Only Human by Martin Parr @ the National Portrait Gallery

Born in 1952 in Epsom, Martin Parr has become one of Britain’s most celebrated and successful photographers. He has achieved this by:

  1. being extremely prolific, having taken thousands of tip-top photographs which he has packaged into numerous books and projects and exhibitions (he has published more than one hundred books, exhibited internationally, was President of the highly respected Magnum photo agency from 2013–17, and recently established the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, dedicated to collecting and exhibiting work by British and Irish photographers)
  2. being an extremely good talker – the exhibition features an eight-minute-long video interview in which Parr confidently, affably and articulately explains his work (can’t find this on YouTube but if you search you’ll find plenty of examples of him being interviewed and chatting away like a favourite uncle)
  3. having established a style, a niche, a unique selling point and brand, namely large, colour photos of ordinary British people in crushingly ordinary, unposed situations, captured in a blunt, unvarnished, warts-and-all style
Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Massive colour prints

In fact, leafing through the many books on sale in the shop, you realise that his early work, for example shooting chapelgoers in Yorkshire, consisted of relatively small, black-and-white prints. It’s only in the past ten years or so that switching to digital cameras has allowed Parr to make much bigger images, with digital clarity and colour.

And it is hosts of these massive, colour prints of hundreds of images of the great British public, caught in casual moments, going about a wide range of odd, quirky and endearing activities, or just being ugly, fat, old, and scruffy – which make up the show.

Nice, France, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Humorous presentation

The exhibition fills the 14 or so rooms of the National Portrait Gallery’s main downstairs gallery space but the first thing to note is how Parr and the curators have made every effort to jazz it up in a humorous if rather downbeat way typical of the man and his love-hate relationship with the fabulous crapness of ordinary, everyday British culture. Thus:

Parr has always been interested in dancing, all kinds of dancing, and the big room devoted to shots of dancers – from punk to Goth, from gay pride to traditional Scottish dancing, to ballroom dancing to mosh pits at a metal concert – the room in which all these are hung is dominated by a slow-turning mirror ball projecting spangly facets on the walls and across the photos.

In the room devoted to beachlife one entire wall is completely covered with a vast panorama of a beach absolutely packed with sunbathers in Argentina.

Installation view of the huge photo of Grandé Beach, Mar Del Plata, Argentina, 2014. Note the jokey deckchairs in front.

The Martin Parr café

Half way through the exhibition, they’ve turned a whole room into the Martin Parr café, not a stylish French join with expresso machine, but a down at heel, flyblown transport caff, with formica tables and those glass cases by the till which display a range of knackered looking brandenburg cakes. You really can buy tea and cakes here (two teas and two pieces of cake for a tenner), or a pint of the ‘Only Human’ craft beer which has been created for the show, read a copy of the exhibition catalogue left on each table, or stare at the cheap TV in the corner which is showing a video of the Pet Shop Boys busking at various locations around London (which Parr himself directed), or chat.

Buy now while stocks last

The gallery shop has similarly had a complete makeover to look like a cluttered, low-budget emporium festooned with big yellow and red placards proclaiming ‘Pile em high and sell ’em cheap’, and ‘Special offer’, ‘Special sale price’, and they have deliberately created the tackiest merchandise they can imagine, including Martin Parr sandals, deckchairs, tea towels, as well as the usual fridge magnets, lapel badges and loads of books by this most prolific of photographers.

Parraphernalia

The first room, before you’ve even handed over your ticket, is jokily titled Parraphernalia:

As Parr’s fame has grown, interest in the commercialisation of his images, name and likeness has grown exponentially. Parr approaches these opportunities with the same creativity he applies to his photography. Early in his career, Parr experimented with alternative methods for presenting his photographs, such as transferring pictures onto ceramic plates and other everyday objects.

Thus a wall festooned with t-shirts, pyjamas, tote bags, mugs, posters, plates and so on each covered with a characteristic Parr image.

Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich, the Black Country, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Fotoescultura

Then there’s a room of fotoescultura. What is fotoescultura? I hear you ask. Well:

In 2009, Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide introduced Parr to Bruno Eslava, an eighty-four year old Mexican folk artist, who was one of the last remaining practitioners of the art of fotoescultura (photo sculpture). Hand-carved in wood, and incorporating a photograph transferred onto shaped tin, fotoesculturas are traditionally used to showcase prized portrait photographs in the home, frequently, but not always, of deceased loved ones. Parr commissioned Eslava to produce a series of these playful and affectionate objects to draw attention to the disappearing art of fotoescultura in Mexico.

These take up a wall covered with little ledges on which perch odd-shaped wood carvings with various photos of Parr himself on them.

Installation view of fotoesculturas at Only Human by Martin Parr. Photo by the author

Oneness

And right next to these was a big screen showing the recent set of idents for BBC 1. I had no idea that Parr was involved in making these – although if you read the credit roll at the end you realise the whole thing was researched, produced and directed by quite a huge cast of TV professionals. Presumably he came up with the basic idea and researched the organisations.

In 2016, BBC Creative commissioned Parr to create a series of idents for BBC One – short films between programmes that identify the broadcaster – on the subject of British ‘oneness’. He subsequently travelled throughout England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales photographing volunteer organisations and sport and hobby clubs, which he felt exemplified this quality. Parr’s evolving portrait of modern Britain shows people united by shared interests and passions, and reflects the diversity of communities living in the UK today.

For each subject, both a 30-second film and a still photograph were made. The films were all produced in the same format: participants start by being engaged in their activity seemingly unaware of the camera, pause briefly to face the camera, then return to the activity as if nothing ever happened.

You can watch them on Parr’s website.

Full list of rooms and themes

The rooms are divided by theme, namely:

  • Parraphernalia (bric a brac covered with Parr images)
  • Fotoesculturas & Autoportraits (fotoesculturas explained above; autoportraits are self portraits in the styles of other cultures, from Turkey, Thiailand, the Sioviet Union etc)
  • Oneness (the BBC One idents)
  • Celebrity (photos of famous people e.g. Vivienne Westwood, Grayson Perry)
  • Grand Slam (he likes photographing the crowds at tennis tournaments)
  • Everybody Dance Now (people dancing, from Goth mosh pits to Scottish Ceilidhs)
  • Beside the Seaside (he’s visited every major seaside resort in the UK photographing the fat and pasty British at play)
  • Ordinary Portraits
  • British Abroad (pasty-faced ex-pats in Africa)
  • A Day at the Races (pasty-faced, tackily-dressed Brits at the races)
  • Interview (eight-minute video interview)
  • Café (complete with Martin Parr beer)
  • Britain in the time of Brexit (for which he went to Leave-voting areas and photographed tattooed chavs and their pit bull terriers)
  • The Establishment (quaint ceremonies of the City of London, Oxbridge students, Her Majesty the Queen)

The Queen visiting the Livery Hall of the Drapers’ Livery Company for their 650th Anniversary, the City of London, London, England, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Identity

Regular readers of this blog will know that, although I welcome the weird and wonderful in art (and music and literature) – in fact, on the whole, I am more disposed to 20th and 21st century art than to classical (Renaissance to Victorian) art – nonetheless I am powerfully allergic to a lot of modern art curation, commentary and scholarly artspeak.

This is because I find it so limiting. Whereas the world is big and wide and weird, full of seven and a half billion squabbling, squealing, shagging, dying, fighting, working human beings – artspeak tends to reduce all artworks to the same three or four monotonously similar ‘issues’, namely gender (meaning all women are oppressed), diversity (meaning all blacks and Muslims are oppressed), same-sex desire (the polite, ladylike way of saying gay and lesbian sex: of course, all lesbians and gays and trans people are oppressed), imperialism and colonialism (all colonial peoples and imperial subjects were oppressed), and – sigh – identity (all the old, traditional categories of identity are being interrogated, questioned and transgressed).

It’s rare than any exhibition of a modern artist manages not to get trapped and wrapped, cribbed, cabined and confined, prepackaged and predigested, into one or other of these tidy, limiting and deadly dull categories.

