Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt @ the British Museum

Temple lintel of King Amenemhat III, Hawara, Egypt, 12th Dynasty (1855 to 1808 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is a major exhibition held to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the year 1822 when French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs which had been puzzling scholars for the best part of 1,500 years.

At its heart is the eerily beautiful and hugely important Rosetta Stone, discovered by French troops in Egypt in 1799. The central part of the exhibition summarises the genuinely exciting narrative of the great Race To Decipher hieroglyphics, as it developed into a rivalry between Great Britain – represented by antiquarian Thomas Young (1773 to 1829) – and France – represented by the ambitious young scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790 to 1832).

The exhibition brings together a rather staggering 250 artefacts, many (as usual) on loan from foreign museums. As such it provides a unique opportunity to see so much high quality Egyptiana in one place – all presented in a beautifully designed and laid out exhibition space. If the sheer scale sounds daunting, maybe the crucial thing to grasp is that the exhibition is divided into three main areas or parts.

Part One: The end of hieroglyphics, the revival of interest

Part one briefly covers the end of the millennia-long tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs in the years after the Greek conquest of Egypt in 320 BC. The Greek dynasty of the Ptolemy family kept up all the Egyptian traditions, but it was the advent of Roman rule from 30 BC (when the last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra VII, committed suicide) which signalled the slow decline of hieroglyphic writing. It was the imposition of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by the emperor Theodosius in 391, and the order to close down all pagan temples, which spelled the end of the tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs. The last known hieroglyphic inscription dates from 394. Byzantine rule of the province continued for centuries until swept away by the great Arab Conquest of the 640s AD.

Intellectual energy in the centuries following the Muslim conquest went into elaborating aspects of Islamic religion and philosophy, as well as preserving and commenting on survivals from antiquity, especially Greek texts. There was only scattered interest in the pictorial language carved into the huge stone monuments all across Egypt.

Some Muslim scholars are namechecked, but for us in Europe it was only the revival of learning from the 1400s onwards, the period which came to be called the Renaissance, which saw sustained scholarly activity to decipher the hieroglyphs. A negative key factor was that there had been some scholarly enquiry during ancient times, with Roman scholars writing books about the hieroglyphs – but that these were often seriously wrong and misleading but were considered indisputable evidence throughout the Renaissance.

Interestingly, study of ancient Egyptian artifacts centred on Rome itself for the simple reason that victorious generals from Julius Caesar onwards had a fondness for stealing and shipping back to Rome impressive numbers of obelisks, stelae, statues, inscriptions and so on (a stela is an inscribed stone or wooden slab) – many of which were still standing 1,400 years later when the revival of interest in old texts (be they ancient Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syrian, Egyptian and so on) gathered pace.

The most significant figure was a German Jesuit and polymath, Athanasius Kircher (1602 to 1680). Working with Arabic grammars and dictionaries of Coptic acquired in Egypt by an Italian traveller, Kircher produced flawed but pioneering translations and grammars of the language in the 1640s and 1650s, leading up to his masterwork, the ‘Oedipus Aegyptiacus’ of 1652.

Unfortunately, Kircher brought to his studies a deep belief in mystic practices and magic. As a Jesuit he believed Egyptian religion must have foreshadowed the One True Religion i.e. Christianity, and so all his interpretations were coloured by a wish to find mystical meanings in even brief sets of symbols. In his hands even short texts of only a few hieroglyphic characters were translated into lengthy sentences describing mystical religious ideas.

But Kircher was only one of hundreds of scholars and commentators, including many of the early Muslim scholars, who were convinced the hieroglyphs represented ancient magic or the secrets of ‘alchemy’, and that true knowledge would allow modern practitioners to revive magical spells and incantations.

The Enchanted Basin

This belief that the hieroglyphs contained ancient magic is represented here by ‘the enchanted basin’, a large black granite sarcophagus from about 600 BC, covered with hieroglyphs and images of gods. Devotees believed that bathing in the basin (accompanied by the appropriate rituals and spells) could offer relief from the torments of love.

‘The Enchanted Basin’ aka the sarcophagus of Hapmen, Egypt, 26th Dynasty (600 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The ritual bath was discovered near a mosque in Cairo, in an area still known as al-Hawd al-Marsud – ‘the enchanted basin’ – and has been identified as simply a sarcophagus – for Hapmen, a nobleman of the 26th Dynasty.

Exhibition design 1

This first part of the exhibition is presented in the usual glass cases etc but against a backdrop of jet black walls themselves covered in silver hieroglyphic scripts which shimmer and capture the eye as you walk through them – evoking a world of black magic and mystery. Most wall panels relate to specific exhibits but the curators have also had the bright idea of creating standalone panels devoted to specific glyphs, explaining what they are and what they mean. This is one of several aspects designed, I think to appeal to children and school visits, and a charming idea.

One of the panels for schoolchildren in ‘Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt’

Part Two: The Rivalry

The second section declares its change of focus with a complete change of design, layout and atmosphere. No longer black, the gallery walls are lighter and the room is dominated by three long wooden benches, with wooden chairs set in front of them (which I think visitors are encouraged to sit at so as to study the artifacts on offer).

The dominance of stained wood reminds me of the British Museum’s extensive Enlightenment Gallery on the ground floor and is, I assume, intended to convey a sense of 18th and 19th century scholarship taking place in the civilised, wood-panelled rooms of Royal Societies and the private collections of rich European travellers across Enlightenment Europe.

This woody, benchy room is the setting for the gripping story of The Race To Decipher Hieroglyphs between the two men who are presented as rivals in scholarship and representatives of their respective nations, Thomas Young of Great Britain and Jean-François Champollion of France.

The Rosetta Stone

In fact the transition from part 1 to part 2 of the exhibition takes you past the famous Rosetta Stone itself, which was the clue to the whole thing and is a story, or several stories, in itself.

The Rosetta Stone, Rasid, Egypt (Ptolemaic, 196 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

History of the discovery

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte led an invasion of Egypt with 40,000 troops. By this stage revolutionary France had been at war with Great Britain for five years and the Egyptian strategy was designed to cut off Britain’s lucrative trade with her greatest colony, India. But, being French and priding himself on being a man of the Enlightenment, Napoleon took with him 200 scholars, engineers, antiquarians and so on. Over the next few years these experts made numerous drawings, descriptions and maps of the antiquities of Egypt which were later published in the multi-volume Description de l’Égypte (1809 to 1829).

The following year, in 1799, French forces were rebuilding an old fort in the coastal town of Rashid, when they dug up this large fragment of stone covered in writing. Realising its importance the officer in charge sent it to Napoleon’s headquarters. It was taken into possession of the lead scientist in Napoleon’s force but events were about to take a significant twist. In August 1798 the Royal Navy defeated the French navy at the Battle of the Nile.

A treaty (the Capitulation of Alexandria) was then negotiated (in 1801) between the victorious British and the French by which the victors took possession of most of the artefacts, findings and notes created by the French antiquarians. Discussions were detailed and became heated, but to cut a long story short, the British seized the Rosetta Stone and shipped it back to London, where it was presented to the king who in turn passed it onto the fledgling British Museum. It went on public display in 1802, has been on public display at the British Museum almost continuously and is its most visited object.

Almost immediately the British Society of Antiquarians made plaster copies of the stone and printed reproductions of the text and distributed them to other institutions across Europe.

It is called the Rosetta Stone because Rosette was the name Europeans gave to the town Arabs called Rashid and the name stuck.

What I took from all this was that this breakthrough in Egyptology and understanding of the ancient world came about almost entirely because of war between the great powers.

All down the line, from the first officer to see it, through the experts on Napoleon’s staff, through to the British officers in charge of the peace negotiation, through to the king’s advisors and officials at the British Museum, everyone recognised the stone’s immense importance.

Why is the Rosetta Stone important?

Because it was the first artifact found anywhere in Egypt which contained several languages or scripts in parallel. At a glance you can see that the top part of the stone contains rows of hieroglyphics, the next section contains lines of text in another script, and the lower third of the stone contains text in yet another script, which scholars quickly recognised as Greek.

To be precise, from top to bottom, the top two scripts are in Ancient Egyptian, the top one using hieroglyphic and the second one ‘Demotic’ script, while the bottom one is in Ancient Greek.

What is ‘Demotic’? We now know that the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs on their official monuments, but on administrative and religious life used a form of cursive script which was easier to write and read. This cursive script changed and evolved over the thousands of years of Egyptian history:

  • the oldest form is called ‘hieratic’ from its development in the third millennium BC until the rise of Demotic in the mid-first millennium BC
  • the so-called Demotic form of the language developed and then held sway from about 650 BC to the 5th century AD
  • and was replaced by the third major form, Coptic, the final development of the Egyptian language, spoken by the common people from around the third-century AD through till the Muslim conquest in the 7th century AD. Coptic has no native speakers today, although it is preserved and still recited by priests of the Coptic church

So what the Rosetta stone presents is a text in classical hieroglyphs, a text in ‘Demotic’ i.e. the common form of written Egyptian of the day, and then a text in ancient Greek.

Scholars immediately realised that, if the three sets of script represented the same text in three different languages, then they should be able to use the Greek at the bottom to read the hieroglyphs at the top and, in so doing, identify what words or sounds individual hieroglyphs stand for and so crack the code, decipher the language of hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone as it appears in the exhibition. Note the animated timeline of the Race To Decipher in the right background, and blown-up reproductions of scholarly texts hanging from the ceiling

Unexpected delay

In my ignorance I thought the discovery of the stone meant we had the key to the door, the job was done, and we could start deciphering hieroglyphs immediately.

Not at all. Turns out there was still a lot of work to be done, not least because there was disagreement on fundamental facts. For example, not all scholars agreed the three scripts contained the same text. And the stone at first presented more puzzles than solutions because antiquarians could no more read demotic than hieroglyphs. So at first sight the stone presented double the problem, two challenges – of aligning the ancient Greek (readable) with the demotic and hieroglyphs (unreadable).

It took a surprising amount of scholarly guesswork, trial and error, devising and testing different theories for knowledge to inch forward. This room – the wooden table room- presents a year-by-year account of the 20 or so years between the stone going on public display and Champollion’s breakthrough in 1822. You might think all this is a fairly niche subject, but think again; there’s an impressive number of books on the subject:

Major landmarks in the decoding included recognition that:

  • 1799: the stone shows three versions of the same text
  • 1802: the demotic text uses phonetic characters to spell foreign names
  • 1814: the hieroglyphic text uses phonetic characters as well, and so has numerous similarities to the demotic
  • 1822: phonetic characters were used to spell not just foreign names but native Egyptian words

The breakthrough 1822

Scripts for languages can be either:

  • ideographic – symbols are used for words or concepts
  • syllabic – symbols are used to convey the sounds of syllables which make up words
  • alphabetic – a symbol is assigned to individual elements out of which words are built

The latter two are examples of phonetic languages i.e:

You can look at a written word and know how to pronounce it. Or you can hear a word and know how to spell it. With phonetic languages, there is a direct relationship between the spelling and the sound.

The ancient Romans had queered the pitch and misled centuries of scholars by claiming that all hieroglyphs were symbols, one glyph directly standing for one idea or concept. Hundreds of scholars wasted their lives trying to figure out what each hieroglyph ‘stood for’.

As I understand it, Champollion’s big breakthrough was realising that Demotic and hieroglyphic i.e. ancient Egyptian language as a whole, was a combination of ideographic and phonetic. He realised this after seeing another scholar’s decipherment of foreign names as phonetic sounds in the hieroglyphs. This was the actual key – that the names of foreign (generally Greek) rulers, were spelled phonetically.

Rather than try to explain further, I’ll quote Wikipedia:

In 1822, Champollion saw copies of brief hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions taken from an obelisk found at Philae, on which William John Bankes had tentatively noted the names “Ptolemaios” and “Kleopatra” in both languages. From this, Champollion identified the phonetic characters ‘k l e o p a t r a’. On the basis of this and the foreign names on the Rosetta Stone, he quickly constructed an alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphic characters, completing his work on 14 September and announcing it publicly on 27 September in a lecture to the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. On the same day he wrote the famous “Lettre à M. Dacier” to Bon-Joseph Dacier, secretary of the Académie, detailing his discovery. In the postscript Champollion notes that similar phonetic characters seemed to occur in both Greek and Egyptian names, a hypothesis confirmed in 1823, when he identified the names of pharaohs Ramesses and Thutmose written in cartouches at Abu Simbel.

1824 Champollion published a Précis in which he detailed a decipherment of the hieroglyphic script demonstrating the values of its phonetic and ideographic signs.

In 1829, he travelled to Egypt where he was able to read many hieroglyphic texts that had never before been studied, and brought home a large body of new drawings of hieroglyphic inscriptions.

In 1832 Champollion died from illnesses brought on by travel in Egypt.

1838 his Grammar and Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian was published posthumously. But if you thought that was the end of the affair, you’d be wrong, for Champollion erroneously assumed that the hieroglyphs could be read directly in Coptic script, whereas in fact they represented a much older stage of the language which differs in many ways from Coptic.

