Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece @ the British Museum

In my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum. (Rodin, 1892)

Rodin and the British Museum

François Auguste René Rodin (1840 – 1917), known as Auguste Rodin, is widely seen as the godfather of modern sculpture. He visited London for the first time in 1841. On a trip to the British Museum, he discovered the so-called Elgin Marbles, the supersize Greek sculptures of men horses and mythical creatures which once lined the Parthenon in Athens – and was immediately captivated by their scale and power.

For this exhibition the Museum has had the strikingly simple and effective idea of borrowing a substantial number of Rodin’s classic works from the Rodin Museum in Paris, and placing them next to and among a generous selection of original Parthenon sculptures. Over 80 works by Rodin in marble, bronze and plaster, along with some 13 of Rodin’s sketches, are displayed alongside major pieces of ancient Greek art from the Museum collection.

Thus the exhibition includes a number of Rodin’s greatest hits, iconic sculptures which are part of the Western imaginarium, such as The Thinker, The Kiss, The Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais.

Years ago, when a teenager, I hitch-hiked to Paris, kipped in the Bois de Boulogne,and spent the days going on pilgrimages to all the art galleries and museums. I remember being bitterly disappointed by the Musée Rodin and that disappointment has lasted to this day. The exhibition was an opportunity to see if my largely negative image of Rodin stood up to the evidence or was just a personal prejudice.

The ancient Greeks

Between 1800 to 1812 workmen employed by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin – British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, or ‘the Sublime Porte’ as it was referred to in those days –  removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, the vast temple to Athena in Athens, as well as sculptures from the nearby buildings Propylaea and Erechtheum. These were shipped to Britain and put on display but, even at the time, contemporaries were critical enough for Parliament to hold an enquiry into his actions. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Elgin sold the marbles to the British Government who passed them along to the recently created British Museum where, despite vocal lobbying by the Greek government, they remain to this day.

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Throughout the nineteenth century the art of ancient Greece, and especially the statuary, was seen as the peak of human creativity and art. Renaissance giants like Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo had recreated their magic in painting, but the Greeks remained the source of artistic ideas of Beauty, which were built around realism, the realistic depiction of the human and animal body, with accuracy, elegance and grace.

The Parthenon figures were carved to fill the triangular pediment at the west and east of the building, as well as to fill the metopes or square alcoves roughly above each of the 46 outer columns. There was also a set of inner columns supporting an inner wall, and above these ran a continuous frieze of figures carved in relief.

There was, in other words, a huge amount of space to be filled by more than life size carvings of gods and heroes and animals (mostly horses being ridden in battle). Hence the fact that, even though the Elgin Marbles only represent a fraction of the originals, they still fill a vast gallery at the Museum.

People forget that Greek sculpture was painted. This is a fanciful imagining of how the Parthenon would have looked when new. At this end we can see the pediment filled with freestanding statues of gods, small in the narrow ends, growing larger in size to gesture up towards the King of the Gods at the apex. And underneath a set of 14 metopes each with an individual carving of an incident from Greek myth.

At the Museum the curators tried to recreate the effect of the arched pediment by placing the scattered fragments in their correct positions relative to each other, with the metope carvings placed separately. This is how Rodin saw and was overwhelmed by them.

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum

What is so special about the sculptures from the Parthenon? They were thought, even by the Greeks themselves, to be the peak of their artistic achievement. The sculptor in charge of the works, Phidias, was credited with a godlike power for realism, for his ability to summon the gods from Olympus, and heroes from the Elysian Fields, and place them before the viewer.

For me the important factors are:

  1. They are larger than life. They had to be since they were embedded 30 metres high on walls.
  2. As a result their gestures are clear and distinct. The overall positioning of all the figures creates harmonies and rhythms which are perceivable even at a distance.
  3. Counter-intuitively, maybe, there is a staggering amount of detail in the sculptures. Observed down at eye level in an exhibition like this (as they were never intended to be seen), you can see the amount of effort that has gone in to depicting the muscles, ligaments and veins of, for example, this wonderful horse’s head, with its flared nostrils and bulging eyes. It’s called the Selene horse’s head because it is part of a frieze depicting the moon goddess, Selene.
Selene horse's head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

Selene horse’s head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

There is therefore, to my mind, a kind of super realism about the figures. They are larger than life in both senses – the subjects are gods of heroes of legend, and the figures are all larger than life size – yet they include finely carved details which also work to ennoble, expand and aggrandise the figures. They are images of power, imaginative, political and cultural power.

Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910 Photo: Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910
Photo by Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

By the 1880s Rodin had made his reputation as a sculpture and was gaining public commissions. He had always been fascinated by the sculpture of the ancient Greeks, in his day still held up as the absolute peak of human artistic achievement.

He had already studied Greek sculpture from books, sketches and casts available to him in Paris (he never, in fact, went to Greece). After all the Louvre in Paris has a large collection of ancient Green sculpture. Where possible Rodin collected fragments of ancient sculpture when they became available, placing them around the garden of his property in Meudon. Apparently he moved and repositioned them among the trees and bushes to create changing artistic effects.

Eventually he amassed a collection of some 6,000 fragments and he never ceased sketching and drawing them, from all angles. The result is a vast archive of sketches, drawings, half-finished carvings and completed sculptures.

Rodin’s aesthetic

But Rodin wasn’t slavishly devoted to simply making copies of ancient Greek perfection. He had a more modern aesthetic than that. He came to believe that sculptures had a life cycle of their own, an inner artistic integrity. If many had been damaged, well, that was their fate, and their current damaged state was somehow ‘true’ to their inner destiny. Thus Rodin resisted various suggestions that ancient Greek statues be ‘repaired’. You can see what he’s getting at.

Rodin liked the way that powerful expression was conveyed through the fragmented bodies of the Greek statues. He even removed the heads and limbs from his own figures to make them closer to the broken relics of the past. By doing so, he created a new genre of contemporary art – the headless, limbless torso.

This explains the prominence of process in Rodin’s own work. Many of his pieces seem to be emerging from the stone they are carved in, often with struggle. Similarly his ‘finished’ pieces often betray the work and effort required to make them.

The exhibition displays a massive male torso from the Parthenon next to a similar sized male torso by Rodin. The Parthenon one is smooth (though with pockmarks and gouges caused over time) but the Rodin one has a deliberately knobbly bobbly surface – at its core it is a realistic depiction of the male body, muscles and all, but in Rodin’s hands the sculpture also preserves the sense of effort which went into making it. The statue is not so much an image of Perfection as a symbol of the human effort to create Perfection.

Torso by Auguste Rodin

Torso by Auguste Rodin

On reflection, it is this deliberate favouring of a muddy, impure, less than precise, deliberately knobbly, bulgy, imperfect surface, which I don’t like about Rodin.

You see it in individual works and in his larger compositions.

The gates of hell

In the same year he visited the British Museum, 1881, aged 41, Rodin received his first big public commission, to create the bronze gates for a new museum of the decorative arts in Paris. Inspired by Dante, Rodin decided to create a set of gates on the theme of hell (‘Abandon hope all ye that enter here’ being the motto carved above the gates of hell in Dante’s medieval poetic epic, The Divine Comedy).

To this day I remember the massive build-up given to this piece at the Musée Rodin in Paris, and then my massive disappointment on seeing it. Instead of clarity and order – the clarity and rhythm you see so perfectly achieved in the Parthenon friezes – what I was immediately struck by was what a mess it is.

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

I defy you to figure out what is going on here. Your eye is drawn to the three figures at the top (themselves in a demoralising, broken backed huddle) then to the figure of the Thinker beneath them and beneath him? What the devil is going on in the two panels of the doors? And what is happening on the two columns either side of the doorway? I still find it as muddy and confusing as I did forty years ago.

The exhibition has a large section devoted to the gates. Rodin worked on it for decades, even after the planned museum was abandoned and the commission rendered redundant. He continued tinkering with all the small figures, taking many of them out of the gates and blowing them up into full-scale figures.

The most famous is The Thinker and there is a huge cast of it here. For me it epitomises Rodin’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

On the pro side it captures an archetypally human action in such a profound way that it quickly became an icon of Western art, and is probably among the half dozen most famous art images in the world (along with the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David etc).

But, up close and personal, I don’t like it. It looks lumpy and unfinished. (Alas it reminded me a bit of The Thing from the Fantastic Four comics in the way the surface, though polished and shiny, is ridged and gnarled and patched with what look like strips of clay used to build up the figure, rather than the actual lineaments of cartilage and muscle.)

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

It looks unfinished in exactly the way that the Gates of Hell look unfinished to me – muddy and indistinct.

This, I’m sure, is part of Rodin’s conscious aesthetic, a muscular, sculptural style which makes a virtue of flagging up its own effort, the struggle of creation.

Aesthetic of the unfinished

Among other aspects of this, Rodin encouraged the assistants and students who often helped him to carve his figures (he ran a workshop full of assistants) to leave secondary parts of the sculpture unfinished, and even to emphasise the physicality of the work by marking secondary areas with notches created by claw hammers and chisels.

This is perfectly obvious in Rodin’s other supersonically famous work, The Kiss of 1882. The exhibition curators a) are proud to have borrowed this larger-than-lifesize plaster cast of the kiss from the Rodin Museum. And b) make the ingenious suggestion that the pose of the two lovers (actually a scene from Dante’s Inferno of two adulterous lovers about to be discovered and murdered by the cuckolded husband) is based on the pose of two female goddesses, originally on the East Pediment of the Parthenon, one of which reclines luxuriously in the lap of her companion.

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

But for me the really dominant motif is the deliberately rough unfinished nature of the rock they’re sitting on. On the plus side I suppose the proximity of the gouged and hacked rock emphasises and brings out the luxurious smooth polished surface of the lovers’ two young bodies. But I still don’t like it.

To clarify further, here are two works which are directly related. The first one is a scene from the fight between the lapiths and the centaurs, which takes up a large part of one of the friezes on the Parthenon and is thought to be an allegory of the struggle between reason and animality. Note the clarity, even the stylised nature of the pose, and the clarity of line of each of the figures.

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Next to it the exhibition places a sculpture titled The Centauress (1904), a figure Rodin expanded from a minor position on the gates of hell.

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

I found this object particularly ugly and clumsy. The device of having the figure emerge from heavily-notched stone really doesn’t work for me at all. The way her overlong arms are merging with the pillar strikes me as some kind of horrifying physical deformity or mutation. it is not a very good depiction of either a horse’s body or a woman’s torso and the less asked about the head the better.

To summarise – Rodin’s attempt to assimilate the Greek influence and go beyond it to create a new ‘modern’ aesthetic of fragments which foreground the effort of their own creation has, in my opinion, very hit and miss results. Mostly miss.

His large masterpiece The Burghers of Calais is here – as a complete piece showing six larger-than-lifesize statues of the six men, and as individual preparatory studies of some of them.

If you are a student of sculpture or a fan of Rodin this is a really thrilling opportunity to study his sketches, his inspiration, his working practices and the models which go towards creating a masterpiece. But here, set among the light and clarity of line and design of the Greeks, they felt clumsy and hulking, their postures contrived and awkward.

Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

Phidias

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble © The Trustees of the British Museum

On the cusp of modernism

Rodin lived long enough to see the advent of full-blown Modernism. By 1905 Matisse and Picasso in their different ways were experiencing the influence of ‘primitive’ masks from Africa and the Pacific which were suggesting entire new ways of seeing and thinking about ‘art’.

Within a few years a new generation of sculptors would break decisively with the entire Western tradition and its indebtedness to the naturalism of the ancient Greeks – the ones that spring to mind being Jacob Epstein (b.1880), Eric Gill (b.1882), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (b.1891) and Alberto Giacometti (b.1901).

I suppose it’s unfair to compare Rodin to what came after him, but for me this next generation of sculptors blow the world apart, open the doors to an infinity of possibilities, and are the true creators of modern sculpture.

For me, a piece like Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (c.1913) is worth more than everything Rodin did put together. I like clarity of line and design as against muddiness and vagueness, crisp geometry as against random lumpiness, and energy as against languid kissing, dull thinking and the hapless, demoralised postures of the Calais Burghers.

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

For me the Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is sensuous but with a virile, alert, energetic sensuality, the sensuality of athletic life.

Light and airy

By far the most striking thing about the exhibition is that the Museum has opened up the big windows at the end of the Sainsbury Gallery in order to let light flood in.

The partitions between different sections of the show do not extend to the ceiling so the effect is not of separate ‘rooms’ – rather dark and gloomy rooms as they had for, say, the Scythians exhibition – but of light flooding throughout the space, showing the Greek works, in particular, in something more like the fierce Mediterranean light of their homeland.

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

I’m afraid this isn’t a very good photo, but enough to show how the individual statues are staged at the window end of the exhibition, building up to the full cast of the Burghers of Calais in the middle distance of the shot.

The affect of the natural light, and the cleanness and clarity of the floor-to-ceiling windows, is really uplifting. It was quite relaxing to sit on the benches conveniently placed there and enjoy the precise geometrical architecture of the Georgian houses just across the light bright patio space.

