The Royal Academy summer exhibition 2016

The pleasures of the annual summer exhibition at the Royal Academy are:

  1. The sheer scale – 1,240 exhibits this year.
  2. The variety – it is not a show of One Major Artist, where you’re meant to pay close attention to the artistic development of a Matisse or a Georgia O’Keeffe – it’s such an enormous ragbag of styles, formats and artists, confusing and inspiring by turn, that so you can just like whatever you like.
  3. The prices – most of the exhibits are on sale and the exhibition booklet gives prices: it’s always amusing to be shocked and outraged at the outrageously large prices of the whoppers, but also touched by the affordability of some of the simpler works.

I’ve been to half a dozen summer shows and this seemed to me a rather dull one. Maybe I’m getting used to them, but too many of the oil paintings in particular, were just ‘meh’. Oil paintings of the canals of Venice, of a nude model in the artist’s studio, of a mantelpiece or a flight of stairs in someone’s house. Haven’t these subjects been done to death? Haven’t I seen them done a thousand times before, and much better?

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016 © Stephen White

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016 © Stephen White

Likes

I learned about Jane and Louise Wilson from their black and white photos of ruined WWII concrete defences on the Normandy coast. Several of their other large format photos are currently on display at Tate Britain. For this show, they’ve hung six massive colour photos taken in the city of Pripyat, abandoned and never repopulated after the catastrophic nuclear accident at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Atomgrad, Nature Abhors A Vacuum VII by Jane and Louise Wilson  © Jane & Louise Wilson

Atomgrad, Nature Abhors A Vacuum VII by Jane and Louise Wilson © Jane & Louise Wilson

They are powerful depictions of derelict ruins and set off a theme which runs, here and there, throughout the rest of the show, of ruin and collapse. Immense and atmospheric though they are, the impact is slightly undermined by the perspex cover on each image, which reflects the overhead lights so it’s hard to see an entire image without a patch of shiny reflection. (As luck would have it, I recently read a gripping thriller set in the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl, Martin Cruz Smith’s Wolves Eat Dogs, which powerfully conveys the eeriness of the abandoned city, so the photos brought to life Cruz Smith’s wonderful text.)

Old favourites

You only have to visit a few of the Summer Exhibitions to begin to recognise old favourites who exhibit year after year. These include:

  • Allen Jones made his name in the 1960s with female shop window mannequins dressed in sexy underwear and posed to form a coffee table or chair. A retrospective of his work here at the Academy last year showed that his later work has included a lot of paintings of sexy women in leather boots etc in a kind of nightclub ambience of yellow and green washes of colour. There are half a dozen of these paintings in this year’s show, plus one life-size mannequin of a pert-breasted lovely with a splash of yellow paint across her. A snip at £210,000.
  • Anthony Green exhibits each year faux-naive paintings generally of himself, his wife, their house and garden, done in a cartoonish style and often with the frame cut out around the shape of the main image, for example Self-portrait for Gaston Lachaise £6,000. Reassuringly familiar.
  • Norman Ackroyd displays wonderful black and white etchings of the isles off Scotland, as seen rising from the sea, often beswirled by seagulls, with titles like Cow Rock, County Kerry (£1,100), Midsummer Sunrise, Sound of Mull £570, Skellig Revisited £570.
  • Very similar, but done in intaglio and so with darker blacks and a hint of blue, was a series of depictions of the landscape of Iceland and Antarctica by Emma Stibbon.
  • Mick Moon paints peasant fishermen scenes onto what looks like planks or cross-sections of weed. Evening Fishing £25,200.
  • Michael Craig-Martin makes very soothing big paintings of everyday objects in striking, unshaded primary colours. Space II is very big and costs £170,000.
  • Tracey Emin’s sketchy sketches of what is probably her own naked body on a bed go for £1,850 a pop.
Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016 © Stephen White

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016, featuring a typical large work by Michael Craig-Martin © Stephen White

Novelties

  • Allora and Calzadilla displayed a life size petrol pump emerging from a block of grey stone, titled 2 Hose Petrified Petrol Pump. Powerful. Not for sale (NFS)
  • My son like the enormous Böse Blumen by Anselm Kiefer, a vast grey slab of lead, with daubs and blodges of oil paint and, incongruously, a relief sculpture of a big leather bound book. NFS.
  • Beard Aware is the name of a huge mock-stained glass work by pranksters Gilbert and George, depicting the artists bending over to moon us, but their bottoms concealed by swathes of barbed wire. One of an extensive series which is something to do with security, apparently.
  • In the same room is a raised dais bearing a large rectangle of paper on which are two carbonised skeletons, blackened bone fragments, some of the teeth with gold fillings. Self Portrait as Charcoal on Paper by Zatorski and Zatorski, £42,000.
Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016, featuring Beard Aware by Gilbert and George, andSelf portrait as charcoal on paper by Zatorski and Zatorski © Stephen White

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016, featuring Beard Aware by Gilbert and George, and Self portrait as charcoal on paper by Zatorski and Zatorski © Stephen White

  • The Small Weston Room is devoted to 30 or so black and white photographs by the husband and wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher. They spent decades photographing isolated and often derelict industrial buildings with Teutonic precision – always on the same kind of grey, overcast day in spring or autumn (never summer) to avoid shadows, and always using a camera placed on a tripod at human eye level. These images are then arranged into squares or rectangles of prints showing the same type of building – gas tanks, cooling towers, water towers, stone works and cooling towers. My son liked the cooling towers since they had the most variety on the central design, and also often looked like space ships.
  • In the room devoted to Landscape, I liked Black Sea by Lee Wagstaff, a simple depiction of waves (£3,500) and a big colour photo of a Coal Mine, Outer Mongolia by Richard Seymour (£4,200).
  • Gillian Ayres has had a long career. She is represented here by two colourful woodcuts on paper, which channel Matisse’s late paper cutouts – Scilla and Achiote (£5,760 and £6,600 respectively).

Architecture in the room of shame

As usual one room is devoted to architects’ fanciful, space-age plans for buildings which might as well come from another planet. If architects are in any way responsible for the inhumane, rainy, windswept heartless streets and concrete rabbit warrens which so many Londoners are forced to endure, they whole profession should hang its head in shame.

Slick, clean, plastic or wooden models show the utopian world of these fantasy planners, a world where it never rains, it’s never windy, and where cars, buses, vans, lorries, cabs, coaches and diesel trains don’t – apparently – emit any toxic gases – a world free of CO2, CO, sulphur dioxide or diesel fumes. By rights this room ought to be pumped full of car and bus fumes so that visitors quickly feel sick and ill, in order to convey the awful, car-choked reality of the shiny plastic dreams peddled by so many architectural fantasists.