It took scholars the rest of the century to work through all the details of ancient Egyptian and work is still ongoing because it turns out to have developed in more forms and variations and dialects than initially thought.

What does the Rosetta Stone actually say?

At the end of all that, what does the Rosetta Stone text actually say? Each of the 3 languages records a priestly decree of 196 BC issued by a council of Egyptian priests from the city of Memphis during the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes (i.e. ironically, it’s a text about a Greek ruler and not one of the classic ancient Egyptian pharaohs). The text praises the righteous acts of the king and lists the honours bestowed on him by the priests.

So no magic spells or alchemical procedures, much more banal than that. Interestingly, this kind of decree wasn’t even an Egyptian tradition, but hailed from Greece, a type of inscription imported along with the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty.

Part Three: Modern Egyptology

Design 3: Airy design and huge videos

Struggling to process the complexities of this story, the visitor walks from wood-lined part two of the exhibition through an Egyptian archway into a completely different space.

Here the walls are white and the ceiling is high, creating a sense of light and clarity. On the wall on the right is a video projection of part of an ancient wall with birds flying by – but this is dwarfed by the end wall onto which is projected a huge landscape video of the River Nile itself, a long band of rippling blue water, above which sits the fabulously fertile green riverbank – all reeds, grasses and palm trees – and then the deep blue of the Egyptian sky.

So, in terms of design, the visitor has progressed from pitch black walls at the start, though the gentlemen’s-club brown wood panelling of the second part, and now arrives in the kind of bright light space typical of modern art galleries. I guess this is also symbolic of passing from ignorance, through purblind scholarship and study, into the modern age of research and understanding.

Egyptian social history

This final part of the exhibition could almost be staged in its own right, for it is a fascinating overview of Egyptian social history, social life, in all its many aspects.

If you want the history of ancient Egypt – the political history of all those pharaohs, their wars, their dynasties, maps of their territory etc – that is already available in the vast series of rooms which, as it happens, you exit into after the exhibition space, the long gallery called Room 4. This isn’t that.

Instead this third part of the exhibition presents a careful selection of objects which illustrate the modern understanding of all aspects of Egyptian society, which Champollion’s discovery (much elaborated and built on by later scholars) allowed. It is a collection of choice artifacts which shed unparalleled insight into the lives, not of kings and pharaohs, but of ordinary people – their lives, loves, marriages, divorces, financial affairs, loans and mortgages, the stories they told each other, the poems and hymns they recited, their religious beliefs and practices, maths textbooks, guides to the interpretation of dreams, their calendar and how they structured the year, the months, the weeks, the days, even shopping lists and tax returns.

For example, a papyrus from about 1200 BC explains that the Egyptian year was divided into 12 months of 30 days. Their week lasted 10 days, and the year had three seasons – Akhet (flooding), Peret (growing) and Shemu (harvest).

Or take the richly illustrated Book of the Dead papyrus of Queen Nedjmet is over 3,000 years old and more than four metres long. A recitation of the texts demonstrates the power of the spoken word and includes ritual spells. The papyrus features alongside a set of four canopic vessels that preserved the organs of the deceased. These were dispersed over French and British collections after discovery, and this is the first time this set of jars has been reunited since the mid-1700s.

Detail of The Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjmet (papyrus, Egypt, 1070 BC, 21st Dynasty) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The mummy bandage of Aberuait from the Musée du Louvre, Paris has never been shown in the UK. It was a souvenir from one of the earliest ‘mummy unwrapping events’ in the 1600s where attendees received a piece of the linen, preferably inscribed with hieroglyphs.

A 3,000-year-old measuring rod from the Museo Egizio in Turin was an essential clue for Champollion to unravel Egyptian mathematics, discovering that the Egyptians used units inspired by the human body.

Royal cubit rod of Amenemope (18th Dynasty) Torino, Museo Egizio

The cartonnage and mummy of the lady Baketenhor, on loan from the Natural History Society of Northumbria, was studied by Champollion in the 1820s. In correspondence with colleagues in Newcastle, Champollion correctly identified the inscription on the mummy cover as a prayer addressed to several deities for the soul of the deceased only a few years after he cracked the hieroglyphic writing system. Baketenhor lived to about 25 to 30 years of age, sometime between 945 and 715 BCE.

Cartonnage of the lady Baketenhor (late 22nd Dynasty, between 945 and 715 BC) Courtesy of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. Image © Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums

Prayers to Hathor, the goddess of love and music, were often accompanied by the sistrum, a musical instrument used in dances and religious ceremonies. When shaken, the sistrum produced a soft clink or a loud jangle which had power to appease the gods. Note the face at the top of the handle.

Ancient Egyptian sistrum (747 to 332 BC)

(In fact I’ve just come references to a sistrum – ‘the sacred rattle… the jingling bronze of the sistrum…’ – used in worship of Isis, in a story in book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)

On a much more humble level, a papyrus from 1100 BC records the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener and tells us that he supported her for three years after the divorce. The reasons for the divorce aren’t stated but we know from other sources that the wife probably kept the possessions she brought to the marriage.

Papyrus from 1100 BC recording the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener

We now know the ancient Egyptians had over 90 recipes for the treatment of eye problems. Black and green kohl had antibacterial properties and could be carried around in pots to be used as eye liner.

There’s a book helping with the interpretation of dreams, a perennial topic in the ancient world. This one belonged to a certain Qenherkhepshef and contains the following useful advice:

If a man sees himself in a dream looking after monkeys: bad – a change awaits him!

And hundreds more.

I also noticed the way a number of wall labels featured quotes all attributed to ‘Voices from Rashid’. What is this? The British Museum interviewed schoolchildren from the town of Rashid (modern day Rosetta) about the stone and ancient Egyptian life and these quotes are the opinions of the schoolchildren on aspects of Egyptian history, the hieroglyphics, the stone and so on, sprinkled on panels throughout the exhibition.

Statue of a scribe (6th Dynasty) Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Poncet

This exhibition is fascinating, inspiring, beautifully designed and laid out. In the section about the Race To Decipher, it is surprisingly gripping. And the wide-ranging final section brings you closer to the concerns of ordinary ancient Egyptian men and women than you would have thought possible.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

The Procession by Hew Locke @ Tate Britain

Every year Tate commissions established artists to create installations for its two London galleries. The ones which fill Tate Modern’s huge Turbine Gallery tend to get a lot of press. Less attention is devoted to the commission to fill the long hall or central atrium of Tate Britain. This year’s commission was awarded to well-established Black British sculptor Hew Locke. With a certain inevitability, a Black artist decided to cover the topics of race, slavery and empire.

The result is a big bold piece which fills the central hall of Tate Britain with a parade of mannequins – of men, women, children, horses – dressed in a spectacular array of clothes and costumes, designed, stitched together, a surreal mish-mash of fabrics and colours and patterns, created just for this show, and titled ‘The Procession’.

Installation view of ‘The Procession’ by Hew Locke (2022) (Photo by the author)

Like most Tate shows this one is accompanied by a wealth – possibly a rather overwhelming wealth – of explanation and interpretation. You can read:

  1. Tate’s Hew Locke biography
  2. Tate’s Introduction to The Procession
  3. Tate’s fairly long Guide to The Procession
  4. or watch the 8-minute video about its inspiration and creation

Introduction

To quote Tate:

‘The Procession’ invites visitors to “reflect on the cycles of history, and the ebb and flow of cultures, people and finance and power.” Tate Britain’s founder was art lover and sugar refining magnate Henry Tate. In the installation Locke says he ‘makes links with the historical after-effects of the sugar business, almost drawing out of the walls of the building,’ also revisiting his artistic journey so far, including, for example, work with statues, share certificates, cardboard, rising sea levels, Carnival and the military.

Throughout the long, busy work, visitors will see figures who travel through space and time. Here, they carry historical and cultural baggage – from evidence of global financial and violent colonial control embellished on their clothes and banners – alongside powerful images of some of the disappearing colonial architecture of Locke’s childhood in Guyana.

The installation takes inspiration from real events and histories but, overall, the figures invite us to walk alongside them, into an enlarged vision of an imagined future.

I must say I didn’t get any of this at all from actually walking round and along ‘The Procession’. The colours and the way some figures were riding on horses distantly reminded me slightly of Renaissance processions – a very ragtag, surreal distortion of one. But the main impression is of daunting, intimidatingly alien figures with masks or veiled faces or blank mannequin faces from a nightmarish horror sci-fi movie.

Installation view of ‘The Procession’ by Hew Locke (2022) (Photo by the author)

Exhibition guide

The exhibition guide explains that ‘The Procession’ is divided into into sections devoted to themes or topics, mostly about empire, colonialism and rebellion.

  • Carnival
  • Post-Colonial Trade
  • Ghosts Of Slavery
  • Environmental Disaster
  • Monuments To Empire
  • Revolution And Emancipation

These read like chapters from a book and that is very much what the guide turns the work into – a series of tableaux, each one exemplifying one of the themes listed above. Reading the guide you realise that an impressive amount of work has gone into selecting the themes, thinking about them and then crafting tableaux to represent them using an interesting variety of source materials.

Installation view of ‘The Procession’ by Hew Locke (2022) (Photo by the author)

Each element of each outfit, every bit of fabric, plus objects like the palanquin or banners or huge images of old share certificates painted onto fabric, each of these elements has a complex backstory. Some elements are from the white imperialists and business organisations which organised and profited from the slave trade and sugar production on slave-worked plantations in Guyana (where Locke grew up).

But others reference African culture, slave culture, and the post-slavery Black culture Hew himself grew up and experienced. All changed, transmogrified into a Surreal and often quite nightmarish vision of history collapsing in on itself. The friend I went with absolutely loved the workmanship of the fabrics, looking in detail at how different coloured fabrics, printed or painted with a bewildering variety of patterns, had been crafted, juxtaposed and so on.

But I was frightened. I found the whole thing ominous and nightmarish. Faceless figures threatening violent revenge.

Installation view of ‘The Procession’ by Hew Locke (2022) (Photo by the author)

The man below – one of two bearing a stake of wood from which hangs a small fabric basket containing the bust of a white man – he doesn’t look like he’s marching into “into an enlarged vision of an imagined future.” The small figures wearing veils of fabric in the first two images in this review don’t look like carefree toddlers in a playground; to me they look like the psychopathic dwarf in the movie ‘Don’t Look Now’.

Installation view of ‘The Procession’ by Hew Locke (2022)

The Surreal fusion of white, Black, Western and African aesthetics didn’t strike me as Rainbow Nation liberation but reminds me all-too-much of the bizarre post-civilisation outfits worn by the many rebel guerrilla movements which have characterised Africa since independence – voodoo believers dressed in Man Utd shirts and toting semi-automatics. Cold-eyed killers wielding machetes while wearing garish wigs and women’s dresses. Scroll through the first five pages of this website to see what I mean. Or:

Torture, death and dismemberment have come to millions of Africans wearing bizarre outfits, wigs, handbags, kids’ toys, makeup, machine guns and machetes. The deliberate mashup of Locke’s work might be intended to make all kinds of points about resistance to Western imperialism and economic and social norms, but – unfortunately, and unintentionally – reminded me of the hundreds of descriptions I’ve read of mind-boggling violence in African conflicts.

Maybe my imagination has been damaged by reading too many accounts of too many African civil wars, but this installation gave me the willies. Instead of liberal guilt, which I assume is the desired output, I just felt fear, fear of a world which will – in light of inevitable global climate change, the collapse of Third World countries and the resulting mass migration (which, the guide tells us, Locke references somewhere amid these garish costumes) – become more and more like this, multicultural incomprehension, social collapse, people living amid the rags and tatters of the old civilisation, inventing new cults, practicing horrific violence.

Sorry. That’s how it felt to me. The friend I went with felt none of this and just loved the fabrics, the patterns, the designs and how they’d been cunningly assembled. Either way it’s a striking installation. Go and decide for yourself.


Related links

Wars in Africa

I’ve read too many books about unbelievable cruelty, atrocity and horror in post-independence Africa.

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Island by Mónica de Miranda @ Autograph

‘Tide’ from ‘The Island’ by Mónica de Miranda (2021) © Mónica de Miranda

Autograph

Autograph is a small gallery in Hoxton, which is open from Wednesday to Saturday only, but is FREE.

Details of opening hours and location here.

It’s housed in an ultra-modern building with a main gallery space – one wide square room with high ceilings – on the ground floor, and other spaces, of more conventional size, upstairs.

Whenever I’ve visited there’s only been a handful of other visitors so, apart from the exhibitions themselves, it feels like a cool, slick oasis of calm amid the hustling backstreets of Hoxton let alone the hectic traffic on nearby Shoreditch High Street.

Currently, Autograph is displaying a work by the Angolan-Portuguese artist Mónica de Miranda.

Mónica de Miranda – official biography

De Miranda is an Angolan Portuguese visual artist, filmmaker and researcher who works and lives between Lisbon and Luanda. Her work incorporates photography, video, drawing, sculpture and installation. Through it she investigates postcolonial politics of geography, history, and subjectivity in relation to Africa and its diaspora through a critical spatial arts practice.