Many modern artists go along with this handful of ‘ideas’ for the simple reason that they were educated at the same art schools as the art curators, and that this simple bundle of ideas appears to be all they were taught about the world.

About accounting, agriculture, applied mathematics, aquatic sciences, astronomy & planetary science, biochemistry, biology, business & commercial law, business management, chemistry, communication technologies, computing & IT, and a hundred and one other weird and wonderful subjects which the inhabitants of this crowded planet spend their time practicing and studying, they appear to know nothing.

No. Gender, diversity and identity appear to be the only ideas modern art is capable of ‘addressing’ and ‘interrogating’.

Unfortunately, Parr plays right into the hands of curators like this. Because he has spent so many years travelling round Britain photographing people in classic ‘British’ activities (pottering in allotments, dancing, at the beach, at sports tournaments or drinking at street parties), many of them with Union Jacks hanging in the background or round their necks – Parr’s entire ouevre can, without so much as flexing a brain cell, be described as ‘an investigation into British identity in the age of Brexit’ or ‘an analysis of British identity in the era of multiculturalism’.

And the tired visitor consumes these exhausted truisms and clichés without missing a beat, without breaking a sweat, without the flicker of an idea troubling their minds. For example, see how this photo of bhangra dancers ‘raises questions of British identity.’

Bhangra dancers, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2017, commissioned by BBC One. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

The introduction and wall labels certainly don’t hold back:

This exhibition of new work, made in the UK and around the world, is a collection of individual portraits and Parr’s picture of our times. It is about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raises complex questions around both national and self-identity.

The portraits used were drawn from Parr’s Autoportraits series, also on view in this gallery. By transforming these pictures into shrine-like objects, Parr pokes fun at his own identity. At the
same time, he raises questions about the nature of photography, identity and memory.

Parr’s Autoportraits reflect his long-standing interest in travel and tourism, and highlight a rarely acknowledged niche in professional photography. As Parr moves from one absurd situation to the next, his pictures echo the ideals and aesthetics of the countries through which he moves, while inviting questions. If all photographs are illusions, can any portrait convey a sense of true identity?

Parr shows that our identities are revealed in part by how we spend our leisure time – the sports we watch, the players or teams we support, the way we celebrate victories or commiserate defeat.

These pictures might be called ‘environmental portraits’, images in which the identities of person and place intertwine. Do the clothes we wear, the groups we join, the careers we choose, or the hobbies we enthusiastically pursue, express our personality? Or is the converse true – does our participation in such things shape and define us?

The way we play, celebrate and enjoy our leisure time can reveal a lot about our identities. Questions of social status often sneak into the frame. Whether a glorious opportunity to put on your top hat and tails, or simply an excuse to have a flutter on the horses, this ‘sport of kings’ brings together people from many different walks of life.

The 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union is not only one of the biggest socio-political events of our time, it is also a curious manifestation of British identity. Politicians on both sides of the debate used the referendum to debate immigration and its impact on British society and culture. At times, this degenerated into a nationalistic argument for resisting change, rejecting the European way of doing things and returning to a more purely ‘British’ culture, however that might be defined.

But for me, somehow, the more this ‘issue’ of identity is mentioned, the more meaningless it becomes. Repeating a word over and over again doesn’t give it depth. As various philosophers and writers have pointed out, it tends to have the opposite effect and empty it of all meaning.

The commentary claims that Parr’s photographs are ‘about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raise complex questions around both national and self-identity.’

But do they? Do they really? Is a photo of some ordinary people standing at random on a beach ‘raising complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Or a photo of Grayson Perry, or Vivienne Westwood, or five black women sitting on the pavement at the Notting Hill carnival, or two blokes who work in a chain factory, or a couple of fisherman on a Cornish quayside, or toned and gorgeous men dancing at a gay nightclub, or a bunch of students at an Oxford party, or a photo of the Lady Mayoress of London, or of a bloke bending down to roll a bowls ball.

The Perry Family – daughter Florence, Philippa and Grayson, London, England, 2012. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Does this photo ‘raise complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

I just didn’t think see it. So there’s a lot of black people at the Notting Hill carnival, so Indians like dancing to bhangra music, so posh people go to private schools, so Parliament and the City of London still have loads of quaint ceremonies where people dress up in silly costumes.

And so Parr takes wonderfully off-kilter, unflattering and informal photos of all these things. But I don’t think his photos raise any questions at all. They just record things.

Take his photos of the British at the seaside, an extremely threadbare, hoary old cliché of a subject which has been covered by socially -minded photographers since at least the 1930s. Parr’s photos record the fact that British seaside resorts are often seedy, depressing places, the sea is freezing cold, it’s windy and sometimes rainy, and to compensate for the general air of failure, people wear silly hats, buy candy floss, and eat revolting Mr Whippy ice creams.

None of this raises any ‘complex questions’ at all. It seems to me to state the bleedin’ obvious.

Same goes for the last room in the show which ‘addresses’ ‘the Establishment’ and ‘interrogates’ notions of ‘privilege’ by taking photos of Oxford students, public school children and the Queen.

In all seriousness, can you think of a more tired and predictable, boring and clapped-out, old subject? Kids who go to private school are privileged? Oxford is full of braying public school toffs? As any kind of sociological ‘analysis’ or even journalistic statement, isn’t this the acme of obviousness?

Magdelene Ball, Cambridge, England, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

In other words, although curators and critics and Parr himself try to inject ‘questions’ and ‘issues’ into his photos, I think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

Photographic beauty

And by doing so they also divert attention from any appreciation of the formal qualities of his photographs, Parr’s skill at capturing candid moments, his uncanny ability to create a composition out of nothing, the strange balances and symmetries which emerge in ordinary workaday life without anyone trying. The oddity of the everyday, the odd beauty of the everyday, the everyday beauty of oddness.

Preparing lobster pots, Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall, England, 2018. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

I don’t think Parr’s work has anything to do with ‘issues of Britishness’ and ‘questions of identity’. This kind of talk may be the kind of thing which gets publishers and art galleries excited, and lead to photo projects, commissions and exhibitions. In other words, which makes money.

But the actual pictures are about something else entirely. What makes (most of) them special is not their ‘incisive sociological analysis’ but their wonderfully skilful visual qualities. Their photographic qualities. The works here demonstrate Parr’s astonishing ability to capture, again and again, a particular kind of everyday surrealism. They are something to do with the banality of life which he pushes so far into Banality that they come back out the other end as the genuinely weird and strange.

He manages a consistent capturing of the routine oddity of loads of stuff which is going on around us, but which we rarely notice.

The British are ugly

Lastly, and most obvious of all – Parr shows how ugly, scruffy, pimply, fat, tattooed, tasteless and badly dressed the British are. This is probably the most striking and consistent aspect of Parr’s photos: the repeated evidence showing what a sorry sight we Brits present to the world.

It’s not just the parade of tattooed, Union Jack-draped chavs in the ‘Brexit’ room. Just as ugly are the posh geeks he photographed at Oxford or the grinning berks and their spotty partners he snapped at the Highland dances. By far the most blindingly obvious feature of Parr’s photographic oeuvre is how staggeringly ugly, badly dressed and graceless the British mostly are.

His subjects’ sheer lumpen plainness is emphasised by Parr’s:

  • deliberate use of raw, unflattering colour
  • the lack of any filters or post-production softening of the images
  • and the everyday activities and settings he seeks out

And the consistently raw bluntness of his photos makes you realise how highly posed, polished and post-produced to plastic perfection almost are all the other images we see around us are – from adverts to film stills, posters and billboards, and the thousands of shiny images of smiling perfection we consume on the internet every day.

Compared to all those digitally-enhanced images, Parr has for some time now made his name by producing glaringly unvarnished, untouched-up, unimproved images, showing the British reflections of themselves in all their ghastly, grisly grottiness.

New Model Army playing the Spa Pavilion at the Whitby Goth Weekend, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

But this is a genuinely transgressive thought – something which the polite and respectable curators – who prefer to expatiate at length on the socially acceptable themes of identity and gender and race – dare not mention.

This is the truth that dare not speak its name and which Martin Parr’s photographs ram home time after time. We Brits look awful.