Themes

Room VI claimed to house works devoted to ‘the role of art in healing a shattered world’. Sentimental tripe. Art may record the appalling devastation humankind is wreaking on the planet, but I’m not aware of it forming the keystone of any notable peace agreement. In Chechnya, former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq – is there a lot of healing art?

One example among scores – Christopher Hughes’ sketch of the utterly devastated landscape of Homs in Syria, depicting how actual buildings often fare in the actual world, instead of in the utopian fantasies of dreamy architects.

Room IX featured a lot of work by the Sensation artists, the Young British Artists who shot to fame with the Sensation show in 1997. (Surely they should be celebrated next year – will there be a tenwtieth-anniversary show?) As a totality, this room instantly made more visual impact than most of its predecessors. It felt like it was the product of people who were savvy with the actual, image-saturated culture we live in – compare and contrast with the very tired-feeling oil paintings of Venice or a garden.

I liked All The Fish In The Sea by David Mach (£56,000).

Transformer-Performer Double-Act VIII by EVA & ADELE (2015) Photo courtesy of Nicole Gnesa Gallery

Transformer-Performer Double-Act VIII by EVA & ADELE (2015) Photo courtesy of Nicole Gnesa Gallery

Towards the end of the show, the Lecture Room has a lot of big sculptures in it, including David Mach’s Silver Hart, a stag’s head made out of shiny coat hangers (£48,000) – though nothing will top the gorilla made of coat hangers which he exhibited a few years ago.

My son liked Wood Burner II by Guy Allott, which looked like a tea urn with space rocket fins attached.

Leila Jeffreys contributed two big colour photos of cockatoos (£2,160). There was a big b&w photo of people at a nightclub dancing – a rare window into the actual everyday world where millions of people live – the daily commute to work, meeting friends down the pub, playing football and other sports, clubbing, cafes, taking kids to school, homework, shopping, cooking – which is almost entirely ignored by the world of art and architecture alike.

Related links

Every room in Tate Britain (part two)

Tate Britain is dedicated to exhibiting British art from 1500 to the present day.

It is housed in a striking neo-classical building (opened 1897) complete with columned portico and grand steps leading up to the entrance, which faces out onto the river Thames. To the left of the main entrance a ramp and steps lead down to the lower floor, which holds a large exhibition space (currently showing Artist and Empire). To the right of the main building is the Clore Galleries (opened in 1987) – nine rooms on the ground floor housing the gallery’s enormous collection of JMW Turner paintings, watercolours, sketches etc, along with a room of Constable and, upstairs, a room of pre-Raphaelite drawings/paintings, and a small room of William Blake engravings and paintings.

If you enter up the grand steps through the main entrance you arrive at a long central hall, home to changing displays and currently housing Susan Philipsz’ War Damaged Musical Instruments, an entirely audio display, tannoy speakers emitting the mournful sound of brass music played by instruments damaged in war, which she has rescued and refurbished. Haunting, scattered sounds drift through the galleries as you saunter through the history of British art.

The west wing contains ten rooms covering British art from 1540 to 1910. Then you cross the entrance hall to the east wing and pick up the story in 1930, to walk through another ten rooms containing the twentieth century exhibits.

Off to the side of the main chronological sequence are seven or eight single rooms dedicated to ad hoc displays of art ancient or bang up to date.

The rooms

1910

I left off my coverage of every room in Tate Britain (part one) with the advent of the Great War, half way through the 1910 room. The second half of the room includes post-War art:

  • Alfred Wallis St Ives (1928) Wallis was a ‘naive’ artist, a retired sea captain who took up painting on scraps of cardboard or wood he could scrounge. He was discovered and taken up by professional artists Ben Nicholson, was exhibited in London and became a sensation.
  • Eric Gill The East Wind (1929) Gill was commissioned to create relief sculptures for various public buildings including the BBC building in Portland Square. This is a scale model of one of a series commissioned for London Underground headquarters. I venerate it for its combination of medieval and modernist influences.
  • Stanley Spencer The Resurrection (1927) From my visit to Cookham and the Stanley Spencer gallery there, I got a powerful sense of Spencer’s very English, eccentric reverence for his birthplace, which he saw as an earthly paradise suffused with God’s presence. Thus his resurrection is placed in the homely graveyard of Cookham church.
  • Frank Dobson Sir Osbert Sitwell, Bt (1923) Both Dobson and Sitwell were part of the packed but somehow second-rate literary and artistic world of the 1920s. This is modernism watered down to become Art Deco.
  • Charles Sargeant Jagger No Man’s Land (1919–20) The wall label makes the interesting point that in the immediate post-war years there was a flood of memorials. Jagger served and was wounded twice. His most famous memorial is the stunning Royal Artillery memorial (1921–5) at Hyde Park corner.
  • William Roberts The Cinema (1920) Typical of the way the Futurist and Vorticist experiments on the eve of the war were turned into a formula afterwards.
  • Wyndham Lewis Edith Sitwell (1923-35) I’ve loved Lewis for thirty years. This comes from his later ‘portraits of poets and writers’ phase, when the harsh Vorticism of the pre-War had been softened right down to create realistic though still beautifully stylised portraits. Apparently the sittings were fraught, with Lewis unable to conceal his growing contempt for Sitwell and her brothers and the shallow English dilettantism he thought she epitomised.

Just in this one room I think you can see the damage the Great War did. On its eve there was a tremendous sense of excitement and anticipation as the European figurative tradition was rejected and transcended by artists in Paris and London and Rome and Moscow and Berlin and Vienna. But, apart from killing off many of these artists, the War somehow damaged Modernism. The post-War saw a great retrenchment and retreat from the heady visions of its eve. Moscow was taken over by revolutionary utopianism; Berlin was characterised by the bitterness of the losers, Grosz and Dix; Paris saw a bewildering confusion of styles; and here in England, although Modernist mannerisms and styles dominated, they somehow feel secondary, lacking the first fine careless rapture. Compare and contrast the phenomenal excitement of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (1913) with the smooth professionalism of Dobson’s Sitwell (1923).

  • Related maybe to Spencer’s naive view of the English landscape but rerouted into an uncanny proto-surrealism is the work of Paul Nash, demonstrated here by Landscape at Iden (1929). The discretely placed, carefully spaced, unconnected objects are reminiscent of the strange dream landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico, only in a bucolic Sussex landscape not the Italian’s eerily emptied Renaissance piazzas.

Henry Moore

There are two rooms dedicated to Henry Moore, one of England’s most famous twentieth century artists, one of the most successful, prolific and easily recognisable. Typifying the philistinism which crippled the nation’s art collections in the 1920s and 1930s, the Tate’s then Director, JB Manson is quoted as saying in 1938 that Henry Moore would enter the Tate over his dead body. The wall label quietly crows that Tate now owns 634 works by Moore, who ended up a director of Tate, as well as a Companion of Honour and Order of Merit. The first three acquisitions were:

It may be blasphemy but seeing two rooms full of his work assembled like this gave me the overwhelming impression how morbid and dated Moore is. His international reputation was sealed when he won first prize at the 1948 Venice Biennale and from then onwards commissions flooded in and work poured out. The first room is long and narrow, with half a dozen smaller works and some of the wartime sketches of Londoners sheltering in the Tube during the Blitz. The second room contains a video of the artist at work and half a dozen enormous sculptures such as Draped seated figure (1958). Je n’aime pas.

One of the wall panels shows how one of his works ended up on the windswept Stifford council estate in Stepney and photos of the proud councillors in suits and ties and pearl twinsets and horn-rimmed glasses standing nervously around this object from another planet. The recent Barbara Hepworth exhibition included sections showing how Hepworth, Moore and their contemporaries’ work was in part driven by utopian hopes for a new, more egalitarian or even socialist society, after the sufferings of the Second World War. Their sculptures are part of the world, the mindset, the culture of the exciting new high-rise flats of the 1950s and 60s. Is the art as much of an optimistic failure as the utopian and now discredited architecture?

1930

  • Edward Burra Snack bar (1930) Burra is undervalued, an English combination of the strange detachment of surrealism – then flourishing in France – with the biting social satire of a Georg Grosz.
  • There are several examples of Ben and Winifred Nicholson’s pallid white relief sculptures.
  • Gerald Leslie Brockhurst’s Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (c.1931) A traditional technique applied in unpropitious times, the darkness of catastrophe creeping in from the East. It’s an oddly haunting image.

The room is dominated by Jacob Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel (1940–1), the other works barely exist next to it. Monumental primitivist sculpture is one of the enduringly successful strands of the first half of the century of catastrophes, as practiced by Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill, Epstein.

1940

In my opinion something bad happened to English art during the 1930s and 1940s and lingered on into the 50s. Although there is a wide range of works on display, most by people I’ve never heard of, the main works by the main figures all seem to me depressed, dark and murky. The overcast climate, the windswept streets, the London fogs become part of the terrible political situation, which went rapidly downhill into the horror of the Second World War, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, in a vortex which seems to have dispirited and demoralised so much art from this period.

  • Graham Sutherland Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods (1940) the reproduction makes this picture appear more interesting than it is, in a science fiction-y kind of way. In fact it is a good specimen of Sutherland’s horrifying distortions. I like his portrait of Somerset Maugham (not on display). It’s fitting that Churchill’s wife destroyed Sutherland’s portrait of her husband, it was so revolting. But much of his painting seems damaged, stricken, scary.
  • David Bomberg Bomb store (1942) Compare and contrast with the same artist’s phenomenal Mud bath from 1914. Hasn’t there been a tragic decline from clarity and excitement into static murk?
  • Alan Davie Entrance to Paradise (1949) You can’t blame them for being depressed but a lot of the English work from this period is black, psychologically and pictorially. Paradise looks like this?
  • Francis Bacon Study for three figures at the foot of the cross (1944) It may be a masterpiece and Bacon a vast presence in post-war English and international art and it’s hard not to respond to its power and horror. But I don’t like it. It adds to the circumambient murk the added flavours of despair and nihilism.
  • Stanley Spencer Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife (1937) Spencer had the same naive approach to painting himself, his wife or mistresses naked as he did to painting Jesus preaching in Cookham. But I find it depressing that even he shares in the ‘human beings are hunks of meat’ mentality epitomised by Francis Bacon’s screaming, tortured beasts. There was something dehumanising about the times, which light, politely experimental pieces like Ben Nicholson’s white reliefs struggle against in vain eg White relief (1935)

1950

  • R.B. Kitaj Erasmus Variations (1958) Kitaj, an American, moved to Britain in 1958 to study art after serving in the US Army. This is, therefore, a very early work. Interesting, but unrepresentative of what was to follow.
  • F.N. Souza Crucifixion (1959) Born to Catholic parents in the Indian state of Goa, Souza moved to Britain to study art. 1. It’s noticeable that there is more explicitly Christian art in the Tate’s display of the 20th century, than in the displays of previous 400 years. 2. This is actually a strikingly modern work, with its consciously third World feel. Alternatively, you could say more recent works by artists from former colonies haven’t progressed much beyond where Souza was in 1959. Dark, though.
  • Lowry The Pond (1950) Last year’s big Lowry exhibition crystallised why I don’t like him. For some reason people in the North see him as some kind of advocate or champion of their culture, when the art very obviously embodies a faceless, anonymous, grey-skied, depressive worldview, fully reinforced by interviews with the miserable old so-and-so.
  • Peter Lanyon St Just (1953) This painting is darker, murkier in the flesh. I’d have dismissed it as another 1950s abstract in the dirty greens I associate with Graham Sutherland, but for the lucky coincidence that I happen to have visited the smashing exhibition of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings earlier this week and saw how his work would evolve into bigger, brighter, happier pictures.

1960

An explosion of talent, which contemporaries must have experienced with tremendous excitement.

  • Anthony Caro Early one morning (1962) His unashamed use of industrial materials must have blown a few minds.
  • Bridget Riley. My understanding of Riley was recently improved by the exhibition of her early work at the Courtauld Gallery, so that I enjoyed and appreciated her two works here as among the most original and exciting in the 1960s room: Hesitate (1962) and Late morning (1967-8), both examples of her interest in optical effects or Op Art.
  • John Hoyland 28. 5. 66 (1966) A kind of missing link between Riley’s clean and precise line paintings and the shimmering blocks of colour made by Mark Rothko, which I recently saw at Tate Modern.
  • Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) Born of Italian parents, Paolozzi was a sculptor, collagist, printmaker, filmmaker and writer. The Tate search engine suggests they have nearly 400 of his works. He’s represented here by Konsul (1962) a big, impressive abstract sculpture, reminiscent of the found materials used by the Italian Arte Povera artists.
  • David Hockney is here of course, represented by the early Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (1961) which is Pop but ruined by a very mid-century urge to deform the human figure, and the later A bigger splash (1967), one of his countless California swimming pool series.
  • John Latham Film Star (1960) The books are stuck to the surface of the canvas and stick out prominently. I like art with stuff stuck to the surface, from the cubists onwards, as if the art is enacting the struggle to emerge from the actual world of junk and rubbish which surrounds us.
  • Patrick Heron Azalea Garden : May 1956 (1956) I don’t know much about Heron but this was a welcome relief from so many dark images.
  • Peter Blake is associated with happy shiny Pop Art so it comes as surprise to see just how dark are works like On the balcony (1955-57) and Self portrait with badges (1961). Very dark. Painted at night.

1980

  • Gilbert and George England 1980 Either you like G&G or you don’t. I find the scale, the brightness and the humour of their stuff a terrific relief from the murk and darkness and nihilism of so much of the painting of the 1940s to 1970s.
  • A case in point is Leon Kossoff. This reproduction of Booking Hall, Kilburn Underground (1987) in no way conveys the three dimensional nature of the painting, with its gloops and loops of oil rising above the surface like muddy waves in the North Sea.
  • Prunella Clough Wire and Demolition (1982) One of the stories of these rooms is the steady increase in the number of women artists. I know nothing about Clough but I liked the brightness and kookiness of the composition.
  • Richard Long has been making walking art for decades, either creating art works along the way of his massive hikes across the UK or in remote foreign locations, then photographing them; or bringing raw materials back from his trips and creating generally simple geometrical shapes with them. The sculptures are genuinely connected to the source locations. In the middle of the 1980s room is Red Slate Circle (1988) and very wonderful it is, too.

1990 and 2000

After a series of same-shaped rooms, the space devoted to the 1990s and 2000s is much larger, irregularly shaped, brighter, with bigger sculptures and installations as well as bigger, more brightly coloured paintings and several videos.

  • Damien Hirst Forms without life (1991) One of his many vitrines or cabinet pieces. There it is. Hirst is the Henry Moore or David Hockney of our generation, an initially exciting and liberating presence who has turned himself into an international brand amid an unstoppable torrent of output, of never-ceasing product.
  • Jane and Louise Wilson Blind landings (2013) These sisters produce black and white photos of ruined buildings and sites. I learned about them via Tate’s exhibition of Ruin Art, which featured their massive and hugely evocative photos of abandoned Nazi defences on the Normandy coast. What’s not to like, indeed love, about their beautifully framed and shot and composed images of architectural desolation?
  • Howard Hodgkin Porlock (2012) Born in 1932 Hodgkin has been a presence in English painting for 60 years. Lots of his work is big and bright and colourful so it’s disappointing he’s represented by this brown and grey daub.
  • Martin Boyce Suspended fall (2005) Anyone who’s visited Tate Modern’s Alexander Calder exhibition will know about the history and evolution of the ‘mobile’. Instead of lovingly crafted organic shapes, Boyce has smashed up a modern chair and suspended its pieces from metal brackets. An apt image of English vandalism.

One-off rooms

  • Charlotte Moth Downstairs, next to the cafe, is the Archive display room. This is currently given over to a display by Charlotte Moth, born in 1978. According to the wall label Tate has over 1 million items in its archive and 800 full collections. Moth was given free run of it and came up with a show titled ‘Inserts 2015’. It consists of 10 vitrines ie glass-fronted cabinets displaying photos, magazines, newspaper cuttings and other ephemera from the 1930s to the 1960s, inspired by and often depicting the staging and positioning and unveiling of sculptures by Barbara Hepworth. Plus a ten-minute video, Filmic sketches, taken in places mentioned in the cases. My favourite was a b&w photo of a clutch of civil dignities uncomfortably posed around a lean modernist sculpture in front of a new red-brick civic centre. Standing there in their black suits and ties and twin pearls and horn-rimmed glasses, how they hope it will all somehow make sense. But it won’t. 15 years later, the Sex Pistols will be playing in that civic centre, the failure of the post-war dream converted into sonic fury.
  • Bruce McLean This room is dedicated to a a 23-minute black and white film McLean made in 1970 titled In the shadow of your smile, which consists of the artist sitting behind a desk with bits of studio bric-a-brac in vision, talking into a microphone about how he is struggling to create work in the shadow of his art school teachers Anthony Caro and such like, with deliberate bad edits, sound interference, drifting in and out of synch with shapes or tape damage appearing in the image. Phenomenally dated.
  • Gustav Metzger (b.1926) Metzger was born of Polish Jews in Nuremberg. He was lucky enough to get out of Germany on the eve of World War II but, obviously, a lot of his family will have been murdered along with tens of millions of others between 1939 and 1945. This room is devoted to the idea of Auto-Destructive Art which Metzger developed right at the start of the 1960s, art made on transient, destructible media like wood or cardboard. He was a vociferous political activist who managed to get arrested a few times. The act of making things and then destroying them is as important as displaying them, so there are photos and pamphlets and brochures about his work. Images of auto destructive art.
  • John Gerrard The room is devoted to Sow Farm (near Libbey, Oklahoma) (2009) consists of one continuous tracking shot around the Sow Farm of the title, an industrial buildings isolated in a perfectly flat landscape, looking like… well, you can bring your own associations to this flat, silent, eerie moving image.
  • Tracey Emin This small room contains My bed (1998) looking as dirty, unmade and surrounded with detritus as ever, along with several Francis Bacon paintings which she’s chosen – Study of a dog (1952) and Reclining woman (1961), and some of her drawings, apparently of a female nude. To quote the wall label: ‘By virtue of bringing the domestic into the public sphere, without directly representing specific events, the installation is forcefully and compellingly suggestive of personal narratives.’
  • Art Now: Vanilla and concrete In a room off to the side near the main entrance is an exhibition of art now, comprising works by three women artists:
    • Marie Lund Stills What look like big brown abstracts but, on closer investigation, turn out to be four large canvases painted to convey the effect of curtains. Raising the vessel, a couple of attractive bronze plates each with what looks like the impact of a meteorite denting them. Loads a bunch of sacks cast in concrete with polyester sewing. Not so impressive, rather like Rachel Whiteread’s concrete casts.
    • Rallou Panagiotou A Pop Art-ish interest in mass-produced everyday objects. These made me smile, what a relief after the murk and Bacon pieces of meat. Liquid Degrade white is a straw and lessons in eye liner is two eyebrow shaped black swirls stuck to the wall.
    • Mary Ramsden Her work, according to the wall label, is inspired by the smears and traces left by fingers on touch screens and smart phones. Hyper modern subject matter, but I felt I’d seen many, many abstract works in the preceding galleries which looked just like her paintings, so I liked her least of the three.

Related links

Other museums

History is Now @ Hayward Gallery

This is a huge and rather bewildering exhibition, which could easily take a whole day to fully explore, but is full of little gems and big surprises.

In the run-up to the 2015 General Election (May 7) and the 70th anniversary of VE Day (May 8), Hayward curators asked six contemporary artists to curate mini-exhibitions designed to ‘evoke or explore or question’ the history of Britain since World War Two. The artists were free to choose the topic and the content, with the result that they vary wildly in size, shape and impact, some tackling big political issues of the era, some lingering more on the shiny consumerist surface of things.

Hipgnosis, Winkies (1975) © Hipgnosis. Photo: Aubrey Powell

Hipgnosis, Winkies (1975) © Hipgnosis. Photo: Aubrey Powell

So it is not an exhibition of work by these artists; it is a set of exhibitions of work by other artists (or artefacts from secular society) chosen by these artists. They are: John Akomfrah, Simon Fujiwara, Roger Hiorns, Hannah Starkey, Richard Wentworth and the twins Jane and Louise Wilson (who work together so count as one: seven artists; six mini-exhibitions).

Almost every possible medium is included from painting to video to installation, over 250 objects from public and private art collections as well as everyday objects including maps, clothes, books, newspapers, films and personal diaries, together with scientific and military displays.

Although there was a big board on the wall of each room explaining what each artist has set out to do, these were sometimes difficult to really understand, and once you had understood it, often difficult to reconcile with the apparently random selections of paintings, prints, sculptures, books, newspapers, and found objects which the visitor is presented with.

Trying to understand the rationales for the artist’s selections was challenging, given there were six of them and such a profusion of stuff to assimilate: the simplest ones worked best.


1. Richard Wentworth (b.1947) Maybe because he was the oldest of the artist-curators, Wentworth’s artefacts stretched back the earliest, to before the War, with works from the late 1930s like sculptures by Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson and Edward Paolozzi. His theme seemed to be the experience of war – with Paul Nash’s painting of the Battle of Britain and Bert Hardy’s b&w photos of the Blitz – carrying on into the post-war recovery period, through to the Festival of Britain (1951).

Festival of Britain Mural

Ben Nicholson, Festival of Britain Mural (1951) © Tate, London 2014

His room was deliberately cluttered, he said, as an antidote to the antiseptic way most exhibitions are hung: thus there were some 100 A4 and A5 pieces of paper showing photocopies of pages from newspapers, magazines, documents etc from the period pinned up along one wall, along with newspaper obituaries of notable figures, and a TV screen showing a b&w film of a King George VI speech about something, as well as shelves and coffee tables covered with agèd hardbacks and paperbacks from the 1940s and 50s and – my favourite – the box for an Airfix Control Tower, redolent of my boyhood in the 60s.

The overall impression was how dated, brown or grey and dusty, the books and papers and works by Nicholson seemed. But this contrasted with the vivid shiny metal sculptures by Henry Moore or Tony Cragg’s huge sculpture made from brightly-coloured consumer rubbish stuck to the wall to make the shapes of a man looking at the outline of Great Britain.

Tony Cragg - Britain Seen from the North (1981) © DACS 2015. Courtesy Tate Images

Tony Cragg – Britain Seen from the North (1981) © DACS 2015. Courtesy Tate Images

And the standout exhibit of the whole show, an actual surface to air missile parked on the Hayward Gallery terrace (last seen hosting the talking car in the brilliant Martin exhibition). The doorway out to the terrace had been boxed in to create a small room or ante-chamber hung with technical specifications of the missiles, along with photos of the RAF control room and operatives who launched them, the buildings where they were housed, and images of missiles being fired, as well as a TV showing footage of the space shuttle Challenger disaster ie it blowing up in mid-air (one of the many links and connections made throughout the exhibition, that one was free to ponder… or not…).

Bristol bloodhound at Richard Wentworth's curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

Bristol bloodhound at Richard Wentworth’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind


2. John Akomfrah (b.1957) His was one of the easier selections to grasp – he had gone along to the Arts Council collection of over 600 films and videos and selected 17 of them. If you watched each of them carefully once, that would take up your whole day, so I did what everyone else did which was watch whatever caught my eye for a minute or so. The most arresting one was The World of Gilbert and George, which featured them dancing in their stiff suits to some rock music and which made me and the other 3 people watching laugh out loud, and then have a friendly chat afterwards about how great G&G are.

Gilbert and George, World of Gilbert and George (1981) HD Projection, stereo sound © the artists, 2014

Gilbert and George, World of Gilbert and George (1981) HD Projection, stereo sound © the artists, 2014

The other films included:

  • a b&w one showing Bill Brandt‘s photos of sexy models set in the corner of bleak rooms which the same type of sexy models walked in and out of
  • a film showing a straightforward montage of works by Francis Bacon
  • the same respectful approach to the works by Barbara Hepworth
  • a far more dynamic film of a black dancer throwing amazing shapes in a film ‘about’ Winston Silcott
  • an ‘experimental’ film from the early 1970s with a couple of men and women naked in a constrained space bending and contorting around each other

Confirmed my feeling that film and video are difficult forms to work in becaus:

  • most artists are poor and therefore tend to show the same easily-affordable subject of faces or a handful of mates or art school models stripping off
  • it is very difficult to compete with – and subvert the imagery of – the highly professional adverts, pop and rock videos, TV and film which surround us on all sides.

3. Jane and Louise Wilson (b.1967) Jane and Louise’s theme was, apparently, architectural space and conflict. I am predisposed to like anything they do, after admiring their b&w photos of the sea defences on the French coast which were one of the best things in the Tate’s Ruin Lust exhibition.

The theme was exemplified by some huge (silk?) prints hanging from ceiling to floor showing b&w images of women breaking through the chain-link fences at Greenham Common back in the early 1980s; and a big painting by Richard Hamilton set in Northern Ireland.

Richard Hamilton, The State (1993) Tate, London 2014 © The Estate of Richard Hamilton, DACS 2014

Richard Hamilton, The State (1993) Tate, London 2014
© The Estate of Richard Hamilton, DACS 2014

There were several long metal rulers, stretching from floor to ceiling which were apparently used in nuclear fallout shelters, a photo of a beach ball flying over a tall wall, but the other dominating object was a large long rectangular metal cage full of gloves dangling from strings, 1=66,666 by Stuart Brisley (1983)  where each glove represented 66,666 unemployed in the 1980s.

Installation view of Jane and Louise Wilson's curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

Installation view of Jane and Louise Wilson’s curated section of History Is Now, showing 1=66,666 by Stuart Brisley. Photo Linda Nylind

Behind the cage (in the photo above) you can see six b&w photos hung on the wall: these are a set by Penelope Slinger featuring a naked nubile young woman in collages or treated images, which I found simple and striking and effective.

Penny Slinger,Perspective (1977) Copyright the artist. © the artist Courtesy Penny Slinger/Riflemaker, London

Penny Slinger,Perspective (1977) Copyright the artist. © the artist
Courtesy Penny Slinger/Riflemaker, London

Slinger was also involved in a 1969 film, Lilford Hall, shot by Peter Whitehead, the underground film maker of, among others, the 60s classic, Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London. Reminding me very much of the carefree sexuality of the novels of Adam Diment, the low budget b&w film shows establishing shots of the apparently abandoned manor of Lilford Hall, before settling down to show women taking their clothes off, on a fire escape, on the baronial staircase, etc.


4. Hannah Starkey (b.1971) One of the simplest, and therefore most effective, rationales: the Arts Council sponsored art photographers in the 1970s and 80s and Hannah has selected images 50 or so images from this huge archive.

This was an easily understood segment of the show and offered a large number of striking and immediately appealing images.

Chris Killip, Youth, Jarrow (1976) © the artist

Chris Killip, Youth, Jarrow (1976) © the artist

Other highlights included

  • Helen Robertson’s big photo showing a Navel in a sea of flesh
  • Sarah Lucas’s upside-down self-portrait smoking (visible on the left of the central column in the photo, below)
  • Martin Parr, whose work was featured in the brilliant Only In England exhibition at the Science Museum

Each column in the room had dense collages of colour adverts cut out from magazines of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Most of them could have been calls to action for outraged feminists, for the relentless use of idealised women in various forms of undress to flog things, though there were also cheesy images of men, along with a fair smattering of comedy ads, particularly political ones ridiculing the other side, for example Gordon Brown’s face on a tellytubby.

Installation View Hannah Starkey's curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

Installation View Hannah Starkey’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

  • Melanie Manchope’s large (2 metres tall?) and striking photo of her naked mother, the image then layered with oils to create a very powerful effect, Mrs Manchope
  • Several studies of working class people by Chris Killip, among which I particularly liked the strong characterful gaze of Mrs Hyslop

5. Roger Hiorns (b.1975) Probably the most controversial exhibit, a detailed timeline devoted to vCJD or mad cow disease, starting in 1750 and continuing up to the present day and including oil paintings, photos, TV news clips and documentaries on 10 or more TV screens, numerous shouty newspaper headlines, as well as government reports, records of questions asked in the House, and a library-style table with a dozen or more books about the disease and other food-related scandals.

If you really did read all this material and watched all the video clips you’d go mad.

British Cattle Movement Service (2011) Photo: Roger Wooldridge

British Cattle Movement Service (2011) Photo: Roger Wooldridge

Right at the end it said that, after all the fuss and hysteria, there were 177 deaths from vCJD, and there are currently no suspected cases in the UK.

a) 177 gruesome deaths, certainly, but not the devastating plague the media promised us. Compare it with the annual holocaust of traffic accidents, with the 1,713 deaths and 21,657 serious injuries on Britain’s roads in one year alone (2013). No-one’s suggesting we round up all Britain’s cars and burn them (more’s the pity).

b) If you didn’t realise a lot of Britain’s food is grown by slaves and produced using environmentally disastrous and disgusting practices, then you haven’t been paying attention, as the following pair of books make abundantly clear:

Most of the exhibits were factual, official, newspapers and videos but in among them were some ‘art works’, 18th century paintings of cows, which might appeal to some, and:

  • Tony-Ray Jones, last seen at the Only In England show, represented by his b&w photo of Glyndebourne (because it has cows in it)
  • A straightfaced hilarious 1982 video of Andy Warhol eating a hamburger
Jørgen Leth and Ole John ‘My Name is Andy Warhol’ from 66 Scenes from America (66 scener fra America), 1982 © the artist 1982/2014. Courtesy the artists and Andersen’s Contemporary, Copenhagen

Jørgen Leth and Ole John
‘My Name is Andy Warhol’ from 66 Scenes from America (66 scener fra America), 1982
© the artist 1982/2014. Courtesy the artists and Andersen’s Contemporary, Copenhagen

  • Rather inevitably, a couple of Damien Hurst cow’s heads in formaldehyde cases

6. Simon Fujiwara (b.1982) The youngest artist here, he chose a selection of more modern works, each placed democratically in equal space on plinths.

Gavin Turk Bag 9 (2001) Courtesy of Gavin Turk / Live Stock Market and Ben Brown Fine Arts, London. Photo: Gareth Winters

Gavin Turk Bag 9 (2001) Courtesy of Gavin Turk / Live Stock Market and Ben Brown Fine Arts, London. Photo: Gareth Winters

  • A big block of coal from Britain’s last working mine
  • Sam Taylor-Smith’s 64-minute-long video of David Beckham sleeping, David, looking beautiful and seraphic
  • A model of Orbit, the huge sculpture and observation tower made by Anish Kapoor for the Olympic park
  • A video promoting a government campaign – Imagineering – for everybody to be more imaginative 🙂
  • Serving spoons designed by Nigella Lawson
Nigella Lawson Living Kitchen, Serving Hands, Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

Nigella Lawson Living Kitchen, Serving Hands, Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

  • One of David Hockney’s recent prints, a depiction of the Yorkshire countryside, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011
  • One of Damien Hirst’s countless dot works
  • the outfit worn by Meryl Streep in her depiction of Mrs Thatcher
Consolata Boyle, Costume designed for Meryl Streep in 'The Iron Lady' (2011) Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

Consolata Boyle, Costume designed for Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady (2011) Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

Conclusions

The main conclusion for me is that it is time to find a better cut-off point for ‘our era’ than World War II.

It is 70 years since VE day and that is just too long a period to try and completely survey: too much has happened: the Western world has passed through several intellectual paradigms in that period – the Cold War, the swinging 60s, the Oil Crisis, the Thatcher Years, the 90s boom etc – let alone the so-called developing world.

In those 70 years the world population has tripled from 2.5 billion in 1945 to getting on for 7.5 billion. We have vastly more consumer goods, infinitely more media for creative production and channels for distribution. It’s too much, too broad.

Which partly explains why, although the exhibition set out to ‘interrogate’ history, it ended being all about everything and therefore about nothing. I wasn’t really prompted to ‘question’ or ‘interrogate’ any of this history.

It felt like wandering round a high-class junk yard full of unexpected treasures, a random selection of the wreckage thrown up by Time’s unpredictable and plethoric passage.

Installation view of Simon Fujiwara's curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

Installation view of Simon Fujiwara’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

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Conflict, Time, Photography @ Tate Modern

A major exhibition of art photography about war and warzones, what’s not to like? The images come ready-made with all sorts of poignancies and pathos.

To mix it up the curators tried something radically different from the predictable chronological order, namely arranging the images by the length of time after the event they are addressing took place.

Hence the importance of time in the title, and hence the rooms are titled ‘Moments later’, ‘days, weeks later’, ‘Months later’, ‘1-10 years later’, all the way up to ’85-100 years later’.

An overabundance

There are a lot of photographers and a lot of wars. Helps to have a good working knowledge of the conflicts in the ‘century of atrocity’, Mankind’s most shameful century so far (but who knows what’s round the corner?) though there were some displays of work from select wars of the 19th century:

(Nothing from the Boer War or any of the small colonial wars the European nations waged against native peoples during the ‘Belle Epoque’….)

Even so the information panels next to each set of images are packed with facts about the individual photographers (almost none of whom I’d heard of before) and then about their ‘project’ or relationship to the subject matter, and then about the nature of the conflict or war in question, often itself dense with historical and political complications — An awful lot of information to take in.

I paid assiduous attention to the first third, skimmed the next third and, I admit, was too full of facts & fights by the end to do anything except just react to the pics…

The surfeit of material was epitomised by the images around Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The very first images in the show come under the heading ‘Seconds after’ and were a few photos taken ‘seconds after’ the Hiroshima bomb exploded, by a Japanese man working in a lab nearby, who ran to the window in time to catch the growing mushroom cloud. (In fact, theyre not particularly good photos, and don’t look anything like the famous mushroom cloud.)

But about half way through the show there was a mass of images on the subject: a display case containing 13 or so photo-books of images from various sources, by numerous photographers, above which was hung a selection of photos each by different photographers, and then another wall of images from ‘one of the most important photo books of the century’, The Map (1965) by Kikuji Kawada. I found it difficult to react to any but the clearest and most striking images…

Shomei Tomatsu, Steel Helmut with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963 © Shomei Tomatsu - interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

Shomei Tomatsu, Steel Helmut with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963
© Shomei Tomatsu – interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

There were some familiar and iconic images of war, namely Richard Peters’ shots from Dresden just days after the fateful air raid, or Don McCullin’s combat-shocked American GI.

Don McCullin, Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968 © Don McCullin

Don McCullin, Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968 © Don McCullin

It is photography’s bad luck to have become so easily assimilable. We are surrounded by images and will be in ever-increasing amounts as the internet tightens its grip on our lives. Possibly, what were once termed ‘raw’ and ‘graphic’ images had an impact at some nominal golden age in the past, maybe in the 1960s and 1970s when this kind of photo-journalism first came in. But we’ve had fifty years of ‘graphic’ images of wars, plus the steady stream of jihadist terror since 9/11, as well as a brutal new level of graphic violence in war movies and TV (Saving Private Ryan (1998), Band of Brothers (2001)) – all of which, I think, has diminished their aesthetic, and moral, impact.

Therefore, some of the other types of engagement, some of the more tangential approaches to the subject matter on display yielded a different sort of feeling, less at risk from horror fatigue. For example, the series of large colour photos of locations where World War I deserters were executed, located and photographed by Chloe Dewe Mathews.

Chloe Dewe Mathews, Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013. Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy. Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil. Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani. Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed. 17:00 / 15.12.1914  © Chloe Dewe Mathews

Chloe Dewe Mathews, Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013. Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy. Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil. Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani. Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed. 17:00 / 15.12.1914
© Chloe Dewe Mathews

Favourites

Like everyone these days, I also take photographs (showcased on my walking blog) and from doing it myself I’ve evolved a favourite style or approach and way of seeing: I don’t do people (they move, they want permission) and prefer to do either natural features or buildings framed square-on, with space around the subject so you see it in its entirety and, ideally, warm sunshine on a clear day, which helps pick out the detail and gives contrast and depth to an image.

That background explains why I liked what I liked in this show.

1. Simon Norfolk made a portfolio of images titled Chronotopia of Afghanistan. The name refers to the way this wretched country has endured 30 years of almost continuous fighting and therefore why the buildings and landscape contain multiple layers of devastation. Norfolk’s images are big and bright and clear.

Simon Norfolk, Bullet-scarred apartment building, 2003. © Simon Norfolk

Simon Norfolk, Bullet-scarred apartment building, 2003. © Simon Norfolk

2. Jane and Louise Wilson I came across their photos at Tate Britain’s hit-and-miss Ruin Lust exhibition. Here again they had three of their enormous black-and-white photos of the Nazis concrete bunkers and defence system along the coast of France – the Nazi subject matter is totally familiar (no reading up required), the buildings are starkly charismatic, they are framed in the classic way I love.

3. Sophie Ristelhüber is awarded an entire room full of really big photos showing the impact of the First Gulf War on the desert landscape in Kuwait and southern Iraq in 1991, titled Fait. Enormous and in glossy colour, like Norfolk’s, they are consistently high quality and imaginative – each image carefully composed and framed. Very powerful.

4. Ursula Schulz-Dornberg was represented by a sequence of black and white photos of the bare, abandoned remains of the Kurchatov nuclear test site where over 480 detonations took place, photographed 22 years after the final test, in 2012.


There’s a lot more from conflicts in Africa (Congo, Namibia – nothing from Biafra), South America, China, the Armenian genocide, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Holocaust survivors and so on, a relentless and depressing testimony to humanity’s inability to live in peace.

Powerful though many of these images are, there is always something clinical and detached about a glossily printed static image hanging on a white gallery wall. I think the complex emotional aftermath and meditation about conflicts and wars is done better by other arts, music sometimes, but poetry…. there’s a case for arguing that poetry commemorates the dead best of all.

Sophie Ristelhüber’s photos, in particular, with their wrecks in the desert, reminded me of Keith Douglas’s poem from the Desert campaign in World War Two.

Vergissmeinnicht by Keith Douglas (1942)

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

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Ruin Lust @ Tate Britain

A disappointing mish-mash.

Confused

Six rooms displaying a confused and confusing ragbag of paintings, watercolours, sketches and notebooks, photos, postcards and films about – in the end – a very small selection of parochial subjects: ruined abbeys, knackered old London, one or two postcards from WWI, a few paintings from WWII, a tower block being demolished.

Small range

Is that it? With the whole world of human endeavour, of civilisations which have risen and fallen, the vast range of man-made catastrophes to range over, why is the selection of images so sparse, so narrow, so flat?

The selection here felt very small and heavily weighted towards the random items which happen to be in Tate’s collection already. With a whole world to pick from there were too many mediocre paintings by John Piper or Graham Sutherland or Paul Nash, sets of photos of places which weren’t even of ruins – for goodness’ sake, a few clicks on the internet takes you to images as stunning as this – the most spectacular abandoned places in the world.

So, for example, the first room contains just three big images: one of John Martin’s end-of-the-world paintings (not strictly a ruin), a mediocre oil painting by John Constable of a ruin (poor), and the standout image of the whole show – the photo of a ruined World War II German coastal bunker by Jane and Louise Wilson. No surprise it’s the big feature of the first room and the image selected for the poster. But the disparity of these images sets the very uneven tone of the exhibition.

Photo of a ruined WW2 concrete bunker

Azeville 2006 by Jane and Louise Wilson. Copyright Jane and Louise Wilson. Tate.

No ideas

There was little attempt in the commentary to give insight into the psychological attraction of ruins: why do we like them? What pleasure(s) do we get from visiting ruins or seeing them depicted? Why did the ruin become an aesthetic category – it wasn’t in the 17th century; it was by the end of the 18th century? what changed and why? Once ruin-fancying had taken hold, what was the aesthetic difference between the ruined abbeys and monasteries of the Middle Ages which tourists could see here in Britain, and the ruins of Rome which countless aristocrats and artists were compelled to go see for themselves on the ‘Grand Tour’, which gets up and running in the second half of the 18th century and is still a requirement for characters in Henry James and EM Forster in 1900?

Why?

And how did reception of the ruin change during the Victorian era, the era of industrialisation and the creation of monstrous cities? In the 18th century it was something to do with The Sublime, as articulated by Edmund Burke: gazing on ruins gave us a pleasing sense of the Immensity of Time, the transitoriness of human glory, and of our own insignificance.

But for the Victorians, ruins came to represent calm and peace away from the hellish industrialised cities, and so became part of their cult of Nature; ruins covered in ivy and lichen were part of the Wordsworthian sanctuary they sought sanctuary in away from the Golgothas they had built and, for many (John Ruskin, William Morris) medieval ruins in particular spoke of an age when architecture and the rhythm of life ran at a human pace, on a human scale.

And then how was the whole aesthetic appeal of ruins transformed by the epic devastation of the Great War? Did the ruin of so many towns and cities, of entire landscapes, haunt artists (and civilians) after the War, who hallucinated ruination wherever they looked (as with Paul Nash’s surreal landscapes of the 1930s)? Ruins, which had provided sublimity to the Enlightenment and escape for the Victorians, now press in on our dreams, provide a menacing vision of what might industrialised warfare might do to our countryside.

And then the further devastation of the Second World War cemented the sense that everything can be ruined at any moment, that ruins are potentially all around us. Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden – any city could be utterly destroyed in a night, an intuition made even more horrific by the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Why were there no images of any of this in the exhibition? Surely the nightmare of nuclear devastation hung like a suffocating shroud over much of post-1945 culture, well into the 1990s, and innumerable artists throughout the Cold War envisioned the destruction of the entire world in a nuclear apocalypse: to take just their most obvious, popular, cinematic form, in movies from Dr Strangelove to the Terminator series.

A chronological survey, no matter how basic, might have a) established the fundamental psychological and aesthetic appeal of the ruin b) shown how these developed and became more sophisticated over time.

Quotes on the wall

The most insight I got was from a series of quotes painted on the wall outside the exhibition which I only stumbled upon by accident: one from the 8th century Anglo-Saxon poem, The Ruin, bespeaks the melancholy tone of so much Anglo-Saxon poetry (cf The Seafarer, The Dream of the Rood, Beowulf) – always the perfect world was in the past and we live in its shadow, in fallen times. There is no irony or distance, the poet’s lament is literal and heartfelt.

Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate.
Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered.
Roofs are in ruin, towers destroyed,
Broken the barred gate, rime on the plaster,
walls gape, torn up, destroyed,
consumed by age. Earth-grip holds
the proud builders, departed, long lost,
and the hard grasp of the grave, until a hundred generations
of people have passed.

Another quote is from Denis Diderot writing in the 1700s, pretty much 1,000 years after the Anglo-Saxon poet, in which the enlightened Frenchman sees walking in the ruins of Rome as an exquisite pleasure, conveying multiple sensations to the Man of Taste, namely:

  • that every step is placed where Caesar and Augustus walked – the thrill of sharing the same space with Great Men
  • the sense of the immensity of Time, the thrilling sense of the vastness of the ages and, by extension, our own insect-like insignificance which, in some moods, can be pleasurable – what are all my woes and troubles? Nothing compared to the great ages which have passed.

For this characteristic Enlightenment philosophe ruins can be consoling and comforting and/or offer glimpses of the sublime.

Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window by JMW Turner (1794). Tate

Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window by JMW Turner (1794). Tate

But why was there such a glaring gap where there should have been quotes from the Victorian era?

And of the twentieth century, the Century of Disasters, why only a casual mention late on in the show of JG Ballard saying Modernist architecture contains the premonition of its own destruction – a typically brilliant insight: the disaster, the apocalypse already built-in to the design of modern buildings. But surely a few people had something to say about twentieth century ruins?

When the camera floats over Manhattan in Koyanisqaatsi it is not to celebrate these soaring achievements of man’s ingenuity (as it might have been in the 1940s and 50s) but to give a foreboding sense that these absurdly priapic buildings are unnatural, the mushroom outgrowth of a culture which is destroying itself.

The Modernist notion that through technology and design we can build a better world (which, very roughly, fuelled so much art, politics and architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s) has expired, and we live in a post-Modernist age, among not just the physical ruins, but the intellectual and cultural ruins of those high hopes.

We now know we are destroying the world, the future will be worse than the past, the environment is being degraded at an escalating rate, our children will have worse lives than us and live in a world in far worse shape: no coral reefs; no fish; the vengeful sea rushing in to engulf our flood-plains.

Selected highlights

Apparently William Gilpin‘s writings about ruins from the 1740s onwards helped define ‘the picturesque’ and inspired artists and poets to seek out ruins. This ‘ruin lust’ became a standard part of the Grand Tour of Europe which every cultured man was expected to take throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, building to a climax amid the ruins of Rome.

Of course there are good things to enjoy in the show:

Coggeshall Church, Essex 1940 by John Armstrong. Tate

Coggeshall Church, Essex 1940 by John Armstrong. Tate

Modern modern art ie since the 1960s:

The show includes too much that isn’t even about ruins:

  • Paul Nash’s surrealist photos from the 1930s – which I greatly liked but these included nice photos of tree stumps and logs in fields – not ruins at all: why were they here?
  • Laura Oldfield Ford works based on the crappy brutalist Ferrier Estate ie paintings or photos themselves covered in scrawled graffiti – damaged but not ruins…
  • Paul Graham’s photos of roads in Ulster; buildings bombed during the Troubles I would have understood, but these are photos of just roads – evocative, but not ruins…
  • John Tillson’s portrait-shaped frames containing a tryptich of images: a fish, a Celtic cross, some text – nice enough but nothing to do with ruins…
  • Jon Savage, the chronicler of punk, took photos of London in the 1970s: these were desperately disappointing. I remember a landscape of deprivation and destruction, these anodyne images of flyovers didn’t capture it at all, nowhere near as bleak and shabby as I remember.

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