative & artistic community.

I began to find this white, middle-class, bien-pensant milieu a bit stifling. Where are the foreigners, the Africans and Asians and Latinos, the manual labourers, the working class, the immigrants – or the rich and arrogant bankers, the oligarchs, their helicopter pilots and security guards, the teeming multicultural masses of the modern United Kingdom and the other 86 countries who sent in entries? Not in this final selection.

The prize winners

This narrowness was confirmed by a look at the prize winners. Four out of the five are portraits of women (the fifth is of a boy). No men. And the judges’ comments on the winners were, I thought revealing. First prize was Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan, a portrait of the artist’s wife.

‘The judges appreciated the tenderness and intimacy of Sullivan’s composition, evoking Madonna and Child paintings through the ages and the depth of the maternal bond.’

Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan, 2017 © Benjamin Sullivan

Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan, 2017 © Benjamin Sullivan

Second prize went to Double Portrait by Thomas Ehretsmann (November 2016), another portrait of the artist’s wife.

‘The judges appreciated the artist’s refined and detailed technique, which adds to the subject’s sense of stillness, strength and serenity.’

Double Portrait by Thomas Ehretsmann, 2016 © Thomas Ehretsmann

Double Portrait by Thomas Ehretsmann, 2016 © Thomas Ehretsmann

Third prize went to Emma by Antony Williams (March 2016), a long-term sitter for the artist.

‘The judges felt that the artist’s intimate and distinctive technique lends the sitter’s form an almost sculptural density and solidity.’

Emma by Antony Williams, 2016 © Antony Williams

Emma by Antony Williams, 2016 © Antony Williams

The Young Artist award went to Gabi by Henry Christian-Slane (2017), another portrait of the artist’s partner.

‘The judges felt that this sensitive painting captures a moment in time and a casual, fleeting expression, rather than the ‘held’ pose more usual in formal portrait painting.’

Gabi by Henry Christian-Slane, 2017 © Henry Christian-Slane

Gabi by Henry Christian-Slane, 2017 © Henry Christian-Slane

So: the winners were four completely realistic oil portraits of white women painted by their husbands or partners, which demonstrate tenderness, intimacy, stillness, serenity, more intimacy and sensitivity. Pretty narrow set of subjects. Pretty narrow set of aesthetic values.

Even in terms of age the subjects all come from the same narrow range – white women in their thirties.

Very samey, don’t you think? Not really any of the ‘diversity’, a quality which London galleries normally bend over backwards to demonstrate.

Ones I liked

By contrast let me share some of the paintings I liked. (They were all paintings. I was disappointed not to see any sculptures or videos until I looked up the prize rules:

  • The work entered must be predominantly painted in oil, tempera or acrylic and must be on a stretcher or board, preferably framed and unglazed. No watercolours, works on paper or pastels will be considered.
  • The work entered should be a painting based on a sitting or study from life and the human figure must predominate.
  • Self-portraits and group portraits are permitted.)

Looking carefully again and again, trying to identify favourites and figure out why, made me really notice how very many of the entries are not just realistic but have a photographic realism.

1. Men

Tough though Honest Thomas looks, he is in fact not only a friend of the artist but an artist in his own right, who makes hand-crafted leather objects.

Honest Thomas by Alan Coulson, 2017 © Alan Coulson

Honest Thomas by Alan Coulson, 2017 © Alan Coulson

Delfin is a portrait of the artist’s father. This might be the only time I’ve ever seen those myriad little shaving cuts which are so common in real life, and which older men are particularly liable to, depicted in a ‘work of art’.

Delfin (1936) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa, 2016 © Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa

Delfin (1936) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa, 2016 © Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa

This is another portrait which could be a photograph and is immensely flavoursome. Matt is, as usual, a friend of the artist, and, as usual, is himself an artist, musician and actor.

Matt Berry by Martyn Burdon, 2016 © Martyn Burdon

Matt Berry by Martyn Burdon, 2016 © Martyn Burdon

Lucy Stopford’s portrait of Dr Tim Moreton is a rare exception to the photographic realism of most of the works. It is the only one which gestures to any of the twentieth century’s non-realistic artistic styles or inventions. I liked it for that alone. As to the subject, Tim was registrar at the National Portrait Gallery, arranged for Lucy to see a portrait which was not on display, and they became friends. In other words, another white art world insider.

Dr Tim Moreton by Lucy Stopford, 2016 © Lucy Stopford

Dr Tim Moreton by Lucy Stopford, 2016 © Lucy Stopford

There is a thread in post-war British art which depicts the human subject with a kind of unforgiving ‘honesty’, which focuses on the helpless humanity of the sitter and dwells on their pasty unattractiveness. Ideally the sitter is part undressed but not in the slightest degree sexual. Their state of undress emphasises the ‘candour’ and ‘honesty’ of the image. The image bravely captures their slack muscles, sallow skin, their pasty complexion and flaccid legs with an unflinching ‘honesty’. Generally, we are meant to be moved by the honesty and lack of glamorising of the subject. Oh, cries the painter – the humanity!

Lucien Freud was maybe the most famous exponent of this style, where the skin of white people is in fact a sour yellow interspersed with unhealthy green, the cruelly-exposed body is a thing of pallor and varicose veins. It amounts to a ‘corpse look’.

This portrait of Antonio Lopez seems to me slap bang in the middle of this tradition.

Antonio López by Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba, 2017 © Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba

Antonio López by Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba, 2017 © Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba

(And reminds me of the half-nakedness and deliberate green & yellow-coloured flesh tones of the prize winner, Breech! It’s a popular look.)

In fact this is a characteristic work in a number of ways:

  • the corpse look
  • photographic realism
  • close personal relationship with the artist – Lopez is one of Spain’s most renowned realist painters and the artist, de Aragon, was for some time his assistant.

And there’s one other aspect – see how grim the sitter looks. Not only does his body look dead, but so does his facial expression. The human face is capable of hundreds of facial expressions which we are quick to read and interpret. It was looking at grim Antonio which made me realise that none of the people in any of these paintings has any facial expression at all. It is an exhibition of zombies.

Here’s a portrait of Lemn Sissay who is, by now I was not surprised to learn, a writer and poet. It stands out in this exhibition simply for not being a portrait of a middle-class white person. The orange polo neck jumper and big necklace come from a different zone, a different tradition, as does his hair. The ensemble makes for a striking image.

Lemn Sissay by Fiona Graham-Mackay, 2016 © Fiona Graham-Mackay

Lemn Sissay by Fiona Graham-Mackay, 2016 © Fiona Graham-Mackay

2. Women

Simona is a friend of the artist’s. The painting of her has that deliberately frail, vulnerable vibe found in many of these portraits. Lots of women, across social media and the press, nowadays seem to regard wearing no make-up as a revolutionary and subversive strategy. #nomakeup. Which means my mother was a revolutionary subversive most of her life. The lack of make-up certainly contributes to the sense of vulnerability, to an air of plaintive helplessness.