Video

Video review of the exhibition by Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Messengers by Bridget Riley @ the National Gallery

At the moment the National Gallery is forcing visitors to enter through the small Getty entrance to the right of the main portico. You trot up some stairs and go through an airport-style metal detector security, walk past the enormous shop (there are three main shops in the gallery) into the long narrow space called the Annenberg Court, and then have to mount quite a big flight of stairs to reach the main entrance hall.

The stairs are black and are attached to one wall of a large white space. Usually it is painted pure white to create a sense of light and emptiness. Now, however, it has been decorated by leading British artist, Bridget Riley, with a series of large green, beige and grey dots.

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

Riley (born in 1931 and a Companion of Honour and a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire aka CBE) made her reputation in the 1960s as a leading proponent of Op Art i.e. art interested in exploring all kinds of optical illusions.

The wall labels explain that this work is entitled ‘Messengers’ because Constable referred to clouds as ‘messengers’ in one of his letters. It is deliberately ambiguous so it can also be taken as an allusion to the numerous angels, messengers and bearers of news, that we see in the skies of so many National Gallery pictures.

A more direct influence is the pointillist technique of the French painter George Seurat, famous for large scale pointillist masterpieces such as Bathers at Asnières.

It’s easiest to think of Riley’s dots as a sampling of Seurat’s little dots which have been blown up to huge proportions. When this happens you learn that most of a Seurat painting is made up of the spaces between the coloured dots – just as the ‘solid’ atoms which make up us and everything around us are actually mostly empty space.

Because, in my opinion, what the dots do is emphasise the size and whiteness of the space, bring it out. Previously this was a big white empty space. Now, it has become much more problematic for the eye and mind. The wall label which explains the work suggests that, if you pause (on the landing at the top of the stairs or half way down the stairs) to look at the dotted wall, they will leave after-images on the viewer’s retina that suggest volume and movement.

Maybe. To the number-minded like myself they suggest some kind of pattern. In fact I quickly realised they are painted in broken diagonal lines. If there were a few more of them they’d begin to crystallise into Xs. As it is there are diagonal ‘paths’ between the lines. Can you see any other patterns?

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

Anyway, after reading the label and pondering Messengers for a few minutes, I passed on to the Boilly exhibition in Room One of the gallery, across the central hall (and next to another, huge, shop).

When I came back the same way, walking across the old, dark-wood-panelled central hall, I suddenly realised that, approached from this side, the big atrium and Riley’s dots are framed by a characteristically Victorian, huge, dark, oak-framed doorway.

Framed. Just like one of the thousands of Old Master paintings in the rest of the gallery.

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

My photo doesn’t really convey it, but to me this framing effect gave the image a lot more bite.

Standing on the stairs beneath the big white open space of the court felt a bit like being on the escalator at any number of modern shopping centres, with a vague sense of a big light space looming over you.

But framed like this, the image had more definition and power.

Also, God knows how many art videos I’ve seen which make a virtue of showing nothing very much happening, and so I found the framing effect almost transformed it into an art video experience.

In a sort of way, for a few minutes, I enjoyed standing there, in line with the centre of the doorway, watching people walk in and out of it, almost all of them busy and purposeful, but a few pausing to lean against the balcony and look out at the dots.

I liked the contrast between the black oak doors, the black outline of the balcony and the (mostly) black clothes that everyone was wearing and the ringing white walls of the Annenberg Court.

I liked the contrast between the complete stasis of the dots, caught/trapped/arranged in their punctured latticework – and the busy, chaotic strutting, strolling, ambling, chatting, pausing and hesitating of the people moving in front of it.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Picasso Museum @ Barcelona

There are Picasso Museums all over the place – Paris (where he worked), Malaga (where he was born), Antibes (where he went on holiday) – reflecting the man’s enormous fecundity and iconic fame.

There’s a Museo Picasso in Barcelona because this is where the young Picasso (born in 1881) came to study and make a name as a student and young artist before his first trip to Paris in 1900. The publicity makes much of the fact that this is the first and oldest Picasso Museum (founded in 1963), the only one set up during his lifetime (he died in 1973), and has one of the largest collections with some 4,251 works.

(It was the only cultural venue my teenage kids absolutely insisted on visiting on our recent trip to Barcelona. There was a queue though, to be honest, not as long as the ones at the London Royal Academy, let alone the monster queues at the National gallery. Nonetheless, you can skip past the queue if you buy an Articket or Barcelona Museum Pass, a collective ticket which costs 30 Euros and gets you into six Barcelona museums – Picasso, the Fundació Joan Miró, the National Museum of Catalan Art, the Centre of Contemporary Culture, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Fundació Antoni Tàpies. Not only is this good value if you can manage to visit all 6, but the Articket also lets you jump the queues at all these places, making for a much smoother experience.)

The Picasso Museum has been beautifully crafted out of several adjoining buildings in the historic Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, not far from the cathedral. The buildings are from the 13th or 14th centuries and each one has a small atrium or central open space with an external staircase going up and around the walls to a first floor arcaded balcony and so into the gallery rooms. These balconies were packed with tourists getting shots of themselves against the ancient stone backgrounds.

Arcaded balcony and steps inside the medieval Picasso Museum, Barcelona

In the cool ground floor rooms are not one but two art bookshops, which were well stocked and fascinating. Surprisingly for such a major attraction, and despite numerous street signs, such is the maze-like nature of the Gothic Quarter that the museum took a bit of finding.

The museum

So after all the effort to find it, figure out the Articket system, and the general build-up, it was a big surprise to discover that the collection is so patchy. There is a great deal of work from PP’s earliest years – very realistic academic studies of nudes, portraits and sentimental Victorian scenes from the 1890s.

It’s tempting to think how conventional and so-so these are, until you realise that Picasso was 14 and 15 years old when he painted them! The museum divides this juvenile period into:

  • the early years (Málaga, Corunna and Barcelona, 1890–97)
  • the training period (Barcelona, Horta de San Juan and Madrid, 1897–1901)

By the turn of the century Picasso is hanging round with bohemian types at the Els Quatre Gats cafe in Barcelona, and amusing them by knocking off sketches and caricatures of his friends, music hall performers, writers and notables in Bohemia.

He makes his first visit to Paris in 1900 and you can immediately feel the influence of Toulouse-Lautrec or Degas in his paintings. In fact, the museum lets you see Picasso motoring through all the available influences, trying them on for size.

There are several rooms focusing on the famous Blue Period, of sentimental, stylised, blue-coloured people and landscapes from 1901 to 1904.

So these first 4 or 5 rooms have been very thoroughly about his earliest years as pupil, student and young Bohemian, just tinkering with the influences of the day, when you step through to the next room… Then you walk into the next room and — it’s 1917 and Picasso is suddenly in Paris with the Ballets Russes collaborating on the scenery for their production of Parade.

Whaaat? The entire period from about 1905 to 1917 is absent i.e. the invention of cubism, the basis of modern art, is not here. His combination of Cezanne and discovery of African and Oceanic masks resulting in weird masterpieces like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), the entire adventure of collaborating with Braques in the invention of the different types of cubism – nada, nichts, niente, a blank. Instead we leap over the crucial decade to find ourselves among Picasso’s post-cubist work with absolutely no visual explanation of how we got here.

There’s much to like here but then we walk into the next room and… it is suddenly 1923, the war is over and across Europe the arts are undergoing a return to the clarity of neo-classical art in art and music. Here is a room of light, playful lithographs of classical ladies, bearded gods, pillars etc – and some of the later, darker but still mythological lithographs in the style of the Vollard Suite. Again, it feels like we’ve taken a massive leap forward in time, skipping over various key milestones in Picasso’s career.

In an even bigger leap, we then enter a room containing 30 or so of the 58 odd variations Picasso made on Velázquez’s classic painting Las Meninas in 1957. The bitter style of Guernica, the war years, the early Cold War years – invisible. Admittedly the Meninas variations are, apparently, the only series of Picasso variations which is still together and can be viewed in its entirety. But it feels like another massive leap.

In another room there is a similar suite of variations on the dovecot Picasso owned in the south of France, in much the same style as the Meninas variations, and from the same year.