Often conceptual and research-based, de Miranda is interested in the convergence of socio-political narratives, gender, and memory at the boundaries between fiction and documentary.

De Miranda is affiliated with the University of Lisbon where she is engaged on projects dealing with ethical and cultural aspects of contemporary migration movements linked to lusophone Africa, such as Post-Archive: Politics of Memory, Place and Identity, and Visual Culture, Migration, Globalization and Decolonization.

Intriguingly for someone who has roots in, what for many Brits are rather exotic countries – Portugal and Angola – her qualifications are very English. She holds undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in art and arts education from Camberwell College of Arts and the Institute of Education, and a doctorate in Visual Art from the University of Middlesex.

The exhibition

The exhibition consists of two elements:

1. The Island is a film, a 37-minute art film. This is being played on a continuous loop in the upstairs exhibition space. The room is dark, you make your way to one of the 4 or 5 basic benches provided, settle down and watch.

2. The main exhibition space downstairs contains half a dozen still photographs from the film. These have been blown up to large scale and cut up into a number of perfectly symmetrical separate frames. So one still from the film may be cut up into two, four or six separate sections, each beautifully framed and placed with mathematical precision on the white walls.

Installation view of photographic stills from ‘The Island’ by Mónica de Miranda at Autograph

They are all large, digitally clear, very calming images of a handful of people in lovely rural settings. Presumably they’re in Portugal, maybe even in Angola, but the lack of tropical foliage, and the look of the trees often made it feel like somewhere in the Thames Valley.

There are only about 6 of these big cut-up photos in the entire exhibition space. It makes for clarity and calm. It’s a very mindful experience.

The film

The problem with making any kind of art film must be persuading the audience to sit all the way through it. I wonder if there’s any data, from any gallery, of what percentage of visitors make it all the way through an art film. I watched about ten minutes of it.

During that time a striking, statuesque black woman wearing a long white dress stood in a haunting, abandoned quarry. Then she was wearing a bright red jacket trimmed with gold epaulettes and standing in what looked like a ruined outdoor auditorium with tiers of concrete benches.

Still from ‘The Island’ by Mónica de Miranda @ Autograph © Mónica de Miranda

Two young black women wearing black jumpers and red berets (the uniform, I think, of 1970s radicals) walked along paths through woods. The same two women wearing white dresses played on a hilltop with panoramic views over a wooded landscape. Without warning they are suddenly wearing Regency era dresses. Time jumps. Different historical eras are overlapped, photoshopped. At another point we see them sitting on a fallen tree half-sunk in a lake (see image at the start of this review).

The statuesque woman sat on some rocks. She was joined by a handsome black man. Cut to the same couple sitting down at a table placed just so on the sandy bank of a river. Long lazy tracking shots of the riverbank, as from a boat slowly drifting along the river.

Three points:

1. It’s all shot in a slow, classic style i.e. all the shots are long and lingering, they’re all set up to give full view of the scene. It’s consciously beautiful, especially the shots in the abandoned quarry, now filled with a huge pool of deep green water, some of which were really haunting.

‘Whistle for the Wind’ from ‘The Island’ by Mónica de Miranda (2021) © Mónica de Miranda

2. But more striking is the words. There are frequent shots of the striking woman speaking deep and meaningful sentences while staring into the middle distance. When she and the handsome man sit down at the dinner table on the river bank they don’t chat, they declaim more deep and meaningful sentences. As the two young women pick flowers in the woods, or walk through woodland paths or hold hands and spin round on the hilltop, there’s a voiceover of the same kind of deep and meaningful commentary. All spoken in a rich Portuguese accent, heavy on ‘sh’ sounds, sounding more East European than Latin.

I can’t find a transcript anywhere online. All I can find is the text accompanying the trailer on YouTube, where the voiceover tells us:

Do not stay lost.
Do not stay forgotten.
Do not lose the memory of who you are.
Breathe!

All the voiceover for the ten or so minutes I saw is like this. It, could have been copied from any one of the hundreds of books which fill the Spirituality and Mindfulness sections of bookshops. Like mottos from a series of inspirational posters. From the same place as the famous ‘Desiderate’ prose poem of healing advice:

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence…

Either you like this kind of thing or you don’t. Chacun à son goût. Personally, I found it very relaxing. My companion had to stifle her titters.

Thirdly, the music. It’s very, very low-key, slowly-changing chords generated by some kind of synthesiser or electronic instruments i.e. not orchestra or pop music etc. It’s ambient, relaxing and lulling. It reminds me of Brian Eno’s ambient albums from the 70s and 80s.

The combination of the bland bromides of the voiceover, sensitively read in a rich Portuguese accent, the slow ambient music, and the lazy tracking shots of the riverbank, of girls walking through woods, of the striking woman standing in abandoned sites…explain why after ten or 12 minutes I fell slowly, lazily asleep. I think I was woken up by my own snoring.

‘Ground Work’ from ‘The Island’ by Mónica de Miranda (2021) © Mónica de Miranda

The curators’ version

The curator’s commentary accompanying the show wants us to believe that de Miranda:

deploys the metaphor of the island as a utopian place of isolation, refuge, and escape: a space for collective imaginings that speak to new and old freedoms. Anchored in cultural affinities and ecofeminism, the artist considers soil as an organic repository of time and memory, where ancestral and ecological trauma linked to colonial excavations continue to unfold. The Island urges us to develop a more conscious relationship between our bodies, the past and the lands we inhabit – and all that they hold – towards regenerative possible futures.

The visitor is free to take these ideas and spin them on into complex post-colonial critiques, pondering empire, slavery, colonialism, gender and ethnicity, all the usual topics of contemporary art.

But as an actual sensory experience the film, and then the big white room full of beautiful photos, are wonderfully calming, relaxing and healing. If you’re in that part of London on one of the days when Autograph is open, it’s worth making a detour to experience a chilled half hour of these calm and healing music and images.


Related links

Angola reviews

In case you get the impression that Angola is all beautiful woods, picturesque ruins and spiritual ladies, here are reviews of books by people who’ve worked in or visited this tragic, war-torn country recently.

Other Autograph exhibitions

Peru: a journey in time @ the British Museum

This is a magnificent exhibition. I think the British Museum is my favourite museum/gallery in London, not only because of the beauty of the building, its sense of size and spaciousness, the awesome breadth and range of its holdings – but because it also combines two of my favourite subjects, art and deep history: art in the widest sense, from the high art of imperial courts to the folk art of Inuit or African tribes; and ‘history’ meaning 50 or 100 years ago, but 5,000 or even 50,000 years ago, the full depth and breadth of all human history.

Copper and shell funerary mask, Peru, Moche, AD 100 to 800. Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru. Donated by James Reid

What

In fact the quality of the objects on display in this exhibition is one of its most striking points. I’ve been to scores of exhibitions about ancient cultures and often the curators are forced, through lack of archaeological evidence, to display shards of pottery or fragments of swords and so on and reconstruct their appearance.

By striking contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever been to an exhibition where the quality of every single piece on display was so high. Peru: a journey in time is an exhibition of physically complete, highly finished and dazzling masterpieces!

Kero drinking vessel with a painted scene showing a human figure wearing both Western and Inca attire, Colonial 18th century. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

I was fascinated to learn that this is in large part because of the dry desert conditions of coastal Peru where a lot of its ancient cities were sited meant that all objects, even rugs and tapestries, remained beautifully preserved in the sand for centuries. Apparently these deserts are among the driest in the world, and the exhibition opens with a huge 4-minute video projected onto the wall showing aerial shots of (presumably a helicopter) flying over Amazon jungle, then the breath-taking Andes mountains, through winding river valleys and then, finally across the beautiful bone dry deserts and so to the sandy shoreline. I sat and watched the whole thing several times. It’s awesome.

The exhibition brings together over 40 objects transported from nine museums across Peru to join 80 other pieces from the British Museum’s own collection, many of them rarely if ever exhibited before, including beautiful pots and ceramics, gold headpieces and gauntlets, highly decorated fabrics used to wrap royal corpses and much more.

So it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see such an extensive exhibition of such wonderful, beautiful objects from remote and ancient cultures most of us have never heard of.

Where

So where are talking? Right at the start the show features a big map showing the borders of modern Peru. I can’t find it anywhere online and this is the least worst available alternative. In the centre is the modern state of Peru with key archaeological sites highlighted. To the north is Ecuador, the north-east Colombia, to the east Brazil, to the south-east Bolivia.

Map of ancient sites in Peru

But the point is that, until a few hundred years ago, until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 1530s, all the South American states didn’t exist, in fact the modern state of Peru didn’t come into existence until 200 years ago (and the Museum does point out that the exhibition is by way of celebrating Peru’s bicentennary).

Before the 1530s the central part of the west coast of South America was ruled by a succession of native states and empires, the mountains of the Andes were more sparsely populated, though containing some towns and holy sites, and the Amazon rainforest was inhabited by countless indigenous tribes who have left little or no trace.

When

As to when, the big, big revelation of this show is that the Incas, who most of us have heard about, were only the last and relatively short-lived of a whole series of empires which rose to eminence and ruled various parts of the mountain and coastal regions of what we now call Peru for centuries, the first empires dating from thousands of years BC.

As the co-curator of the exhibition, Cecilia Pardo, puts it:

‘While the Incas are one of the most well-known civilisations from Peru, they were actually relatively recent in terms of the long history of this region. We’ll be taking visitors back many thousands of years earlier.’

The Museum provides an illustrated timeline:

And the exhibition is arranged in simple chronological order, with a room (or, since the spaces are actually marked off by fine bead curtaining) a ‘space’ assigned to the six most important empires or cultures. Each one is introduced by a wall label giving a brief overview of the culture’s dates, rise and extent, cultural practices, a map showing that particular culture’s centres, ritual sites, and one or more big big photos of a key site.

The wall labels are just the right length, but it still requires an effort to get the timeline clear in your head, to try and remember the names of the successive cultures and then to remember the cultural practices associated with each.

Pottery vessel in the shape of a contorted body, Peru, Cupisnique,1200 to 500 BC. Museo de Arte de Lima. Donated by Petrus and Verónica Fernandini. Photo by Daniel Giannoni

The timeline can be summarised as:

  • 15,000 BC first humans arrive in South America
  • 2,500 to 1,800 BC first pottery remains
  • 1,200 to 200 BC Chavin culture
  • 900 to 200 BC Paracas culture
  • 200 BC to 650 AD Nasca culture
  • 100 to 800 AD Mosca
  • 600 to 900 AD Wari
  • 900 to 1400 AD coastal kingdom of Chimú
  • 1400 to 1533 Inca Empire

So the Inca ‘room’ is the last one in the show (well, there’s a kind of epilogue showing how some of the practices, patterns and designs of the earlier cultures linger on among peasants or high-end artists in modern Peru), and it goes heavy on the famous ruined city of Machu Picchu, with the usual breath-taking photos, architectural diagrams showing its structure and layout and so on. But we know about Macchu Picchu sitting atop its mountain, 8,000 feet above the tropical forest and the spectacular views which we routinely see in screensavers or travel brochures. (I’m always disappointed to be reminded that Machu Picchu, from the Quechua Indian language, simply means ‘old mountain’. As so often, the foreign words are so much more evocative than the bald English translation.)

But it’s the other spaces, devoted to the other cultures, which are the real revelation. Here they are in order with a few of the outstanding highlights.

1. Living landscapes

Introduction to the breath-taking but challenging environments of Peru, rainforest in the east, high Andes mountains, and desert down to the coast. Introduces ideas from the various cultures, suggesting how the peoples lived in tune with nature, developed agriculture, commerce and art, and their own theories of time and history, and of death and the afterlife.

2. Early cultures and the Chavin (1200 to 500 BC)

3. Life and death in the desert

How the Paracas and Nasca peoples lived along the south coast of Peru, one of the most arid places on the planet. the most outstanding achievement of the Nasca people couldn’t be included in the exhibition because it is the huge ‘geoglyphs’, outline shapes of animals which they carved in the desert. They did this by removing the top layer of earth and exposing the lighter sediment beneath to create stylised depictions of animals and other natural objects. And there aren’t just a handful: to date between nearly 100 new figures had been found with the use of drones and archaeologists believe there are more yet to be discovered.

The Monkey geoglyph, Nasca, Peru. ©Walter Wust / PROMPERÚ.

As to the Paracas, the standout thing here was their cult of severed heads. One of the biggest exhibits is a big tapestry aid flat in a case which you can stroll round. At first I took that busy pattern to be of stylised figures, a bit reminiscent of  the early video game, Space Invaders.

Mantle depicting mythical beings holding severed heads. Museo de Arte de Lima. Prado Family Bequest. Restored with a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.

It was only when I looked closer that I realised every single one these figures was carrying in their hand a severed head. At first I thought this was a gruesome proof of human sacrifice comparable to the Aztec cult of cutting human hearts out of the defeated in battle. This seemed to be confirmed when in realised several of the pots in this section also depicted figures holding a rope tied to the top of a severed human head.