Simona by Lukáš Betinský, 2017 © Lukáš Betinský

Simona by Lukáš Betinský, 2017 © Lukáš Betinský

This plaintiveness is there in the four award-winning portraits all of which show women au naturel. Maybe I’m making it up but there’s a kind of begging quality to this kind of unvarnished, vulnerable, un-made-up image of women – ‘Look at me, how fragile, helpless and vulnerable I am – but also how honest, how uncompromising’.

But mostly what I notice is how unsmiling this image is. I double checked to see if it’s against the rules to depict someone smiling but no, it’s not mentioned there. It must just be a very widespread convention, a feeling among all these artists, that a serious painting must look serious. That an artistic portrait must be unsmiling, unfrowning, un-doing anything. We live in an era of blank faces.

The subject of this one, Pen Vogier, is, as usual, a friend of the artist’s and, somewhat inevitably, herself a writer, a food historian and a bibliophile. The most obvious feature of the image is the sheeny, shiny yellow dress, rendered with the kind of bright, harsh, metallic finish which reminded me a bit of Tamara de Lempicka. Note the stern expression. Being a bibliophile is obviously a serious business. No laughs in these books.

Pen Vogler by John Burke, 2016 © John Burke

Pen Vogler by John Burke, 2016 © John Burke

According to the wall label the subject of this next portrait, Tabitha, is herself an artist (natch) who struggled with infertility. Tabitha won the Liverpool Art Prize in 2013 ‘for her work documenting her infertility and the eventual birth of Gilda.’ The painter, Hero, is a friend of hers who has also been working on ‘an ongoing artwork’ documenting the process of Tabitha’s pregnancy and the birth of Gilda.

So this is a portrait of an artist who has already won a prize for her portrayal of herself and her struggles, by her artist friend who has been short-listed for a national prize for this portrayal of the award-winning artist.

I am well aware that I am meant to be feeling moved by the sensitivity and candour of the expression on Tabitha’s face, and moved by the story of her battle against infertility, and moved by her eventual triumph, and moved by the figure of sweet little Gilda, nestled asleep against her chest. I have nestled my own little girl against my chest countless times. I know the feeling.

But I have a strong sense of being manipulated. The portrait’s ‘honesty’ and ‘candour’ are utterly conventional. This is the standard stereotyped modern look – stripped down, no make-up, quotidien female humanity in its tough pathos and unflinching vulnerability.

This ‘look’ is to our age what winsome maidens were to Victorian sentimental art – the standard identikit mood.

Tabitha Moses with Gilda, Liverpool by Hero Johnson, 2017 © Hero Johnson

Tabitha Moses with Gilda, Liverpool by Hero Johnson, 2017 © Hero Johnson

The ultimate way for an artist to paint someone close to the artist is to do a self-portrait. Ania is a self portrait of the artist. It records a period of artistic block. I like lines and abstracts so I ought to like the 45 degree orange floor, but for me any vibrancy is eclipsed by the moody misery-guts of the human figure, morosely pushing away the bowl of fruit. ‘I’m so depressed.’

Ania by Ania Hobson, 2016 © Ania Hobson

Ania by Ania Hobson, 2016 © Ania Hobson

Here’s a painting of a sulky teenager. As the owner of two sulky teenagers I recognise the pose and the vibe. It’s yet another stunningly realistic painting which could easily be mistaken for a photograph. The (anonymous) sitter is, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

86 (Rhyming Slang for Worth Nix) by Janne Kearney, 2016 © Janne Kearney

86 (Rhyming Slang for Worth Nix) by Janne Kearney, 2016 © Janne Kearney

3. Children

Cecilia is a stunning portrait of the artist’s grand-daughter. Presumably she was told not to smile.

Cecilia by Madeline Fenton, 2016 © Madeline Fenton

Cecilia by Madeline Fenton, 2016 © Madeline Fenton

This is the winner of the BP Travel Award – Jack by Caspar White. Jack is the artist’s nephew. God forbid he should smile. ‘Look serious, boy. This is art!’ It’s very visible brushstrokes are a welcome change to the immaculately photographic surfaces of so many of the works.

Jack by Casper White, 2017 © Casper White

Jack by Casper White, 2017 © Casper White

4. Group portraits

I think there are only two group portraits in the show. Why so few? Group composition is, self evidently, more complex than just plonking one person down in front of you – where are they sitting/standing, what should they be doing, if something is going on what are their responses, their expressions?

In this case (Society, below), as in every single other portrait in the exhibition, nothing is happening and none of them are smiling or showing any flicker of expression.

And, as usual, it is a portrait of some of the artist’s friends, in this case from the Ruskin School of Art. It is also notable for including a rare depiction of a non-white person.

Society by Khushna, 2016 © Khushna

Society by Khushna, 2016 © Khushna

The Levinsons is (I think) the only other group portrait. It stood out visually because you don’t see this kind of chiaroscuro light anywhere any more, in our electrically-lit world. A 21st century family done in the style of Rembrandt.

The Levinsons by Rupert Alexander, 2016 © Rupert Alexander

The Levinsons by Rupert Alexander, 2016 © Rupert Alexander

5. My favourites

I had three distinct favourites. In this kind of show (like the Royal Academy Summer exhibition) I define a ‘favourite’ as a painting I’d actually like to own and can imagine hanging on my wall.

Corinne was one of my three favourite images, not because she’s black (a rare exception in the show) but simply because her face and hair create a different shape from the scores of other very samey, white people with white person hairdos. It’s no surprise that this is one of the exhibition posters and on the cover of the book of the exhibition – it is an exceptional and exceptionally vivid likeness. The combination of the round nose and forehead with the straight black quiff create a bit of tension and visual dynamic which is generally absent from most of the other paintings.

That said, Corinne is a musician and songwriter in her own right and, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

Corinne by Anastasia Pollard, 2016 © Anastasia Pollard

Corinne by Anastasia Pollard, 2016 © Anastasia Pollard

Nikki was probably my favourite painting in the whole show – a stunningly realistic depiction of a woman I feel I know or have met and who is just about to start talking, who has a wonderfully appealing air of maturity and experience. I kept returning to this one. The pink top helps. The scraggly hair is a realistic detail. But it is the light glistening on her eyes and the just-parted lips which seduced me.

Nikki is, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

Nikki by John Borowicz, 2016 © John Borowicz

Nikki by John Borowicz, 2016 © John Borowicz

Jessica is another stunningly realistic image. I just found it overwhelmingly there. The light falling from the left, the shadow created on the wall and across her face. Also, on examination, the way her mild green top brings out the same green in the floral wallpaper behind her and the blue strands of the wallpaper bring out her blue eyes. The fineness of the little silver chain and locket. And when you look up close, the way the inside of her arms is pale while the outside is brown and freckled, like so many light-skinned English people. I found this really hauntingly beautiful. Absorbing.