Off to the side are several rooms of Picasso’s ceramics, donated by his last wife Jacqueline Roque – quirky, inventive, humorous plates featuring a basic smiling face or an embossed Picasso fish.

And that’s it. So the Picasso Museum, Barcelona does very much not present a comprehensive overview of Picasso’s whole career. It is a hefty collection of the early student and young-man work in Barcelona – and in this respect it is certainly a place to visit to really study his earliest realistic style and the origins of his art – and after that, there are sudden bursts from what appear to be almost random moments in the rest of his long, creative career.

Likes

My kids liked the blue period and harlequin style paintings best. My daughter liked:

I didn’t disagree, and there were were quite a few other good early works on show – but I ended up liking the room of Las Meninas variations most of all.

By this stage in Picasso’s life, the late 1950s, he really had conquered the world of art and the variations bespeak a superb confidence: he can do anything and he is not afraid. If the images look slapdash, the colours don’t go to the edge of the spaces, if daubs create an effect, lines clash here or there – it doesn’t matter. The variations demonstrate am almost boastfully virile knowledge of the inner workings of oil and art.

The kids and I walked round the room identifying motifs, listing the visual elements which appear in each of the version, re-envisioned in successive variations – some dark and intense, some light and colourful, some detailed and cluttered, some simple and clear.

For example, almost all the variations feature

  • a vertical grid of squares which reappears in different colours and severity
  • two figures at the back which appear as smiley faces atop columns with black-and-white minstrel-type hands sticking out
  • cartoon faces with dots for eyes and ticks for noses as, after all, the original is a portrait of half a dozen or so people.

Most compelling of all is the figure of the man opening the door into the room which appears in all the variations against different coloured backgrounds. My daughter quickly took to thinking of this figure as the centre of a psychedelic title sequence to a science fiction TV series, opening the same door and each time finding a madly different scene before him. He’s in the top in the middle of the first image below.

It became a fun game to identify the elements in each version and see what he’d done with them. This Where’s Wally approach to looking closely at each variation put me in the mood to also enjoy the room of variations Picasso painted on the dovecote and the strutting doves he owned at his home in the South of France (the Museum handily includes black and white photos of the great man among his doves).

Again the same basic theme is remodelled multiple times with varying colours, designs, with an intensity of black lines or a lighter touch. It was fascinating to experience the way different treatments of essentially the same semi-abstract scene evoked widely different emotional and visual responses.

Summary

In summary, you should definitely visit the Picasso Museum (next time you’re in Barcelona) but you should be prepared for the fact that it isn’t at all an overview of his career – it is a thorough look at Picasso’s very earliest work, something which may be mainly for scholars and real devotees – and then snapshots of half a dozen other moments or sets of work of which the Las Meninas variations, as I’ve made clear, would in my opinion be the best reason for going.


Related links

Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 @ Tate Modern

Tillmans and Tate

Wolfgang Tillmans is German – as you’d expect from the name – but has spent a lot of time in the UK. He studied at the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design in the early 90s, then moved on to London and, although he’s had spells in the States (New York, of course), he still has a studio in London and divides his time between here and Berlin.

Also, although photos of him from the 1990s make him look like a punk or street kid, a member of the hoody generation, Tillmans has in fact created a tidy place for himself within the British art establishment.

  • Between 2009 and 2014 Tillmans served as an Artist Trustee of the Tate Board. He is also a member of the museum’s Collection Committee and the Tate Britain Council
  • Tillmans was the first photographer – and also the first non-British person – to be awarded the Tate annual Turner Prize, in 2000
  • In 2014 Tillmans won the Charles Wollaston Award, the main prize of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition
  • In 2015 Tillmans was awarded the Royal Photographic Society Centenary Medal and an Honorary Fellowship
  • In 2015 Tillmans was commissioned to create the official portrait of retiring British Museum director Neil MacGregor

Quite the establishment darling then, and with a very close connection with Tate which is – uncoincidentally – now giving him this huge 14-room exhibition.

Iguazu (2010) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Iguazu (2010) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Tillmans’ photography

Tillmans was born in 1968 and so is a youthful 48. His career consists of ‘explorations of the possibilities of modern photography’. As a young gay student his early works depict bohemian men and, apparently, he was hailed as a chronicler of that queer boho scene – something he’s been trying to escape ever since.

Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza (2012) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza (2012) by Wolfgang Tillmans

In fact the show reveals a determination to explore and diversify, to range over a huge variety of genres – portraits, still lifes, sky photographs, astro-photography, aerial shots and landscapes.

But he is just as interested in the presentation of the works as the subject matter, and this is one of the main themes of the show. It is emphatically not just a series of huge glossy photographs. Instead, there is a systematic exploration of the tremendous range of the media, of shapes and sizes and styles and formats, which the photographic image can come in.

There certainly are the big colour prints he’s famous for, but also photocopies and black and white prints, some enormous, some tiny – some expensively framed, some not – some are enormous and formally hung, some are in a cluster of Polaroid-size snaps just pinned up to the wall.

Also there are rooms full of display cases showing the range of arty or fashion magazines he’s worked for. Other rooms show collections of articles from newspapers and magazines concerning ‘issues of the day’, juxtaposed with relevant or related photos.

How we consume the image is as much a part of the show, as the images themselves.

Collum by Wolfgang Tillmans

Collum by Wolfgang Tillmans

Every room an installation

Quite quickly you realise that ideas and issues about photography are just as important as the images themselves

Thus, right at the beginning we are told that each room is a separate entity; each room has been individually created and curated – ‘specially configured’ – to address specific issues or themes or topics. The intention, then, is that each room (as a unique assembly of images) serves a double purpose – addressing varied issues and subjects but also exploring the wide range of formats which images can come in, ‘exploring’ the nature of the photographic image.

Operating on the basis of the fundamental equality of all motifs and supports, through this continual re-arranging, repositioning, questioning and reinforcement, Tillmans avoids ascribing any ‘conclusions’ to his work and thus subjects his photographic vision to a perpetual re-contextualization

To professional theorists of photography and the digital image, for all art and media students generally, this show is a goldmine of conceptualisation and theory. To ordinary gallery-goers simply curious to see arresting, beautiful or imaginative images… maybe not quite so compelling.

paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse (2014) by Wolfgang Tillmans

paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse (2014) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Read the booklet

Indeed at the entrance to the exhibition the visitor attendant on the door tells us there will be no wall labels giving context and information, as is usual in most modern art exhibitions. Instead, the visitor is told they must consult the free booklet given out at the door to read up on what each room is about, what it is trying to say, the idea behind the installation.

There are 14 rooms so that’s 14 short essays. That’s quite a lot of reading, quite a lot of information processing to be done before you even look at anything.

And the only snag is that, the more you read, the less impressive the concepts and ideas become. As early as room 2 we learn that Tillmans spends a lot of time in his studio, making prints, planning exhibitions, collecting materials, gathering ideas and so on. Thus room 2 contains photos of… his studio, which, like most workplaces these days, consists mainly of computers on messy desks, with odd shots of cardboard boxes full of bottles, a colour photocopier taken to pieces and so on. It looks, in fact, like a really boring office.

But the commentary tries to gee it up by quoting from the man himself. Among other things it tells us that Tillmans has often described the core of his work as:

translating the three dimensional world into two dimensional pictures.

Wow. Profound. Isn’t this a tad… obvious? Do you think there has been any artist since about 1300 and any photographer since about 1850 who hasn’t been aware that they are engaged in transferring the 3D world onto a 2D surface?

In room 3 we learn about Tillmans’s project to travel the world and deliberately spend just a few days in each place photographing his first impressions, untainted by any understanding or knowledge of the local culture. He did, we are reassured, use ‘a high resolution digital camera’. And this approach led to some pretty impressive revelations, to a number of ‘shrewd observations about contemporary worldviews’.

For example? Well, he noticed that the shape of car headlights has changed in the past few decades. Herr Tillmans detected that car headlights are now much more angular than they used to be which, giving them, as the booklet helpfully explains:

a predatory appearance that might reflect a more competitive environment.