And then saw a set of wood carvings (rare survivals from the period which have been in the British Museum vaults for over a century, apparently, and never before been put on public display). These were of naked figures (we know they are naked because they had prominent wooden penises) again with thick rope around their necks.

The curator explained it all. In most societies war means unbridled violence between large armies, all too often rampaging across territory and considering it a valid war aim to kill all civilians, destroy all buildings and agriculture. Not so the Paracas. According to the curator, if conflict arose between groups, representatives were chosen to take part in something more like the games in the Roman amphitheatre. The losers were not killed there and then but submitted to this ritual of abasement and execution. The penises are important not as symbols of fertility but because they emphasise the captors’ naked status.

The losers were taken by boat to a holy island just off the coast, where were priests or religious officials who performed the beheading according to rituals. This explains why this section of the exhibition included a beautifully complete and detailed ceramic of a boat being sailed, with a fully dressed sailor at the tiller and several naked captives on deck, all with the stylised short thick rope round their necks.

To return to the funerary wrapping, the curator now explained that the 70 or so figures depicted are gods or protective spirits of the afterlife, and the head each one is holding by a rope represents an ancestor of the person being wrapped in this covering. So, by the end of his presentation, I realised what a precious object this was and how highly charged with religious and ritual symbolism.

(The exhibition features half a dozen or so videos, each devoted to particular exhibits, and this funeral cloth was accompanied by a video showing exactly how it would have been used to wrap the body of its high status owner.)

4. The Moche (AD 100 to 800) and the Chimu (AD 1000 to 1400)

These two cultures dominated along the coast and inland valleys of northern Peru. The outstanding artefacts from the Moche period were the stunningly finished and lifelike pottery heads and figurines.

Painted pottery vessel in the form of a warrior holding a club and a shield, Peru, Moche AD 100 to 600. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

This is what I meant when I said that the exhibits are in astonishing condition. If these pots were from ancient Greece or Rome, you’d put up with half the decoration being scratched off, chips and fragments. But all the pottery heads and figurine included in the exhibition were in immaculate condition. They looked like they’d been made and glazed last month instead of two thousand years ago.

You might have expected that the portrait heads and figurines were stylised and stereotyped or standardised. But the curator  pointed out that archaeologists have discovered a set of pottery heads depicting a man with a distinctive facial disfiguration, and the three pots clearly show him as a youth, a mature man and an old man. In other words, these ceramic heads are portraits of real people. I found that breath-taking.

5. The Wari (AD 600–900) and Inca (AD 1400–1532)

The two great empires of the highlands of the Central Andes, this part of the exhibition overshadowed, as mentioned above, by stunning images of Machu Picchu.

6. The Andean legacy

The final part of the Inca space shows Western influences impinging on native traditions, Christianity apparently wiping out native religions and rituals, books written entirely by Spanish clerics (all the cultures listed above were illiterate so we can never know the detail of their beliefs or practices) giving a very one-sided account of the native peoples, often misunderstanding or distorting their beliefs and traditions.

Kero drinking vessel with a painted scene showing a human figure wearing both Western and Inca attire, Colonial 18th century. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

But then the final (small) space is devoted to a more optimistic vision, showing how many of the native traditions, despite Spanish attempts at obliteration, survived and went underground, emerging centuries later in enduring traditions of arts and crafts, in native words and traditions kept alive in rural areas..

Why

Why go? Because it is a magnificent exhibition. All the exhibits are in stunningly good condition. The photos of the Peruvian landscape are breath-taking, made me want to jump on a plane and go see for myself. The sense of history it gives, of how deep history works, of the growth and overlap and intermingling of distinct cultures over long periods of time on similar or adjacent territories, fire the historical imagination.

If you like images of severed heads, this is the exhibition for you! And I haven’t even mentioned the frequency of other images and motifs taken from the natural world, such as the recurring motifs of pumas or panthers, and the sly presence of snakes in many images. For example, the stunning 2,500-year-old gold headdress and pair of ear plates decorated with embossed motifs of human faces with feline fangs and snakes’ appendages, part of an elite burial found at Kuntur Wasi.

It’s a feast for the eyes and the mind. Go.

A video review

Here’s a rather home-made but accurate depiction of what the exhibition looks like, made by Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Quay Art, Blakeney, Norfolk

Quay Art is a small gallery and shop in Blakeney, north Norfolk. It specialises in printmaking techniques including linocuts, etchings, collagraphs and woodcuts, but also showcases other formats including painting, ceramics, fused and kiln-formed glass, sculpture and artisan jewellery. What unifies all the works is that they are made by local artists and inspired by the Norfolk coast and countryside. I spent a happy half hour browsing round the pictures and prints and was taken by the work of three artists in particular:

Chrissy Norman

In the words of her website:

Chrissy is a Suffolk printmaker and works using the traditional method of etching copper or zinc plate in acid to achieve an image. Once the etching plate is complete she starts to print the edition and hand inks each one in small batches.

This summary doesn’t begin to do justice to the beautiful precision and accuracy of Norman’s etchings. They all depict either landscapes from the Norfolk coastline or details of specific flora, sometimes flowers, but it was her portraits of trees which floored me with their precision of outline, detail, light and colour, wonderfully evocative outlines of plane trees, oaks or, as in this instance, a soaring, sunlit, spiky Scots pine such as form the forest cover around the vast expanse of Holkham Beach. You can smell the hot sunlight, the crumbly sand underfoot, the powerful scent of hot pinewood, and the occasional salty waft of sea breeze rustling the branches.

Looking Up by Chrissy Norman

There was also a subterranean Winnie the Pooh vibe going on, some of these trees reminding me of the vivid and timeless illustrations of Pooh or, more precisely, of the trees in the Hundred Acres Wood drawn by E.H. Shepard.

Rob Barnes

On Rob’s website he tells us that he taught etching, screen-printing, lino and related surface printmaking at Keswick Hall College and then the University of East Anglia, Norwich until 2006.

Whereas Norman uses lines which are so fine and precise they sometimes create the slight blurriness of actual vision before you’ve focused on something, or the softness of sea fogs, morning mist, summer haze, Barnes’s linocuts achieve the exact opposite effect. The lines are clear, thick and black, the colours bolder and simpler, and deployed to create strikingly simplified and vivid images. And whereas Norman focuses on the fine detail of one tree, or spray of blossom, or haystack, Barnes steps back to give us clear vibrant perspectives across entire landscapes.

I particularly liked this one, Over the fields, which, when you study it, you realise is composed of 4 parts. In the foreground is a flurry of wild flowers, including (I think) teasel, honeysuckle and poppies. In the middle ground four or so deeply rolling fields folding into each other. Beyond these and the barns (pun) on the immediate horizon, an entire secondary country disappearing into the hazy far-beyond. And fourthly, of course, the murmuration of stark black starlings in the sky, arranged in an artfully artless pattern which creates and defines the space of the sky, clinches and crystallises the landscape.

Some of his other works depict hares bounding across lanes or pheasants pottering over fields. They, also, are crisply conceived with thick black, defining lines but, in my opinion, lack the fourth dimension which makes this particular image so compelling to me, the sense of enormous space and openness created by the flock of free-flying birds and which, when you really look at it, I think, invites you into their ever-changing freedom of flight.

Over the Fields by Rob Barnes

Colin Moore

Colin Moore’s work is semi-abstract but in an interestingly different way from Barnes’s. Whereas Barnes simplifies the detail of his images in order to create a kind of storybook clarity, Moore sees more complex, abstract shapes continually emerging from the world around him.

He also, more consistently than the previous two artists, depicts not trees or country but the coast, the sea, the estuaries and inlets and marshes and cliffs and beaches of this part of the world, distilling from them images which are both simplified of the untidy clutter of real life but also infused with a kind of semi-abstract, almost baroque imagery.

The day before I saw this painting I had gone for a swim in the sea off Holkham, and you can trust me that neither the tidepools nor the sky there looked anything like they do in this painting. Moore has taken the original elements and distorted them with the aim of creating something new and otherworldly out of the familiar. Look at the ‘clouds’ at the top right. They look like ice floes in the Arctic Ocean. And the pools themselves look like patterns on a psychedelic t-shirt. The overall composition is recognisably ‘realistic’ but the individual elements have been stylised and colorised to produce a powerful, visionary, and yet precise and very controlled effect.

Holkham Tidepools by Colin Moore


Related links

The case against identity politics

Steve Bannon thinks identity politics are great for President Donald Trump. That’s what the president’s adviser told Robert Kuttner at the American Prospect. “The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Anecdote

At the press launch of Masculinities at the Barbican I stood by the bar queuing for a free coffee. In front of me were two very posh art reviewers, laughing and joking about people they know in the art world. One was a man, one was a woman. They drank their coffee and set off into the exhibition where a massive introductory wall label asserts that GENDER is the decisive factor in power relations in Western society.

Is it, though? I was struck by the way both these posh people, man and woman, simply ignored the drone, the servant, the serf who poured them their coffees. When it was my turn, I asked him where he was from – Hungary, as it turned out – and tried out my one and only piece of Hungarian vocabulary on him: köszönöm.

There are well over a million East Europeans in the UK, performing all kinds of menial jobs, handing out coffee, working in warehouses, building, gardening, labouring. Bankers wives lunch together in the lovely restaurant at the Victoria and Albert Museum while foreign lackeys of both sexes serve and clean and wipe up after them.

So as you can tell, for me it’s not about gender; it’s about power and money and class, which can often be mixed up with gender, but just as often supersede and override it.

I’ve watched my friend Sarah, the banker’s wife, give her cleaner her tasks for the day and tell her au pair where to take the children, before going off to meet Gillian for coffee.

Maybe, as the feminists insist, all three of them are women and so share the same struggles and experience the same oppression, but it doesn’t look that way to me.

To me it looks as if one person in this situation has money, lots of money, and therefore lots of power over other people who have hardly any money and so have to obey the rich person. For me, in my opinion, money and power trump gender every time, and I am on the side of the people without money and without power.

Personal experience

I joined the Campaign For Homosexual Equality, although I am not myself gay, when I was 17 or 18 back in the late 1970s. I thought it was scandalous that gays and lesbians didn’t have the exact same rights as straight people, from the same age of consent to the same right to get married, have children etc. I used to like hanging round Windsor’s one gay pub where I was introduced by a gay activist to the colourful clientele and made a number of gay friends, far more fun and interesting than most of the boys and girls of my age.

At the same time, back in the late 70s, I attended Rock Against Racism marches and gigs, although I am not myself black. Again, I thought all kinds of legal and social discrimination against black people were disgusting and needed to be campaigned against, so I signed petitions and went on marches chanting lots of slogans.

Why identity politics is bad

1. Identity politics creates an equal and opposite reaction God knows how many articles I’ve read by ‘angry’ feminists, incensed by this, that or the other latest outrage against women.

And articles by angry Muslims, outraged by discrimination and Islamophobia, like Baroness Warsi.

And by angry black activists, outraged by racism and discrimination against persons of colour, like David Lammy.

And by angry Jews, outraged by anti-semitism, like Margaret Hodge.

But as they stoke a bottomless swamp of anger, none of these people seem to have considered two obvious points:

1. If you promote anger, permanent anger, about every single perceived insult and slight against every single section of society, you are, eventually, in effect, promoting an angry society. When I read puzzled articles in the liberal press wondering why society has suddenly become so angry, I reflect that at least part of the reason might be that you’ve been printing articles encouraging all women, all blacks, all Muslims, all gays and lesbians, and every other definable minority, to be as angry as possible.

2. What makes you think your anger is more righteous and holy than the anger of your opponents? The last decade or so has seen the new rise of ‘white anger’, in the States, in Australasia and across Europe. Why the surprise? If you demonise, mock, insult and abuse white people – and especially white men – as institutionally sexist, misogynist, racist, anti-semitic, Islamophobic, pathetic losers nostalgic for the vanished days of empire, well, why on earth would you be surprised if eventually this long-suffering minority (white men are a minority of the population in all these countries) might themselves develop a sense of grievance and get fed up of being insulted, blamed and abused all the time.

Hence the right-wing, and sometimes very right-wing movements, which have sprung up in the last decade or so all around the developed world, and especially in Eastern Europe.

I’m not in favour of these groups and parties, far from it. I’m just surprised that the hordes of identity politicians railing endlessly against men and white people are surprised that eventually these much-vilified men (all those mansplaining, manspreading, misogynist bastards), and these much-abused white people (the white racist, imperialist, whitesplaining bastards), have kicked back, set up their own political parties, and refuse to take it any more.

Why does it come as a surprise that they will begin writing and talking about their identities and their traditions and their communities and how they feel increasingly under threat from a globalised, neo-liberal economic order and its handmaiden, the globalised rhetoric of identity politics. In fact many of these post-industrial communities have had the stuffing kicked out of them over the past 30 years and are right be angry.

The great irony of our times is that woke identity politicians have created their nemesis, their mirror image. Western societies are drenched in feminist and politically correct rhetoric to an unprecedented degree. Which newspaper today doesn’t have an article about the terrible misogyny that all women have to face and the racism that all blacks have to face and the Islamophobia that all Muslims have to face and the homophobia that all gay people have to face.