Jessica is, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

Jessica by Laura Quinn Harris, 2017 © Laura Quinn Harris

Jessica by Laura Quinn Harris, 2017 © Laura Quinn Harris

Photographs

All the portraits are in oil and acrylic; none of them are actually photographs. But a surprising number of them looked like photographs. Apart from the one ‘modernist’ portrait of Tim Moreton, none of the works really acknowledged that there had been a twentieth century in art – Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, Warhol, Klee, Schiele, the Expressionists or Surrealists, it was as if none of them had ever lived or left their mark on the art of the portrait. The only artist whose influence I could see was the livid flesh tones of Lucien Freud’s corpse-people. Other than that the strongest influence seemed to be the photograph.

I wonder if the super-powerful cameras everyone now possesses in their mobile phones are killing art. People will carry on painting till the cows come home. But Picasso wandered round Paris with Picasso images in his head. Paul Klee’s imagination was left relatively untouched to fantasise about his scratchy cartoon people. Whereas a modern person is bombarded not only by advertising hoardings, movies and TV, but by friends ‘sharing’ photos of themselves and the kids on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and a hundred other digital programs.

It’s not that we’re being bombarded with images – that’s obvious. And it’s not just that these tend to be images of the human face. My point is that we are being bombarded by photographically realistic images of the human face, and that this is having a corrosive effect on the human imagination.

As if the space to conceive of the human face and body in alternative ways, in unorthodox geometries or garish colours, is being systematically closed down. I don’t own a smart phone because I dislike their creeping invasion of people’s time and minds. They seem to me to be enforcing an insidious, creeping conformity of vision.

It’s just a personal speculation, but I wonder if smart phones are destroying the artistic imagination. I wonder if the ubiquity of their extraordinarily high resolution cameras is killing off any non-naturalistic ways of seeing the world and – in particular and as this exhibition has promoted me to wonder – of seeing the human face.

Conclusion

The National Portrait Gallery’s BP 2017 Portrait exhibition felt less varied than last year.

It felt overwhelmingly white.

With only one exception I can remember, the portraits are all highly traditional and realistic, many of them almost photographic in their accuracy.

Almost all the sitters seemed to be friends or family of the artist – and most of them were artists or musicians or poets in their own right.

What about the designers, engineers, doctors and nurses, electricians, builders, chefs, policemen, soldiers, sailors and candlestick makers which make up our society, the postmen and plumbers, the lorry drivers and checkout girls, the bankers and insurance brokers, the mortgage brokers and estate agents, the PR and press and communications and engagement officers, the school inspectors and bus drivers, the journalists and cameramen, the beauticians and masseurs, the personal trainers, the footballers and cricketers and rugby players and pentathletes, the carers and nursery nurses, the oil rig workers and tour operators, the civil servants and solicitors, the security officers and prison warders and social workers who live and work among us?

Not one is here.

Let alone the more obvious, politically correct categories like immigrants, people of all sorts of colour (Asian, Chinese, South American), the mentally ill, the disabled, the injured or disfigured, the flamboyantly gay or lesbian or trans…

Or just the flamboyant and theatrical and made-up and snazzily dressed, period – models and actors and Essex girls and lads on the pull and people who’ve had cosmetic surgery and ended up looking like fish – any one of the thousands of types and categories of weird and wonderful people who populate this wacky planet?

None.

What about depicting some of the 21 facial indications which scientists have recently tabulated and defined? Smiling, smirking, frowning, laughing, shouting, burping – expressing anger, surprise, happiness, fear, hate, disbelief, awe, respect, astonishment? Or actions involving the face like putting your hand over your mouth, over your eyes, picking your nose, cupping a hand to your ear, sticking out your tongue, closing your eyes, winking, staring, eating, drinking…?

Nada. Nichts.

From this exhibition you would deduce that the world is a white world populated entirely by artists, artists’s wives, artists’ friends, musicians, poets, actors and yet more artists, none of whom ever wear anything interesting or have any facial expressions. A world of unsmiling white zombies.

Beautifully depicted, many stunning works – but of such a narrow world. Minuscule. Microscopic.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

An Artistic Affair @ the Stanley Spencer Gallery

Stanley Spencer

Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was a highly original, not to say quirky, English artist who, after his student days at London’s Slade School of Art, returned to his childhood village of Cookham and spent the rest of his life there painting powerfully ‘naive’ and vivid depictions of his life and surroundings.

Spencer’s sometimes distorted, sometimes cartoonish paintings mingle everyday village life with visionary Christian belief in a peculiar and haunting way: thus his famous painting of Christ preaching to a flock of modern day Cookhamites on the towpath of the River Thames, or his vision of the dead in Cookham churchyard rising from their graves.

Spencer had a number of distinct styles. In one mode he painted unflinching images of himself and the women in his life bare-naked.

In more cartoon mode, Spencer painted a host of images in which the (dressed) human characters are sometimes humorously, sometimes hauntingly distorted.

Stanley was unlucky in love. His first marriage, to Hilda Carline, fell apart when he became infatuated with neighbour Patricia Pearse. Hilda, forced to move out of their Cookham house, began divorce proceedings in 1937. Spencer married Pearse but their relationship quickly faltered. In 1938 Spencer retreated to live by himself live in Southwold, painting The Beatitudes of Live, a series about mis-matched couples. The emotional subject matter – the mismatch of feelings, the challenge of love – is reflected in the gruesome distortion of the figures.

One of the best paintings in the exhibition is a study of Hilda and daughter, Unity, who he went to see around the time she divorced him. Hilda’s face captures an expression of real hurt and upset, and the black eyes of the dolls make a terrifying contrast with the innocence of young Unity’s face.

Daphne Charlton

It was at this rocky period in his emotional life that he encountered Daphne Charlton. Born in 1909 and thus 18 years younger than Stanley, Daphne was already married to George Charlton, who had been her tutor at the Slade School of Art. Stanley went to stay at the Charltons’ home in Hampstead, London, and they began an affair. This wonderful exhibition – An Artistic Affair – at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, depicts and explores their affair, which lasted from 1939 to 1941.

Daphne (1940) by Stanley Spencer

Daphne (1940) by Stanley Spencer

(The exhibition features a display case housing the decorative blouse, jaunty black hat and Chinese bowl depicted in his striking 1940 portrait of Daphne.)

The exhibition brings together some 40 paintings, along with important examples of Stanley’s sketchbook. There’s a catalogue, a short guide to the exhibition and a 20-minute video featuring reminiscences of people who knew Stanley and Daphne. It’s worth visiting the show just to see this video which captures the homely innocence of Stanley’s art and the essentially comic aspect of his tangled love life. Daphne emerges as a big woman in every sense, who talked all the time, disagreed with everyone, and had, as she herself explained, ‘absolutely no inhibitions’.