The video


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Devotion: A Portrait of Loretta by Franklyn Rodgers @ Autograph ABP

Autograph ABP is a charity that works internationally in photography and film, cultural identity, race, representation and human rights. ABP stands for the Association of Black Photographers.

Originally based in Brixton, ABP moved to a new, purpose-built gallery and offices at Rivington Place in Shoreditch in 2007. It is here that the ABP gallery is currently hosting two FREE exhibitions of photography by black photographers.

Devotion: A Portrait of Loretta by Franklyn Rodgers

For some years photographer Franklyn Rodgers has been taking large-scale portrait photos of the most important person in his life, his mother, Loretta. More recently he has branched out into taking portraits of Loretta’s circle of friends and family. To quote the man himself:

Devotion – A Portrait of Loretta represents the connectivity between faith, family and friends, echoed in the wider social experience assigned to them in their time and location. It is a meditation on strength, resilience, fortitude and the ability to endure. It is an idea through which the connectivity it brokers opens up the reconfiguring of survival, rooted firmly in the legacy of a cultural matriarch. To pay homage, both as Loretta’s son and as an artist, in recognition of a way of thinking that represents a coping mechanism to collectively overcome, forgive and conversely transform: a process of creation through a different lens. Evidenced over time in the cultural landscape that now defines our nation.

The photos are enormous and capture a staggering amount of detail.

Loretta Rodgers, 31 January 2006 by Franklyn Rodgers

Loretta Rodgers, 31 January 2006 by Franklyn Rodgers

Friendships

As the director of ABP, Dr Mark Sealy MBE, puts it:

Loretta and the devoted network of relationships that are presented in the exhibition could, if we so choose, unlock the face of our own humanity. ‘Identity is not only a departure from self; it is a return to self’ (French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas) This unlocking process, however, only becomes possible at the point in which we fully recognise the civil responsibility we have for both Loretta and her friends. The underlying theoretical question with which Rodgers’ photography works presents us fundamentally concerns our understanding of what it means to actually look into the human face.

Installation of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Installation view of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Confrontations

It is certainly true that the size of the portraits, and the way they are cropped very closely so as to be, literally, in your face, is almost forcing a response, coercing you to engage somehow, forcing us ‘to unlock the face of our own humanity’ maybe.

Mrs Iris Simms (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

Mrs Iris Simms (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

Care

Probably the portraits are a mirror and you project onto them your own concerns. Because I cared for both my parents as they died, and have been the main carer for my children, these enormous portraits trigger emotions of care and concern in me. These women look as if they have lived. They look as if they have suffered. I found myself uncomfortably moved by them. Unsettled by their unrelenting gaze.

Sealy again:

Through his photographs of his mother Rodgers invites us to enter the sacred realm of human recognition. In his hands the camera is repurposed as a device that aids the case for greater safekeeping and care across the human condition.

Installation of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Installation view of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Technical fluency

But maybe that’s just me, my life experiences, which I’m projecting onto them.

On the technical front, I am astonished at the pin-prick clarity of such enormous prints. Having recently seen the vast photographic prints by Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery, and the massive photos by Alex Prager at the Photographers’ Gallery, I realise that we are living in an age when photos can now be blown-up and printed on an enormous scale without losing – in fact, enhancing – a tremendous, an almost intimidating, clarity of detail.

But whereas Prager’s and Gursky’s photos are almost entirely staged to capture large groups of people or (in Prager’s case) bizarre scenes, Rodgers’ photos obviously have a completely different feel. I wouldn’t call it ‘intimate’, they’re too big for that. But about as close up as you can get to a human face. And determined to capture every pore and blemish of the skin.

Looking again, I realise that all the faces are completely expressionless. I think it was at the National Portrait Gallery’s 2017 exhibition that I noticed that not a single one of the 70 or so portraits on display showed a single person smiling, let alone laughing i.e. it’s a common trope or convention of 21st century portraiture, to remain completely expressionless..

Maybe smiling or laughing immediately limits a portrait, because the viewer knows what mood the sitter is in. Smiling or laughter defuse the tension between viewer and portrait.  Whereas depicting blank unsmiling portraits makes the face so much more powerful, inscrutable and mysterious.

What, you find yourself asking, is this array of senior citizens thinking? About their experiences of being black in Britain? About the nature of identity in a society mediated by images? About what’s for dinner? Who knows.

Time

As T.S. Eliot wrote a hundred years ago, ‘Time is time and runs away.’

Sealy again:

The act of photographing his mother’s face also marks Rodgers’s awareness of time moving uncontrollably fast. This sense of temporal dis-ease creates the conditions of having to act in the present and take responsibility for the now. Rodgers’ photographs of his mother and her circle of friends are therefore an invitation to look into their faces as part of a self-reflective journey to one’s own humanity, because, ultimately, it is only when we can recognise all the Lorettas of the world that we can then recognise ourselves.

Loretta Rodgers, Crown (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

Loretta Rodgers, Crown (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

It’s a room full of intense, brilliant and powerfully questioning portraits.


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Shirley Baker: Personal Collection @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Three years ago the Photographers’ Gallery held the first ever solo exhibition of acclaimed street photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014).

Now, downstairs in the Print Sales Gallery of the Photographers’ Gallery, for the next month, there’s a small display of 27 rare vintage and lifetime prints from Baker’s own collection, each one stunning in its own way, and all for sale.

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Slum clearance

Housing was a critical issue after the Second World War. House building had more or less ceased for the six years of the duration, and some 475,000 houses were destroyed or made uninhabitable by German bombing.

But many of the homes which remained – unhygienic and rundown slums – remained a big problem in many cities, especially in the manufacturing towns and cities of the North, where they had been thrown up in a hurry by Victorian developers and then left to decay.

In 1956 the Conservative Government under Anthony Eden passed The Slum Areas improvement and clearance Act 1956. The Act defined ‘a slum’ as:

An area unfit for human habitation because of dilapidated buildings, overcrowding, faulty arrangement and design of buildings, narrowness or faulty arrangement of streets, lack of ventilation, light or sanitation facilities or any other combination of these factors.

The act was one of several measures, along with new funds, designed to encourage local authorities to clear out the old Victorian slums and build bright, new, airy homes fit to live in.

There was much debate among architects, planners and authorities, about how best to rehouse the people whose homes were being knocked down, and one result was the proliferation of new concrete tower blocks across all England’s cities and towns in the 50s, and especially the 60s and 70s.

Manchester 1968 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1968 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Altogether some 900,000 slums were cleared in the 1950s and 1960s and two and a half million people were re-housed.

Shirley Baker

Born in Kersal, north Salford, Lancashire, Baker’s family moved to Manchester when she was two. After school, she studied photography at Manchester College of Technology, and took other courses at Regent Street Polytechnic in London and the London College of Printing.

Baker started working as an industrial photographer for fabric manufacturers Courtaulds before working freelance, as a photographer for other businesses and as a writer and photographer on various magazines, books and newspapers, including The Guardian.

In 1960 she began work as a lecturer at Salford College of Art and it was during the fifteen years that she held this post, that she made a huge collection of unposed, spontaneous photographs of people living in the area in Salford and Manchester during a time of massive slum clearance.

Manchester 1967 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1967 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

According to Baker she didn’t consciously embark on what would turn out to be such a prolonged project:

Wandering the unpicturesque streets of Manchester and Salford with a camera seemed quite crazy to most people at the time.

But she saw it as her personal duty to be there with her camera, to represent peoples’ experiences.

Mums and kids

Manchester 1963 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1963 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Around 90 per cent of the images feature women and children. Men are conspicuous by their absence. While the photographer had a particular interest in the role of women as mothers, carers and nurturers, there is also a practical reason: the men were mostly at work during the weekdays, which is when she went a-shooting.

The men you tend to see are those at the end of their lives, sitting around, watching time drift… and a few others who couldn’t get work, who you might call feckless.

The back-to-backs were squalid and crowded, with families often sharing two rooms and few if any green spaces. Deprived of playgrounds and parks, little girls pushed their dollies among the cracked pavements and boys set up cricket games in the rubble-strewn streets.

Time and patience

Baker was frustrated in attempts to find a permanent job in the 1950s, partly because she was a woman in a man’s world. It was only after she married a doctor in 1957 that she gained a measure of financial freedom and, crucially, time – time to wander the streets of Salford and Manchester, time to get to know them intimately, time to set up her camera in good locations and…. wait.

Her photographs have a sense of planned spontaneity. The settings seem to have been carefully chosen and framed, but with the human subjects within these frames acting independently and naturally. Part of the ‘beauty’ or the effect, is in the contrast between the careful framing (generally involving architectural elements, houses and walls) and the unexpected spontaneity of the people who populate and animate each shot.

Her technique was to observe quietly, camera set up, waiting for something to enter the frame and fill it with life. And what life! Again and again her photos demonstrate the triumph of the human spirit over real poverty and deprivation. And cheeky kids. Long suffering mums and cheeky kids up to no good.

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

As she explained in an interview:

Whole streets were disappearing and I hoped to capture some trace of the everyday life of the people who lived there. I wanted to photograph the mundane, even trivial aspects of life not being recorded by anyone else. My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.

Some squatted in old buildings, trying to hang on to the life they knew. They didn’t have much. Things were decided for them…

What happened next

Baker’s photos capture the reality of what it meant when Manchester councils embarked on their programme of tearing down Victorian terraced houses to make room for larger, ‘modern’, low-rise flats in areas such as Salford and Hulme.

She saw the process as a needless attack on the street life of the area’s poor but vibrant communities, reducing the areas families had lived in for generations to smouldering rubble.

Salford 1964 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Salford 1964 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

These new ‘brutalist’ flats and tower blocks (such as the infamous Hulme Estate) were a utopian attempt to solve the housing crisis in the Manchester area at the time, enthusiastically supported by architects, designers, planners and councillors.

However, within 20 years, due to poor construction, high crime rates, and pest infestations, many of these buildings went the same way as their terraced forefathers, only with new layers of urban alienation – rotting windows, broken lifts, smelling of piss, covered in graffiti, crack dens. As one writer commented:

The upper floors had wide walkways which were envisaged as ‘sophisticated streets in the sky’ but which ended up providing handy escape routes for drug dealers and other ne’er-do-wells who could make a quick getaway by bike.

This is why I have an abiding dislike or suspicion of architects and town planners: their forebears sold millions of British citizens down the river, condemning them to live, raise children and die in dirty, faulty, crumbling, crime-infested blocks of flats which, from time to time, go up in flames like fireworks (Grenfell Tower, built in 1974).

These are my pictures. They are the observations of one person. And they tell only a fraction of the story.

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

For sale

The 27 works by Shirley Baker which are on display in the Print Sales Gallery of the Photographers’ Gallery, many of them rare and vintage prints, are all for sale. Prices range from £750 to £2,500 plus VAT for stamped, annotated and signed prints.

A video

On YouTube there’s a slideshow of Baker’s photos made for an exhibition held at the Lowry a few years ago.


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Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Silver Lake Drive is a major new exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, the first mid-career survey of American photographer and filmmaker, Alex Prager (b.1979). The exhibition stretches over two floors, tracing Prager’s career especially over the last ten years, bringing together 40 photographs and all six of her films to date.

Be warned: I loathed this exhibition. It epitomises for me almost everything I hate about modern America, modern art and modern culture.

3:14pm, Pacific Ocean, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

3:14pm, Pacific Ocean, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

The end of America

Let’s take a moment to consider, quite literally, where Alex Prager is coming from – the United States of America.

Although it has by far the largest economy in the world ($20.4 trillion, compared to China’s $14 trillion and Japan’s $5 trillion), is at the forefront of the digital revolution, and bombards the world with its cultural products and brands, to the educated outsider it sometimes seems as if America has become, in the past generation or so, in many ways a failing state. Consider:

– America’s war on terror, its invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, its extraordinary rendition, its black op sites, its legalising of torture and its waterboarding, its use of drone warfare to bring death from the skies all across the Muslim world.

– America’s dire race relations, its black men shot on a weekly basis by its racist police, home of the largest prison population in the world (2.2 million), mostly blacks and Hispanics.

– America’s war on drugs, kicked off by President Nixon back in 1971 and a dismal failure, 21 million Americans now battle serious drug addictions, the curator of the Thomas Cole art exhibition was telling me last week how terrifying the scale and destruction of the opioid epidemic is becoming.

– Entire American cities like Detroit, Birmingham and Flint have gone bankrupt, abandoned in smouldering ruins, urban wastelands, blighted generations.

– America’s high school massacres (23 so far this year) are just the most tip of by far the highest rate of murder by firearm in the developed world, some 11,000 homicides involving guns occurred in 2016, but despite this, the pitiful inability of America’s lawmakers to rein in gun ownership.

– America’s shameful healthcare system which condemns scores of millions of citizens (11% of Americans have no health insurance) to misery, unnecessary pain and death.