In fact, more women, blacks and Asians, gays and lesbians are in positions of power and influence than ever before in world history, and has the result been the birth of a new, peaceful, calm and content society?

No. The exact opposite. It has resulted in the flowering of the Far Right: Trump, Brexit, the AfD, Five Star, Vox, Viktor Orban, and so on. In the European Parliament, nine far-right parties have formed a new bloc, and its name is: Identity and Democracy.

It turns out that the Left, the woke, and the politically correct do not have a monopoly on the rhetoric and discourse of identity. Other people can be angry about their identities and their communities and their beliefs being mocked and vilified, too.

So now all those angry black people and feminists and Muslims and LGBT+ activists I’ve been reading about for decades haven been joined by loads of angry white nationalists and racists and xenophobes and far-right conservatives.

As I’ve said, I have no truck with angry white nationalists and racists and xenophobes and far-right conservatives. I’m just stepping back, surveying the scene and marvelling at what a wonderful world we have created.

2. Identity politics divides and polarises society For a preview of how this will pan out, look at America, home of the most advanced feminist and BAME civil rights movements in the world. Is it, as a result, the most peaceful, calm and relaxed society in the West? No. It is the most poisonously divided Western society, where political opponents can’t even speak to each other, where all sides devote their time to sniffing out each other’s politically incorrect texts or tweets or speeches or jokes, and where the complete inability top laugh or joke about any of these issues is contributing to a toxic cultural atmosphere in which identity-motivated violence is growing. America is without doubt the most violent and socially divided country in the OECD.

3. Identity politics consumes conventional politics Back in the United Kingdom, look at the trouble caused in the Labour Party by the accusations about its supposedly institutional anti-semitism and, right now, the trouble leadership contender Rebecca Long-Bailey has got herself into on the tricky issue of transgender rights.

It’s difficult to take a view on transgender rights which someone else can’t criticise as bigoted and transphobic, or bigoted and misogynist. If you support the right of transwomen to call themselves women you upset quite a few feminists who insist they aren’t and they certainly shouldn’t be allowed into women-only spaces like changing rooms. But if you back this point of view, you are instantly accused of transphobia.

Trans rights are, in a sense, a quintessence of politically correct, identity politics because a really pure, ‘correct’ view which pleases all sides, is actually impossible. It calls for a degree of ‘correctness’ which isn’t actually achievable by mere mortals. Thus it will continue to bedevil the Left for the foreseeable future.

Anyway, is the net effect of all these squabbles over race and gender the creation of a happier society more at peace with itself?

No. The most obvious result is to wound anyone who gets caught up in these kinds of arguments because they are so poisonous and, once you’re embroiled in these sorts of controversies, they are extremely difficult to wriggle out of.

Will the Labour Party ever, ever again, be free of the taint of anti-Semitism which has it has been so comprehensively accused of?

And this is how you end up with people like Steven Bannon quoted as saying how great it is for people like him (former White House Chief Strategist to President Trump) when the Left go on about race and identity and gender – because it means they’ve handed over the entire debate about how to run the economy, how to tax and spend, about business and transport, about resources and the environment, about social and foreign policy, in fact most of the business of actual government, over to their opponents.

Identity politics means the Left becomes evermore focused on a handful of extremely contentious issues, and loses sight of all the larger problems which affect most people most of the time and which they look (often pretty reluctantly) to politicians to fix.

Modern, urban, university-educated identity politics has helped to make the Left seem totally irrelevant to the lives of huge numbers of people.

4. Identity politics condemns you to political impotence Thus the Left loses at a high, political and governmental level, but it also loses demographically, in terms of simple arithmetic.

Everyone in the woke bubble agrees with everyone else in the bubble, as I realised when I watched the very woke curator of the Masculinities exhibition at the Barbican explaining the very woke attitude of all the artists represented to the very woke audience of art journalists and critics who went off and wrote their very woke reviews to be read by the very woke readers of The Guardian etc.

But it is a minority bubble. Utterly pure social justice warriors – those who have such impeccably correct views that they cannot be criticised for islamophobia, racism, anti-semitism, misogyny, sexism or transphobia – are in a small minority.

They may – like on-message art gallery curators – share their immaculately progressive views with all the other artists and gallery curators and lime-minded progressives in America and Canada, and across Latin America and Australasia and Europe and Africa. How wonderful that all these like-minded people share the same values and support the same important causes!

But hardly anyone else does.

Jo Swinson wouldn’t stop telling everyone how proud she was to be the first woman leader of the Liberal Party, and I listened to a radio 4 interview just three days before the 2019 General Election, in which she spoke for nearly ten minutes about the burning importance of trans rights.

The result? The Liberal Party was slaughtered in the last general election and Swinson lost her own seat. So much for holding immaculately progressive views. For sure that makes you an immaculately progressive person, and it’s always lovely to be an angel and on the side of the good and the pure and the true. But in a democratic system, insisting on views held by only a tiny minority, means you lose and lose badly.

Look at the contenders to be the Democratic Presidential candidate against Donald Trump and how they’re using race and gender to tear each other to pieces. Elizabeth Warren is going to lose but not before she accuses all the men around her of being sexist pigs, abusers, harassers and misogynists, and a lot of that mud will stick.

Or look at the contenders for the Labour Party leadership struggling to address the issues of anti-semitism, racism and sexism. Any policies about the economy or industry or healthcare or the NHS or crime or immigration are difficult to make out through the blizzard of accusations of sexism and racism and transphobia which they’re throwing at each other.

And meanwhile, watch the bankers and heads of multinational corporations carry on wrecking the environment, paying their immigrant staff a pittance, and awarding themselves multi-million pound pay rises, happy in the knowledge that the Left is tearing itself to pieces with needless and bitter recriminations about which of them is more sexist or more racist than the other.

Watch Donald Trump and Boris Johnson sit back, rubbing their hands and laughing their heads off.

Conclusion

So my position is not that I’m against equality for women, LGBTG+ people, blacks, Muslims and so on. I am in favour of all these causes, and continue to vote for left-of-centre parties. But I think the never-ending rise of identity politics will:

  • in the name of ‘progressive’ values, permanently weaken the Left as a viable political force
  • lead to the permanent entrenchment of the Right in power
  • continue to create a more fractious, fragmented, angry and violent society
  • leaving huge corporations and the banks completely free to carry on business as usual

So this is the context for my reaction to an art exhibition like Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography at the Barbican, which I reviewed yesterday.

My reaction isn’t a knee-jerk negativity prompted because, as a white man, I feel somehow threatened by all these black artists or gay artists or feminist artists. I’m not threatened by them at all. I campaigned for black and gay causes when I was a teenager, and I really liked a lot of the black and gay and feminist art on display.

But taken as a political gesture, if the curators really take the word ‘politics’ in its simplest core sense, as ‘the activities associated with the governance of a country’, then I fear that exhibitions like this which are drenched in a rhetoric which attacks all men and all white people and all straight people, and blames them for all the injustices of the past – is in practice going to alienate the majority of the population, exacerbate social divisions, merely entrench the blinkered groupthink of a small minority of the hyper-woke metropolitan middle classes, and is part of the general cultural movement which is rendering progressive politics more and more irrelevant to most people’s day-to-day concerns.

The Barbican exhibition is drenched in the kind of righteous rhetoric which at best leaves most people cold, at worst actively insults some of the people we need on our side, and which paints the Left into an increasingly irrelevant corner and condemns it to perpetual powerlessness.

So it this analysis of the politics of the real, wider world, which lies behind my refusal simply to endorse all the anti-white, anti-male discourse enshrined in an exhibition like Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography.

I broadly support the political aims of all the groups represented (women, blacks, LGBT+). But I fear that the self-congratulatory elitism and the aggressively anti-mainstream rhetoric of the commentary and discourse which saturate exhibitions like this is not part of the solution, but are contributing to a really serious, long-term social and political crisis.


Articles against identity politics

Related blog posts

Liberty / Diaspora by Omar Victor Diop @ Autograph ABP

Autograph ABP is a lovely, big, open gallery space not far from Old Street tube station, devoted to exhibitions of photography by people of colour. It has just finished a ravishing exhibition by Senegalise photographer Omar Victor Diop, born 1980 in Dakar.

Thiaroye 1944 by Omar Victor Diop

Thiaroye 1944 by Omar Victor Diop

The ground floor exhibition space displays thirty beautiful digital photographs which feature Diop himself wearing the historical costumes of black people from defining moments in history. The photos are divided into two distinct projects:

Liberty: A Universal Chronology of Black Protest

This series reinterprets defining moments of historical revolt and black struggle in Africa and the diaspora. Diop dresses up as characters from key events such as the Alabama marches on Washington (Selma 1965), lesser-known resistance movements against colonial oppression in southeastern Nigeria (The Women’s War 1929) and the more recent Million Hoodie March in New York.

Selma 1965 by Omar Victor Diop

Selma 1965 by Omar Victor Diop

Diop appears as the main character throughout the series, but also – thank to modern digital wizardry – sometimes also appears multiple times, as African railway workers, French migrants, Second World War soldiers, Jamaican maroons and members of the Black Panther Party, as appropriate.

The Ibo Women's War 1929 by Omar Victor Diop

The Ibo Women’s War 1929 by Omar Victor Diop

The most immediately obvious thing about all the photos is how stunningly beautiful Diop is.

I took my teenage son to the exhibition with me and he agreed. He didn’t read any of the historic stories or references, he just enjoyed them as images in which an absolutely gorgeous young black man gets to dress up in lots of historical costumes.

Omar Ibn Said (1770-1864) by Omar Victor Diop

Omar Ibn Said (1770-1864) by Omar Victor Diop

Project Diaspora

The second series is titled Project Diaspora. Once again Omar dresses up and photographs himself in images quoting or parodying portraits celebrating four centuries of notable Africans in the diaspora.

These include:

  • Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), the abolitionist leader who was the most photographed person of his time
  • Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) a freed slave, writer and activist in London
  • St Bénédicte de Palermo (1526-1589), a saint in the Catholic and Lutheran church
  • Prince Dom Nicolau (c.1830-1860), the Congolese African leader
  • August Sabac El Cher (c.1836-1885), an early Afro-German soldier
  • Jean-Baptise Belley (1746-1805), who fought during the French Revolution, and so on
Jean-Baptiste Belley (1746-1805) by Omar Victor Diop

Jean-Baptiste Belley (1746-1805) by Omar Victor Diop

Each of these characters has an extensive wall label describing who they were and what they did and why they matter. For example,

Jean-Baptiste Belley was a native of Senegal, born on the island of Gorée and former slave of Santo Domingo in the West Indies who bought his freedom with his savings. During the period of the French Revolution, he became a member of the National Convention and the Council of Five Hundreds of France. He was also known as Mars. Original painting by Girodet.

I found it a struggle to assimilate so many diverse historical periods and events, and my son didn’t bother but just enjoyed the sheer beauty of Omar himself, captured in enormous photographs which are all composed with a strange, interplanetary calmness.

Installation view of Liberty/Diaspora by Omar Victor Diop

Installation view of Liberty/Diaspora by Omar Victor Diop

And the footballs? I wondered whether you’d notice that. In many of the historic poses the figure is holding a modern plastic football, often very prominent, brightly coloured and incongruous. Why?

In Diop’s own words:

‘Football is an interesting global phenomenon that for me often reveals where society is in terms of race. When you look at the way that the African football royalty is perceived in Europe, there is an interesting blend of glory, hero-worship and exclusion. Every so often, you get racist chants or banana skins thrown on the pitch and the whole illusion of integration is shattered in the most brutal way. It’s that kind of paradox I am investigating in the work.’

A beautiful young man dressed up in historical costumes and carrying a football. What more could you ask for in a photography exhibition?


Related links

Reviews of other Autograph shows

Review of photography exhibitions

Red Star over Russia @ Tate Modern

David King

In the 1970s British designer David King was sent to Soviet Russia by the Sunday Times to find old photos of Leon Trotsky to accompany a feature. The feature never materialised but, rummaging about in the archives, King began to uncover the vast scale of the stacks of photos, magazine and newspaper articles, posters and propaganda sheets chronicling the early years of the Russian Revolution, which had been lost or forgotten.

He bought and borrowed what he could to bring back to Blighty, and then made further visits looking for more. It turned into a lifelong project. By his death in 2016 King had accumulated a collection of over 250,000 Russian Revolution-related objects which were bequeathed to Tate.

What better way to display the highlights of this vast collection than during the centenary year of the Bolshevik revolution, and so this exhibition opened on 8 November 2017, commemorating the outbreak of the revolution, to the precise month and day.

Entrance to Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Entrance to Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Red Star Over Russia

The exhibition displays some 150 photos and posters chronicling the years 1917 to the death of Stalin in 1953, showing the changing visual and design styles of the Soviet Union, from the radical experimental days of the early 1920s through to the dead hand of Socialist Realism imposed in the early 1930s. It continues on through the nationalist propaganda of the Great Patriotic War and into the era of ‘high Stalinism’ between 1945 and 1953, which saw the start of the Cold War as the Soviet Union consolidated its grip on occupied Eastern Europe and aided the Chinese Communist Party to its successful seizure of power in 1949.