Poor George Charlton had to put up with the fact his wife was having an affair, but it doesn’t seem to have been that unusual for her, and doesn’t seem to have affected his friendship with Stanley. Somehow, more civilised times.

Anyway, the real point of the affair is the works it inspired both Stanley and Daphne herself to produce. The Stanley Spencer Gallery is a converted Methodist chapel consisting of one room with steps up to a balcony level. This is a wonderfully light airy space in which to enjoy the artistic output of their affair.

As you’d expect there are a number of striking portraits of Daphne by Stanley, some portraits of Stanley by Daphne, and a winning self-portrait by poor George.

In July 1939, the trio of artists left for a painting holiday in the rural village of Leonard Stanley, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. Here they stayed at the ‘White Hart Inn’, which now has a plaque in honour of Spencer. There are a number of paintings from the Leonard Stanley period, including a characteristically distorted vision of the two lovers lying on a tiger skin.

While in Leonard Stanley, Stanley bought some blank notebooks and began to make sketches of figures from his complex love life – Hilda, Daphne, Patricia and himself – in a variety of settings, domestic and in public e.g. in shops or village high streets. Daphne features largely throughout and we can see her going about everyday tasks from dressmaking to cutting Stanley’s nails and fitting his shoes on. By setting sketches next to finished works, the show allows us to see how these preliminary sketches were often worked up into paintings.

Fetching Shoes, sketch by Stanley Spencer

Fetching Shoes, sketch by Stanley Spencer

For example the wool shop, was the first painting to be derived from a Scrapbook drawing. In the picture, the high-spirited, curvaceous Daphne, with a mane of fair hair, is buying wool, assisted by a diminutive Stanley. Spencer’s love of pattern and repeated motifs is seen in the bales of cloth on the shelves, and the convoluted skeins of wool that appear to take on a life of their own.

The Woolshop (1939)

The Woolshop (1939)

One painting, Village Life, depicts Stanley, Daphne and Stanley’s first wife Hilda, in  the same setting. This is a) purely imaginary, the two women never met b) worked up from a notebook sketch which we can compare and contrast with the final painting c) exemplifies Stanley’s timidity – he is smaller than both the female figures.

Many of Spencer’s paintings are an acquired taste. The realistic ones – such as Hilda and Unity or some of his nudes or his brilliant early self portrait (1914) – are readily likable. But at the opposite extreme the more distorted ones, like the Beatitudes of Love, are a stronger flavour and maybe harder to admire. Somewhere in the middle are the numerous works depicting people as stylised tube-like, sloping figures, including the ones which feature in Christ preaching or the Resurrection or countless other earlier depictions of Christ in Cookham.

Standing quite to one side of all these depictions of people, are Stanley’s landscapes. By and large these are much simpler and easier to like. There are several lovely examples in the exhibition, painted during the trio’s stay in Leonard Stanley.

They’re reminiscent of Paul Nash’s country paintings, in their stylised beauty, and maybe distant cousins of Eric Ravilious’s pastoral vision of 1930s England. This was the least expected part of the exhibition and made me wish for a show devoted entirely to Spencer’s landscapes and country paintings, if such a thing were possible.

As the affair with Daphne came to an end in 1941, Stanley found her ebullience and energy increasingly smothering. ‘I can’t work when she’s here,’ he complained.

The exhibition video includes a reminiscence from a lady who, as a young girl, remembers Stanley bursting through the front door and crying to her mother, ‘Hide me, hide me, Daphne’s coming,’ and watching her mother take Stanley through to a back room where they stored apples, hide him, lock the door and be back in the parlour by the time the imperious Daphne arrived. ‘Have you seen Stanley?’ the Amazon demanded. ‘Yes, I saw him going towards the common,’ came the lying reply.

It all feels like an episode of Dad’s Army and bespeaks a fundamental simplicity and innocence. This is a hilarious and beautiful and inspiring exhibition.


Video of the Stanley Spencer Gallery

Related links

Other Stanley Spencer-related reviews

Into The Unknown @ Barbican

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition, with a number of distinct parts located around the Barbican complex.

The main show is in The Curve, the one, continuous, curved exhibition space behind the Barbican theatre. Having worked through this you exit the other side into a foyer space where you can watch three contemporary sci-fi short films on a projection screen. Fifty yards away, opposite the main bar, is a cinema-sized projector screen showing a film by Isaac Julien, Encore II (Radioactive) from 2004. Towards the stairs is a darkened room showing an experimental film, In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain by Palestinian artist, Larissa Sansour and Danish author, Søren Lind. And downstairs, in what is usually the Pit theatre, there is a funky art installation, In Light of the Machine by Conrad Shawcross.

There’s a lot to take in.

Installation view showing several of the video screens shoing clips from classic sci-fi movies

Installation view highlighting several of the video screens showing clips from classic sci-fi movies

The main exhibition is in The Curve and is divided into four or five sections each with a wall label introduction. These labels are surprisingly vague and generalised and made me reflect that there is both too much and too little to say about science fiction. Quite quickly I found myself making my own summary of themes and ideas which emerged from the varied objects on display. Sci-fi can cover:

  • On earth Lost worlds on earth, journeys to the centre of the earth, monsters on earth
  • In space Monsters from space, space travel to the moon or planets or other solar systems, space stations
  • Aliens Stand alone alien civilisations which have nothing to do with earth or humans, whose laws, histories etc we enter in their own right
  • Time travel to the past or future
  • The Future Future utopias or dystopias, with or without a nuclear apocalypses/plague etc thrown in
  • AI and robots Robots and artificial intelligence, which almost always turns out to be a bad thing, from Frankenstein’s monster onwards
  • Altered states of consciousness caused by drugs or various forms of artificial reality, probably most popularly captured in the Matrix franchise

See what I mean by ‘too much? ‘Science fiction’ in fact covers a vast range of subjects, themes and ideas – and that’s before you infringe on the neighbouring territory of ‘fantasy’.

But by ‘too little’ I mean that, in the end, a lot of sci-fi is pretty obvious. In Alien they wake up an alien which kills them all. In E.T. an alien is left behind by his ship and found by some kids. In Star Wars the rebel forces have to defeat the Empire. Not rocket science, is it? Not difficult to understand or enjoy.

In Thunderbirds Thunderbirds save the day. In Star Trek Captain Kirk saves the day. In Dr Who Dr Who saves the day. Watching clips from all these films and TV shows on the numerous projector screens scattered all through the exhibition made me realise just how many of these TV shows and movies are aimed, essentially, at children.

(Also, having watched Thunderbird Two take off on a massive screen hanging from the ceiling, I could have done with similar clips from Joe 90 or Fireball XL5 or UFO, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons or Stingray – classic TV series from the great Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson. They could do with an exhibition in their own right.)