– America’s grotesque inequality, with 750,000 Americans sleeping rough every night and 21 percent of all children in poverty, a higher rate than any other developed country. In 2011 the 400 wealthiest Americans owned more wealth than the bottom 50% of all Americans combined.

– America’s elephantine consumption of resources, with 5% of the world’s population it consumes 25% of the world’s fossil fuels and creates half the world’s solid waste.

– America’s pioneering place in the forefront of consumer capitalism, vast corporations devoted to the creation of entirely false needs and wants, slick American marketing and merchandising of junk food, junk music and junk movies to screw money out of a glamour-bedazzled population of drones. Fat food and fizzy drinks rich in high-fructose corn syrup have helped just over 40% of Americans to be categorised as obese.

– America’s new wave of digital corporations busy embedding surveillance devices (mobile phones and tablets) in every home in the world, recording every phone call, tracking all your movements, logging every ‘like’, in order to build up data profiles of every human on the planet on a scale the Stasi or the KGB could only dream of.

– America’s rotten political culture which means the two main parties can barely talk to each other, a paralysing political polarisation which regularly prevents the signing-off of the federal budget and so brings the entire government to the brink of collapse. America with its Tea Party and its Moral Majority and its President Trump. Nations get the leaders they deserve and so America awarded itself a bullshit artist, a dumb-ass, know-nothing, braggart, pussy-grabbing bully-boy.

This is America today.

Thank you Lord Jesus for Donald Trump

Thank you Lord Jesus for Donald Trump (Photo NOT by Alex Prager, courtesy of Business Insider)

Why fetishise American culture?

Why on earth would any other nation look up to or respect this toxic, spoilt, inequitable, over-privileged, environment-destroying, resource-stripping, war-mongering, increasingly unhappy and fractured country?

But despite all this, the British cultural élite loves America. Film critics, art critics, literature critics, theatre critics, ballet critics, music critics, photography critics fall over themselves to praise the flood of cultural imports from the land of hyper-capitalism, drug abuse, gun violence and its mindless, debasing, consumer culture which pours over Britain and Europe like mass-marketed, slush-puppie-flavoured effluent (this week’s cultural highlights including Solo: A Star Wars Movie, Deadpool 2, Jurassic World and Ocean’s 8).

Alex Prager’s America

To me, Alex Prager’s photographs and films come right from the core of this drugged-out, unwittingly privileged, terrifyingly shallow and superficial culture. It takes a lot of effort to be this heartlessly narcissistic.

The Big Valley: Susie and Friends (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The Big Valley: Susie and Friends (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The big picture

Americans like big. Big Mac, Big Whopper, extra fries, large Coke, Cinemascope, three-D movies, Technicolor, widescreen, obesity, surplus, excess.

Same here. Prager’s photos are enormous, so big that each one gets a wall to itself.

Installation view of Alex Prager at the Photographers' Gallery

Installation view of Alex Prager at the Photographers’ Gallery

Not only big, but very LOUD – overlit and packed with pin-prick, crystal-clear, digitally-enhanced details, a surfeit, a superfluity, a plethora of minutiae.

There are no out-of-focus backgrounds in Prager’s photos, no receding depths of mystery. Nothing is mysterious, not visually mysterious. There is job lot after job lot of Americans posed and photoed in hyper-real, digital clarity.

Sets and actors

What is the source of this hyper-reality?

Well, from the start of her career Prager’s approach has been to shoot on movie sets, creating carefully staged scenes heightened by hyper-styled costumes, over-makeup, bright lighting and the use of a richly saturated colour palette, all of which are designed to give the images a relentless visual intensity.

There is nowhere for the eye to rest. There are no shadows or out of focus bits to provide light and shade.

Thus, all of the people in this photo are actors, hired for the job, elaborately dressed, made-up, staged and arranged in order to create an entirely fake composition, posing as a slice of reality, while all the time knowingly signposting its own artificiality.

The main strategy of all Prager’s photos (and films) is to draw attention to their own artificiality.

Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach), 2013 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach) 2013 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

That’s it. If you like elaboration, artifice, contrivance, kitsch and camp and fakery, then you’ll love the arch, knowing tone of Prager’s work. You’ll love the way her ‘Americans’ dress in a distinctively off-kilter way: the women generally wearing 1960s hairdos and dresses, many of the men sporting hats as if they’re extras from the Mad Men TV series.

Anaheim, 2017 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Anaheim (2017) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Grist for intellectual theorists

If you’re an intellectual who likes this kind of artifice and contrivance, this is precisely the kind of knowing, self-referentiality which has been celebrated and theorised by (predominantly French) critics for the past 60 years: the names of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault spring to mind and I’m sure appropriate texts can be mined from all of them to pad out descriptions of Prager’s hypertextuality and cultural intersections, with maybe a splash of Deleuze and Guattari thrown in, not forgetting Jean Baudrillard who theorised that reality had ceased to exist since we now live in a world entirely mediated by screens and images.

It is art designed to go straight from cultural producer to cultural analyst without its feet touching the ground.

Installation view of Alex prager at the Photographers' Gallery

Installation view of Alex Prager at the Photographers’ Gallery

And if you’re into film theory, there is literally no end to what you could find to write about Prager’s referencing of her 1960s filmic look and style, her use of actors and scenes and so on. And that’s before you get around to the fact that she has, with a kind of deadening inevitability, herself started making films.

Or, as the exhibition introduction puts it:

Prager’s distinctive works cross the worlds of art, fashion, photography and film, exposing the human melodrama and dark unsettling undercurrents that are threaded through her subject matter. Referencing the aesthetic principles of mid-twentieth century Hollywood cinema and fashion photography, as well as such photographers as William Eggleston, Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman, each of her images is packed with a multitude of emotional layers and narrative possibilities.

Are they ‘packed with a multitude of emotional layers’, though? Do they ‘expose the human melodrama and dark unsettling undercurrents that are threaded through her subject matter’?

Where is the melodrama in a load of actors posing on a set made to look like a beach?

Influences

Picking up on the photographers mentioned in that last sentence, some of Diane Arbus (1923-71)’s magnificent photos of circus ‘freaks’ were featured in the recent Barbican exhibition about Another Kind of Life. I’ve loved Arbus’s work ever since I watched a documentary about her back in the 1970s. She holds an unflinching lens up to a bewildering array of life’s outsiders, freaks and unfortunates. Unlike Prager, Arbus has soul (albeit a troubled, sometimes bewildered kind of soul).

Cindy Sherman seems a much more relevant comparison. Born in 1954, Sherman is known for her ‘conceptual portraits’ i.e. where she or a model dresses up in a persona, generally of a troubled, challenged or weeping woman, before photographing herself.

This approach, of dressing up and performing for the camera, in its knowing artificiality, in its arch mockery of any genuine feeling or emotion, seems to me a direct precedent for Prager.

Dazed women in the photos of Alex Prager

About half the time Prager’s photos focus on women, often in distress or with the blank ‘so what’ look of Valiumed-up housewives.

Here a characteristically thirty-something woman, dressed in a characteristically retro, 1960s dress and jacket, is having trouble coping with a flock of pigeons. A reference to Hitchcock’s The Birds, by any chance? Fancy writing an essay about Hitchcock and Prager? Go right ahead. Hundreds already have. Thousands will…

The empty road and dominating power lines (along with the comedy knock knees) emphasise the sense of abandonment, alienation and helplessness. Help me, help me.

The Big Valley: Eve (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The Big Valley: Eve (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Crowds

Prager’s best-known series is probably Crowd which depicts crowds on the beach, in airport lobbies, in seats at the theatre, each figure presented in isolated poses with a kind of hyper-realistic, super sharp focus. The curators think that these photos draw:

attention to individual characters and stories and hint at interior lives, separate from outward appearances.

Personally, I found them contrived, artificial and intensely irritating. Note the late 1950s/early 1960s clothes and haircuts in this photo, reminiscent, in its fake homeliness, of the Back to the Future movies.

Orchestra East, Section B (2016) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Orchestra East, Section B (2016) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The only upside to looking at some of the photos was that, after a while, I noticed the recurrence of certain faces, presumably the same actors dressed and set up in different scenarios.

In particular, I began to hope that the light-brown-haired woman dominating this shot, and who appears in a number of other photos, was really Matt Lucas who might at any moment start to mutter catchphrases from Little Britain. ‘Computer says no,’ maybe, or, ‘Want that one’, which would be particularly suitable for American gluttony.

But no. My puerile sense of humour is way out of place. There is no humour, no warmth, no emotion, not a flicker of irony or sparkle in any of these photos. Just digitally print-perfect robots dressed as people, sometimes in crowds (on the beach, in the theatre, drowning in the sea) sometimes solitary women having breakdowns, sometimes in deliberately bizarre and contrived situations.

3:32pm, Coldwater Canyon, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

3:32pm, Coldwater Canyon, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

For fans and devotees of Prager, I can see how there is not only masses to write about her artful ‘intersection’ of Hollywood, consumer culture and the artifice of everyday life but, also, and inevitably, with a feminist perspective on the role of women in her photos (and films).

American feminism that is, feminism drenched in American cultural values i.e. a particular type of rich, white entitlement. (‘Hillary should have won. It’s our time. Me too. I want more. Give us more.’) Thus the curators:

The female figure functions as a central protagonist in Prager’s tableaux and is singled out for attention through composition, camera angle and costume. The women in her frames are often shot in extreme close-up to capture exaggerated emotion, wear highly styled and codified clothes and sport elaborate, improbable hairstyles.

The Big Valley: Desiree (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The Big Valley: Desiree (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Does this photo of a woman capture her ‘exaggerated emotion’? I’d have thought that that is exactly and precisely what all of Prager’s photos do not do. Surely that should read ‘exaggerated indifference’.

Dehumanised

On a different floor of the Photographers’ Gallery there’s currently a wonderful exhibition of black and white photos by English photographer, Tish Murtha, a documentary photographer who took quick, on-the-hoof but nonetheless beautifully composed and deeply moving photos of the unemployed, the poor and wretched of her hometown Newcastle, during the 1970s and 80s.

In almost every one of her photographs the humour, the cockiness, the indomotable charm of her subjects leaps out, alongside her own empathy, her compassion, her concern and her tremendous artistry.

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha and The Photographers’ Gallery

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha and The Photographers’ Gallery

All these human qualities – care, compassion, empathy, humour, fun, larking about, playing, joking, being in real trouble, helping each other out, community and concern – every faculty and emotion which make human existence worthwhile, rich and full, seem to me to have been surgically removed from Prager’s artificial pictures of artificial people leading artificial lives.

It is as if someone has rewritten Ira Levin’s horror classic The Stepford Wives to celebrate the transformation of human beings into emotionless, perfectly made-up, lemon-dress-wearing zombies.

They are like photographic accompaniments to David Byrne’s many songs about rich white Americans having nervous breakdowns.

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? (Once in A Lifetime by Talking Heads, 1980)

Alex Prager’s films

Having spent so much time working with actors, sets and make-up it was pretty inevitable that Prager would take the small further step into the ‘medium of film’ itself. According to the gallery:

In her films, (which draw upon film noir, as well as the work of Maya Deren and Alain Resnais), women take centre stage in open-ended narratives, portraying a range of sharply contrasting emotional states – often with the camera trained in extreme close-up on their faces.

Her first film, Despair starred Bryce Dallas Howard, while her second short La Petite Mort (2012) starred French actress Judith Godreche, with narration from Gary Oldman. Prager sees these immersive film installations as ‘full-sensory versions’ of her photographs; an attempt ‘to show the before, now and after of one of my images.’

Indeed, the exhibition presents Prager’s entire filmic oeuvre on various monitors and in darkened rooms around the gallery, her oeuvre to date consisting of six films, namely:

2010 Despair starring Bryce Dallas Howard
2011 Touch of Evil
2012 La Petite Mort starring Judith Godreche, Gary Oldman
2012 Sunday
2013 Face in the Crowd starring Elizabeth Banks
2015 La Grande Sortie starring Emilie Cozette, Karl Paquette

Some of them are on YouTube. Judge for yourself.

Despair (2010)

The use of Bryce Dallas Howard, star of the unnecessary Jurassic World (2015, box office $1.672 billion) and the just-released Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Jurassic World but with an exploding volcano) says it all.

When Howard throws herself out of the window it isn’t as a result of any realistic emotion or psychology, but as emptily as a fashion statement. And she doesn’t fall, she floats elegantly, dreamily down as you might float on Valium or opioids, floating high in American La La Land where nothing means anything, where any human not on a screen or the cover of a fashion magazine fills you with stress and anxiety and the wish to escape.

‘Portraying a range of sharply contrasting emotional states’? Really? Surely it’s the opposite.

La Petite Mort (2012)

A student friend of mine, very stressed about his degree course, one night made a list of all the books he’d have to read in order to get the good degree everyone expected of him. He left it on his study table and walked down to the railway station. It was late at night, no one around, so he climbed down onto the line and walked it a bit, before carefully laying down with his neck precisely on the rail. A train came along and decapitated him.

Compare and contrast the messy, deeply upsetting reality of death-by-train with the opioid dream of Prager’s female character in this pretentious film. Hit by a joke train from a Keystone Cops movie, she flies cartoon-style through the air and lands in a pond from which she emerges with her hair totally untouched by the water, Valium-open-eyed at the whole experience.

I can hear a brainless Valley Girl, film studies student cooing over it: “It was like so totally, you know, like completely random, like so crazee, it’s just such a cool film, don’t you think she looks so cool when she comes out of the water, it’s like such a great idea, I totally love her films.”

For me films like this represent the death of film, the death of psychology, the death of intelligence, the death of culture.

Broadly speaking American culture reflects American society and American politics, which are all in a kind of life-after-death situation. The entire reason for there being a nation called America as a refuge from troublesome Europe, as a place to go and build a new life, as a place to live out the American Dream –

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

has evaporated. It is dead, defunct. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. The Wild West frontier was closed a century ago, there is nowhere left to emigrate to, no escape. Americans are all locked in with each other now, with the result that they over-eat, take vast quantities of mind-numbing drugs, and go on shooting sprees at their local schools or shopping malls.

America voted for a leader whose Big Idea is erecting huge walls to keep them at bay – them, the outsiders, the Mexicans, the Muslims, the enemies – and hunkering down in a paranoid Fortress State, making the misery more bearable by munching opioid painkillers and watching Alex Prager movies.

No reason left to exist and yet 325 million people are condemned to go on living in the wreckage of all those historical illusions and expectations, they don’t know why – taking mind-suppressing drugs to cope with the suburban accidie, staring blankly at their multiplicity of screens – toneless, affectless, incapable of communicating with other people, staring in bewilderment at each other as if they’re magazine adverts come to life.

Still from Despair by Alex Prager

Still from Despair by Alex Prager. Help. Help me.

Do any of the people in Prager’s films actually talk? You know, like, maybe talk to another person, to another human being? Speak? Communicate?

No. Because they are each trapped within the doped-out prisons of their own consciousnesses. Trapped in the solipsistic nightmare which is contemporary America. Lost, in every sense.

La Grande Sortie (2015)

Paris. Style. Fashion. The ballet. The stage. Performance. Artifice. Parting lips of sexual arousal. The uncanny. The sinister. The face in the audience. Help. HELP!

The unhappy country

Pity the Americans. So rich, and so unhappy.

“Over a broader time frame, our subjective well-being has declined across the board in each and every state, even as the economy has sprung back to life. America is growing increasingly unhappy.”

For me, Prager’s photographs and films – highly professional, carefully contrived and immaculately finished as they undoubtedly are – are at the same time blank-faced symptoms of America’s epic cultural and social decline.

Through them an entire nation is crying, ‘Help us. We don’t know how to talk to each other, how to communicate, how to feel anything any more. We don’t know how to live. Please, please help us.’

The neediness of all these rich white Americans made me want to puke.

But then again, maybe you like it. I’ve tried to present enough evidence a) for you to make your own mind up, and b) to explain my own, personal, rather extreme, anaphylactic abreaction to her work.

1970s album art

I had a strong sense of déjà vu all the way through the show’s two floors, a sense that I had seen its slick, gimmicky, elaborate heartlessness somewhere before.

It was only later, scanning the Intertubes, that I realised Prager’s photos remind me of rock album cover art from the 1970s, which was also designed to convey a sense of alienation, contrivance and cynicism by creating apparently realistic scenes offset by jarring details.

For example:

On the Beach by Neil Young

On the Beach by Neil Young (1974)

Or:

Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd, cover art by Hipgnosis

Wish You Were Here (1975) by Pink Floyd, cover art by Hipgnosis

These albums are both over forty years old. Nothing, it seems, changes in southern California, land of rich white people in therapy and on tranquilisers and, like, God, so depressed.


The book of the exhibition

Thames and Hudson are publishing a hardback survey of Prager’s work, Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive to coincide with the exhibition. It contains 120 photographs summarising Prager’s career to date.

Curator

Silver Lake Drive is curated by Nathalie Herschdorfer and produced in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts Le Locle.

Related links

Other blog posts about photography

Print! Tearing It Up @ Somerset House

This is a funky, fascinating and sometimes very funny exhibition celebrating the longstanding tradition of independent British magazine publishing over the past fifty years or so. And it is FREE!

Past

There’s a nod to older, historical magazines at the start of the show, where the curators display a couple of copies of Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticist magazine, Blast!, from 1915 – a quite extraordinary typographical and editorial irruption into the sedate world of Edwardian gentlemen’s magazines – and a copy of Peace News from the 1930s — but overall this isn’t a historical exhibition, its focus is very much on the modern (post-1960s) tradition of alternative and right-on magazines, with a special interest in the reflowering of indie magazines in the last decade or so.

Things really get going in the late 1960s with the birth of counter-cultural and the founding of critical magazines like Spare Rib (1972-93), Black Dwarf (1968-72), Oz (1967-73) and Private Eye (1961 to the present). The exhibition then traces the evolution of small, independent, counter-cultural, as well as fashion and music and art and architecture magazines, from then to the present day.

Spare Rib 1972 © Angela Phillips

Spare Rib 1972 © Angela Phillips

Several gallery walls are covered with a massive wire grille on which have been hung scores and scores of magazines, with a dazzling variety of photographic, typographical and design styles, to admire and enjoy, with titles like international times, Beaver, Mole, Frendz, Shrew (‘the suppressed power of female sexuality’), Pink, Gay Left, Squatters and so on. The funniest title was Prada Meinhof (bright green, in the centre right of the photo below) which bears the text ‘Only way to change things – is to shoot the men who arrange things’. Right on, sister.

Installation view of Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House, photo by Doug Peters

Installation view of Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House, photo by Doug Peters

Alongside these wall displays are a number of glass cases focusing on the stories of particular magazines or themes.

For example, on Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop Sex in the King’s Road which received coverage around 1976 in sex-related mags like Forum and Gallery International as well as the giveaway magazine West One, edited by a young Janet Street-Porter.

Another case focuses on Gandalf’s Garden, the official publication for the collectively run ‘head shop’ for hippies also in the King’s Road, which issued six copies from 1968 to 1969.

Contemporary art and graphics have been publicised in a tradition of small magazines like ApolloArt Line in Newcastle, Modern PaintersFrieze, Arty, Garageland and Pavement Licker.

Satirical artworld writing could more recently be found in titles like Sleazenation (1996-2004), Vice, and the attractively titled Shoreditch Twat.

In one case the show draws links between the 1935 art magazine Axis launched by writer Myfanwy Jones, and the art and politics magazine Mute, founded in 1994 and still going strong.

Private Eye Issue 815, 12 March 1993 © Private Eye

Private Eye Issue 815, 12 March 1993 © Private Eye

In 1977 Peter York wrote a defining article for Harpers magazine about the independent magazines of the day, mentioning such obscure productions as Emma Tennant’s literary quarterly Bananas, lifestyle mag The New Style and Nick Kimberley’s reggae pamphlet, Pressure Drop.

And a whole display case is devoted to the worldwide publishing and digital success which is Time Out, launched in 1968 and overseen for most of the time since then by publisher Tony Elliott.

Alternative music mags have included Freakbeat, Zigzag, Echoes, Rough Trade, Flexipop!, SFX with more modern publications emerging from grime and dub-step like Woofah, Push and Trench.

And so on and so on.

The mindmap

Confused? You should be – the last fifty years have witnessed wave after wave of new, small, independent, radical magazines catering to an ever-expanding list of issues and constituencies.

One entire wall of the exhibition is devoted to a vast mind-map which shows the links and interconnections  between all these independent magazines. If you buy the exhibition booklet (£4.50) you get a free fold-out version of it (though not quite this big!).

Mind map of British magazines

Mind map of British magazines

… and present

Only a little way into the show does its origin and motivation become a bit clearer, specifically the motivation of exhibition curator Paul Gorman.

In 2011 Gorman finished writing a history of The Face, the cultural magazine published from 1980 to 2004. In doing so, in comparing the Face to its current equivalents and looking for its lasting legacy, Gorman had become aware of the raft of indie mags emerging from the wreckage of the economic crash of 2008. In an interview with The Drum (see second video, below) Gorman says:

Around 2011, 2012 I noticed these magazines emerging – like The Gentlewoman and Mushpit – and I was quite encouraged by the fact they were being published mainly by young women. They were anti-corporate, and they had all those values that appealed to me.

It inspired Gorman to take stock of the magazine culture of our times and he realised that, although some high-profile magazines had recently gone to the wall (Glamour, Look), sparking an outbreak of gloom among high-end publishers, we are actually living amid a resurgence of cheaply produced, anti-establishment, freethinking publications.

A little like the revival of vinyl records and just as counter-intuitively, print magazines are going from strength to strength in the digital era.

Garageland Issue 19 2015 SELF © Paul Gorman Archive/ Photography: Milly Spooner

Garageland Issue 19 2015 SELF © Paul Gorman Archive/ Photo by Milly Spooner

So mixed in among the older examples from the 60s, 70s and 80s in the exhibition, is a rich selection of mags from just the past decade or so, which address 21st century issues.

As I walked round, admiring all this visual energy and creativity, I reflected that although Gorman and the other curators might find it inspiring and exciting that there are so many mags celebrating ‘alternative views’ on lifestyle, leisure and architecture or addressing topical issues including diversity, gender, sexuality and media manipulation… us older visitors might instead notice the surprising continuities between the concerns of 1968 and those of 2018 and draw different conclusions.

My take would be that, although gender, sex and race continue to be as reliable money-spinners as ever they were – expressing black anger, women’s anger, the newer range of LGBT+ anger, Asian anger and so on – and are enthusiastically snapped up by guilty young white students, meanwhile the ideas which seemed dominant in my youth – socialism, communism, Marxism, and working class politics – seem to have largely disappeared.

The white working class communities that I thought I was helping when I joined the Young Socialists in 1977 have been redefined into union jack-waving, Tommy Robinson-supporting, Brexit-voting chavs, recategorised as patriarchal racists. Now all the liberal press tells us we should be supporting female BBC presenters, Hollywood actresses and illegal immigrants everywhere.

The lads who empty my bins every week? No one writes about them or gives a damn about their lives. I suppose they just don’t live at the intersection of style, fashion, gender and race.

Thiiird Issue 1 COMMUNITY © Thiiird/Photography: Turkina Faso

Thiiird Issue 1 COMMUNITY © Thiiird / Photo by Turkina Faso

To quote the exhibition text:

The debate surrounding gender and sexuality has been reflected in the success of hugely popular magazines launched in the past decade, from The Gentlewoman, which can chart its evolution from Spare Rib, the seminal feminist magazine founded in the 1970s, to Ladybeard, Ablaze! and D.I.Y zines created by teenage feminist collectives in 1990s-2000s, among many more showcased.

Similarly, the exhibition celebrates the rise in titles dedicated to ethnic minority communities and concerns, with examples including gal-dem, Thiiird and Burnt Roti, which showcases South Asian creativity.

Positive News Issue 90 Third Quarter 2017 NEW MASCULINITY © Positive News Magazine/ Paul Gorman Archive/Photography: Theo Jemison

Positive News Issue 90 Third Quarter 2017 NEW MASCULINITY © Positive News Magazine / Paul Gorman Archive / Photo by Theo Jemison

If it ain’t black, queer or about women it doesn’t seem to have any purchase, any traction, any validity.

That said, there are plenty of other contemporary magazines which are not directly political, all manner of magazines out there which I’d never heard of, such as Real Review and Eyesore which promote new writing on architecture and the urban environment, Little White Lies focusing on film, and The Gourmand on food.

Read, listen, watch

The last room in the exhibition is devoted to this very pink pop-up newstand bearing a variety of bang up-to-date mags which you are invited to browse through.

The pink pop-up newstand at Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House. Photo by Doug Peters

The pink pop-up newstand at Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House. Photo by Doug Peters

Could have done with some chairs or a couple of sofas to really kick back in.

Podcasts

The pop-up newstand is next to a row of equally pink booths each with a set of headphones for you to slip on and listen to podcasts i.e. brief interviews or monologues by key figures from the recent history of independent magazines.

It would have been interesting to find out more about the impact of digital technology on magazine and news culture:

How much has digital supplanted print magazines? Are there particular reasons why some magazines have gone out of print and out of business, while others are successfully making the move to an online-only existence? Is it luck, or something to do with the subject matter, or the audiences?

And what does it take to succeed in setting up an alternative mag in the current climate? A good business plan? A clear proposition for your advertising department to promote?To what extent does the need to sell adverts undermine or negate any claim to ‘radical’ thought?

The exhibition prompted all these thoughts and more, but didn’t really address any of them. Where should I go to understand a) the current state of play among radical mags b) the direction of travel?

Activities

The exhibition is accompanied by a rash of activities including all-female activist lines-ups, explorations of self-education, acknowledgment of architectural anarchy, plus a PROCESS! Festival co-curated by Somerset House Studios artists OOMK (One of My Kind).

The PROCESS! Festival will run from Saturday 21 to Sunday 22 July and will celebrate independent media and making, bringing together established and emerging designers, artists, activists and publishers to explore, interrogate and share approaches to creative and collaborative processes.

Videos

There is, of course, a promotional video.

And this useful video report on the show by The Drum.


Related links

Reviews of other Somerset House exhibitions

Killed Negatives @ the Whitechapel Gallery

The Farm Security Administration Photography Program

The Great Depression of the 1930s wreaked havoc on America’s farmers. Collapse in demand coincided with several years of drought-like conditions to turn a lot of the mid-West into what contemporaries described as the ‘dustbowl’.

President Roosevelt instituted a broad set of economic policies designed to stimulate the whole U.S. economy, referred to as the New Deal. To help and support farmers struggling in real poverty, often close to the starvation line, Roosevelt set up the Resettlement Administration (1935–1937) which was succeeded by the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Among numerous other strands of activity, the FSA commissioned a photography program which ran from 1935 to 1944. The aims were to send America’s best photographers to the poorest parts of the country to expose and document the terrible extent of American rural poverty. The shots were used in government publications to justify government spending and were widely distributed to newspapers and magazines to alert urban readers to the terrible conditions in the countryside.

Installation view of Killed Negatives at the Whitechapel Gallery

Installation view of Killed Negatives at the Whitechapel Gallery

In total the FSA photography programme generated some 175,000 photographs, amounting to a vast pictorial record of rural American life between 1935 and 1944.

The photography programme was headed for most of its existence by Roy E. Stryker, in his capacity as head of the Information Division of the FSA. He launched the photography program in 1935 and continued to oversee it after it underwent various administrative mutations, through until 1944.

Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression

Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression

The programme clinched the reputations of some of the great photojournalists including Walker Evans (1903–1975), Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) and Russell Lee (1903 – 1986), who produced heart-rending images of rural life which have also come to be seen as great art. Books were compiled from the photos – such as the influential Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) which had an elegiac text by writer James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans. Original prints of the more famous shots now command large sums at auction. (N.B. An exhibition of Dorothea Lange’s photos is just about to open at the Barbican.)

So far, so well known. But there is a little-told aspect of the whole programme which this exhibition is designed to bring to a wider audience.

Strict control and killed negatives

For what is not often mentioned is the iron control which Stryker exerted over the photographers and their work.

Stryker personally selected the photographers and gave them detailed briefs or ‘shooting scripts’ to work from. He kept in close touch with ‘his’ photographers, via letters and telegrams sending his responses to the photographers’ work and giving detailed suggestions on how they could improve, which locations they should be going to, what they should be snapping – always cajoling and instructing them on how to take the kind of images which the Administration needed to support and validate its work.

Most harshly of all, Stryker developed a ruthless method of editing work he didn’t like. He examined every roll of film by every photographer, as they were posted back to, and developed at, the Administration’s Washington headquarters.

And if he didn’t like it, if it wasn’t good enough quality, or was off subject, then Stryker personally mutilated the negative with a hole puncher. Any prints made of these rejected images would be definitively unusable because of the big black dot plonked right in the middle by Stryker’s hole puncher.

Untitled photo by Russell Lee, possibly related to Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota, August 1937

Untitled photo by Russell Lee, possibly related to Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota, August 1937

And so thousands of negatives by American photographers were systematically destroyed in the 1930s, these irreparable images becoming known as ‘killed negatives’.

The exhibition

This one-room free exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery display presents about 70 prints made from some of the thousands of negatives rejected and mutilated by Stryker, shedding a fascinating sidelight on this well-known period and its photographic output.

Some photos you can see straight away aren’t that powerful and not good enough to be included in a book or magazine article. But quite a few others have the potential to be really powerful.

Untitled photo by Arthur Rothstein, possibly related to Sharecropper's wife and children, Arkansas August 1935

Untitled photo by Arthur Rothstein, possibly related to Sharecropper’s wife and children, Arkansas August 1935

The 70 or so prints are hung in a great cluster across two walls of the gallery. Nearby are display cases showing original correspondence from Styker to his snappers, demonstrating just how much detail he went into when critiquing the work of his photographers. The cases include examples of the typed-out shooting scripts which the photographers were given, alongside a selection of the photographers’ personal and administrative records. Both the letters and the shooting scripts give a really candid insight into the tone of voice used among these professional men, and into the day-to-day practicalities of selecting destinations, finding likely subjects, hiring cars, arranging hotels and so on.

Censorship to surrealism

So far, so interesting and so much a contribution to a little-known aspect of a well-known part of photography history.

But bringing all these killed negatives together like this has the odd effect of creating a distinct aesthetic. Having a big black circle added to them somehow lends quite a few of these images a strange surreal beauty.

Untitled photo by Paul Carter, possibly related to Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts, March 1936

Untitled photo by Paul Carter, possibly related to Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts, March 1936

Viewed from our modern perspective, eighty years later, and taken together, as a collection, the effect of the ‘black spot’ stamped harshly onto faces, buildings and landscapes is to transform old images into something weird, extra and beguiling.

And so, quite unexpectedly, something which ought to be a dry historical footnote has been turned, by selective curating, into a kind of work of art in itself.

Untitled photo by Carl Mydans, possibly related to Transients clearing land. Prince George's County, Maryland, November 1935

Untitled photo by Carl Mydans, possibly related to Transients clearing land. Prince George’s County, Maryland, November 1935

Contemporary responses

So much so, that the collection has prompted responses to the killed negatives from contemporary artists, some of which are included here.

Etienne Chambaud (b. 1980) responds to a Walker Evans ‘killed negative’ by attempting to fill the hole. William E. Jones’ (b.1962) work Punctured is itself created from a sequence of ‘killed negatives’. Bill McDowell’s (b. 1956) art book Ground takes ‘killed negatives’ as its subject. Lisa Oppenheim (b. 1975) is interested in the space obscured by the hole; her print After Walker Evans fills in the hole in a photo of wooden shacks with colour detail, while blacking out the rest of the image.

Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans (Untitled) by Lisa Oppenheim (2015) © Lisa Oppenheim. Courtesy The Approach, London

Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans (Untitled) by Lisa Oppenheim (2015) © Lisa Oppenheim. Courtesy The Approach, London

Interesting and creative, aren’t they? But can’t really compete with the originals’ peculiar combination of black and white nostalgia for a time of terrible poverty with this strangely modernist feature of the random black dots lifting them into Marcel Duchamp territory. Fascinating and eerie.


Related links

Other exhibitions currently on at the Whitechapel Gallery

Reviews of other Whitechapel Gallery exhibitions

ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies @ the Whitechapel Gallery

The ISelf collection is a UK-based collection of contemporary art which focuses on ‘issues of identity and the human condition’. In other words – bodies.

It was established in 2009 and includes paintings, sculptures and photographs mainly of the human body with a deliberate emphasis towards collecting female artists.

In other words – women’s bodies.

Installation view of ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies at the at the Whitechapel Gallery. Photo by Steven White

Installation view of ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies at the at the Whitechapel Gallery. Photo by Steven White

This exhibition is the final one in a series of four selections from the collection which the Whitechapel has held over the past twelve months, each one showcasing works by different artists in the collection. This one displays the work of 23 international artists.

To quote the blurb, the exhibition:

invites us to reflect on the notion of self by questioning the physical and material cohesion of bodies and sculptures… Works on show offer fragmented, deconstructed and visceral perspectives where bodies intersect with inanimate objects… In this final display drawn from the ISelf collection artists open up the possibility of thinking beyond selfhood.

The exhibition as a whole takes its name from one particular work, a vivid depiction of pregnancy being undergone by what looks like a transhuman cyborg from the future – Bumped Body by Paloma Varga Weisz’s (b. 1966, Germany).

Bumped Body (2007) by Paloma Varga Weisz. Courtesy of Paloma Varga Weisz © DACS 2018. Photo by Stefan Hostettler, Düsseldorf

Bumped Body (2007) by Paloma Varga Weisz. Courtesy of Paloma Varga Weisz © DACS 2018. Photo by Stefan Hostettler, Düsseldorf

According to the guide, the work:

reflects on the idea of pregnancy as an extreme form of selfhood, examining the tension between the expectant body as a subject and an object.

Pregnancy is one of the most extreme states of the human condition, according to art theorist Amelia Jones, as it reveals the ‘tension between self as subject and self as object’. The entire exhibition is a reflection on ‘shifting concepts of selfhood’.

The intersection between bodies and inanimate objects is probably most vividly dramatised in Quan (2009-10) by Berlinde De Bruyckere, where a wax cast of a bony-assed white person is burrowing into a dirty mattress, for all the world like a character from a Samuel Beckett monologue. We’ve all had mornings like this.

Quan (2009-10) by Berlinde De Bruyckere. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth © Berlinde De Bruyckere. Photo by Mirjam Devriendt

Quan (2009-10) by Berlinde De Bruyckere. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth © Berlinde De Bruyckere. Photo by Mirjam Devriendt

Nearby are some elegant if distorted thighs and calves cast in slabby bronze stepping out atop a pair of chunky platform shoes, As yet untitled (Croccioni bronze) by Rebecca Warren (UK b.1965). According to the catalogue, these

striding high-heeled legs fuse high Modernism with the lowly comic book in an expression of pure Eros.

As yet untitled (Croccioni bronze), 2009 by Rebecca Warren. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London © Rebecca Warren

As yet untitled (Croccioni bronze), 2009 by Rebecca Warren. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London © Rebecca Warren

Talking of the erotic, nearby is a striking silk print showing multiple iterations of a photo of a pneumatic naked woman slightly bending forward, much in the style of Andy Warhol. Deprived of a face, and so of much identity, and in its dumb repetition, surely pretty much a straightforward objectification of the female body – or so I would have thought.

Untitled (5 Nudes) circa 1980 by John Stezaker. Courtesy of John Stezaker and Friedrich Petzel, New York

Untitled (5 Nudes) circa 1980 by John Stezaker. Courtesy of John Stezaker and Friedrich Petzel, New York

Taking the mickey out of all such po-faced, soft-porn images of naked women is Sarah Lucas, sticking her tongue out at men, male artists, and office furniture.

Oral Gratification by Sarah Lucas (2000) Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London © Sarah Lucas

Oral Gratification by Sarah Lucas (2000) Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London © Sarah Lucas

Here she’s taken a rugby ball, covered it in glue and then carefully encrusted it with cigarettes moulded to its conical shape. She’s then sawn the result in half and stuck each half to the back-rest of a modern office chair, to create a crude caricature of a female torso. Lucas’s work is:

characterised by witty verbal and visual puns and a satirical look at sexual politics and the representation of women in the media.

Ever since I saw her stuff in the Sensation exhibition 21 years ago, I’ve loved it and wanted to see more of her bovver boy approach to sculpture and popular culture. It’s a shame she doesn’t seem to be about much any more.

An entirely different and far more earnest approach to sculpture is taken by Tony Cragg CBE (b.1949 Liverpool) represented here by a cast of a head which has been distorted or winnowed by extreme wind and pressure into an apparently melting, futuristic form.

Big Head Green (2009) by Tony Cragg © DACS 2017

Big Head Green (2009) by Tony Cragg © DACS 2017

So far I’ve picked out six of the biggest, most obvious works, but there were some 16 others, often more subtle and oblique than these examples – like the simple twig with human hair attached made by Bojan Šarcevic, or the set of little puppets made by Wael Shawky which represent the story of the Crusades from the Arab point of view, or the series of postcards of Tudor kings and queens who’ve had their faces defaced by Ruth Claxton.

The whole show is contained in only one room but there’s really a quite startling variety of shapes, sizes and types of art on display. Strange, unnerving, unsettling – I liked it a lot. And it is FREE.

Installation view of ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies at the Whitechapel Gallery. Photo by Steven White

Installation view of ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies at the Whitechapel Gallery. Photo by Steven White

The artists are:

  • Maria Bartuszovà
  • Huma Bhabha
  • Alexandra Bircken
  • Tian Doan na Champassak
  • Ruth Claxton
  • Tony Cragg
  • Enrico David
  • Berlinde De Bruyckere
  • Geoffrey Farmer
  • Georg Herold
  • Kati Horna
  • Sarah Lucas
  • Seb Patane
  • Pippilotti Rist
  • Bojan Šarčević
  • Wael Shawky
  • Daniel Silver
  • John Stezaker
  • Nicola Tyson
  • Cathy Wilkes

Related links

Other exhibitions currently on at the Whitechapel Gallery

Reviews of other Whitechapel Gallery exhibitions

The London Open 2018 @ the Whitechapel Gallery

Every three years the Whitechapel Gallery just next to Aldgate East Tube station holds an art competition. It’s open to artists of any nationality so long as they are aged 26 or over, and live in one of London’s 32 boroughs.

The triannual event fell due this year and attracted over 2,600 submissions. The judges whittled these down to a selection of works by 22 artists. The London Open thus amounts to a fascinating snapshot of what young(ish) contemporary London-based artists are up to, what they’re thinking about, how they’re expressing themselves, and what media they’re choosing to do it in.

Or, as the press release puts it:

The exhibition features a diverse selection of 22 artists working in London and engaging with topical concerns; from the rapidly changing urban context, the environment, technology, gender to race representation, human relations, activism and post-colonial histories. Many artists work in unprecedented ways and across different artistic forms, ranging from painting, video and sound to installation, sculpture, performance and work online.

Downstairs

The first thing you see when you walk into the main gallery downstairs is a large frame from which hangs a kind of collage of fabrics, shreds and patches of all shapes, all rather drab in colour, with holes and gaps. It is The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin, born in California in 1976.

The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

This screen is in fact the ‘set’ against which three actors, wearing similarly styled clothes made from shreds and patches of fabric, perform a sort of play.

Costumes for The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

Costumes for The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

According to the exhibition guide, this

large-scale installation deconstructs the limits of painting, sculpture and performance. The piece will be activated by actors and dancers as part of a series of live events accompanying the exhibition, The London Open Live.

Walking past it you encounter probably the most striking piece in the show, New Spring Gardens (2016) by Rachel Champion, born in New York in 1982. From a small sea of building site rubble dotted with weeds emerge three large sculptures which echo the shapes of new high-rise buildings which are being built on the New Spring Gardens site at Vauxhall.

New Spring Gardens (2016) by Rachel Champion

New Spring Gardens (2016) by Rachel Champion

I was intrigued by what appeared to be live weeds growing from the rubble. How are they going to be fed during the exhibition, or are they very realistic plastic models?

On the left of the gallery I was taken by a set of three smallish sculptures by Renee So, born in Hong Kong in 1974. They are, from left to right, Cross-Legged Man (2018), Boot (2016), Woman (2018).

Three sculptures by Renee So

Three sculptures by Renee So

According to the guide, So:

bestows both monumental grandeur but also caricatural qualities to the figures in her works, which weave together a pattern of cross-cultural references.

Yes, I liked the humour implicit in the compositions and their squat, just-so, presence.

Beyond these was a complex installation by Rachel Pimm, born in Harare in 1984. The most prominent elements are a set of blue metal shelves containing various fragments of rock and numerous photos, next to a big screen showing a series of films. All of them concern the process of mining materials and minerals from the ground. To be precise:

Her installation tracks the fabrication of high-end architectural ceramic tiles, from initial mineral extraction to the fine finishing or rejection at the end of the production line.

Diagenetic Sequence Shelf (2017) by Rachel Pimm

Diagenetic Sequence Shelf (2017) by Rachel Pimm

On the opposite wall I warmed to a sequence of paintings by Des Lawrence, born in Wiltshire in 1970. Des takes inspiration from the obituary columns in newspapers, and then paints highly finished (as you can see) portraits relating to the subject’s career or achievements, painting with oil onto aluminium. In their photographic accuracy all four of his works here had an immediately strong visual impact.

Alexandr Serberov (2017) by Des Lawrence. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Todd White

Alexandr Serberov (2017) by Des Lawrence. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Todd White

Hanging from a nearby pillar was a clutch of headphones next to some chairs. You are invited to sit down, make yourself comfortable, slip on the headphones and listen to Grey Granular Fist, by the duo French and Mottershead – consisting of Rebecca French born in 1973 in London. and Andrew Mottershead born 1968 in Manchester.

Grey Granular Fist is from a series of audioworks with the overall title of Afterlife. It’s a 21-minute-long audiowork consisting of a soothing male voice reading out a quiet, methodical and spooky imagining of your own dead body sitting in a chair in a museum, slowly decomposing, and becoming incorporated into the other exhibits, with conservators competing with the natural process of physical decomposition to make your corpse into a sculpture, slowly ageing over time.

Grey Granular Fist is related to another work of theirs, Homebody, a 27-minute-long audio work in which the actress Lily Lowe Myers reads out a script inviting you to imagine yourself lying in your own bed, in your own home, surrounded by familiar objects except that, once again, you are dead. The voice proceeds to describe in loving detail how your body decomposes over days, years and centuries, alongside the disintegration of all your personal and social connections. Homebody can be enjoyed in its entirety online.

Placed in several locations around the ground floor gallery were sculptures by Jonathan Trayte, born in 1980 in Huddersfield. Trayte’s work:

reinterprets modern consumer behaviour and explores the psychology of desire through surface, material and light.

In fact, they are bizarrely shaped but working lights or lamps, made from a variety of materials of which plastic foam and soft fabrics are the most noticeable elements.

Lamps by Jonathan Trayte

Lamps by Jonathan Trayte

As noticeable as the lamps themselves was the way each one stands on a box covered with a kind of green carpet and the way this carpeting extends down across the floor to create a kind of ‘island’ for each set of his works, a carpet you must be careful not to tread on…

Pride of place at the end of the main gallery is an enormous red neon sign displaying a sequence of numbers.

This Much I'm Worth (The Self-Evaluating Art Work) by Rachel Ara (2017)

This Much I’m Worth (The Self-Evaluating Art Work) by Rachel Ara (2017)

The aim of the piece was to use a variety of algorithms to calculate the changing value of a piece of art like this. I wasn’t much impressed because this idea – that almost before it’s been created, a work of modern art is categorised and valued – strikes me as being very old: it is the modern cynic’s view of art going back from Damian Hirst via Jeff Koons to Andy Warhol who said, ‘Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.’

Indeed, one of the most famous things about modern art, to the outsider, is the ridiculous amounts of money nowadays being paid for it. The art market is a fascinating area of study in itself, related to, for example, the disposable income of Russian oligarchs and Middle Eastern Wealth Funds, as well as to the assessment of wealth managers as to whether this or that piece represents a good investment, related to whether the artist has managed to create a successful ‘look’ and style, has made themselves into a brand, has got a good contract with dealers in London, New York, Beijing and so on.

If any of this – the existence and value of art out there in the real world of buyers and sellers, in the international marketplace of art –  was present in the piece it really didn’t come across. What was more evident and visible was the extraordinary array of computers required along the bottom of the display, as well as the extremely messy tangle of wires and cables.

It seemed to me that the piece was much more about its own construction than about any particular meaning.

But, to quote the guide:

Rachel Ara’s monumental neon sculpture continually displays its own value, calculated from a series of algorithms that reflect criteria such as age, gender, sexuality, race and provenance. The value of the artwork, displayed in brightly lit numbers, will change continually over the course of the exhibition. Ara’s practice draws on her former career as a computer system designer and is concerned with feminism and queer theory.

It seems to me symptomatic of the art world as a whole to obsess about gender and sexuality, race and post-colonialism, and simply ignore the world of economics – the real world which, at all levels (personal, national, international), determines our day to day activity (do I have a job? how much money am I getting? can I afford my rent?), the state of our societies (the impact of the age of Austerity and government cuts which we all live in), and the climate of international affairs (poverty and austerity driving xenophobia and populism in nations from America to Hungary). As usual, it seems to me a deliberately small, self-referencing world, a world obsessed with bodies, usually the artist’s own body, and skin colour, as if that is enough.

Upstairs – gallery 9

These kinds of thoughts were encouraged by the exhibition itself because politics is very much the theme of the first of the two upstairs galleries.

As far as I could make out, this big room is entirely devoted to works by film-maker and political activist, Andrea Luka Zimmerman, born in 1969 in Munich. Walking up the stairs the tone is set by a couple of uncompromising fabrics hanging from the walls.

Liars

Liars

And

Sex work is work

Sex work is work

The gallery is lined with an impressive collection of left-wing activist posters, some dating back decades – there’s an invitation to take part in a Women’s Day march in 1975, for women to meet at Greenham Common in 1983, posters showing the revolutionary poster-boy Che Guevara, and much more.

Wall of left wing posters

Wall of left-wing posters in the Andrea Luka Zimmerman room

On a table in the middle of the room is a board game based on snakes and ladders which Zimmerman has adapted so that the players advance up ladders or slide down snakes according to whether various activist causes thrive or hit setbacks. You’re encouraged to sit down and play, which is quite fun.

The whole room is in semi-darkness because one end is dominated by a big screen on which is projected a 28 minute long film, Civil Rites set in Newcastle.

Zimmerman spent months in the city, researching a really deep historical review of all the moments of civil protest and resistance which had taken place in the city going right back to the Civil War, taking in riots at the time of the French Revolution or during the depression which followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Chartist agitation, protests for shorter hours and better pay, to extend the suffrage, for women’s rights and the vote for women, through the Suffragettes, and on into the era of contemporary political activism from the late 1960s onwards.

As far as possible she has tracked down locations in the modern city where these events happened and films them in a classic square-on style, the camera completely static facing, say, an old Methodist chapel or a modern office block, behind railings, next to a busy street, while the English rain falls and unhappy looking people slouch by, a dog stops for a wee, and so on.

Comfy sofa in front of Civil Rites by Andrea Luka Zimmerman (2017)

The comfy sofa in front of Civil Rites by Andrea Luka Zimmerman (2017)

During the weeks of filming she asked passersby for their views on three issues raised by Martin Luther King Jnr in his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. He had called, back in 1968, for the abolition of three big evils – Poverty, Racism and War. What did people walking the streets of rainy Newcastle make of his call fifty years later?

And so, while the screen shows hypnotically static shots of Newcastle buildings, with a slow procession of captions commemorating all the moments of protest and civil resistance in the city’s long history, we hear on the soundtrack – but never see – all sorts of voices, rough working class voices, black voices, heavily accented Geordie voices, at least one American tourist or passerby – all giving their views on the current state of society and its ills.

It sounds pretentious but I found it completely absorbing. Not many other people were about so I was able to plonk myself on the comfy sofa, itself placed on the homely carpet, which is set in front of the screen, and watch the entire 28 minute film through once, and I began to watch it a second time before duty called and I had to move on.

The classic, square-on framing of the shots and the fact that each one lingers for quite a long time, so that there’s no frenetic cutting, fades or dissolves, no shaky hand-held shots – meant that visually the film was slow and secure and very calming.

What a relief, what a welcome change, to be watching an art film which is not about New York or blacks in the Deep South or transvestites in Mexico, but about ordinary English people in a very ordinary English city, Newcastle, a place which rarely features in ‘art’ exhibitions of any kind.

Your response to the politics, to the walls of old posters, will vary according to temperament and beliefs. But I thought the film was one of the best ‘art’ videos I’ve seen for a long time.

Upstairs – gallery 8

You walk through double doors out of the darkened politics room into gallery 8, which is light and spacious and long, with room for displays by another eight or so artists.

To be honest, I was feeling quite full by this stage, especially filled by the host of memories and thoughts about English history and English politics triggered by the Zimmerman room – so I didn’t have enough capacity left to really pay full attention to the artists here.

Uriel Orlow was represented by a big slide projection showing still from a 1963 documentary about the South African Botanical Gardens which featured white scientists and tourists celebrating the 50th anniversary of the garden, while African people only appear in the film as workers. Orlow invited actor Lindiwe Matshikiza to pose in front of blow-ups of these photos and ‘physically confront this archival material from the Apartheid era’.

The Fairest Heritage by Uriel Orlow (2016-17) Digital film still. Courtesy of the artist

The Fairest Heritage by Uriel Orlow (2016-17) Digital film still. Courtesy of the artist

Also ‘investigating the effects of colonialism’ is Larry Achiampong. The artist himself was in attendance to explain the idea behind his film Relic 1 (2017) which was showing in a purpose-built alcove. Relic 1 shows a black woman wearing a space helmet and bearing a pan-African flag exploring the ruins and wreckage of a white Europe which has collapsed and decayed, leaving only scattered objects and concrete ruins. According to the guide, Achiampong’s work reflects on:

the impact of colonial histories, exploring notions around race, class and culture in the digital age.

It reminded me of the experimental film I saw at Into the Unknown, the Barbican’s excellent exhibition of science fiction, Pumzi by Wanuri Kahiu.

As a plot, arrival from somewhere else arrives to investigate the ruins of Western society / human civilisation, strikes me as being one of the oldest storylines in science fiction, although it is shot in a very slow, beautiful style. Here’s a flavour:

I came in towards the end and so caught the list of credits at the end of the film. Right at the end the film is dedicated to two named individuals (friends/colleagues of Achiampong?) and ‘to Grenfell’.

It made me reflect how quickly and totally the Grenfell Tower disaster has been assimilated into the canon of left-wing, post-colonial, right-on grievances, as swiftly and efficiently as medieval saints were assimilated, canonised and venerated by the medieval church, and for much the same reason – because it provides one more building block for a self-reinforcing framework of belief, for a rhetoric of opposition, for a discourse of radical anger.

Further along the gallery was a suite of paintings by Hannah Brown, born 1977 in Salisbury, who does surprisingly ‘conventional’ paintings of rural scenes, although sometimes with a contemporary kick in the title. As a keen walker in the countryside around London, and author of a walking blog, I appreciated these bucolic paintings for their composition and technical proficiency.

The field next to Tesco that is soon to be built on, 1 (2016-17) Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Anna Arca

The field next to Tesco that is soon to be built on, 1 (2016-17) Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Anna Arca

The exhibition closes with a video and sound installation by Tom Lock titled Within (2017). This is shown in a large darkened space around which are hung four big screens showing what amounts to a sequence of animations of zoomorphic patterns and shapes. There are no chairs or benches, but a couple of beanbags to slump in. All quite psychedelic and trippy.

Within by Tom Lock (2017)

Within by Tom Lock (2017)

Over the gently moving and evolving shapes is a voiceover speaking a narrative based on science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler’s 1987 novel, Lilith’s Brood. The narrative appears to be about the human race dying out and its only future being to cross-breed with an alien life form, thus creating a new hybrid species, the animations somehow depicting the new shapes and patterns this hybrid would take. Or see. Or think – it wasn’t very clear.

Either way, Within was a very soothing, restful end to the show, and an interesting counterpoint to the very human political concerns of the Zimmerman film earlier on.

Now I think about it, the leading feature of the three art films I’ve mentioned is how restful, slow and peaceful all of them are.

Conclusion

The London Open is FREE. Go along and see what cutting-edge, right up-to-the-minute artists are doing.

Although I am routinely amused and sometimes dismayed by the art world’s tiny-minded concerns with a very limited set of ‘issues’ – to quote the exhibition guide, various artists are ‘concerned with…’

  • notions around race, class and culture
  • the psychology of desire
  • relationships between gender, technology and systems of power
  • the politics of racial identity
  • an intimate female perspective on desire

– nonetheless, I am grateful to institutes like the Whitechapel for their commitment to select, showcase and explain contemporary and cutting-edge art from around the world.

22 artists

I’ve only mentioned the work of about half the artists in the exhibition, generally the larger-scale more eye-catching ones. The full list of London Open 2018 artists is:

  • Larry Achiampong
  • Rachel Ara
  • Gabriella Boyd
  • Hannah Brown
  • Rachael Champion
  • Gary Colclough
  • George Eksts
  • Ayan Farah
  • French & Mottershead
  • Vikesh Govind
  • Richard Healy
  • Des Lawrence
  • Tom Lock
  • Céline Manz
  • Uriel Orlow
  • Rachel Pimm
  • Renee So
  • Alexis Teplin
  • Elisabeth Tomlinson
  • Jonathan Trayte
  • Tom Varley
  • Andrea Luka Zimmerman

The curators

The London Open 2018 is curated by Emily Butler, Mahera and Mohammad Abu Ghazaleh Curator, Whitechapel Gallery with Cameron Foote, Assistant Curator, Whitechapel Gallery. As to the selection criteria, Butler is quoted as saying:

With recent debates about political, religious, gender and racial representation, we were drawn to artists whose work genuinely engages with the subjects explored in it.


Related links

Reviews of other Whitechapel Gallery exhibitions

Ed Ruscha: Course of Empire @ the National Gallery

Room one

Room 1 of the National Gallery is just that, a normal-sized room, not a massive gallery. They use it to host smallish displays of work brought together on a common theme or by a niche artist, and the exhibitions or displays on here are generally FREE. The most recent one was a compact survey of lake paintings by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

This summer, room one is hosting a display of ten big paintings by the American artist Ed Ruscha.

Ed Ruscha

For a start you pronounce his name ROO-SHAY. He was born in 1937.

Since the 1960s Ruscha has been producing paintings and prints depicting the American urban landscape in a highly simplified and stylised way. His subject is the modern American landscape of petrol stations, highways and industrial units, all depicted in a semi-abstract manner which emphasises cool lines, streamlined design, and dispenses with human beings altogether.

Initially associated with the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, Ruscha often incorporates commercial art elements into his paintings, prints and photography – from the 1980s onwards they have included typography, graffiti and billboards.

All this can be grasped in a glance at what is probably his most famous work, Standard Station from 1966.

Standard Station by Ed Ruscha (1966)

Standard Station by Ed Ruscha (1966)

Ed Ruscha’s Course of Empire

In 1992 Ruscha created a number of black and white urban landscapes of Los Angeles, focusing on highly simplified views of purely architectural structures, reduced to almost cartoon simplicity, taken from below looking up, in order to remove any evidence whatsoever of street life, traffic or people.

The look like simple, box-like, utilitarian structures with no pretension to beauty, although their stark simplicity itself bespeaks a kind of urban economic power.

In 2005, Ruscha was asked to represent the United States at the 51st Venice Biennale. Ruscha had long been a fan of Thomas Cole’s great cycle of five big oil paintings depicting the rise and fall of an imaginary empire, Course of Empire, on view in a gallery in New York.

Inspired by this idea of a rise and fall, a before and after, Ruscha decided to take five of his 1992 black and white paintings and revisit their locations, painting how they looked after the passage of 13 years.

And so Ruscha presented at the Biennale five of the black and white urban landscapes made in 1992, hung next to five new colour versions of these same sites, and gave the series the same title Cole had used, Course of Empire.

And this is what’s hung here in room one at the National Gallery – five massive black and white paintings of industrial units in urban L.A., each one hung above the colour view of the same location 13 years later.

Top row - Blue Collar Tool & Die (1992) and Blue Collar Trade School (1992), bottom row The Old Tool & Die Building (2004) and The Old Trade School Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Top row – Blue Collar Tool & Die (1992) and Blue Collar Trade School (1992), bottom row – The Old Tool & Die Building (2004) and The Old Trade School Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

The tool and die shop has been taken over by what looks from the signage to be a Korean business. The trade school has been closed down, its windows filled with plywood, locked behind a barbed wire fence which is itself showing signs of wear. The tyre shop has now become what looks like a storage facility.

You can see how simplistic the depiction of the buildings is. The complete absence of human warmth or emotion. The lack of detail. The looming presence of the sky in the top left picture, in particular.

Blue Collar Tires (1992) and Expansion of the Old Tires Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Blue Collar Tires (1992) and Expansion of the Old Tires Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Ed and the curators made the fairly obvious decision to hang the paintings in two rows, the older ones directly above their respective partners from the later series, for the simple reason that this is a small room – the paintings are so enormous they simply wouldn’t all have fit if placed in one row.

The most puzzling thing – which wasn’t explained anywhere in the notes – is why the old paintings are black and white and the new in colour. Does it mimic the change from black and white to colour photography which took place in the 1960s? Was the blue collar world which they seem to lament a world of black and white, contrasted with the funky digital colours of our new, smart phone culture?

Blue Collar Telephone (1992) and Site of a Former Telephone Booth (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Blue Collar Telephone (1992) and Site of a Former Telephone Booth (2005) by Ed Ruscha

It’s impossible to say that the passage of time has somehow dehumanised the landscape because there were never any humans in the landscape to start with.

And the paradox is that, although the contrast between working buildings and now empty buildings is presumably meant to convey a sense of loss or abandonment, the use of colour in the 2005 pictures actually makes them feel much more warm and welcoming.

In fact, the before and after of the telephone booth is pretty much a ‘sight gag’. Where there used to be phone booths there is now nothing at all because everyone has mobile phones. no need for the expensive-to-maintain old booths. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

I was also puzzled the way the old phone booth had been replaced by a tree because trees are good, aren’t they? That sort of suggests a positive change, which goes against the gloomy declinism of most of the others.

Blue Collar Tech-Chem (1992) and The Old Tech-Chem Building (2003) by Ed Ruscha

Blue Collar Tech-Chem (1992) and The Old Tech-Chem Building (2003) by Ed Ruscha

So is it all a tale of woe, a snapshot of American economic decline? Or a little more complicated than that?

Certainly, all five of the 1992 paintings have the words ‘blue collar’ in the title which are absent from the 2003/4/5 titles. Is the series a lament for the passing of the traditional working class world?

Who knows. The paintings offer no more information than their straightforward content and their blankly factual titles. It’s for us to respond and interpret.

The tie-in with Thomas Cole

Why are they here in the National Gallery, now? To coincide with the big exhibition downstairs covering the career of the American landscape painter, Thomas Cole, which includes the epic five-painting cycle The Course of Empire (1834–6) which Ruscha has acknowledged as a major inspiration for his series.

It is the first time that Cole’s source set of paintings, and Ruscha’s response to them, have ever been exhibited at the same time, in the same institution.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire @ the National Gallery

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition on numerous levels. It contains 58 works, the majority on loan from North American collections, focusing on a score of masterpieces by American landscape painter Thomas Cole – making this a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see so many of his works together in one place.

It also brings together some enormous paintings by Claude, Constable, Turner and John Martin to show how Cole studied and learned from them.

And, quite apart from the visually stunning impact of many of these huge works, it is rich in thought-provoking issues and ideas.

Four rooms and seven chapters

Thomas Cole is famous in the U.S. as the greatest American landscape artist of his generation, more or less founding the young republic’s tradition of landscape painting.

In fact he was British, born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1801 to a middle class family in reduced circumstances. So reduced that young Thomas was sent out to work while still school age, among other jobs working as an assistant to an engraver.

The story of his life, achievement and influence is told in the four rooms of the National Gallery’s ground Floor Galleries, which have been divided into seven sections or ‘chapters’. There’s also a handy timeline of his life on one wall, to give a sense of the flow and development of his career before he was struck down tragically young, dying aged 47 in 1848.

Chapter 1. Industrial England

Cole was born in Bolton near Manchester as the industrial revolution reached its first flood of development.

The first section includes a vivid depiction of the impact of this new coal and iron technology in Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s painting Coalbrookdale by Night, painted in 1801 the year of Cole’s birth. Note the enormous abandoned cogs and crankshafts at the bottom left and their resemblance to the ruined columns in paintings of Roman and Greek ruins i.e. the way older aesthetic forms lingered on in the new world.

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Not only was the physical landscape being devastated, but so were the people too, the old cottage-based artisan economy eroded by mass production in the new manufactories where people were reduced to ‘hands’, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to serve the machines.

This prompted a backlash. Nearby hangs a contemporary lampoon of a Luddite, one of the gangs of workers who smashed up the machinery in a bid to halt ‘progress’ and to keep work human.

When his father’s business failed, Cole, a sensitive well-educated teenager, was forced to take work engraving printing blocks in a local cotton mill. He had, quite literally, hands-on experience of the way industrial ‘progress’ was making work mechanical and alienating.

In 1817 the family moved to Liverpool where Cole got a job working in an engraver’s shop where he would have seen prints by the leading artists of the day.

Chapter 2. American Wilderness

When he was 17 Cole’s parents decided to emigrate. His family sailed to America and settled in Philadelphia. Cole was now determined to become a painter, borrowing all the textbooks he could find and taking lessons from an itinerant artist. In 1825 he moved to New York City and that summer took a steamboat trip up the Hudson river into the Catskill Mountains.

He made numerous sketches of this picturesque landscape, rich in hills, valleys, small rivers, abundant wildlife and forests stretching as far as the eye could see. Already it was a tourist destination for New Yorkers but Cole removed all human traces from his sketches and especially from the finished paintings he worked up from them, depicting the landscape as a virgin wilderness.

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although there are a few tiny sailboats on the river in the far distance of this painting you’d be forgiven for not seeing them. What you are meant to see is the wild and storm-battered trees and the outcrop of rock, highlighted in the foreground and set against the ominous dark shape of the mountain (Round Top) rising behind it.

In these paintings Cole was seeking, in his own words, ‘a higher style of landscape’. He was influenced by the prints he’d seen of the magnificent sprawling light effects achieved by J.M.W. Turner and the grandiose melodramatic effects of ‘end of the world’ John Martin. What makes this exhibition even more visually stunning than it would have been is the inclusion of some wildly dramatic works by Turner and Martin of the sort which inspired young Cole.

A classic example of Cole’s literary or melodramatic embellishment of landscape is this fantastical scene from James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel of the wilderness north of New York, Last of the Mohicans, published just the year before, in 1826.

The humans are obviously dwarfed by the setting, an improbably fantastical circular ledge of rock on the right of the picture, allowing the left half to reveal a ‘sublime’ receding vista of successive rugged mountains, lakes, and more mountains. The very human passions of Cooper’s novel have been translated into an image of almost cosmic significance.

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

These paintings attracted buyers, and word of mouth led Cole to be taken up by some very wealthy patrons. It was one of these patrons, Luman Reed, who paid for Cole to return to Europe and undertake a tour of Italy in order to improve his technique and his life drawing.

Chapter 3. London – Imperial Metropolis

So at the age of 28 Cole returned to Europe, stopping in London, where he visited the newly opened ‘National Gallery’ to study Old Masters. Here he actually met Constable and Turner. He was invited for a personal tour of the latter’s studio, where he admired the remarkable painting, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

You can see how this kind of thing played to Cole’s interest in depicting absolutely massive natural landscapes, enormous cosmic or geographical motifs which dwarf their puny human characters.

But like everyone else who met him, Cole was disappointed by the contradiction between the sublimity of Turner’s paintings and the man himself, who was dirty, smelly, abrupt and inarticulate, having the appearance and manners, as Cole put it, of ‘the mate of a coasting vessel’.

At the Royal Academy Cole exhibited some of his own landscapes, such as the striking Distant View of Niagara Falls, which he actually completed in London from sketches taken at the scene, and which he deliberately painted with a view to wowing the London public. He was disappointed when they didn’t make much impact.

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Chapter 4. The Grand Tour

Cole travelled quickly through Paris, which held no interest for him, and on to Florence, where he spent eight months getting to know the town’s close-knit artistic community, painting the city and going out into the surrounding countryside to paint landscapes and especially all and any remains of the once-great Roman Empire.

In 1832 he moved on to Rome itself, studying and sketching all the famous sites and also venturing out into the surrounding countryside, much loved by the French painted Claude Lorraine whose work he had admired in London.

This part of the exhibition displays figure studies Cole did in Italy, as well as oil paintings of Florence and of picturesque Roman ruins embedded in the tranquil Italian countryside.

Chapter 5. The Course of Empire

Cole returned to the States in 1832 and became a citizen in 1834. It was now, after all this training and preparation, that he began work on the ambitious cycle of five massive paintings designed to portray the rise and fall of an imaginary civilisation which he was to call The Course of Empire.

Visually, the ‘civilisation’ – i.e. the buildings, clothes and trappings of all the inhabitants – are based on ancient Rome, with its vast classical buildings, all pillars, porticoes and domes. But the landscape, the natural setting of the rise and fall, are recognisably the America of Cole’s Catskill paintings.

In this, the first of the sequence, a ‘savage’ dressed in a loincloth in the middle foreground on the left is chasing a deer he has wounded with an arrow, at the bottom and slightly to the right of middle. In the distance on the right is a circle of Indian teepees with a fire burning. Looming up out of the John Martin-style, over-arching clouds, is a sloping mountain topped by a distinctive boulder, which appears in all five paintings.

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The sequence as a whole can be quickly taken in on Wikipedia.

The five paintings are:

  • The Savage State
  • The Arcadian or Pastoral State
  • The Consummation of Empire
  • Destruction
  • Desolation

As you can see, the paintings combine epic scale and deep perspective with a beguiling attention to minute detail. For example, in the second painting, look for the old man tracing geometric shapes in the sand with a stick, the first tremors of the ‘science’ which will give rise to ‘industry’.

The Consummation of Empire is in some ways the most visually pleasing. It’s physically the biggest of the five, but I think a lot of its success is due to the importance of light in bringing an unexpected sense of air and spaciousness to what ought to be a ridiculously crowded and crammed composition.

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

It adds to your appreciation to learn that the five paintings are conceived of taking place at different times of day: Savage at dawn, Arcadia in mid-morning, Consummation in the full light of a Mediterranean noon, Destruction in the late afternoon, and Desolation at moonrise.

A whole room is devoted to these five enormous paintings (with a handful of works from Italy on other walls so you can see where ideas of perspective, and especially of classical buildings and plant-covered ruins came from). It is a dazzling array of visionary genius.

Chapter 6. Cole’s Manifesto

Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States, serving from 1829 to 1837, that’s to say at exactly the period when Cole came into his own as a professional artist, travelled to Europe and painted his epic Course of Empire series.

Jackson is controversial nowadays for the politically correct reasons that he was a slave-owner who also took a tough line with native Americans, leading the US Army in the First Seminole War (1814-19), and in 1830 signing an Indian Relocation Act which expelled native Americans from the South to the mid-West of America, causing an immensely destructive uprooting of peoples and cultures in which many died.

But contemporaries like Cole disliked Jackson not for these reasons, but because he was a demagogic populist who appealed over the heads of the Washington establishment to the broader electorate, claiming to speak up for ‘the common man’.

Several art scholars were on hand at the press view I attended and one of them said that Jackson was ‘the Donald Trump of his day’, claiming to stand up for the common man, but in reality paving the way for the spread of industrial capitalism into the West.

He said that if the figure in a red cloak riding in triumph across the viaduct in The Consummation of Empire can be seen as Jackson/Trump, then his empress, seated on a throne at the extreme right and bottom of the picture, must be Melania!

Why did Cole dislike Jackson so much? Because he objected to Jackson forcefully encouraging the opening up of the West for settlement and exploitation.

For Cole is seen by many as not only the first serious painter of landscapes in America, and founder of the Hudson River School of art, but also as one of the first American environmentalists.

Cole was deeply fearful that the Americans were about to repeat the mistakes he had witnessed at first hand in Britain, and were about to destroy their natural landscape in a misguided quest for industrialisation and ‘progress’.

This wasn’t just an opinion he expressed in painting. In 1836, while he was working on the Course of Empire paintings, Cole felt strongly enough about it to write an ‘Essay on American Scenery’ pleading for the preservation of the American wilderness.

Coincidentally and ironically, the same year saw construction begin on the Hudson Valley railway. In the final room, among other works, there’s a pairing of paintings Cole did before and after the railway was built through his beloved Catskill landscape.

View on the Catskill - Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

View on the Catskill – Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

The commentary very usefully pointed out the way Cole uses techniques borrowed from Claude Lorraine, namely the elegant trees framing the view, at the right, and the big eggshell blue sky, to convey a tremendous sense of openness and tranquility, against which his characteristically tiny people are framed.

The ‘after’ painting, made six years later in 1843, hardly depicts the end of the world; the changes are more subtle.

A moment’s attention shows that the trees have gone. The framing pair at the right of the earlier work, and the smaller one on the left, have disappeared, replaced by hacked-down stumps. Worse, where the entire lake was previously lined by an elegant sweep of trees, now these have all gone, replaced by low-growing bushes. Removing the trees eliminates the sense of depth and mystery from the view.

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The railway itself cuts across the middle distance and this also, once you focus on it, has a subtly undermining effect. Previously the view unfolded with a sense of limitless depths, a sense of mystery succeeding wooded mystery. Now, denuded of trees and bisected by this subtle but decisive line, the entire landscape now appears somehow more constrained and controlled.

The highlight of the last room is arguably Cole’s most famous painting into which he poured everything – his management of sheer scale and size, his sense for landscape, everything he had learned from Turner and Constable about clouds – all expressed in yet another realistic painting which lends itself to allegorical interpretation – View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, generally known as The Oxbow.

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is a huge and hugely enjoyable painting, with much to note and savour. Moving from left to right, up in the sky, we pass from a violent thunderstorm (with forked lightning at the extreme left), to the storm petering out, whiter clouds and then a clear blue sky appearing.

This movement is paralleled on the earth by a movement from violently broken trees in the left foreground and dense virgin brush in the middle-left, suddenly giving way with a great sense of release to a huge vista down over the river valley to the mountains beyond.

And down in the river valley – in striking contrast to the dark, dark green of the wild brush in the left foreground, is the honey yellow of wheatfields in which stand tiny stooks of wheat. Scattered among the orderly yellow and light green fields are occasional settlements of good, honest, horny-handed farmers. Down at the bottom right is a ford with a few horses coming down to it and a raft crossing the river.

This is Cole’s vision of what America should be like, a land of free-living independent yeoman-farmers – the polar opposite of the urbanisation, the galloping desecration of the wilderness, and the encouragement of rapid industrialisation, all of which were taking place under Jackson’s presidency.

It was staring me in the face but I didn’t notice until one of the art historians pointed it out, that the river doesn’t just form a sharp loop – it is in the shape of a question mark. Which future will America choose, a federation of independent farmers, or go down the ruinous path of the Britain which Cole had himself escaped, towards industrialisation, environmental ruination and the transformation of free agricultural workers into a wretched proletariat?

More light-heartedly, Cole has painted himself into his work. At the bottom, just to the right of centre, you can see his head and hat emerging from behind a log. Here I am. I’m painting this beauty. What are you going to make of it?

Detail of the Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

Detail of The Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

The Oxbow has never been seen in the UK before. It is just one of about 20 paintings which are normally based in America, are rarely displayed together, and are well worth paying the admission price to see and savour.

Chapter 7. Cole’s Legacy

The final wall in the exhibition shows us the works of some of the painters who inherited Cole’s mantle. He died suddenly aged only 47, but not before he had taught the talented Asher Brown Durand and the exceptional Frederic Edwin Church. They both absorbed Cole’s practice of direct observation of nature, sketching and painting on site in the open air. There are several works by Durand and Church to assess them by.

Ironically, although Cole’s style and approach expanded into an entire ‘school’, almost all of his followers dropped his environmental concerns and adopted the new spirit of the times, the infectious optimism that America’s expansion West, its development and industrialisation, all represented a Manifest Destiny to become God’s Own Country.

Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) was painted in 1853, just five years after Cole’s death, yet it celebrates the nascent taming of the wilderness.

At bottom right some cattle are being rounded up while a wagon is being driven up the road. To its left we can see a canal with a lock in it, over which, a bit further down, what looks like a railway bridge crosses over.

On a spur of land sticking out into the lake, in the distance, is some kind of town with a cluster of chimneys emitting the kind of smoke we saw in the first room of the gallery, denoting the British Industrial revolution. Meanwhile, half hidden among the broken trees to the left, is a group of three native Americans looking on – with awe, with regret, who knows? – but in effect characters made to pose and gaze in wonder at the unstoppable Progress of the White Man.

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand (1853)

Absences and contradictions

There’s no slavery in Cole’s paintings. There are few native Americans. Politically correct curators can point out what – to our enlightened times – are these notable absences.

But then again there are no working poor of any kind. Farms we see, from a great distance, in The Oxbow, but none of the early starts and long days and hard manual labour involved in farming.

In fact people in general are conspicuous by their absence from Cole’s painting. Having never had a formal training, he was self-conscious about his ability to draw bodies and faces and so limited his depictions of people to distant puppets.

In any case, all this was part of his overall strategy, which was to cleanse the landscape of its human inhabitants (white or black or red) in order to present it as a bountiful and idyllic wildscape.

For example, the wall label tells us that there were already tourists at Niagara Falls, roads to bring them there and accommodation for them to stay in. But all of this was omitted from Cole’s primitivising vision of Niagara Falls (above).

The great irony of his career and art is, Who did he produce these visions of a pristine nature for, who did he sell them to?

The answer: to rich patrons in New York and Connecticut who had become rich precisely by laying roads across the wilderness, by selling dry goods to new settlements and, in the case of the New York bankers who patronised Cole, by funding the new railroads and industrial enterprises which were despoiling the very landscapes they paid him to paint.

Cole is praised as a founding environmentalist – but he is just as much a forerunner of that familiar figure, the modern artist who uses art to rail against capitalism, the West, exploitation, poverty and so on but – makes a career by selling their work to rich bankers or to art institutions founded and endowed by rich bankers, the lynchpins of the very system they purport to criticise.

A rapture of beauties

This exhibition would be worth visiting for the Cole alone, but the National Gallery has given us a real embarras de richesses by including masterpieces by the four European painters who most influenced him –

  • the enormous Snowstorm by Turner (Tate)
  • the ludicrously melodramatic Belshazzar’s Feast by John Martin (Yale, USA)
  • as well as five works by John Constable including Hadleigh Castle (Yale, USA) the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (Tate) and three beautiful sketches all usually kept at Yale University in the States, including some wonderful sketches of clouds

Cole developed a friendship with Constable and they exchanged letters and sketches. In fact there are a number of studies by Constable and Turner of skies, cloudscapes and so on, to compare and contrast with Cole’s own sketches. Some of the Constable ones are stunningly skilful uses of paint.

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

In fact one of the most fascinating snippets or sidelights of the exhibition was being shown the relationship between Cole’s anti-industrialising ethos and Constable’s similar sentiments. I hadn’t noticed before that the south bank of the Thames in the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (at the far right of the painting) is thronged with factory chimneys spewing out toxic smoke. Apparently, in his final years, Constable was depressed at the arrival of industrial blight in the landscape of the south of England.

I last saw The Opening in a large exhibition of Constable and powerfully disliked it. The curator pointed out that so does everyone else, but that was part of its point. It is an English version of Cole’s The Consummation of Empire, showing foolhardy pomp and circumstance while in the background industrialism is beginning to corrupt and destroy the culture.

Last but not least in the room showing enormous paintings which influenced Cole is Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula by Claude Lorraine. You can immediately see how his light-filled combination of water with classical buildings was absorbed and repurposed by Cole for the Course of Empire series, but there are plenty of pleasures to linger and enjoy just in this one painting.

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

The point is, this exhibition isn’t just about Cole. If you add in the couple of paintings each by Durand and Church to the Claude, Turner, Constable and Martin, the feeling is of encountering masterpiece after masterpiece in an exhibition which expands your mind and gladdens the heart.

While the rational mind is processing a raft of issues and ideas, the eyes are surfeited with quite rapturous beauty.

The promotional video


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