In obvious ways this exhibition echoes and complements the huge show about the Russian Revolution which the Royal Academy staged earlier this year (although that show included many contemporary paintings and works of art; this show is almost entirely about photos and posters, magazines and prints).

Photos

The old black-and-white photos are doorways into a lost world. Here are Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin looking bulky in their greatcoats, their penetrating stares, their unremitting antagonism.

One sequence chronicles the famous series of photos of Stalin surrounded by Party functionaries who, one by one, were arrested and imprisoned during the 1930s and, one by one, were airbrushed out of the official photo, until only Stalin is pictured. This famous photo is the subject of King’s book The Commissar Vanishes.

Related photos show Lenin shouting from a podium with Trotsky leaning against it. After Trotsky was exiled in 1928, he also would be airbrushed out of this photo. In an adjoining room are ancient silent movies of Trotsky haranguing the crowd and the early Bolshevik leaders milling about the stand in Red Square.

Lenin harangues the crowd while Trotsky watches

Lenin harangues the crowd while Trotsky watches

The Terror began within a year of the Bolsheviks taking power. It came to dominate the entire society, as shown by newspaper photos which have been retouched to remove politicians as they are arrested and liquidated. There are even private photos whose owners have cut out the heads of ‘former people’ in terror lest they be found and the owners themselves arrested.

There are evocative photos of the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky, looking particularly stunning when he shaved his head and became a revolutionary firebrand, demanding that opera houses and all previous art be burned to the ground. The Russian Taliban.

The communist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky

The communist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky

I’m familiar with these photos but I’d never before seen the official photo of his body after he killed himself in 1930, disillusioned by the way the revolution was going. The exhibition includes a photo of him lying on a divan with a big red stain round his heart, where the bullet entered.

Similarly, there’s a powerful little set of photos showing Marshall Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the man responsible for radically reforming the Red Army, before himself falling foul of Stalin’s paranoia. Here he is looking proud in his military uniform. Here he is with his wife and little daughter. And then he was gone – arrested, tried and executed by a shot to the back of the head on 12 June 1937. The confession to treason wrung from him by torture still survives. It is spattered with his dried blood. Thus the Workers’ Paradise.

Tukhachevsky was not the only one. I was stunned to learn from a wall label that no fewer than 25,000 officers in the Red Army were arrested, executed and sent to labour camps between 1937 and 1941! What a paranoid idiot Stalin was.

When Nazi Germany invaded Russia on 22 June 1941 a headless, leaderless Red Army found itself forced right back to the walls of Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad. If they’d only launched the invasion six weeks earlier – as initially planned – the Nazis might have captured all three cities and the history of the world would have been very different. But ‘General Winter’ came to the aid of the Communist leadership, just as it had against Napoleon.

The exhibition shows how, when war broke out, official Soviet propaganda quietly dropped a lot of Bolshevik motifs and refocused attention on patriotic feelings for the Motherland. Now Stalin was rebranded ‘Leader of the Great Russian People’ and the war was christened ‘The Great Patriotic War’.

One of the six rooms in the exhibition deals solely with wartime propaganda, including posters warning people to be discreet and not give away secrets. It’s immediately noticeable how earnest and serious these were, compared with our own stylish and often humorous wartime posters on the same subject.

Don't Chatter! Gossiping Borders on Treason by Nina Vatolina (1941) The David King Collection at Tate

Don’t Chatter! Gossiping Borders on Treason by Nina Vatolina (1941) (The David King Collection at Tate)

Not unwise or foolish – Treason. And every Soviet citizen knew what would happen to them if they were suspected of Treason. The midnight arrest, the five-minute trial and then transport to some labour camp in Siberia. Russian authorities had to terrify their population to get anything done. By contrast, British authorities had to coax and laugh the population into better behaviour.

 

Posters

All this about the war is looking ahead. In fact the exhibition opens with a couple of rooms showcasing the fantastic explosion of creative talent which accompanied the early years of the revolution.

Progressive artists, writers, designers, journalists and so on threw themselves into the task of building a new, perfect, workers’ society. The very first room houses a big wall, painted communist red, and covered with vivid and inspiring revolutionary posters. Down with the bourgeoisie, Up the workers, Freedom for emancipated women, Strangle international capitalism, and so on.

Installation view of Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Installation view of Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Early photos show the workshops of idealistic artists creating poster art for a population which was, of course, largely illiterate and so benefited from big, bold images.

The sheer size of this illiterate working population also explains the development of ‘agitprop’ propaganda, conveyed through really simple-minded posters, books and comics, plays, pamphlets, the radically new medium of film and even – as photos here show – via steam trains festooned with Red propaganda pictures and bedecked with red flags.

These revolutionary trains were equipped with cinemas, exhibition carriages, mobile theatres and classrooms, and spread the message of Revolution and Freedom to remote regions all around the vast Russian landmass.

Above all, these young artists, fired by revolutionary idealism, found a new way to create extremely dynamic images, using exciting new approaches to photography and graphic design.

Photo-montage

The Cubists had experimented with collage as early as 1910, and members of the Dada movement (notably Max Ernst in Zurich and John Heartfield in Berlin) had also cut up and pasted together incongruous images from newspapers and magazines. But these had been semi-private experiments in the name of avant-garde fine art.

By contrast the immediate post-revolutionary years in Russia saw an explosive exploration of the potential ways photos can be composed, cut up and montaged together with new styles of design, layout, fonts and wording, to create dynamic and exciting images designed for a mass public.

A set of photos by the genius Alexander Rodchenko shows how vibrant and exciting black and white photos can be when they follow a handful of simple rules. They must be:

  • of extreme clarity
  • taken from above or below the subject
  • of subjects themselves dynamically geometrical in nature
  • use diagonals to cut right across the picture plane.
Tashkent 1933 (The David King Collection at Tate)

Tashkent 1933 (The David King Collection at Tate)

But how much more powerful these already dynamic images become if you cut and paste them into a montage, designed to be read from left to right and convey a raft of patriotic, revolutionary and inspiring subjects.

Photomontage from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Catalogue of the Soviet Pavilion at the International Press Exhibition, Cologne 1928 by El Lissitzky and Sergei Senkin (The David King Collection at Tate)

Photomontage from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Catalogue of the Soviet Pavilion at the International Press Exhibition, Cologne 1928 by El Lissitzky and Sergei Senkin (The David King Collection at Tate)

In fact a montage of just the ‘Great Leaders’ alone turns out to be tremendously powerful, helping to change their images into timeless icons (in a country with a 1,000 year-long history of revering timeless icons). But important to the composition is the presence of the masses, smiling, marching, teeming, liberated, which are cut and pasted into the spare spaces of the composition.

Raise Higher the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin! (1933) by Gustav Klutsis. The David King Collection at Tate

Raise Higher the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin! (1933) by Gustav Klutsis (The David King Collection at Tate)

(By the way, Klutsis, who made this banner and many other inspiring works like it, was executed in 1938.)

The exhibition includes a wonderful set of prints of purely abstract designs by the great Constructivist artist El Lissitzky – if I could, these would be the one item I’d want to take home from the exhibition. I love the energy of lines and angles and abstraction, and I’m a sucker for the use of text in pictures – so I love El Lissitzky.

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920) by El Lissitzy. The David King Collection at Tate

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920) by El Lissitzy (The David King Collection at Tate)

When you combine all these elements – striking photos and text montaged onto apparently abstract backgrounds made up of vivid colours broken by lines radiating energy – you come up with one of the really great design and visual breakthroughs of this period – the balanced and creative use of abstract design and photomontage to create images which are still inspirational today.

Take Alexander Rodchenko’s most famous work:

'Books (Please)! In All Branches of Knowledge' (1924) by Rodchenko

Books (Please)! In All Branches of Knowledge (1924) by Alexander Rodchenko

Or this 1928 poster by Gustav Klutsis: photos montaged onto an abstract pattern of dynamic diagonal lines.

Moscow All-Union Olympiad (Spartakiada) (1928) by Gustav Klutsis. The David King Collection at Tate

Moscow All-Union Olympiad (Spartakiada) (1928) by Gustav Klutsis (The David King Collection at Tate)

This is why the decade or so of artistic production in Russia after 1917 is the subject of so many exhibitions and books, and returned to again and again – because it saw such an explosion of experimentation in the visual arts, in theatre and cinema and literature, as extremely creative minds in all these spheres completely rejected the aristocratic and bourgeois, self-centred art of the past and tried to devise new forms and styles and genres to convey their exciting news that a New World was at hand.

Although their particular revolution deteriorated into repression and Terror, nonetheless their experiments captured general truths about the twentieth century as a whole, inventing completely new ways to harness the mass media of cinema and photography, popular magazines and consumer products, which could be equally well applied to the mass societies of the capitalist world.

Which is why, although they were created in a communist climate, Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Klutsis and scores of others invented visual styles and techniques which film-makers, playwrights and directors, fine artists and graphic designers in the decadent West and right around the world have mined and plundered for ideas and innovations ever since.

Deinekin and the 1937 Paris Exposition

Of course it didn’t last, as we all know. By 1928, the Soviet government felt strong enough to put a decisive end to all private enterprise (which had been grudgingly reintroduced under Lenin’s New Economic Plan in 1922). This ended the possibility of any kind of independent funding for the arts, which now came under the iron grip of the state. Although the term Socialist Realism wasn’t officially used until 1932, its ideas were beginning to triumph.

Any experimentalism in the arts was increasingly criticised by the party for being ‘formalist’, which meant too avant-garde and experimental to be understood by the masses. By 1934 it was decided that ALL art must be Socialist Realist in nature, meaning:

  1. Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
  2. Typical: scenes of the everyday life of the people.
  3. Realistic: in the representational sense.
  4. Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

One room of the exhibition is devoted to the triumph of Socialist Realist art in the form of the USSR’s pavilion at the 1937 ‘International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life’ held in Paris.

The pavilion was designed by Boris Iofan and dominated by a vast stainless steel sculpture by Vera Mukhina titled Worker and Collective Farm Woman

(There is a model of this building and the statue at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s current exhibition about opera; it appears in the section about Shostakovitch and music in Soviet Russia.)

These were to be the kind of heroic, larger-than-life, super-realistic, happy proletarian figures striding forward which were to become commonplace all over the Communist world, not only in Russia but in the conquered nations of Eastern Europe and in Communist China after 1949.

Inside, the pavilion was decorated with a vast mural by the painter Aleksandr Deineka, Stakhanovites, a tribute to Soviet workers (from all the Soviet republics) who had exceeded their work quotas and thus were Heroes of the Soviet Union.

Stakhanovites: A Study for the Esteemed People of the Soviets' Mural for the USSR Pavilion, 1937 International Exposition Paris by Aleksandr Deineka (1937) Perm State Art Gallery, Russia

Stakhanovites: A Study for the Esteemed People of the Soviets’ Mural for the USSR Pavilion, 1937 International Exposition Paris by Aleksandr Deineka (1937) Perm State Art Gallery, Russia

Eerily bad, isn’t it?

Comparing this with the thrillingly avant-garde photo-montages of a decade earlier, I realised how the earlier work really does use diagonal lines to create a sense of striving, reaching, stretching movement and dynamism – Lenin is always leaning out from the podium, in Klutsis’ poster the red flags behind Marx et al are always slanting, anything by El Lissitzky or Rodchenko is at an angle.

Compare and contrast with the Socialist Realist painting above, which is totally square, flat, straight-on and consists of vertical lines at 90 degrees to the horizontal. I think this goes some way to explaining why – although it is intended to be a dynamic image of ideal, smiling communist people striding towards us – it in fact feels remote and unreal, more like a spooky dream than an inspiration.

When the Great Patriotic War broke out, with Nazi Germany’s invasion of 1941, there was something of a return to earlier, rousing propaganda, reviving dynamic diagonals to convey strife, effort, heroism.

Fascism - The Most Evil Enemy of Women. Everyone to the Struggle Against Fascism (1941) by Nina Vatolina. The David King Collection at Tate

Fascism – The Most Evil Enemy of Women. Everyone to the Struggle Against Fascism (1941) by Nina Vatolina (The David King Collection at Tate)

The Great Patriotic War

The last room contains a number of works dating from the Great Patriotic War, including the ‘Treason’ poster (above). The wall label explains how the communist state deliberately changed the focus from Revolution to Patriotism. And, after all, we have evidence from the time that plenty of people fought bravely for the Motherland who wouldn’t have lifted a finger for Stalin or the Communist Party.

The best work in this last room is the immensely historic photo of Red Army soldiers raising their flag over Hitler’s ruined Reichstag in conquered Berlin.

It is interesting to learn that this photo – beamed around the world – was carefully staged by the Soviet photographer Yevgeny Khaldei. Makes sense when you really look at it.