Comics and mags

The essentially juvenile nature of sci-fi is emphasised by the pulp magazines and lurid book jackets from the 40s, 50s and 60s on display here. Amazing stories, Astounding stories, Startling stories, Space stories, Thrilling wonder stories – often with nubile young women whose clothes are falling off.

Golden Age of Sci fi comics

Comics from the Golden Age of Sci fi

Similarly the sensational pulp side of sci-fi is epitomised by a neat display case of the boxes of sci-fi Super 8 films.

A selection of super 8 sci-fi box covers

A selection of super 8 sci-fi box covers

Illustrations

Books, comics, illustrations, models, film and TV clips, costumes, props, artwork – the exhibition as a whole gives a lovely impression of being a bric-a-brac shop, almost a jumble sale, with artefacts from every period of sci-fi thrown in in glorious profusion. There’s only a very loose chronological order, but it starts with early illustrations for – and editions of – Jules Verne’s classic adventure series – voyages round the world, to the moon, to the bottom of the sea and so on – as well as models of the various contraptions which feature in Verne’s novels, the Nautilus submarine, the space ship to the moon, and so on.

Next to them is a set of paintings of ‘Dinotopia’, a fantasy world created by artist James Gurney in which humans live alongside tamed dinosaurs – beautifully painted, high quality and vivid book illustrations.

Dinosaur Parade from the Dinotopia series by James Gurney (1989)

Dinosaur Parade from the Dinotopia series by James Gurney (1989)

This tradition of sci-fi illustrations goes all the way through to modern art work for movies (Star Wars, Alien) alongside purely imaginary, maybe computer-enhanced, illustrations of future cities. On a screen late in the show is projected a series of quite stunning visions of future cities by a range of contemporary sci-fi artists.

City of the Future (2017) by Marije Berting

City of the Future (2017) by Marije Berting

You get the impression that the art of science fiction – not made to illustrate a novel, not for a comic and not design work for a movie, but for itself, for the sheer joy of depicting fantastic, imaginary scenes – is an under-explored genre. A different exhibition might have concentrated just on the art of sci-fi.

Asteroid Collision by Chris Foss (1980)

Asteroid Collision by Chris Foss (1980)

But the exhibition is continually pulling us back to sci-fi’s cheap, pulpy roots, with display cases of comics and books, setting literary classics alongside more pulpy works by Edgar Rice Burroughs, from Verne to Cormac McCarthy via Ursula LeGuin, and many more.

Original edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Pellucidar

Original edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Pellucidar (1915)

Masks

Given that there are half a dozen screens dotted around showing continuous loops of sci-fi classics, (alongside some more obscure foreign, and older, movies) your first, and second, impression is that the show sees science fiction through the lens of films. After all, the more private, and demanding, experience of reading is hard to capture in an exhibition. Whereas watching a clip from Jurassic Park is about as lazy and undemanding experience as a human being can have.

Installation view of the exhibition with screens shoing classic sci-fi moviescases of classic sci-fi books, wall displays of sci fi art

Installation view of the exhibition with screens showing classic sci-fi movies, cases of classic sci-fi books and wall displays of sci fi art

The film-orientation of the show is reflected in the large number of props from movies and TV shows. Several large sections of the show feature models of masks, space ships, and space suits used in movies, including quite a few display cases housing ghoulish masks.

Monster masks: top right Close Encounters; bottom left from Species II by H.R. Giger; in the middle a skull and mask from Enemy Mine

Monster masks: top right Close Encounters; bottom left from Species II by H.R. Giger; in the middle a skull and mask from Enemy Mine

Including probably the most famous sci-fi face of all time – the alien.

The most famous face in sci-fi? The alien mask from Alien (1986)

The most famous face in sci-fi? The alien mask from Alien (1986)

Spacesuits

On the same ooh-aaah level, the exhibition features life-size space-suits as actually worn in movies like Interstellar, Sunshine, Alien, Star Trek, Moon and so on. The space suit worn by Leonard Nimoy! Oooh! The actual suit worn by John Hurt in Alien!!

These don’t really tell you anything – reinforcing my sense that there’s less to sci-fi than meets the eye – they are just lovely objects for fans to drool over.

The space suit worn by Cillian Murphy in Sunshine (2007)

The space suit worn by Cillian Murphy in Sunshine (2007)

Alien, again.

Space suit worn by John Hurt in Alien (1979)

The space suit worn by John Hurt in Alien (1979)

There were some headphones for visitors to listen to audio clips from sci fi classics like The Martian Chronicles of Ray Bradbury or Stanislav Lem’s Solaris but, symptomatically, no one was using them when I passed by and I didn’t use them either. I wanted to look at beautiful things, at the models of space ships and space suits and movie props. On reflection, I am surprised there wasn’t a section on gadgets, which should have included the phaser and the tricorder and communicator from Star Trek at the very least, alongside Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver and… well, you can make your own list.

Space suit worn by Spock in Star Trek the Movie (1979)

Space suit worn by Spock in Star Trek the Movie (1979)

Oh my God they’ve got Robbie the Robot!! and the robot from the Will Smith vehicle, I, Robot.

The Class B-9-M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, known simply as Robot, from Lost in Space, and Sonny from I, Robot

The Class B-9-M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, known simply as Robot, from Lost in Space, and Sonny from I, Robot

Underneath Robbie was a display of teeny weeny vintage robot toys, such as you might find in any junk shop. It was hard not to feel yourself getting younger and younger as you soaked yourself in this comic, mag, fantasy, geek paradise.

I felt myself turning into one of the characters in Big Bang Theory leafing through the comics at Stu’s comic shop.

The films

If the Curve part of the show felt like a warm bath of nostalgia for sci-fi addicts, not so the films in the rest of the show, the ones you can watch after exiting the main exhibition in the Barbican foyer areas. These were contemporary, strange and disturbing.

To start with there were sections of Pierre-Jean Gilroux’s sumptuous, mesmerising and haunting films, titled Invisible Cities, parts 1 to 4.

Beautiful is, ultimately, reassuring.

By contrast, Afronaut directed by Frances Bodoma, is a kind of fantasy alternative reality in which poverty-stricken Ghanaians in what seems to be a shanty in the desert attempt to recreate the Apollo space mission. They train a hauntingly confused-looking albino black woman for space travel by rolling her down a hill inside a trash can and tossing her in a blanket, before stuffing her inside a space ship made from corrugated iron and lighting firecrackers under it.

In the weird alternative reality of the movie both she and her half dozen supporters undergo a genuinely transcendent experience, and the ship does appear to carry her to the moon.

The Blue Moon music on this clip below doesn’t do the full movie justice, makes it seem far too familiar and assimilable. In fact Afronaut‘s soundtrack is a confusing hubbub, the characters’ voices out-of-synch with their lips, or obscured by gritty dust and metal sounds, by the banging of metal, by chanting – all of which contributes to the powerful sense of entering a genuinely altered reality.