Golly. He spent four years travelling round the world and discovered… that car headlights are more angular than they used to be. Do you see what I mean by the ‘concepts’ and ‘ideas’ underpinning the show not being that…. impressive. Don’t get me wrong: the photos of car headlights are beautifully shot, big, perfectly in focus, very much like… well… high def adverts for car headlights.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern featuring Headlight

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern featuring Headlight (left)

Room 4 is devoted to a series of display cases showing a project titled truth study centre which has been rumbling on since 2005. Photos, newspaper and magazine clippings, objects, drawings and copies of his own images are laid out in cases to highlight the revelation that – the media sometimes contradict themselves, politicians sometimes make statements about things they don’t understand, scientific knowledge is limited and partial, you shouldn’t believe everything you read.

I’m helping my daughter revise for her GCSE Media Studies exam. I know for a fact that these are the kinds of ‘insight’ which are quite literally taught to every 15-year-old schoolchild in the country.

It began to dawn on me that if you expect people to spend a lot of time at your exhibition reading about your ‘insights’ and ‘concepts’ – it would be a good idea to have something worth reading about. By room 5 I stopped reading the booklet for any ‘insight’ it gave me, but purely as a source of unintentional comedy.

Another example of the overconceptualisation of the stunningly banal is room 7, a nice-sized room with roof-height windows looking out over the Thames. In it are placed a very expensive sound system and some state-of-the-art loudspeakers which are playing a loop of tracks by Colourbox, an English band from the 80s that Tillman likes. And some benches to sit on.

That’s it. The idea seems to be that bands spend months in music studios recording music on incredibly hi-quality digital equipment – and then lots of people listen to this music through dodgy headphones via their mobile devices. The Big Idea seems to be: doesn’t that seem a bit of a shame?

I sat staring out at the view, tapping my feet to Colourbox and reading the rest of the booklet in a private game of ‘bullshit bingo’, spotting pretentious clichés and choice examples of curator-speak (otherwise known as ‘art bollocks’). According to the booklet the music room – ahem, I mean the installation entitled Playback Room – is:

An example of Tillman’s curatorial practice, he has chosen to include it here to encourage others to think about how recorded music can be given prominence within the museum setting.

Well, I bet nobody’s ever thought of playing music in an art gallery before. Truly we live in an age of exciting innovations!

The Painted Word

In his blistering satire on the 1970s New York art world, The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe describes how it suddenly dawned on him – as the new movements of minimalism and conceptual art became prominent in the early 1970s – that the concept, the idea, the project, the word, had now become the truly creative part of a work of art – and that the actual painting or photo or sculpture, was merely an appendage, an afterthought, a kind of dubious, oh-do-we-really-have-to illustration of the idea for the work.

The idea, and its formulation in words, was now the creative achievement. Hence his title – the insight that a lot of modern art is merely a sort of painted word. I couldn’t help thinking of Wolfe as I was obliged at the start of each one of the 14 rooms here to read the short essay in the booklet to find out what the devil the room was on about. Increasingly ignoring the text, I had the subversive idea of looking closely at what was actually on display.

Four thoughts

1. Abstracts Once you actually focus on the art, then a number of the really large abstract prints, in the series named Silver and Greifbar, really stand out. Large swirls of colour which are apparently created without using a camera but by manipulating light and chemicals directly onto photosensitive paper. Big bold and attractive – though maybe because they look so much like the abstract expressionists I’ve been reading about recenty. They are a sort of cross between abstract expressionism and a funky advert for ice cream being mixed. Or maybe shots of campari or whiskey being twirled in a glass.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern featuring Greifbar 29 (left) and a portrait of a guy picking his toenails (through the doorway)

Good, aren’t they? And massive. Immersive. And immensely familiar because you feel like someone somewhere has surely been making pictures like this for decades, but you can’t quite remember who. Maybe they haven’t. Either way, big and very relaxing.

2. Ugly A lot, in fact every single one of the many, many portraits sprinkled throughout the exhibition, are ugly. Some of the famous people – the usual arty suspects like Vivienne Westwood or Patti Smith or Morrissey – are fairly old and raddled to start with, but even the various-sized portraits of his young gang, his mates, scruffy sneaker-shoed arty types in dodgy-looking flats and apartments, gay men, gay women, young boho types, ALL of them are done with a deliberately unflattering, anti-romanticism.

In this respect Tillmans combines, to my mind, the deliberate willful ugliness of much modern photography and contemporary art, with an extra helping of the traditional German taste for the grotesque, a lineage which stretches from Dürer, through the German Expressionists, to George Grosz and Otto Dix and on to Joseph Beuys – a lot of German art has foregrounded ugliness, crudity and ungainliness. No grace. No poise. Scruffy unshaven blokes in duffel coats. Clunky hairy people with all their spots and pimples.

Given his queer punk credentials it’s a little surprising how few sexually explicit photos there are here, but it’s entirely characteristic that the two really rude ones – of a man’s bollocks and a woman’s pussy – are hairy and unglamorous. Shrewdly composed and framed, alright – beautifully in focus – technically perfect – but determinedly, almost brutally, real. (See below) The aesthetic is in the refusal to retouch, soften, smooth out or prettify. In cold white light, in perfect focus, in unforgiving colour –this is what it is.

3. People reading the booklet instead of looking at the art Half way round I noticed just how many of the visitors were standing heads-down, intently studying the curator’s booklet and not looking at all at the supposed ‘art’. As a private joke, I began to take photos of visitors reading the booklet instead of looking at the art. I like to think this is a new artistic genre which I have just invented – ‘Photos of visitors to a Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition who spend more time reading the booklet about the exhibition than actually looking at the works in the exhibition’. Maybe I’ll enter my portfolio for the Turner Prize.

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #1

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #1

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #2

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #2

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #3

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #3

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #4

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #4

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #5

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #5

4. ‘Practice’ Usually in the commentary on a contemporary artist we learn that they are challenging, subverting, investigating, questioning and engaging with contemporary issues – more often than not these days, issues of gender and identity, the favourite subject of artists and curators alike.

Tillman does all that, of course, but I couldn’t also help noticing the obsessive repetition of the word ‘practice’ in the booklet:

  • … these elements [photographing everyday life and contemporary culture and displaying the prints as whole-room installations] remain central to his practice…
  • … cultural attitudes towards race, gender and sexuality have become more open over the three decades since he began his practice…
  • [the sound room is] an example of Tillman’s curatorial practice…
  • [since his high school days Tillman] has found ways to resist the idea that the photograph is solely a direct record of reality. In 2011, this area of his practice was compiled for the first time in his book Abstract Pictures
  • An acute awareness of fragility endures across Tillmans’s practice in all its different forms…
  • Since 2014 he has allowed performance to become a more prominent strand of his practice…
  • Portraiture has been central to Tillmans’s practice for three decades…

This word ‘practice’ always reminds me of GPs or vets – probably because, looking after two children and two cats as I do, I spend a LOT of time either at the vets or the GPs’ – and so I kept finding myself standing in front of big or little photos, of the sea, or a dusty car, or a garden weed, or ships in China or a roll of paper or someone’s bollocks, with the titles of James Herriot’s vet books drifting through my mind in ironic counterpoint.

If Only They Could Talk

If Only They Could Talk

Let sleeping vets lie

Let sleeping vets lie

It shouldn't happen to a vet

It shouldn’t happen to a vet

The sea

The final room contains two huge photos of the sea. Like lots of Tillmans’ giant pics, what’s not to like? Big bold beautifully shot, nicely framed.

However, because none of us can be expected to really get these photos unless we’ve read the booklet and had the curators properly explain to us what we’re looking at, I quote the relevant paragraph in full:

Symbol and allegory are artistic strategies Tillmans is usually keen to avoid. The State We’re In, A 2015 is a departure from this stance: the work’s title is a direct reference to current global political tensions. Depicting the Atlantic Ocean, a vast area that crosses time zones and national frontiers, it records the sea energised by opposing forces, but not yet breaking into waves. Differing energies collide, about to erupt into conflict.

Now do you understand this photo? (And thanks for the tip that the Atlantic Ocean is vast and crosses several time zones. I might pass that on to my daughter for her GCSE Geography exam which she is taking tomorrow. The Atlantic Ocean is very big. One to remember. Where would we be without artists, curators and their amazing insights?)

Conclusion

Although most of the text and installation paraphernalia was bollocks, I actually enjoyed this exhibition. The music room was nice and relaxing and the really big abstracts (the Silvers and Greifbars, the series showing rolls of paper as abstract shapes) are wonderful. The enormous photos of the sea or a market in Africa or a dusty car or the messy desk in his studio or two guys playing chess in China are all very quaffable, easy on the eye, slip down a treat.

I spoke to another visitor who commented that it was all very ‘cool’ in the older sense of the word – there was absolutely no emotional affect in any of it. Once you realised that the ‘concepts’ and ‘installations’ were based on incredibly simplistic schoolboy ideas (pictures are 2D representations of a 3D reality, it might be nice to have music in galleries, cars are sleeker than they used to be, attitudes to gender and race are more relaxed than they were thirty years ago, some of the stuff you read in newspapers isn’t strictly true) you felt free to ignore them completely, and just drift among this haphazard selection of all kinds of photographic images – large and small, colour or monochrome, framed or tacked to the wall – and like whatever takes your fancy.

And without the verbiage of the booklet – if you consciously ignore the attempt at conceptualisation, the frameworks of the installation and so on – then the real message that comes over is one of enormous randomness – haphazardness, aimlessness, arbitrariness. Sea, a weed, a car, some random people, a computer, big abstracts, rolls of paper, magazines, more random people – it’s like going for a walk through Google Images – each done to technical perfection, with a high gloss finish, perfectly in focus, made with Germanic precision – but completely odourless, uninflected, unaffecting.

In fact it bears out one of the few bits of the booklet which had any real purchase – that Tillmans believes in ‘the fundamental equality of all motifs’. Everything is the same. As an old boss of mine used to say, When everything’s a priority, then nothing’s a priority. Alles ist gleich. The apple tree outside his window, Hannah the lesbian, the Atlantic Ocean, a cardboard box, some Chinese guys, some Pakistani guys, a desk, a waterfall, a shiny red car, the Director of the British Museum, some students in a room…

It all goes into the Tillmans machine and comes out wonderfully and completely bereft of meaning or significance, entirely inconsequential – and so, all taken together, producing an effect of great calmness.

A very relaxing and soothing experience – and if you throw in a game of bullshit bingo or watching-people-read-the-booklet, very funny too.

Vielen Dank, Herr Tillsman.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe (1975)

I bought this as a Bantam paperback back in 1976 when it cost 65p. Now it costs nearly £11.

Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism

Tom Wolfe was one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism, a style of reporting which became fashionable in the 1960s, in which the ‘reporter’ a) was increasingly central to the story itself b) reported in the loose, slangy street style of the day. I recently read Michael Herr’s Dispatches, whose phantasmagorical prose style tried to capture the deranged, trippy experience of the Vietnam War. In fact,  it was only a few years earlier, in 1973, that Wolfe had edited and published the collection, The New Journalism, which crystallised the movement’s reputation.

Wolfe’s version was always urban and urbane. He used literary devices – sarcasm, irony, outrageously subjective opinions, and a dandy style incorporating onomatopoeia, multiple ornate phrases piled up between ellipses or dashes – to cover his subjects. His breakthrough piece in 1963 was a magazine piece about Californian hot rod and custom car culture titled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He followed this with 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a highly experimental account of the counter-culture author Ken Kesey and his hippy Merry Pranksters.

In 1970 he published Radical Chic, a scathing description of a party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the radical Black Panther Party, in which classy, upper class New York intellectuals bathed in the glory of consorting with radical revolutionaries and – my dear! – such charming young black men!!

The Painted Word

The Painted Word continues the theme of skewering the pretentions of New York’s glitzy upper-class liberal elite. In this short book (actually just a long article printed in Harper’s Magazine in April 1975) Wolfe rips into the pretentiousness of the New York art scene, its struggling artists and its oh-so-precious upper-class devotees.

Wolfe identifies several trends in the art world.

The Boho Dance Since the end of the 19th century the myth had grown up about struggling artists making do with bread and candles in unheated attics while they grind their brains to portray the Truth. Above all the Bohemian (shortened to ‘boho’) artist knows that a key part of the character is scorning the despised bourgeois values, being anti-respectability, dressing scruffy, identifying with the people and so on.

The Consummation But in fact, without exception, all these struggling artists yearn for one thing and one thing only which is to be recognised and acknowledged. How does that happen? You are taken up by the rich elite, particularly the elite of gallery owners and their very rich sponsors.

Schizophrenia But having spent a lifetime cultivating the personality of the struggling artist, many find it difficult to cope with suddenly being showered with prizes, grants, exhibitions, books and magazine articles. Especially since a lot of the showering comes from the very people you’ve spent tour adult life despising and denigrating.

Picasso is the prime example of an artist who made the transition with style, buying suits at the finest London tailors, living in style with his numerous mistresses, and still managing to convey a raffish bohemian air. Jackson Pollock is a tragic example of the Boho artist who couldn’t cope with this sudden clash of identities. Wolfe describes the time Pollock arrived at the uptown apartment of his mega-rich sponsor Peggy Guggenheim to find a dinner party full of Top People. Pollock promptly stripped naked and pissed in the fireplace – but the Top People were delighted: this was precisely the outrageous artistic antics that, by the 1950s, the haute bourgeoisie expected from its pet artists. Spiralling into alcoholism, Pollock died by crashing a car which he was driving when drunk, in 1956.

No modern artist can escape his fate – which is to a) adopt the Bohemian pose until b) he or she is taken up by the art-loving elite, and finds their anti-bourgeois snarling is rewarded by dinner party invitations and cocktails. Neutered. Caged.

Cultureberg because the art world is run by a tiny clique of super-rich patrons and sponsors, who pay for the little galleries, commission grand works, fund little magazines, hold lavish opening night parties, and support the big museums. In a spirit of mockery Wolfe calculates that the entire global art elite – the culturati, the denizens of Cultureberg – number 750 in Rome, 500 in Milan, 1,750 in Paris, 1,250 in  London, 2,000 in Berlin, Munich and Dusseldorf, 3,000 in New York and maybe 1,000 scattered round the rest of the world. Say, 10,000 in all. A large village-sized population of artistic elite which decide who and what is the New Thing.

Wolfe makes the telling point that their decisions are generally announced in the pages of various magazines, as profiles and features, and in galleries as major shows or retrospectives. The public – which votes with its wallet when it comes to music, theatre, books or movies – has no such choice when it comes to art. The decisions are all made by the tiny art elite and only then do we, the public, get presented with a fait accompli.

Big money and high art

Thus, as he puts it, Modern Art – which was largely begun before the Great War – only became widely known after the Great War, not because anyone understood it better – but because the global elite found a use for it. It was only in the 1920s that the word ‘modern’ became so tremendously fashionable (as, Wolfe points out, ‘now’ was a buzz word of the 1960s – the ‘Now Generation’, and possibly ‘digital’ is the word of our era).

New York’s Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 having been developed by three rich women,  Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil), Lillie P. Bliss (daughter of a U.S. Secretary of the Interior) and Mary Quinn Sullivan (wife of a lawyer specialising in large wealth trusts). Its first president was Anson Conger Goodyear, Director and Vice-President of various railroad companies and he recruited Paul Sachs, son of the founder of Goldman Sachs, and Frank Crowninshield, editor from 1914 to 1935 of Vanity Fair.

Art has always gone hand in hand with money, back through Renaissance princes to medieval kings, through the monuments built to commemorate Caesars and pharaohs. What is distinctive about modern art – and especially in America – is the hilarious contradiction between the aggressively anti-bourgeois stance of so many Boho artists, and the staggering wealth of their patrons and sponsors.

A cartoon history of modern art

Barely had this trend got going, claims Wolfe, than it stalled with the regrettable interruption of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. During the 1930s a lot of artists were put on the spot about their actual anti-bourgeois sentiments and found themselves churning out scores of images of brawny workers and downtrodden blacks. Fortunately (says Wolfe, in his breezily ironic tone) the Second World War came to America’s rescue, destroying Europe and making God’s own country the world’s first superpower but also – from the modern artists point of view – sweeping away the social realism of the 1930s which was now – in the cold light of the Cold War – looked suspiciously like commie art.

And so it was, with a loud whooshing sound, that the forward march of Modern Art resumed its stomp with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, a dazzlingly new style which foxed the general public (as all good new art should) but drove Cultureburg wild with excitement. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman – in their significantly different ways – produced a complete revolution in thinking about art which was a) God’s gift to intellectual theorists b) a specifically American look which Peggy Guggenheim and indeed the Federal Government could back and support c) and whose repercussions are still with us.

The battle of the bergs

The central and longest section of the essay is a deliberately distorted lampoon on the work of the two fashionable critics who promoted Abstract Expressionism – Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. First Wolfe caricatures the way the two men supported different artists in the movement by writing analyses of every-more dizzying intellectual abstruseness. For Greenberg the Cubists et al had correctly rejected Victorian realism and the absurd notion that a painting is a doorway into life, into a scene; but they had not gone far enough – you can still make out sort-of realistic objects in Cubism and related movements.

The Abstract Expressionists had gone one decisive step further and acknowledged that the painting is just a flat surface on which shapes and colours are arranged. In fact the flatter, the better, and Wolfe satirises Greenberg’s writings as increasingly shrill demands for evermore flatness, while at the same time decrying the great American public for not understanding the heroic work being done by this handful of tortured geniuses in Downtown New York.

Rosenberg entered the scene early in the 1950s and is responsible for a crucial extra element – he reintroduced psychology into what was in danger of appearing a very stale formal pursuit by coining the term ‘action painting’ (p.51). The painting isn’t a thing (no matter how flat). It is the record of an event and that event is the heroic manly painter wrestling with the inchoate materials of the universe to express his own deep existential angst.

Wow. So puzzled millionaires could now feel liberated to buy these splats of paint across huge canvasses (Pollock), these shimmering blocks of colour (Rothko), these disturbing lightning flashes against washes of plain colour (Newman), these blown-up black gestures which defied the universe (Franz Kline) because a) this showed how clever and up to the minute they were b) this showed how much soul and feeling and emotion they had and c) it showed how goddam American they were, and proud of it!

As early as 1949 poor Pollock was being hailed as the greatest American painter ever, not only in the art press, but to the wider world in a four-page spread in Life magazine. His famous drip paintings were made in the relatively short period 1947-50 and his later experiments, first with totally black works, then a return to more figurative, were not welcomed by critics or the art coteries who expected him to keep delivering the good. In a way it’s surprising he soldiered on till 1956.

And he died just as the new kids arrived on the block. Apparently Pop Art is dated to Jasper Johns’ one man show at the Castelli Gallery in 1958. American flags, numbers, letters, targets. He was quickly taken up by another berg, this time Leo Steinberg who, in Wolfe’s jokey narrative, manages to trounce both Greenberg and Rosenberg by declaring Abstract Expressionism not flat enough! This was because, despite the fact that it was all about the action on the surface of the canvas, in fact the Abstract Expressionist paintings still – if looked at a certain way – still had a sort of depth. You can be drawn into a Pollock or a Rothko.

However, the new young guys – led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – painted things which were already flat – the flag, numbers, target, letters or the photographs which Rauschenberg liberally sprinkled in his works. It was flat on flat. Flat squared. Ha! Gotcha!

But while Steinberg developed an arcane theory around Pop – claiming that it didn’t depict household objects in a realistic way, no, no no, no no, that would be a retreat back to figurativism, no no, Pop caught the interplay of signs which were such a feature of American life – a nod to the semiotics and structuralism becoming fashionable over in France – while Steinberg laboured to give Pop a sophisticated intellectual rationale, Wolfe sniggers that in fact rich collectors liked Pop Art because it was about super-recognisable and, ultimately, very reassuring things. It was American, it was fun, it was cool and above all, it was great to look at. Marilyn Monroe’s face blown up big and coloured in. What’s not to love?

Wolfe satirises Steinberg’s own confession that he resisted at first; he clung, like a virgin, onto his old beliefs, his devotion to action painting as revelation of the agonising struggle of the Great Artist. The shallowness of the new work upset him, but then – bang! – he got it. This was the next thing. Abstract Expressionism died overnight and all the galleries filled up with earnest Pops. Who also sold like hot cakes, much to the disgruntlement of the AEs who a) had never in fact sold that much and b) suddenly found themselves in the embarrassing position of being the old fuddy-duddies.

The Turbulence Theorem

Wolfe lampoons Steinberg’s resistance-then-submission story, saying it embodies what could be called the Turbulence Theorem of modern art:

If a work of art or a new style disturbed you, it was probably good work. If you hated it – it was probably great. (p.88)

The ever-increasing pace of art theory

Wolfe remembers attending the 1965 Museum of Modern Art show which launched Op Art, short for Optical Art, but which its practitioners preferred to call Perceptual Abstraction. The catalogue recapitulated the history of modernism – the cubists rejected the window-on-the-world idea, Abstract Expressionists had established the art work as an object as real as a table or chair – now Perceptual Abstraction reduced art to an experiment in the science of perception – to the response of cones and rods within the eye and to synapses of the retinal nerves as they processed the deliberately mesmerising geometric patterns of Perceptual Abstraction. Hence the name.

But Greenberg and Rosenberg fought back with their own post-Pop style, which they christened Post-Painterly Abstraction, also known as Colour Field Abstract or Hard Edge Abstract which was painting with the brushstrokes and everything expressive taken out. Not quick enough, though, because in the mid to late 60s another big school emerged which came to be called Minimalism. In his cartoon way of telling the story, Wolfe invokes the Turbulence Theory i.e. it can’t be any good unless you hate it. Thus the critic Robert Scull was walking down Madison Avenue and saw a wall of pictures which were apparently completely white. They were in fact white paper with a few super-faint words ghostly written in a corner, by someone called Walter de Maria. Scull disliked them so much he realised they must be genius, bought them all, phoned the artist and became his sponsor on the spot!

But even as Op Art got publicity Minimalism was stirring. Colour? Pattern? Canvases? How derriere-garde, how bourgeois! Paint direct on the gallery wall (Sol Lewitt). Put a pile of bricks on the floor (Carl Andre). A stack of metal shelves up the wall (Donald Judd). Neon tubes in a corner (Dan Flavin).

But these can still be bought and sold like any other commodity and displayed in art galleries, yuk, to be silently revered by the hypocritical bourgeoisie! Reject the art gallery, comrades! And so began Earth Art – a circle of rocks in the desert (Richard Long).  A spiral made of mud and salt into the Great Salt Lake (Robert Smithson). Photographs of the work would have to be enough for the smug uptown liberal elite.

But then, why have an actual object at all? How very bourgeois! Why not just have the idea for a work? Conceptual art.

And each successive wave prompted shrieks of outrage from the middle-brow press? Excellent! We must be doing something right. Classic conceptual art reduced the whole enterprise to words – documentation – describing and explaining what the art work would or could be. There was fierce competition to be the most conceptual of the conceptualists, which Wolfe thinks was won by Lawrence Weiner with his Declaration of Intent (1968).

1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

No paint. No canvas. No gallery. Nothing but words. And with this – Wolfe jokes – Art disappeared up its own fundament and re-emerged as pure theory, as words shorn of anything representational at all.

Epilogue

Where do you go after you’ve completely abolished your form? Well, post-modernism turns out to be the answer. The best explanation I heard of this troubled idea is that the core idea of MODERNISM is that there is ONE NARRATIVE – from Cezanne through Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Dada, Suprematism, De Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art, you can argue the case that there has been a steady series of waves, all operating under broadly the same parameters, each one represented by an avant-garde of pioneers who critics, collectors and public perceived as a kind of unified set of experiments on a single journey forwards, towards…

And post-modernism just stepped away from this whole story. Turns out there are hundreds of stories, thousands of stories, why get hung up about this particular one? You can have all or any of them, like flavours in an ice cream parlour. The very idea of ONE avant-garde which everyone had to look out for, keep up with, and which represented the latest step in an exciting voyage of discovery… over. Finished. Kaput!

Maybe the most interesting aspect of Wolfe’s hilarious romp through (then) recent art history is that he shows you how quickly it happened and how long ago all this is – and that by the time he wrote it in 1975, something like post-Modernism had set in. Meaning, a return to guilt-free figurative realism. He singles out the Photo-realism of Richard Estes, who takes colour photos of banal street scenes (generally shop facades) blows them up very big, projects them on a screen and then carefully paints them.

In the recent exhibition of American prints at the British Museum, some prints of Estes’ Photo-realist works follow the black and white lines of the Minimalist room and are accompanied by artists who returned to the deeply unfashionable genre of portrait painting, namely Alex Katz and Chuck Close. Their work just seems very, well, relaxed, after the existential agonies of the Abstract Expressionists. You look back at the tortured artists of the 1950s and think – to use the American expression – ‘Oh, just get over yourselves.’

The return of the repressed Boho

So what happened next? In the British Museum exhibition post-modernism is represented by a return to Estes’ street scenes, a load of portraits and various realistic depictions of the human form. What interested me was that around 1980 the show stopped being chronological and became thematic, collapsing into three isshoos – gay art around AIDS, feminism and gender, and African American art.

The casual viewer can’t help feeling that these represent a return of the wish to épater le bourgeoisie – the rallying cry of the late-19th century French avant-garde – i.e. to shock the middle classes. Reading the captions here and at the numerous other art exhibitions I go to, you get the sense that artists, and especially critics and curators, wish they were back in the age of modernism, when art genuinely did shock and stun and amaze, when it genuinely ‘transgressed’ and ‘subverted’ something, when it counted for something, goddammit, when it did shock and change wider society a little – and weren’t living now, in the age of finance capitalism, the age of Trump and post-factual politics, the age of Instagram and Facebook and instant liking and friending, when nothing much has any meaning or depth.

I looked around at my fellow ageing, white middle-class visitors to the American prints exhibition at the British Museum: were any of them shocked and outraged by graphic depictions of AIDS or slave ships or a feminist from the 1970s subverting gender stereotypes? Nope. To coin a typically powerful American phrase, I think the curators are confusing us with someone who gives a shit.

Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

Eduardo Paolozzi @ The Whitechapel Gallery

This exhibition is great fun, as close to pure visual pleasure as I’ve had in a gallery for years.

Bio

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) was born the son of Italian immigrants in Leith, outside Edinburgh, making him two times over an outsider to the posh world of English art. Young Ed served in his parents’ ice cream shop as a lad, surrounded by glossy advertising and packaging for the new consumer products which were sweeping into ‘Austerity Britain’ from the States, along with a tidal wave of comics and magazines and new colour movies.

Eduardo Paolozzi at the Shipbreakers’ Yard, Hamburg (c. 1962) Photo: Ulrich Mack © Ulrich Mack

Eduardo Paolozzi at the Shipbreakers’ Yard, Hamburg (c. 1962) Photo: Ulrich Mack © Ulrich Mack

Magazine collages

No surprise, then, that, after he’d gone to art school and got Picasso out of his system, he first made a real impact with a lecture given at the Institute for Contemporary Arts titled Bunk! and which consisted of a slide show of 40 or so collages featuring images cut out from pulp science fiction magazines, girly magazines, science and engineering books, newspapers and so on. It is, apparently, referred to as ‘the opening salvo of Pop Art’.

In the 1960s Paolozzi got interested in print making, the major result of which is the sequence of colourful large collage prints titled As is when (1965).

Wittgenstein in New York (1965) Courtesy Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

Wittgenstein in New York (1965) Courtesy Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

There are eight or so examples here and I could happily live with any of them on my wall – happy, bright, fun, with an intrinsic and immediately understandable sense of design.

Sculpture

After art school he’d spent some time in Paris, soaking up the still lingering vibe of Surrealism, exemplified in metal sculptures of strange zoomorphic shapes like:

What links the collages and sculptures is Paolozzi’s interest in the spare change of engineering, nuts and bolts and screws and cogs and wheels and jets and wings and so on. These came more to the fore in his sculptures of the 1950s and won him his first real fame when displayed at the Venice Biennale.

Many of them look like robots or strange bits of machinery which have been melted in an atomic explosion or maybe found thousands of years after their lost civilisation collapsed. Either way, they played heavily to the fast-moving technical innovations of the 1950s (the jet engine) combined with the political paranoia and nihilism of the Cold War. (The first full scale thermonuclear test was carried out by the United States in 1952.)

The 1960s saw a major shift in his sculptures towards happy shiny pieces made of the funky new material of aluminium or even out of polished chrome e.g. Silk.

There’s a display case of these shiny objects, strange combinations of geometric shapes which have somehow melted. But his heart is still with knobbly would-be machinery, albeit with a Summer of Love psychedelic style. One of the most famous works from this period could be straight out of the Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine (1968).

Diana as an Engine I (1963–6) Courtesy the British Council Collection © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

Diana as an Engine I (1963–6) Courtesy the British Council Collection © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

Textiles

As early as 1954 Paolozzi set up a design company to create home furnishings from wallpaper and fabrics to ceramics. Examples of these, in particular a set of dresses he designed in different decades, is included in the exhibition, but didn’t have the same dynamic effect on me as either the sculptures or prints.

Cocktail Dress for Horrockses Fashions (1953) Photography by Norwyn Ltd. Courtesy the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

Cocktail Dress for Horrockses Fashions (1953) Photography by Norwyn Ltd. Courtesy the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

Revolutionary at the time was the incorporation of his brand of abstract designs into the very traditional medium of tapestry. The most famous work in this area is the four-metre wide Whitworth Tapestry (1967).

The Whitworth Tapestry (1967) Courtesy The Whitworth, University of Manchester © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

The Whitworth Tapestry (1967) Courtesy The Whitworth, University of Manchester © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

The 1970s

Apparently Paolozzi disliked the creeping engulfment of art by theory and curator-speak, and a room here is devoted to works which take the mickey out of the art world. These include a block of fake gold ingots made of aluminium and printed with the phrase ‘100% F*ART’.

The experimental portfolio General Dynamic F.U.N. consists of printed sheets of random text, abstract patterns and images designed to be rearranged and read by readers in infinite combinations. Maybe. But as hung on the walls of a gallery, the individual sheets look very much like more collages of comic and consumer magazine images from the 1950s.

More striking was a set of large prints of his characteristic engineer/machine imagery titled Calcium Light Nights (1974-6) presumably because they all have a more washed out, pastel colouring than earlier prints.

Heads and bodies

The last rooms feature two very distinct but stylistically related types of output.

1. He found a new way of configuring the human body and head, basically taking a salami slicer to the human figure and sliding disconcerting sections of it forwards or back to create a strange angular vision of the human body, perfectly in keeping with his lifelong interest in science fiction and technology.

(Disconcertingly the show also features a couple of completely smooth, lifelike bronze busts, although even these have the sci-fi perfection of the automaton from the classic movie Metropolis.)

2. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s Paolozzi took on a number of commissions for large sculptures in public places. Some of these incorporate the salami sliced heads and bodies like the figure of Isaac Newton in the British Library or the Vulcan in Docklands; others are large castings of the kinds of intricate faux-mechanical friezes he liked throughout his career, like the cooling tower at Pimlico; others are purely abstract like the recently restored mosaics which cover the entrance hall, walls and walkways of Tottenham Court Tube station.

Conclusion

Bringing together an astonishing 250 works from collections around the world and spanning Paolozzi’s five decades of dynamic and varied work, this is a lovely, happy, creative and inspiring exhibition.


Related links

For once it is entirely appropriate that the gallery shop has lots of merchandise carrying Paolozzi imagery – I particularly liked the tea-towel with one of the As is when print designs on it. But also that it’s selling fabulous Robbie the Robot toys. What fun!

Reviews

Reviews of other Whitechapel shows

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