Also (since this is one of the main things I’ve taken from the exhibition, visually) that part of the secret of its appeal is that it is yet another dynamic diagonal.

Soviet soldiers raising the red flag over the Reichstag, May 1945 (Printed 1955) by Yevgeny Khaldei. The David King Collection at Tate

Soviet soldiers raising the red flag over the Reichstag, May 1945 (Printed 1955) by Yevgeny Khaldei (The David King Collection at Tate)

As interesting as the knowledge that the famous photo of U.S. Marines raising the flag on the summit of Iwo Jima was a more complicated affair than it at first appears – as brought out in the Clint Eastwood movie, Flags of Our Fathers.

I wonder if any Russians have made a film about this ‘historic’ moment?


The promotional video

Russian revolution-related merchandise

Tate offers some 55 items of Russian Revolution merchandise to satisfy all your needs for decorative Bolshevikiana. I particularly liked the Death to World Imperialism posters and prints, a snip at £25.

The Red Star over Russia 2018 calendar was tempting, inciting you to smash international capitalism and strangle the worldwide bourgeoisie while you sip a frappuccino and work on your next powerpoint presentation.

Death to World Imperialism (1920) by Dmitrii Moor (1883 1946) The David King Collection at Tate

Death to World Imperialism (1920) by Dmitrii Moor (1883 1946) (The David King Collection at Tate)

And I was particularly delighted to see that Tate has arranged a Red Star over Russia wine-tasting evening so that you can:

‘Discover how the Russian Revolution in 1917 changed the wine world, and how the influential figures of this time redefined the styles and quality of wines in other regions of the world.’

Merchandising like this really rams home the message that ‘the revolution’ is as dead as the Dodo. It has been bottled and sold to the super-rich as a fashionable perfume.


Related links

David King’s books on Amazon

Russia-related reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Lake Keitele: A Vision of Finland @ The National Gallery

In 1999 the National Gallery bought a painting of Lake Keitele by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela. To their surprise the painting has gone on to become one of the most popular in the Gallery’s immense collection of European art. In fact, this is the only painting by Gallen-Kallela in a British public collection.

Now, to celebrate the centenary of Finland’s independence as a nation (Finland’s Independence Day is December 6, today!), the National Gallery has created a one-room exhibition devoted to Lake Keitele and a dozen or so other works by one of Finland’s iconic artists, and it is FREE.

Lake Keitele (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © The National Gallery, London

Lake Keitele (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © The National Gallery, London

All the other works in the room are from abroad, from Finland or Sweden, several from private collections, so this is a very rare, probably unique opportunity to see most of these paintings. And indeed this is the first exhibition in the UK ever devoted to Gallen-Kallela.

Lake Keitele

Gallen-Kallela was obsessed with this view and painted it at least four times. All four variations are here, hanging next to each other, allowing a fascinating opportunity to compare and contrast them and to see how his vision evolved.

It’s odd the way that, if you stand close up, the grey bars across the lake look utterly abstract, as if part of some modernist painting. But the further back you step, the more it looks like the effect you sometimes really see on water, of great stretches which for some reason (zephyrs of wind? air pressure?) lie completely flat and calm, thus having a different tint from the choppy wavy stretches around them.

Seeing all four in a row also draws attention to the frames of the four versions: they are strikingly different and it’s instructive to realise how much of a difference the frames make to how you perceive the paintings. Version one has a jet black frame and feels austere and cold; whereas the final version is surrounded by a lush and embellished gilt frame, which makes it seem much more open, expansive and sweepingly panoramic.

Landscapes and illustrations

Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) appears to have been mostly a painter of rural scenes in a semi-realistic style. Other paintings in the room have titles like ‘Boats on the shore’, ‘Lake view’, ‘Clouds’, ‘Clouds above a lake’, ‘Lakeside landscape’.

So: he conceived of the Finnish landscape as an expression of Finnish nationalism.

There are three exceptions to this general rule, two of them depictions of women on a lake.

I liked the scene depicted below, it’s from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. The old man on the left is a seer or prophet, being rowed by naked maidens. (Nice work if you can get it.) I like it because

a) it’s a bit more complex than just clouds over a lake, however well done
b) I really like the shape of the young woman foreground centre which, on reflection, is because of the clarity of her outline, done in a strong black which itself sets off the immensely skilful deployment of a whole range of skin tones to give light and presence to her torso
c) I have a taste for sketchy unfinished work (cf Degas) and so am also drawn to the way the boat and the women at bottom right are left unfinished.

The whole thing may have been a preparatory sketch but that makes it all the more powerful, for me.

Väinämöinen with Maidens (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Photo courtesy of the owner

Väinämöinen with Maidens (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Photo courtesy of the owner

Modern art

Gallen-Kallela travelled widely and was well aware of contemporary movements in north European art. He was, according to a wall label, briefly a member of the German Expressionist movement, Die Brücke. This flavour in his work, heading towards a really garish expressionism, is epitomised by Oceanides, the human figures deliberately stylised and ungainly and with a purely decorative colour scheme. Isn’t the idea of vertical orange and brown stripes to describe sea water wonderfully bonkers / visionary / beautiful?

Oceanides (1909) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland © Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Janne Mäkinen

Oceanides (1909) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland © Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Janne Mäkinen

A range of styles

Most of the other works in the room are much more realistic than these two. In fact a glance at the works on Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Wikipedia page show that the mostly landscape images here are only one strand among quite a number of different styles or ‘voices’ which he was equally competent in.

Some of these look like excellent late-Victorian book illustrations (Kullervo cursing), reminding us this is the era of Arthur Rackham in England, and the golden age of fairy tale / nationalist folk collections, all across Europe. The commentary at the exhibition describes this kind of style as ‘vigorous and archaic’ which strikes me as conveying the way this strand in his work seems ultra-modern and yet ancient, at the same time.

Some are rural scenes in the style of George Clausen (Boy and Crow; Old woman with a cat). Others have brutally clear, hard black outlines almost of stained glass (Lemminkäinen’s Mother). Some are Nordic kitsch (Shepherd Boy from Paanajärvi). Only a few convey any sense of being in urban settings in the 20th century (Symposium, Démasquée).

Anyway, back in room 1 at the National Gallery, the overall sense of this small selection is of acutely perceived nature paintings teetering on the edge of abstraction, the silver bars across the lake in the central work, and the clouds in many others ceasing to be cloud-shaped and turning into zoomorphic forms. Evidence that right across Europe, from Italy to the Arctic Circle, artists were feeling a modernist impulse to progress beyond realism into new realms of abstract shapes and vibrant, non-naturalistic colour.

With all this in mind, if you look closely, you can read this movement – the gradual shift from a directly observed, naturalistic landscape to a more stylised and abstracted image – in the four versions of Lake Keitale hanging here side by side.

Finlandia

Since everyone else will be doing it, I might as well join in by including the most famous piece of music by Finland’s national composer, Jean Sibelius, Finlandia, written during the heyday of Gallen-Kallela’s career (1899). This YouTube version features some awesome footage of Finland’s landscape and wildlife.

Gallen-Kallela’s own fiercely patriotic intent is exemplified by a stained glass window on display here, with the stirring title, Rouse Thyself Finland! It’s a decorative schema of Rackhamesque fir trees flanking a classic view of a tree-lined lake which also features a great bar of reflected light across it – presumably to echo the theme of the show, and to demonstrate use of the ‘bar of light’ motif in a different medium.

Rouse Thyself Finland! ( 1896) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Gallen-Kallela Museum / photo Hannu Aaltonen

Rouse Thyself Finland! ( 1896) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Gallen-Kallela Museum / photo Hannu Aaltonen

Somewhere like the Dulwich Picture Gallery should organise an entire exhibition about Gallen-Kallela. I’d go just to see more of the fabulous book illustrations.

YouTube gallery

On YouTube there’s a gallery of 207 works by Gallen-Kallela accompanied by a relaxing soundtrack. This montage gives a sense of his rather unnervingly wide range of styles.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Monochrome: Painting in black and white @ the National Gallery

A delightful and thoughtful idea: 60 or so works from the entire history of Western art, painted on glass, vellum, ceramic, silk, wood, and canvas, which are devoid of colour, and styled solely in black and white and shades of grey.

As with any themed exhibition, the assembled works help you do several things:

  1. ‘explore’ the theme and its subsidiary ideas, as laid out and guided by the curators
  2. just enjoy rare or otherwise unavailable paintings or objects for themselves, in their own right.

Thus alongside some pretty rare and recondite works, demonstrating the range of ways artists have used black and white – for technical or competitive reasons – there’s also a large number of knockout pieces by super-famous names such as van Eyck, Van Dyck, Titian, Ingres, Picasso, Malevich, Giacometti, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns and more.

Academic

I’ve read criticisms that the show is a bit academic with some pretty obscure academic bypaths, but I’m quite academic so I liked it a lot. What I mean is that the curators have used some out-of-the-way – and not premier league – works to illustrate different ways artists through history have used black and white imagery, or to explain the development of artistic techniques.

Some critics have said they should have dropped the dodgy works and stuffed the rooms with masterpieces. But that’s what I like about it. The curators have made a list of ways and techniques artists used black and white and then looked for the best ways to illustrate these ideas, techniques and media (the show includes sculpture, prints and photos as well as paintings).

In doing so they have also managed to secure the loan of some masterpieces rarely seen in the UK, for example from the Met in New York and the Hermitage in Petersburg. So the 61 pieces on display are an entertaining combination of the super-famous, the arcane and obscure and ‘rare opportunities to see’.

And it’s small. 61 pieces. At least two of these are in little sets of two or three (a painting and a print of it, a painting and a statue of it) so the actual number is closer to 50 original works.

And small is beautiful because a lot of the pieces have quite a story behind them or represent an entire historical epoch’s use of black and white. They require quite a bit of reading (or listening on the audio guide) to understand. So 50 pieces turns out to be quite enough to fill the average brain with a wealth of historical facts, and to take in quite a few stunning masterpieces.

Less is more. Quite quickly you can identify the pieces you really like and really concentrate on them. I returned at the end to look long and deep at the van Eyck diptych and the Boucher sketch, feasting my eyes, admiring every wonderful detail.

The effect of black and white

Put simply, art in black and white omits the ‘distraction’ of colour and brings out the essential shape and form of the objects depicted. It highlights the use of light and shade. And it brings out the objects’ spatial relationships. Pose and posture, light and shade, shape and impact – these are all foregrounded when colour is switched off.

It would be neat to say what art in black and white does, but this very historical, chronological approach shows that in fact art in black and white has performed a whole range of functions, in different times and places and societies.

N.B. grisaille is the French term given to works done entirely in shades of gris i.e. grey.

A history of black and white

But the history of black and white is vastly more complex than that.

The colour of Christian penitence and mortification

In medieval times Christian religion was dominant across all aspects of life and culture in a way we can’t really imagine nowadays. The first room gives three distinct and fascinating examples.

In France, on order of monks banned colour illustrations. It was decreed that stained glass and manuscript illustrations must be in monochrome, to avoid inflaming and distracting the senses from the word of God. The show includes an example of a b&w stained glass from 1320, and a contemporaneous manuscript. This severe ‘look’ became popular in the French court and inspired a fashion for secular subjects drawn without colour. And this insight, that omitting colour from a visual work makes viewers focus on the subject and/or form, rather than on distracting and colourful details, echoes down to our own day.

In a separate genre, many altarpieces, particularly smaller diptychs designed to be moved from place to place (to accompany the king or a senior churchman) were made up of outer panels which opened on hinges to reveal the scene within. The tradition grew up of doing the outer panel in black and white to suggest the world before the revelation of Jesus, before it was suffused with Christian meaning – and then you opened the diptych to reveal the Birth of Jesus in glorious colour. In a world bereft of artificially coloured objects this must have had a dazzling impact.

There are several examples, one by Hans Memling, the other The Annunciation Diptych by Jan van Eyck. God, I love the art of the Northern Renaissance. Looking closely you can see that the figures of the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary are reflected in the black background, making the images appear strongly three-dimensional. And note the way the angel’s right wing stretches out over the picture frame, moving into three dimensional space. What a god!

The Annunciation Diptych (The Archangel Gabriel; The Virgin Mary), about 1433–5 by Jan van Eyck © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

The Annunciation Diptych (The Archangel Gabriel; The Virgin Mary) (1433–5) by Jan van Eyck © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Yet another use for black and white is demonstrated by the biggest and most spectacular exhibit. Some churches used enormous black and white coverings to hang over their walls to hide the colour paintings during sober seasons of the year, most obviously Lent. The curators have secured an enormous wall-sized hanging from Genoa. In actual fact it isn’t strictly speaking black and white; it has a strong blue tinge and the commentary explains that this kind of fabric, made in the Italian city of Genoa, was referred to by French artists as Gênes, the French name for Genoa, from which we get our modern word ‘jeans’. But that’s not really the point – the point is the way black and white was used as a mournful, penitent colour in Christian iconography.