A bit more conventionally, the short film Pumzi is written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu, and tells the story of Asha, a young scientist living in an underground complex in Kenya some decades in the future after ‘the (inevitable) War’, who decides to leave her safe environment and go questing over the desolate surface of the earth looking for life.

Even if this is a rather familiar topos, it is stunningly beautifully shot. Apparently, this movie is part of a movement known as Afrofuturism which envisages a future civilisation in Africa populated by black Africans. I read in the commentary that Pumzi undermines Hollywood norms and stereotypes but, in my opinion, the idea of a hero/ine escaping from a repressive, post-apocalypse society seems as old as sci-fi and has certainly been done in countless commercial films (Zardoz, Logan’s Run). Also, the fact that the heroine is beautiful, young, slender and scantily dressed seems to me to be reinforcing pretty much the central sexist movie stereotype i.e. women in movies must be slender and nubile.

But the entirely African setting, and entirely black cast, make a welcome change from watching Tom Cruise fighting aliens.

Conclusions

I loved science fiction when I was a boy back in the 1970s when science fiction movies were as rare as hen’s teeth and discussing Philip K. Dick or Robert Heinlein marked you out as a member of a tiny sub-set of geeks.

Nowadays barely a week goes by without a new sci fi movie being released, hundreds have been released in the past decade. Why the change? In discussion with my son we developed the idea that science fiction allows you to have all the thrills and spills which movies were designed for – chases, fights, shoot-outs, big explosions, spectacle and so on – with none of the moral challenges inherent in many of the older movie genres.

Nobody can make Biblical epics nowadays because most people are not Christians. War epics can’t really be such death-or-glory bubblegum entertainments after Saving Private Ryan showed the full, not-at-all funny, not-at-all-entertaining gory reality of war. Spy thrillers are at a loss since the end of the Cold War (though the War on Terror happily provides the setting for a new breed of terror thrillers). And westerns, one of the staples of my youth, have simply disappeared.

What science fiction provides is the Pure Baddy, untroubled by moral issues or cultural qualms. Whether it’s the Empire and Darth Vadar or something more disturbing like the extra terrestrials in 1979’s Alien or this year’s Life, the issue of good and bad is black and white, men and women battling against The Bad Thing –  just as it was in each of the Star Trek movies or the Jurassic Park or Matrix franchises. Bad aliens trying to kill hero; hero fights back.

Just as simplistically, sci-fi movies can offer images of heroic American patriotism which other genres now struggle with – take Sandra Bullock in Gravity (2013) or Matt Damon in The Martian (2015), who both triumph against the odds, shucks, folks it was nothing, while the audience cheers and the Oscar nominations roll in.

So mainstream science fiction is a way of allowing film to do what it has always done best – shock and awe, with awesome special effects, giant monsters, extreme situations and sexy young heroes/heroines.

None of this is very subversive: the exact opposite, in fact. When I watched the hero of Jurassic World (2015) strip off his shirt to reveal his astonishing physique, and the heroine, Bryce Dallas Howard, quickly lose her smart business suit and strip down to her sweat-soaked underwear, I wondered if a film could possibly be more sexist. But in mainstream sci-fi it doesn’t matter – we are all reduced to melon-heads screaming each time a velociraptor jumps out of the screen at us.

By contrast, almost the only thing in the entire show which gave me that genuine frisson of fear, that sense of the weird, inexplicable and uncanny, was the film Afronauts. I had no idea how it was going to end, I didn’t understand it a lot of the time, I felt I had entered a genuinely unpredictable and uncanny space. I’d like more of that, please.

Related links

Reviews of past exhibitions at the Barbican

The Municipal Museum of Tossa de Mar

Tossa de Mar was originally a settlement on a small promontory sticking out into the Mediterranean about 1oo kilometres northeast of Barcelona. The Romans built a small town with villas and so on, and in the middle ages the promontory itself was sealed off by a thick wall punctuated by great round towers. Within was a rabbit warren of lanes and alleys.

With the tourist boom of the 1970s onwards hotels sprang up like mushrooms along the big curving sandy beach to the north, and in the evening the streets of the newish town are lined with tourist boutiques and restaurants, though within the thick stone walls, the old town – the Vila Vella, in Catalan – is much quieter.

In a small square at the top of a steep cobbled lane stands the medieval building – once the house of the local Abbot – which has been gutted and converted into three light and airy floors full of art which is now the Municipal Museum of Tossa de Mar.

Though called a museum it is in fact much more of an art gallery. The basement has three rooms or so of Roman statues, coins, kitchen utensils and pots and on one wall hangs the big restored mosaic found in a nearby Roman villa. But the two floors above it each contain half a dozen rooms devoted respectively, to the museum’s permanent collection of artists who lived or worked locally; and to a rotating exhibition. When I went, the exhibition was ‘La Forma en Evolució’, works by Josep Martí Sabé.

It’s hardly worth making a pilgrimage to, but on the other hand the entrance fee is only three euros and for that you get a lot more variety and interest than you’d expect. Also, in the blistering heat of a Spanish summer day, it is lovely and air-conditioned!

1. Archaeology

There are some remains from palaeolithical times onwards, but the main display is of Roman remains from the several nearby villas which have been discovered. Coins, broken pots, farm tools and fishing tackle, hairpins and brooches, along with a handful of bigger pieces.

Roman statue, Museo Municipal de Tossa de Mar

Roman statue in Carrara marble, Museo Municipal de Tossa de Mar

A hundred years ago a major Roman villa was discovered and excavated on the outskirts of the present town (just next to the bus station is a fenced-off area clearly showing the ancient walls and floor).

The pride of the archaeological section is the huge recreation of one of the villa’s mosaics.

Restored Roman mosaic, Museo Municipal de Tossa de Mar

Restored Roman mosaic, featuring the name of the villa owner, Vitalis, and the mosaic-maker, Felices. Museo Municipal de Tossa de Mar


2. Josep Martí Sabé – Form in evolution

Jose Marti-Sabé (1915-2006) was a Catalan artist, born and lived at Santa Coloma de Farners about thirty miles inland from Tossa. He trained as a sculptor in Barcelona. To quote the exhibition handout:

In 1950 Marti-Sabé founded, alongside the sculptors J.M. Subirachs Francesc Torres Monsó and the painters Esther Boix, Ricard Creus and Joaquim Datzira, the ‘Postectura’ group. They were influenced by constructivist tendencies and preconised a new humanism. Josep Martí Sabé worked with materials such as stone, cast, iron, and terracotta. Each material allowed him to experience with the plastic qualities and he consolidates the analysis of dualities and oppositions: horizontal and vertical, positive and negative, full and empty.

In practice the thirty or so pieces here show a development from kitsch neo-classical statues of naked women with babies which would have been at home in the state-approved realism of Nazi or Soviet art, through a more stylised soft modernism in wood and bronze, and on to flat metal sculptures reminiscent of Picasso crossed with Giacometti.

Banyistes de Cassi (1954) by Josep Martí Sabé

Banyistes de Cassi (1954) by Josep Martí Sabé

Part of the point is to show his experimentation with materials. This wood carving is very easy on the eye.

Eva (1977) by Josep Martí Sabé

Eva (1977) by Josep Martí Sabé

A couple of pieces in bronze really stand out for the combination Art Deco style faces or bodies, against deliberately rough backgrounds.

Profiles (1979) by Josep Martí Sabé

Profiles (1979) by Josep Martí Sabé

Having spent a few hours in the nearby sea made this shiny bronze of a swimmer all the more relevant.

Nadador ((1975) by Josep Martí Sabé

Nadador (1975) by Josep Martí Sabé

And late in life he experimented with a completely new approach, producing these completely flat, stylised steel cut-outs of people. Note the way the joined heads make the shape of a heart.

Parella (1990) by Josep Martí Sabé

Parella (1990) by Josep Martí Sabé

Not earth shattering but a pleasant break from the nearby beach, and an insight into a little local world of art I’d never heard of. How many thousands of similar artists worked across Europe during the twentieth century, never breaking into the big time but commemorated in local museums and galleries?


3. The permanent collection

Speaking of which, the permanent collection records the fact that by the early 1930s a surprising number of artists were living and working in Tossa, making it a ‘Babel  of Arts’, as a contemporary magazine feature put it. The most famous single artist was Marc Chagall who – allegedly – dubbed Tossa ‘the blue paradise’, and is commemorated by two works.

The Celestial Violinist by Marc Chagall

The Celestial Violinist by Marc Chagall

The oil painting (above) has pride of place, but I preferred the simpler more poignant impact of this print.

Vers l'autre clarté by Marc Chagall

Vers l’autre clarté by Marc Chagall

The handout mentions over 30 artists who lived and worked here and who are represented by at least one piece. Apart from Chagall, I’d never heard of any of them, though that probably reflects my vast ignorance of European art.

Ballerina by Jean Metzinger

Ballerina by Jean Metzinger

It’s a fascinating cross-section of B or C list art from the 1930s, much of it very enjoyable.

Cavaller (1934) by Oscar Zügel

Cavaller (1934) by Oscar Zügel

The big exhibitions I see in London are always of super-famous international stars. The Tossa Museum gives you the opportunity of meeting and savouring much more obscure artists, and enjoying the variety of styles available to 20th century artists.

Moulin Rouge by Eugene Paul

Moulin Rouge by Eugene Paul

Mostly paintings, but some striking sculptures.

Untitled by Manuel Alvarez

Untitled by Manuel Alvarez

I kept returning to this one. I like sketches, works in charcoal, strong lines and cartoons. Ricard Lambi’s Fish market reminded me of sketches by Old Masters. I liked the confident lines and sense of action.

Fish market (1911) by Ricard Lambi

Fish market (1911) by Ricard Lambi

There’s a story behind this statuette of Ava Gardner. In 1950 she arrived in the town along with director Albert Lewin and co-star James Mason to shoot a movie, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. During her stay Ava made a big impact on the locals for her genuine friendliness and openness. Plenty of the local shops have big posters of Ava, or collages of press and publicity photos. You can buy Ava Gardner memorabilia. In 1998 the Spanish sculptress, Ció Abellí, created a life-size statue of Ava looking out from a small square in the old town onto the beach where she frolics in the movie. This is a small study for the larger work.

Bronze statuette of Ava Gardner (1992) by Cio Abelli

Bronze statuette of Ava Gardner (1992) by Cio Abelli

Beautiful town. Lovely museum.

Related links

Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power @ Tate Modern

Back to the 1960s, again

America again (after American Prints at the British Museum, America after the Fall at the Royal Academy, Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy, Rauschenberg at Tate Modern, Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern, Alexander Calder at Tate Modern). Can’t have too much art from America.

And the 1960s again (after The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern and You Say You Want A Revolution at the V&A). The 1960s are art curators’ favourite decade, a brief period when words like ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ actually seemed to mean something.

Let’s just take it for granted that the averagely-educated person knows that the 1960s were a time of ‘turmoil and change’, especially in an America racked by the escalating tragedy of the Vietnam War which led to an explosion of student activism and widespread popular unrest etc.

Various key figures were assassinated – John Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King (1968) – adding to the sense of permanent crisis. The counter-culture of drugs, folk, jazz, poetry, experimental theatre and film which had existed in tiny beatnik enclaves in the 1950s went mainstream, reaching a heady climax in the summer of love of 1967 by which time free love, LSD, flower power and all the rest of it were widely publicised in music, film, newspapers, magazines, TV and on the streets.

There was an explosion of experimentation in all the arts and especially in popular music, which is more enduring and accessible than any other art form – the songs of the Beach Boys, Beatles, Rolling Stones, through Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream and hundreds of other groups and singers – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan – immediately recall for most people a decade and a time very few of us personally experienced, but which we have been exposed to again and again in celebratory documentaries, biographies, albums, movies and adverts as a kind of peak of creative endeavour.

Afro-American clichés

A major strand of the general outburst of popular culture and protest was the ongoing demand for equal civil rights by a wide range of Afro-American organisations, voices and artists.

As indicated above, it is pop music which endures longest in the collective imagination and so most of us are familiar with the brilliant achievement of countless black recording artists (and behind them the network of black writers, producers, agents, clubs etc) such as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding, the whole Motown stable as well as the amazing array of great jazz artists, the obvious ones being Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

Anyone with a TV will have seen the world-famous images of the Civil Rights movement as replayed over and over again in documentaries about the time (such as the video at the American Prints exhibition which gave a three-minute whistle-stop tour of America in the 1960s to a soundtrack of The Doors) – Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, black teenagers being hosed down by Alabama cops, and so on. (The ‘I have a dream’ speech is played on a loop on a bank of TV monitors positioned just outside the exhibition, alongside information panels about black cultural icons of the time like Malcolm X and James Baldwin.)

Here’s a clip from it, just in case you’ve never heard or seen it before.

Soul of a nation

So given our over-familiarity with the period and most of its obvious cultural products, it comes as a genuine surprise to realise the scale and breadth of black art during this period. For this exhibition turns out to be very successful at going beneath the popular images of the decade to exhibit the specifically Black art of the 1960s and 70s, and especially the work linked with the political movements for civil rights – from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Black Panthers and so on.

No fewer than 65 black artists feature in the exhibition, working across a bewildering range of styles and media.

Rather than attempting to summarise it, you’d best take a look at Tate’s own room-by-room guide to the exhibition. (Realising the importance of contemporary black music, this walk through the show includes recommended listening from contemporary musicians.)

The 12 rooms of the show range from a number of movements, galleries and artists in New York, to the very different feel of West Coast black artists.

There’s a room of black-and-white photos by a range of photographers: apparently Roy DeCarava was the big daddy of black photographers but plenty of others are on show; I especially liked the shots of jazz musician John Coltrane and his drummer Elvin Jones, since I’ve been a big fan of both since discovering them as a student. But there are also evocative b&w shots by plenty of other black artists, the terrific street scenes of Beuford Smith and the more politically engaged photos of Herb Randall.

Couple Walking by Roy DeCarava © Courtesy Sherry DeCarava and the DeCarava Archives

Couple Walking by Roy DeCarava © Courtesy Sherry DeCarava and the DeCarava Archives

There are icons of blackness in a room titled Black heroes. This includes a series of semi-naive figurative oil paintings by Barkley Hendricks.

Icon For My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale) (1969) by Barkley Hendricks © Barkley K. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Icon For My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale) (1969) by Barkley Hendricks © Barkley K. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

There’s a room dedicated to the work of Betye Saar, an artist who works in wood, found objects and carving with a primitive vibe. The more I looked, the more I liked.

Eye (1972) by Betye Saar © Beye Saar. Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts and Tilton, Los Angeles, California

Eye (1972) by Betye Saar © Beye Saar. Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts and Tilton, Los Angeles, California

At the start of the show many of the works are directly political, referring to specific incidents of police brutality or discrimination. A good example is Dana Chandler’s powerful sculpture of a life-sized bullet-ridden door to commemorate the shooting of Black Panther activist Fred Hampton in his Chicago apartment in 1969.

A number of photo-montages create a disconcerting sense of poverty, anxiety and dislocation, reminiscent in technique of similar cut-ups from the Weimar Republic back in the 1930s.

Pittsburgh Memory by Romare Bearden (1964) © Romare Bearden Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2017

Pittsburgh Memory by Romare Bearden (1964) © Romare Bearden Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2017

Anger and political activism, a refusal to take any more white racism, violence and discrimination leap from many of the exhibits, which commemorate both specific outrages and negative events as well as celebrating positive moments, political heroes and speeches and gestures of resistance.

Did the bear sit under the tree by benny Andrews (1969) © Estate of Benny Andrews/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

Did the bear sit under a tree? by Benny Andrews (1969) © Estate of Benny Andrews/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

There was a room of sculptures referencing Black African traditions, variations on the kind of wooden fetishes studded with nails which you can see in the British Museum. I liked the works of Noah Purifoy, including Totem and various untitled fetishes.

And hanging on the wall of room 4 (titled ‘Los Angeles Assemblages’) was a series of great twisted metal sculptures by Melvin Edwards.

I have nothing against political art – I enjoyed the exhibition of Peter Kennard‘s highly political art at the Imperial War Museum – and like a lot of the stuff here, but it’s also fair to say that looking at umpteen images of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X sometimes has the same effect as looking at the dusty old album covers in the V&A’s 1960s exhibition – it seemed to emphasise how long, long ago all this revolutionary fury was. And all this hope for change.

Repeated invocations in titles and works themselves of ‘the revolution’ and ‘revolutionaries’, references to the revolutionary writings of Malcolm X or the revolutionary activism of Angela Davis, all remind us just how dated hopes of some kind of social revolution along Soviet or Maoist lines now seem.

Black Unity (1969) by Elizabeth Catlett © Catlett Mora Family Trust/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

Black Unity (1969) by Elizabeth Catlett © Catlett Mora Family Trust/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

For as with all exhibitions from the 1960s, we now view these works over at least two seismic historical dividing lines – the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the start of the War on Terror in 2001. ‘Power to the people’ is a rallying cry from a long-distant time.

Revolutionary (1972) by Wadsworth Jarrell. Courtesy Lusenhop Fine Art © Wadsworth Jarrell

Revolutionary (1972) by Wadsworth Jarrell. Courtesy Lusenhop Fine Art © Wadsworth Jarrell

The curators raise, or mention, a number of ‘issues’ which were hotly debated at the time – ‘Is there a distinct Black aesthetic?’ ‘Should a Black artist’s work focus only on the Black struggle?’ ‘Should the Black artist address only a Black audience, or a universal audience?’ and so on. My son has just taken his A-levels and all these ‘issues’ have a kind of rounded, academic A-Level feel to them.

Certainly, many of the works here do focus on the Black experience, take Black people as subjects, try to create a Black art, an art of Black protest and an art of Black celebration, and so on…

But, on this visit, on a bright summer’s day, I ended up liking the far more abstract (and larger and more colourful) work to be found in room 7 (titled ‘East Coast abstraction’) and then room 10 (‘Improvisation and Experimentation’).

Some of these were huge and, if they had political or social undertones, they tended to be eclipsed by their sheer size and power as works of art. Very big, colourful works by Frank Bowling appear in both rooms 7 and 10.

Texas Louise (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver © Frank Bowling

Texas Louise (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver © Frank Bowling

Next to this one was an enormous work by Melvin Edwards (the sculpture whose Lynch fragments I liked earlier on). It is a huge curtain made from dangling strands of barbed wire, joined along the bottom by chains. A reference to slavery? Probably. But also just an awesome object in its own right.

Also in the same room was a huge canvas, painted abstract shapes and colours but designed to be knotted at the top differently everywhere it is hung. Doesn’t sound much but it is big, covering an entire wall.

Carousel Change (1970) by Sam Gilliam © Tate. Image courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Carousel Change (1970) by Sam Gilliam © Tate. Image courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Nearby sits a huge lump of ebony-black smooth wood, a sculpture titled Self by Martin Puryear. Ominous, absorbing light, filling the space, a meditation on blackness, a threat, a calming influence – make of it what you will.

There’s a lot of anger, the reminders of horrible atrocities, racism, murders and violence in this exhibition. There’s a lot of defiance and pride and rejoicing in black icons and heroes. There’s a lot of fist-clenching and right-on rhetoric about the revolution — I think the average educated person will know about these ideas or issues already.

Where this exhibition scores is in showing the sheer diversity, range and imagination of all these Black artists, creating art for all occasions, impassioned and political, or cool photographs of street life and jazz musicians, or huge awe-inspiring abstractions. There’s something for all moods and all personalities. Go see which bits you like.

Maybe part of the reason I like the bigger abstract works is because they suggest that the response to racist atrocity needn’t itself be full of anger and hate. Alabama is a piece of music John Coltrane wrote in response to a terrorist attack which shocked America, when four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 15 sticks of dynamite and a timing device under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The resulting explosion killed four little girls and injured 22 others. How stupid, wicked and evil racism is. What extraordinary beauty Coltrane – and many of the Black artists on display here – made from it.


Related links

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