Preparatory sketches

Centuries later, once Europe had struggled free of the religious wars sparked by the Reformation, cultural epochs later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, we have many examples of artists using black and white oil paintings as preparatory sketches. These could be used:

  • for an artist to make sure he was happy with his composition, with the disposition of forms in space, and to clarify where and how light should fall – especially important when the commission was for a fresco or ceiling on which light would naturally fall
  • to show a patron on a small scale what they would be getting for their money
  • as a teaching aid to pupils in the Master’s workshop

After all these years I know my own taste, and know that I love sketches with a strong sense of line. Thus I returned again and again to this wonderful black and white oil sketch by François Boucher. It brings out the weight of the composition (weighted towards the bottom right, growing emptier as you head top left), flecks of white highlight the direction of the light source, burnishing details (like the rim of the shield in the bottom right).  Nothing to do with black and white, a survey of the 50 works here shows that faces are difficult. The faces in the Rembrandt painting later in the show are, well, not great, and I don’t like the Titian portrait. Here, Boucher’s sketchy suggestion of the faces seem to me spot on, as much as you need and let the creating brain complete the image.

Vulcan's Forge (Vulcan presenting Venus with Arms for Aeneas) (1756) by François Boucher © Paris, Les Arts Décoratifs / Jean Tholance

Vulcan’s Forge (Vulcan presenting Venus with Arms for Aeneas) (1756) by François Boucher © Paris, Les Arts Décoratifs / Jean Tholance

There were so many black and white oil sketches that they created a separate market, especially among artists themselves, to study the compositional style and technique of their rivals.

This thought brings us to the centrepiece of room two and maybe the most impressive work of grisaille in the exhibition – a reworking by Ingres of his famous Odalisque, but entirely in black and white.

(This is one of the precious loan works, a rare opportunity to see a painting which is normally resident in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Ingres was obsessed by this image. He made several full colour paintings of it but we know that he kept this black and white version by his side for over a decade. Important features include:

  • the way lots of the decorative elements of the finished colour painting have been stripped away, to reveal not only the shape of the woman’s body but the other key elements of the composition, namely the floor tiles and the curtains
  • the way some of it is not even finished, namely the goldeny strip beneath her flank and bottom.

Both these facts suggest that Ingres used it as a teaching aid in his studio, for his large number of pupils. And, on a purely subjective view, the more you look at her body the more you realise it is strangely out of proportion: her flank and bottom look more like a horse’s.

It is the quintessential grisaille, the work which stands as the summit of previous black and white and influences successive generations of artists.

Odalisque in Grisaille (1824-34) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence

Odalisque in Grisaille (1824-34) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence

Trompe l’oeil

‘Fooling the eye’. As it reached maturity Western art became interested (among thousands of other things) in the ability of flat oil paintings to fool the eye, create optical illusions, give a sense of three dimensions. You really had to look close up to be sure this wasn’t a relief, naturally shedding shadows onto incised forms. But it isn’t. It’s a two dimensional painting.

Jupiter and Ganymede (1739) by Jacob de Wit © Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums

Jupiter and Ganymede (1739) by Jacob de Wit © Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums

There’s an extraordinary little cluster of three works based on a genre painting by Chardin of a woman just back from the market with her shopping, painted in 1742. A printmaker named Bernard Lépicié made a black and white print of it – so far, so standard.

But then a painter named Etienne Moulinneuf made a black and white painting of the identical subject, based on the Lépicié print, but painted as if it had a glass cover to it, which has been smashed. It’s an extraordinary piece of trompe l’oeil, which is why it’s in this room, but also a bizarre thing to do. More like something Marcel Duchamp would have done than an eighteenth century painter.

Back from the Market (La Pourvoyeuse), about 1770 by Etienne Moulinneuf after Jean-Siméon Chardin. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California © Museum Associates / LACMA

Back from the Market (La Pourvoyeuse), about 1770 by Etienne Moulinneuf after Jean-Siméon Chardin. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California © Museum Associates / LACMA

Nearby is a little grouping based round a statue the great sculptor was commissioned to make of Christ being taken down from the cross. In the end it was never taken forward, but a pupil of Canova’s painted an awesomely realistic painting of what the sculpture would look like, complete with incredibly persuasive sense of light and shade; and next to it the curators have placed a miniature statue made by a later sculptor based on the painting, which is incredibly identical even down to the highlights and shadows.

It’s not a great work but, as explained above, it is a convincing example of an interesting historical development or issue. Because this section explains that in the 18th century there blew up quite a debate between painters and sculptors about who was best. In Italian the debate was called il paragone and this small room also includes masterpieces by Titian and Mantegna in which they strive to prove that painting was better because

  1. it could render size and weight and form and light and shadow just as well as sculpture
  2. it could render shades of colour infinitely better

Prints

A whole section is devoted to prints and print-making. A detailed oil sketch by Rembrandt is juxtaposed with a black and white print of the same subject, along with amusing gossip about how he couldn’t stop interfering with the printer’s work. There is an enormous print of Hercules by Hendrik Goltzius, and a vast pen and ink work by him depicting Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1599).

The curators were telling us something important about how artists, and Goltzius in particular, used the techniques of etching and print-making to rival oil painting for detail, but my mind’s eye glazed over a little. I noted details, such as the way the artist has included himself, lurking among the bushes to the left of Ceres (goddess of the earth). And also the mundane fact that this is an enormous image and is on rare loan from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. But you can’t get worked up about everything in an exhibition. Finding out what you do and don’t like is part of the fun.

Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1606) Hendrick Goltzius © The State Hermitage Museum, 2017 / Photo: Vladimir Terebenin

Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1606) Hendrick Goltzius © The State Hermitage Museum, 2017 / Photo: Vladimir Terebenin

The impact of photography

The impact of photography on traditional art is a subject which could fill hundreds of rooms in a gallery, it is so immense.

In line with the curators’ tasteful minimalism there were only a handful of works here – a pioneering photo of the sea juxtaposed with a black and white painting of the sea, to make the point about how photography began to encroach on figurative art right from its invention in the 1930s.

Nearby is a wondrous black and white oil painting of a young girl, included to indicate that it was the lucrative career of portrait painter which was the first to be undermined and then superseded by photography. The idea is that photography compelled some artists to try and capture photographic realism in their own works (before they realised it was impossible to compete and turned to other strategies).

But, like many other works in this lovely exhibition, it is not only making an art historical point, it is a quite stunning work of art in its own right.

Head of a Girl (1867) by Célestin Joseph Blanc © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Head of a Girl (1867) by Célestin Joseph Blanc © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Modern art

And then – boom! – we are in the modern epoch. The most powerful images from ‘the Modernist imperative’ include a characteristically intense grisaille portrait by Giacometti (familiar to anyone who attended the National Portrait Gallery’s recent Giacometti portrait exhibition).

And this work by Picasso. Late in life (in the 1950s when he was in his 70s) Picasso undertook an immense project to repainting his interpretations of Las Meninas, painted by the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez in 1656.

As it happens I saw the world’s biggest collection of these obsessive reworkings in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona a few months ago. The more you look the more intensely powerful they seem, the more you share Picasso’s penetrating vision and ability to rework and remodel a subject.

And so this exhibition includes just one from the 44 variations, an intense close-up of the little girl at the front of the Velázquez picture, as an example of how immensely powerful a purely black and white painting can be in the modern idiom.

Las Meninas (Infanta Margarita María) 1957 by Pablo Picasso © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2017 / Photo: Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Photograph: Gasull Fotografia

Las Meninas (Infanta Margarita María) 1957 by Pablo Picasso © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2017 / Photo: Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Photograph: Gasull Fotografia

The Picasso is in a different room but chronologically sits just before other modern works by:

  • Gerhard Richter (big black and white painting based on a press photo of a murdered prostitute)
  • Vija Celmins (the night sky – black with white stars)
  • Chuck Close ( a big portrait of art dealer Joel Shapiro)

New monsters / Abstraction

And then the final room of paintings is devoted to abstract works in black and white. Completely abstract painting is often said to stem from Kazimir Malevich’s iconic black square.

Black Square (1929) by Kazimir Malevich © The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Black Square (1929) by Kazimir Malevich © The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

He made several versions. One is hanging here and the curators explain how Malevich considered himself to have arrived at a kind of reduction ad absurdum of Western painting, a kind of ‘ground zero’, reducing all painting to this one primal image – black on white. At its first exhibition in 1915, Malevich hung the square high up in the corner of the gallery, where the coloured icon should be in a Russian Orthodox home, indicating that it was a new kind of modernist icon, replacing all previous attempts at figuration. As news of it spread, it had an immense influence on the rest of 20th century art.

(A story comprehensively told in the Whitechapel gallery’s 2015 exhibition, Adventures of the Black Square)

The other works in the room were more intriguing because I didn’t know them. These included a late (untitled) work by Jasper Johns, made of two panels folded closed and painted with his trademark grey flagstone surface (the closed panels referencing the diptychs from way back in the 15th century). We also learn that Johns was at least part inspired to paint so many grey works by repeated visits to study the Ingres Odalisque earlier in the show. Also:

  • Grey Mirror by Gerhard Richter (1992)
  • an example of Cy Twombly’s ‘blackboard’ paintings from the 1970s
  • Tomlinson Court Park I by Frank Stella (1959)

 

And this work of Op Art by the great Bridget Riley:

Horizontal Vibration (1961) by Bridget Riley © Bridget Riley 2017. All rights reserved

Horizontal Vibration (1961) by Bridget Riley © Bridget Riley 2017. All rights reserved

A room devoted to proving that works in black and white can be just as powerful as coloured paintings and, in fact, have a mystique and an atmosphere all their won.

Room for one colour

The final room is a startling surprise. It is an installation by Olafur Eliasson. The ceiling of an empty room  is hung with orange sodium lights, like street lights. That’s it. But the result is dramatic: orange light drains all the colour from everyone seen in it – all the fixtures of the room and all the visitors, forcing the eye to focus on just shapes and shades of grey. There weren’t too many people in the room when I was there and they didn’t like being studied as intensely as I’d have liked to – but I take the point.

It’s a dazzling and completely unexpected climax to a show which has included all kinds of strange and wonderful works and shed light on a range of issues and ideas in art which I’d never heard of.

Some general points

Colour, actually

Actually, the exhibition wasn’t all in monochrome. Quite a few of the works here did include colour of one sort or another. The early religious grisaille glass panel included lines of yellow. The vast church wall covering was done on a blue background which came through. The Titian Mantegna are full of colour. The van Eyck diptych had a colour painting inside, and the Rembrandt – supposedly a monochrome sketch – was mostly made of shades of brown.

Now I just happen to have visited Royal West of England Academy’s annual exhibition a month or so ago, and this show has got into the habit of featuring one room containing only black and white art – paintings, drawing, photos, sculptures and so on. The walls were white and it was actually quite atmospheric to enter a room decorated intensely, but only with black or white or shades of grey.

Installation view of RWA 165

Installation view of RWA 165

Compared to that really purist experience, most of the rooms here included some elements of colour, except for the very final room, composed solely of slick, clean, modern monochromes. And this consistency (of size actually) and of black and white, made it in a way the most persuasive room, viewed solely as art – as opposed to interesting examples from art history.

Women

Having recently read Whitney Chadwick’s enormous book about women artists and feminist art theory – Women, Art and Society – I am now highly sensitised to feminist issues in art. The obvious ones are: Are there any women artists in the show? How are women portrayed in the show?

Well, I counted 61 art works in total (though some of them were ‘repeats’ as explained above). Of these only three were by women – Marlene Dumas, Bridget Riley, Vija Celmins.

As to women portrayed in the exhibition, quite a few in various formats, but as to women portrayed semi-naked and so potentially victims of the male gaze I counted eight. After a bit of thought I decided ‘semi-naked’ means you can see their boobs.

Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1599) by Hendrik Goltzius © The Trustees of The British Museum

Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1599) by Hendrik Goltzius © The Trustees of The British Museum

There were two naked men: a big powerful sketch by Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau of naked Diomedes fighting with wild horses; and Hendrik Goltzius’s engraving of the Great Hercules (1589). Apparently Goltzius was the leading Dutch engraver of the early Baroque period, although I didn’t warm at all to this image except as an example of the kind of clumpy figure illustration you get for a lot of literary classics from the 16th or 17th centuries. A contemporary criticised Goltzius’s figures for looking like a bag of walnuts. Hard to disagree. I was particularly worried by his walnutty penis (it’s a big image and his shrivelled pecker is at eye-level).

The Great Hercules (1589) by Hendrik Goltzius © Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photographer: Studio Buitenhof, The Hague

The Great Hercules (1589) by Hendrik Goltzius © Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photographer: Studio Buitenhof, The Hague

The video

The National Gallery has made a brief introductory video to the show, but here’s a recording of a 50-minute lecture given by the co-curators, which gives you a flavour of the art, the ideas and of them, and also an interesting insight into the world of curating, at the effort it takes to secure loans, the trials and tribulations of getting works sent to you, and the way an exhibition like this is conceived, planned and executed.

And here’s a video by the band The Monochrome Set simply because their name has ‘monochrome’ in it 🙂


Related links

Press reviews

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: