Edvard Munch: love and angst @ the British Museum

The fin-de-siecle

The last decade of the 19th century is famous for its fin-de-siecle, decadent, dark imagery. In Imperial Britain this was epitomised by the decadent sexuality associated with the notorious trial of Oscar Wilde and the Yellow Book magazine and the pornographic prints of Aubrey Beardsley. In France there was a reaction against Impressionism which took many forms including the urban posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and the swarthy nudes of Paul Gauguin down in the South Seas. All were well-known and public artists, working in cosmopolitan cities which were the capitals of far-flung empires – London, Paris. They were famous and playing on large stages.

In the other countries of northern Europe, however, one of the most powerful artistic currents was Symbolism.

As the exhibition notes:

Symbolism was a literary and artistic movement that rejected representations of the external world for those of imagination and myth. Symbolists looked inwards in order to represent emotions and ideas.

In Belgium, north Germany and the Scandinavian countries, artists developed a wide range of techniques and styles, but tended to fixate on a handful of themes, namely sex and death. Death awaits with his scythe. Empty boats arrive at forbidding islands. Youths waste away from frustrated love. Beautiful young women turn out to be vampires.

Sex and death and anguish and despair, these are all much more personal, introverted, emotions. Wilde was a flamboyant public personality, Beardsley’s art was defiantly clear and elegant, both were immensely sophisticated and urban and cosmopolitan, confident doyens of the largest, richest city in the world.

Whereas much of the fin-de-siecle art from Belgium, Germany, Scandinavia was much darker, more personal. Of course they produced urban and sophisticated art as well – the 1890s is characterised by an explosion of diverse art movements – but there was also a big strand of empty lakes and immense dark pine forests and brooding skies and agonised artist-heroes.

Edvard Munch

Munch is slap bang in the middle of this social and cultural movement. His most famous work is The Scream, which was first made as a painting in 1893 and then turned into a lithograph in 1895 which was reproduced in French and British and American magazines and made his reputation.

The Scream is probably among the top ten most famous images produced by any artist anywhere, and has been parodied and lampooned and reproduced in every medium imaginable (pillow slips and duvet covers, posters, bags, t-shirts). It featured in an episode of The Simpsons, clinching its status as one of the world’s best known art icons. It’s up there with the Mona Lisa.

The Scream (1895) by Edvard Munch. Private Collection, Norway. Photo by Thomas Widerberg

Why? Why is it so powerful? Well:

  1. It is highly stylised and simplified – it barely looks like a human being at all, more like some kind of ghost or spirit of the woods.
  2. The rest of the landscape is drawn with harsh single lines, whose waviness seems to echo the long O of the protagonist’s mouth.
  3. Thus ‘primitiveness’ of the technique of wood carving – with its thick, heavy ‘crude’ lines – somehow echoes the primalness of the emotional state being described.

The exhibition

This exhibition brings together nearly 50 prints from Norway’s Munch Museum, making this the largest exhibition of Munch’s prints seen in the UK for 45 years.

It also includes sketches, photos and a few oil paintings, not least a big haunting portrait – The Sick Child – of his favourite sister, Johanne Sophie, who died of tuberculosis when she was just 13. These are set alongside works by French and German contemporaries, to present a powerful overview of Munch’s troubled personality, the artistic milieu he moved in, and his extraordinary ability to turn it into powerful images conveying intense, primal, human emotions.

Vampire II (1896) by Edvard Munch. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB, on loan to Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo

Claustrophobic

The exhibition is up in the top gallery in the Rotunda, a relatively small space, which was divided into smallish sections or rooms, the prints hung quite close together on the walls, and the place was packed, rammed, with silver-haired old ladies and gentleman. It was hard to move around. More than once I went to move on from studying a print and found I couldn’t move, with people studying the next-door prints blocking me to left and right and a shuffle of pedestrians blocking any backward movement. Imagine the Tube at rush hour. It was like that.

Possibly, in fact, a good atmosphere to savour Munch’s work. Trapped, claustrophobic, slightly hysterical. it forced me to look up at the quotes from his letters or diaries which have been liberally printed up on the exhibition walls. Just reading these immediately gives you a sense of where Munch was coming from, his personality and the motivation for his art.

For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. (1908)

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted – and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there, trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature. (22 January 1892)

The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.

All art, like music, must be created with one’s lifeblood – Art is one’s lifeblood. (1890)

I would not cast off my illness, because there’s much in my art that I owe it.

We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want… an art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.

Sexual anxiety

There’s plenty more where this came from. The exhibition gives a lot of biographical detail about his early life, describing the Norwegian capital of Kristiana, how it was connected to the rest of Europe by sea routes, how it was a small provincial town whose every aspect was dominated by the stiflingly respectable Lutheran church, but how young Edvard was attracted to its small bohemian, artistic set of poets and writers and artists, how he conceived a massive sequence of works about love and sex and death which he titled The Frieze of Life –

The Frieze is intended as a poem about life, about love and about death. (1918)

How he travelled to Paris and to Berlin and scandalised respectable opinion with the exhibitions he held there, but created a stir and won admirers for the stark, elemental quality of his woodcuts and prints. (The exhibition includes a map of Europe showing Munch’s extensive travels during the 1890s and 1900s, along with a selection of Munch’s personal postcards and maps.)

We are told Munch was born and brought up in a fiercely religious and conservative bourgeois family which was horrified when he fell in with Kristiania’s bohemian layabouts. These bohos practiced sexual promiscuousness, had numerous affairs, and so were plagued by jealousy and infidelity and fights – all exacerbated by the way they drank too much, far too much.

It seemed obvious to me that Munch’s anxiety was caused by the crashing conflict between his extremely repressed bourgeois upbringing and the chaotic and promiscuous circles he moved in as a young man. On the one hand was a young man’s desire and lust, on the other were all the authority figures in his culture (and inside his head) saying even looking at a woman with lust in his heart would lead to instant damnation.

The scores of images he made of women as vampires and weird gothic presences and looming succubi emerging from the shadows, represent a repeated attempt to confront the epicentre of that clash – sex, embodied – for a heterosexual young man – by sexualised young women. They attracted him like a drug, like heroin – but all these compulsive thoughts about them triggered the terror of physical disease – the appalling ravages of syphilis for which there was no cure – along with the certainty of eternal damnation – and all these led to anxious, almost hysterical thoughts, about the only way out, the only way to resolve the endless nightmare of anxiety – and that was release and escape into death, the death which he had seen at such close quarters in the deaths of his beloved mother and sister from tuberculosis.

The obsessiveness of his sexual thoughts, and their violent clash with orthodox Christianity, is most evident in the hugely controversial Madonna, an obviously erotic image to which he blasphemously misapplies the title of the chaste Mother of God. And, when you look closely, you realise that those are sperm swimming round the outside of the frame, and a miserable looking foetus squatting at the bottom left. Sex versus Religion! It’s amazing he wasn’t arrested for blasphemy and public indecency. In fact his 1892 exhibition in Berlin so scandalised respectable opinion that it was shut down after just a week.

Madonna (1895/1902) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

So Munch’s vampire women aren’t real women, of course they’re not. They are depictions of male anxiety about women, namely the irreconcilable conflict between the demanding, drug-addiction-level lust many young, testosterone-fueled men experience, whether they want to or not – and the multiplicity of feelings of shame about having such strong pornographic feelings and experiences, and regret at handling relationships with women badly, and anxiety that you are a failure, as a man and as a decent human being, and terror that – if there is a God – you are going straight to hell for all eternity.

Plus, as the wall labels indicate, there really was a lot of heavy drinking in his circle and by him personally, which led to chaotic lifestyles among the bohemian set, and Munch became a clinical alcoholic. And this addiction – to alcohol – will, of course, have exacerbated all the psychological problems described above.

Exposure to so many of Munch’s prints – alongside detailed explanations of how he made them, the Norwegian and north European tradition they stem from, and so on – really rubs in the fact that he was a great master of the form. It’s not just the Scream. Lots of the other prints have the same archetypal, primitive power, and the exhibition brings it out by setting Munch’s work beside prime examples by other leading printmakers of the time, in France and Germany (many of which are themselves worth paying the price of admission to see).

The subtle prints

It tends to be the extreme images we are attracted to – the Scream, the Madonna, the numerous vampire women, the worrying image of a pubescent girl sitting on a bed. But some decades ago we crossed a threshold into being able to accept all kinds of erotic and extreme images, so these no longer scandalise and thrill us in the same way they did their initial viewers, although they still provide powerful visual experiences.

But having had a first go around the exhibition taking in these greatest hits, I slowly came to realise there was another layer or area of his work, which is – in a word – more subtle. If the most obvious and impactful of his images are about stress and anxiety mounting to open hysteria – there were also plenty of images which were far more restrained. In which – to point out an obvious difference – the women are wearing clothes.

Instead of vampire women whose kisses are turning into bites, these tend to be of fully dressed, utterly ‘respectable’ late-nineteenth century types, set outdoors, in open air situations where… somehow, through the placing and composition of the figures, a more subtle sense of aloneness and isolation is conveyed. They capture the mood of a couple who are, for some reason, not communicating, each isolated in their brooding thoughts.

The Lonely Ones (1899) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Like the complex ways relationships between the sexes fail, become blocked and painful in the plays of Munch’s fellow Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen. (Munch, as a leading artist of the day, was acquainted with both Ibsen and the younger playwright, Strindberg. It crosses my mind that if Munch’s more hysterical images can be compared to the highly strung characters in a Strindberg play, the more subdued and unhappy images in some way parallel Ibsen’s couples.)

Having processed the extreme images of vampire women, sex and death in my first go round, on this second pass I warmed to these less blatant images.

I noticed that the naked women images are almost always indoors (as, I suppose, naked women mostly had to be, in his day). But that the more ‘respectable’ and subtle images were all set outside, and often by primal landscapes – namely The Lake and the Forest – the kind of primeval landscape we all associate with Scandinavia and which really was available right on Kristiana’s doorstep.

The exhibition ends with a set of prints which perform variations on his characteristically hunched, half-abstract human figures – characteristically, showing one man and one woman – but in this series hauntingly isolated, leaning on each other – or against each other – in something which doesn’t look at all sensual but more like the survival techniques of characters from a play by Samuel Becket.

Towards the Forest II (1897/1915) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Less striking than the vampires and naked women and girls, I thought these strange, half-abstract, ‘lost souls in the landscape’ images had a kind of purity and haunting quality all their own.

Breakdown and rebirth

It comes as no surprise to learn that in 1908 Munch had a nervous breakdown. His anxiety, compounded by excessive drinking and sometimes fighting, had become acute, and he was experiencing hallucinations and persecution mania. He entered a clinic and underwent a comprehensive detoxification which lasted nearly eight months.

When he left, he was a new man. Well, new-ish. His work became more colourful and less pessimistic and the wider public of Kristiania for the first time began to appreciate his work. Critics were supportive. His paintings sold. Museums started to buy his back catalogue. His life improved in all measurable ways. But in a textbook case of the artist who needs his anxieties and neuroses to produce great works, everything he carved and painted from then on – portraits of rich friends, of the farm he bought, murals for factories – lacked the intensity and archetypal power of his early years.

Years later all that storm and stress and hysteria seemed so distant as almost to be inexplicable.It is typical that, decades later, he told the story of how his famous painting, Vampire II, got its title. He himself had simply titled it Love and Pain. Pretty boring, eh? But Munch’s friend, the critic Stanisław Przybyszewski, and clearly a man with a flair for publicity, described it as ‘a man who has become submissive, and on his neck a biting vampire’s face.’ And, looking back, Munch comments:

It was the time of Ibsen, and if people were really bent on revelling in symbolist eeriness and calling the idyll ‘Vampire’ – why not?

A man in remission from alcoholism and mental illness, the older Munch can be forgiven for not wanting to revive unhappy memories, and for wanting to palm off the idea for lurid titles onto his friends. But the prints themselves, and all his early writings, don’t lie. The later work is interesting and decorative – but it is the unhappy period covered by this exhibition which produced the intense and troubled works which seem to take you right into the heart of the tortured human condition.

Older, wiser and sober – Munch among his paintings at the end of his life

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion @ Hayward Gallery

Kader Attia is ‘one of today’s leading international artists’ and this exhibition is the first major survey of his work ever held in the UK.

Attia was born in 1970 France. His parents were of Algerian origin. He grew up in one of the banlieues or suburbs in north-east Paris, in a multicultural environment where Catholic, Jewish and Muslim religions mixed. Attia has dual nationality and has returned often to the family home in Algeria. In the mid-1990s he worked and travelled in the democratic republic of Congo where he held his first exhibition.

Since then he has gone on to forge a career as an exponent of deeply fashionable ‘post-colonial art’, working across a dazzling array of media to criticise western imperialism, western colonialism, western racism, western cultural appropriation of native lore and art, western control of its immigrant populations, and so on.

‘I try to trigger a political feeling in the viewer. My job is like all of us confronted with reality. What interests me is when a work poses a political question not only from a linguistic point of view, formal, but more from an ethical point of view.’

Political feelings. Political questions. Well, the show as a whole struck me as a sustained attack on western values, history, art and culture. The assault is sustained across six rooms on the ground floor of the Hayward gallery, plus the Heni Project space entered from the gallery lobby.

Transgender sex workers

When I learned that one of his earliest successes was a project to photograph and ‘document’ the lives of a community of Algerian transgender sex workers, and that a slideshow of 160 of these images won him international recognition when displayed at the 50th Venice Biennale, my heart sank.

What could be more crushingly obvious, inevitable and clichéd? Is there any other subject as fashionably outré and yet as well trodden? I immediately thought of:

  • Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde at the Barbican, which featured lesbian, gay and transgender artists and performers
  • diane arbus: in the beginning currently the sister exhibition to Attia, upstairs in the Hayward, which features a ton of male female impersonators and performers from the 1950s and 60s
  • Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers at the Photographers’ Gallery, with hundreds of photos of transgender and cross-dressing people from the past century, notable:
    • the well documented life of Marie-Pierre Pruvot, born a male in Algeria, who became a famous French transsexual entertainer with the stage name of ‘Bambi’
  • The photos taken by Olivia Arthur of the suppressed LGBT+ sexualities in India which featured in the Illuminating India exhibition at the Science Museum
  • Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins at the Barbican, which featured photos by half a dozen photographers of sex workers and transgender people, namely:
    • Daido Moriyama’s photos of prostitutes and transvestites in Tokyo
    • Walter Pfeiffer’s portfolio of photos of his young transsexual friend Carlo Joh, from the Zurich gay scene
    • Casa Susanna, a historic collection of around 400 prints taken during the mid-50s and 60s at a private retreat for transvestites in upstate New York
    • Paz Errázuriz’s project depicting the community of transgender sex-workers working in an underground brothel in Chile
    • Teresa Margolles’s series of enormous colour photos depicting transgender sex workers in Mexico
  • Queer British Art 1861-1967 at Tate Britain which was packed full of transsexuals, transgenders and same-sex desires

Identity and ‘trangressive’ sexuality are the fashionable subject of our age and yet curators and artists conspire to imagine they are still hugely taboo subjects which you have to whisper about and which an artist is oh-so brave to address. Instead of a boringly predictable subject which has been comprehensively ‘explored’ by every art gallery in London.

This set the tone for my reception of Attia: he and his supporters think he is a grand rebel, an incisive critic of western historical narratives and norms – but all of his critiques seemed to me extremely old and over-familiar and passé.

When I went to the Sensation exhibition of young British Artists in 1997 I was genuinely bowled over by their dazzling new approaches to an amazing new range of subject matters. This guy is retreading ideas and approaches I got bored with decades ago.

Room 1 – modern architecture

Room one is dominated by an awesome projection which covers one entire wall of a camera very slowly moving up the facade of one of the shitty council housing blocks which make up the dreaded banlieues of Paris, the post-war sink estates where Paris sent all its working class and immigrant population to live and which, more or less every summer, erupt in rioting and car burning.

Post-war concrete high-rise council estates are crap. Not a new idea, is it?

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by Linda Nylind

The wall label tells us Attia is drawing attention to the way these blocks were built around principles of surveillance and control similar to those used to subdue colonial populations.

As it happens a) I grew up on the edge of one of Britain’s all-concrete post-war new towns and b) I’ve been reading a lot recently about post-war town planning and architecture in the social histories of David Kynaston:

Although the subject of post-war town planning was fraught with controversy and disagreement I’ve nowhere read anything suggesting that the new estates were designed in order to monitor and control their inhabitants.

Sounds like Attia has swallowed his Michel Foucault whole. (Michel Foucault was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, and literary critic whose theories address the relationship between power and knowledge and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. He died in 1984. Foucault was awesomely fashionable in the early 1980s when I went to university and read half a dozen of his books. It was when I found myself reading an interview from the mid-70s in which Foucault explained how ‘we’ [the radical student movement] could use Maoist concepts to battle against the fascist French police, that I began to realise that Foucault had little or nothing to offer me in the actual political and cultural situation of Thatcherite Britain that I found myself in.)

The mistakes the planners made had nothing whatever to do with surveillance and control. In knocking down the old slums and rehousing people, they decided that, instead of rehousing them on the same locations, they would move them out to clean new locations which had no historic restrictions on design. All the architects were fans of the fashionable Le Corbusier who promoted cities in the sky and also adopted high rise builds as solutions to shortages of space.

It was only as tenants moved into these gleaming and fashionable new blocks that the drawbacks became clear: very often the planners had forgotten to build in shops and facilities, pubs and churches and you centres and the miscellaneous kinds of places where people meet and hang out. Public transport into the city centres was poor and irregular, and they were too far way to walk to.

More importantly it turned out that various elements needed expensive maintenance, especially the lifts without which people couldn’t get to their flats. Getting rubbish out of people’s flats down to collective rubbish collection points didn’t always work and anyway resulted in overflowing bins which bred rats.

Most subtly, it was discovered that traditional communities are self-policing. Where you had an old-fashioned street you had windows on the street and, in any kind of good weather, people sitting out on stoops and steps watching, generally congeries of mums watching their kids playing, or owners of the various small shops in a neighbourhood similarly watching what was going on.

These acted as an informal and highly informed police. If fights broke out, if kids did something dodgy or rude or bullying and so on, there were scores of eyes watching and people could intervene, often mums who knew the mother of the wrong-doer. Thus communities were able to police themselves with little or no intervention from the authorities. This is something I’ve seen described in Somerset Maugham’s novel Lisa of Lambeth, have read about in 2,000 pages of David Kynaston’s histories, and was really emphasised by a recent BBC 4 documentary about Janet Jacobs who wrote the classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) describing how over-intellectual architects and planners, dazzled by the futuristic designs of le Corbusier and other fashionable European architects, were destroying the neighbourhoods of old Manhattan, replacing rundown but friendly and self-policing communities, with windswept high ‘projects’ – just like the French banlieues. Into the projects American planners decanted a lot of their cities’ poorest which tended to include lots of blacks, just as Paris decanted its poorest, which included lots of Algerian immigrants, into its banlieues.

The result? Vast expanses of concrete high rise buildings where ‘community’ has been destroyed, and the public spaces belong to the worst kind of tearaway teenagers who patrol in gangs, peddle drugs, stab rivals and erupt in violence if the police try to intervene.

In everything I’ve read and watched on this subject, no-one has mentioned the idea these wretched estates were built to to monitor and control their inhabitants. A far simpler explanation is that they were the disastrous result of planners and architects falling under the spell of fashionable French and German theorists with sweeping intellectual attitudes: demolish the old, build the shiny gleaming new cities of the future.

This is what went through my mind as I stood in this first room looking at the awesome film of a camera slowly moving up the side of just such a concrete high rise building, next to a model of such a building.

My conclusion was that Attia is deliberately and wilfully ignoring the real motivations and the complex social history of these places, in order to turn them into a cheap and obvious jibe at the police and authorities. The claim that these places were built solely so the authorites could control their inhabitants is 1. factually incorrect 2. a deliberate distortion which allows Attia to quote Foucault and so sound wondrously intellectual and clever and 3. 40 years out of date.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, who is surveilling and controlling the inhabitants of these horrible slums if it isn’t the owners of multinational American corporations, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, Instagram, Facebook and twitter to name but a few? But the internet is a bit too up to date for Attia. He is still lost in the 1970s when it was cool and path-breaking to take photos of transgender people (wow) and use new Left Bank ideas to deconstruct notions of power and control (“have you read Foucault, man, he’s just soooo cool”).

Away from the leather-jacketed student politics, I liked some of Attia’s more allusive pieces, such as this piece of minimalism, although I still found it weird that he made it some forty years after minimalism had become well established as a style in America.

Narcissus (2012) by Kader Attia. Concrete block, mirror and wire

Narcissus (2012) by Kader Attia. Concrete block, mirror and wire

Room 2 – joy, fear and humiliation

This is a massive room devoted to scores of big prints of his photos of 1990s Algerian transgender sex workers, capturing ‘moments of elation experienced in the course of an otherwise precarious and difficult existence’.

Attia is obviously yet another artist who subscribes to the view that prostitutes and sex workers are privy to a kind of special knowledge and insight concealed to the rest of us, that photographing hookers reveals a ‘secret world’, that the mere act of photographing them ‘breaks taboos’ and ‘transgresses’ conventional bourgeois values. Really?

La Piste d’Atterrissage (The Landing Strip) by Kader Attia (2000) © the artist

La Piste d’Atterrissage (The Landing Strip) by Kader Attia (2000) © the artist

He says:

I wanted to present the whole picture of their lives, to show that even illegal immigrants working as transgender prostitutes have moments of joy, of happiness, of hope.

‘Even illegal immigrants have moments of joy, of happiness, of hope’. How patronising. How patronising to his subjects to treat them like some kind of remote tribe in New Guinea, instead of people like you or me, and how patronising to us, the viewers, that he feels he has to explain that prostitutes are people who have feelings. Really?

As to the transgender thing, some of us have been totally comfortable with, not to say bored by, the whole idea of cross-dressing and transgender for nearly fifty years. (‘But she never lost her head, even when she was giving head…’)

Like the room criticising soulless concrete housing estates this took me right back to the 1970s.

The opposite wall displays a number of black-and-white press and publicity photos of world famous politicians and popular singers, entitled Field of Emotion. Apparently, this work

explores the ambivalent role that emotion plays in all areas of our lives… Attia asks us to consider how and whether powerful emotions might help heal rather than create conflict.

Emotions play a role in our lives. Hmm. Really. Do you see why I felt I was being patronised?

Anyway, what struck me about the display was how very dated all of the images were. Miles Davis, Fidel Castro, Idi Amin, Edith Piaf, Moshe Dayan, Lenin, Mussolini, Ella Fitzgerald. It looks like the wall of a radical student on the Left Bank circa 1974. “Right on, baby. Have you heard Lou Reed’s new album? And what about Foucault’s new book?” Dated dated dated.

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery

Room 3 – Chaos + Repair

I liked this big ball made out of fragments of fabric, broken mirrors and wire. Apparently it is an attempt to capture the ambivalence most people feel about aspects of their cultural, political or personal identity. Is that how it makes you feel? Do you feel ambivalent about aspects of your cultural, political or personal identity?

I just liked it as another example of the minimalist thread in his thinking and creating.

Chaos + Repair = Universe, 2014 by Kader Attia. Photo by the author

Chaos + Repair = Universe, 2014 by Kader Attia. Photo by the author

Room 4 – joy, fear and humiliation

Attia is, apparently, critical of

the museological impulse to classify and categorise [because it] is part of a much broader and more problematic system of control. In many of his sculptures and installations, he typically invokes the display methods and subject matter of a typical 19th-century natural history or ethnographic museum… in order to explore the ways in which colonialism continues to shape how western societies represent and engage with non-western cultures.

I profoundly disagree with this on all kinds of levels.

Abandoning all the achievements of science All western science is based on the collection and sorting of data. Medicine is based on a vast array of anatomical, chemical, biochemical and medical information which has been painstakingly collected, sorted and categorised over the last 200 years. Does Attia really think the inhabitants of Algeria would be better off without antibiotics, anaesthetics, innoculations and vaccinations which European scientists devised after years of collecting samples, experimenting and cataloguing? If so, he is an idiot.

Valorising voodoo His work, he says, is looking for a way we can escape from ‘the obsession of the Western modern mind to organise the universe’, which sounds very cool and Foucauldian. “Let’s smash the system, man.”

But just really, really think for a moment what it would be like to live in a world where there was no organising, classifying impulse, where knowledge was not recorded, and collated, in which each generation was born into the same old ignorance and fear. The world of the illiterate wode-painted heath-dwellers who the Romans found in ancient Britain, performing human sacrifices to placate the anger of the gods. Is that the kind of world you’d like to live in, ruled by shamans and witch doctors. Don’t think the transgender prostitutes would last long in that world. Or any woman who defies tribal customs.

Luckily Attia with his irresponsible views and the entire class of dilettantish modern artists to which he belongs, has absolutely no effect whatsoever on politics, economics, medicine, science or technology.

Classifying and categorising A few years ago I went through every room in the British Museum and discovered that the five dark, dusty, wooden-cabinet-lined rooms on the east side of the central courtyard are devoted to showing how everything we know today had its origins in the impulse of all sorts of people, from the Holy Roman Emperor to English parish vicars, to collect all manner of weird and wonderful objects, and to sort and organise their collections.

These rooms look boring but turn out to be full of quirky and highly personal collections of everything from bones and fossils to Roman antiquities, types of rock to the shape of clouds.

All human knowledge is based on the impulse to collect and categorise. The impulse to collect is a fundamental human attribute. Everyone does it. I arrange my books into categories. My daughter puts her photos into different Instagram albums. My son organises his music into different spotify playlists. Who doesn’t ‘curate’ their own content on social media and the web?

Well then, it turns out you are in the grip of the Western world’s sick and dubious ‘museological impulse to classify and categorise’. It turns out you employ ‘problematic system of control’.

Of course some of this classifying and categorising can be used for evil purposes, as the Nazis categorised humans into different races, starting with the distinction between Jews and Aryans, and imperial authorities may well have categorised people into ‘white’ and ‘native’ for all kinds of bureaucratic reasons. And it is very much this tradition of classifying people and in particular the inhabitants of the colonised nations of Africa and Asia which Attia has in mind.

But to say that the impulse to collect and categorise is in itself evil and to devote your work to finding ways ‘to escape this’ impulse is like deciding to abolish language because Hitler used language in his speeches and imperialists used language in their racist laws.

Hypocrisy And, it barely seems worth pointing out that all these works which are devoted to critiquing the wicked Western habit of wanting to organise and classify and categorise are being displayed in an art gallery where… they are being organised and classified and categorised :).

The walls of this exhibition abound in labels precisely dating each piece, carefully explaining the materials they’re made from, categorising them as photographs, sculptures, installations and soon.

The works are divided into rooms each of which has been organised around a central theme or concept.

And there is, of course, a big expensive catalogue of the works on sale in the gallery shop, ‘a fully-illustrated catalogue with an extensive interview between Kader Attia and Ralph Rugoff’, Director, Hayward Gallery, no less.

In other words, this exhibition itself demonstrates the very compulsion to categorise and organise which Attia claims to have devoted a career to trying to deconstruct.

When I was younger and experiencing the first heady rush of reading Foucault and Barthes and Adorno and Benjamin I might have interpreted this as sophisticated irony, or as ‘a playful deconstruction of the normative values which underlie the western historical narrative’, or some such.

Now I’m older and more impatient, I just see it as idiotic hypocrisy.

Technology Is Attia at any point using traditional tribal native-people’s media to create his art with? No. He uses digital photography, digital video, film, light shows and minimalist sculpture. All the hallmarks and media of the most technically advanced, post-industrial, post-modern Western art.

Ethnography But of course Attia isn’t really referring to the impulse to collect and categorise as a whole, whatever he might say. He is speaking much more personally about the West’s history of collecting and categorising the artefacts (and indeed peoples) of the non-Western, ‘developing’ world which he has taken it upon himself to be a post-colonial mouthpiece for.

No prizes then, for guessing that there might well be a room devoted to showing how Western culture has ripped off and appropriated non-western art and artefacts.

As long ago as the 1920s left-wing critics were criticising Picasso for ripping off African tribal masks. This accusation became a standard part of Marxist art criticism in the 1960s and 70s. Now it is entirely accepted, it is the utterly conventional wisdom of our time, that early 20th century artistic Modernism wouldn’t have existed if Picasso and Matisse hadn’t been able to see African and Oceanic tribal masks in the Paris Ethnography Museum. Which exhibition of Picasso and Matisse does not point it out?

Thus the Royal Academy’s exhibition on Matisse and his studio was at pains to prove how up to date and politically correct it was by ‘calling out’ Matisse for his ‘cultural appropriation’ of tribal artifacts, as well as his ‘orientalism’ for painting odalisques.

So – as with Attia’s pieces of minimalism, or his insight that concrete high-rise estates are horrible, or his oh-so-risqué photos of transgender prozzies – what really struck me about his western-modern-art-ripped-off-African-art pieces was how very, very, very old, clichéd and totally acceptable this fact is.

How he presents this is so glaringly obvious I thought it was funny, Here is one of his ‘artworks’ where he has placed a book with a cover illustration of Munch’s notorious painting The Scream next to a ‘Pende sickness mask’. Yes, Kader, I do get it. Munch would never have painted like this if it he hadn’t had sight of the African masks collected by wicked imperialists, and therefore his painting is a wicked wicked piece of cultural appropriation.

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Photo by the author

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Photo by the author

Naughty, naughty Western artists. Pablo and Henri and Edvard, you must all go and sit on the naughty step. Don’t you know that art must never copy ideas from other cultures. Only Europeans are this wicked. The Chinese, the Japanese, the Indians never copied art, writing or religions from of other people’s cultures. And even if they did, it’s alright, because they aren’t white.

What I found literally impossible to believe was the wall label for this work which explained that:

Several works in this room, including The Scream and Mirrors and Masks point to the still under-acknowledged influence of African art on the trajectory of Western art history.

Still under-acknowledged? By whom? This point of view has been knocking around for ages. I found it in full cry in an art history book from 25 years ago which I reviewed last year.

Do you really think this is news to anyone who regularly attends art galleries or knows anything about modern art? It is one of the clichés, one of the absolute bedrock certainties, of modern art history. Anybody who studies modern art will hear about it.

Room 5 – The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures

The biggest room in the gallery is given over to this massive installation.

Installation view of The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

The fundamental concept is ‘repair’. As Attia, a self-declared expert on Western and non-Western societies, confidently proclaims:

While Western societies seek to erase marks left by injury or trauma, ‘in traditional societies it’s the opposite: they have ways to fix an injury that also keeps it visible.’

Hence this collection of twenty or so metal warehouse shelf units as well as three vitrines which display hundreds of objects including African masks, vintage photographs, books, newspapers and a series of decorative, functional or devotional objects constructed by soldiers during the First World War.

In among all these objects are mingled busts which Attia commissioned from craftsmen in Carrara, Italy and Senegal, which depict members of an African ethnic group known for body modification including facial scarring – juxtaposed with busts of First World War soldiers with severe facial injuries.

The whole thing, then, is an ‘investigation’ into contrasting Western and non-Western attitudes to scarring and healing, repairing and fixing.

Another part of the display is a slideshow juxtaposing photos of First World War soldiers undergoing early and rudimentary plastic surgery, with African masks showing obvious signs of repair –

an unsettling series of juxtapositions that challenges our conventional ideas about wholeness, injury, beauty and otherness.

Ah. ‘Otherness’. Surprised it’s taken this long to get round to that familiar old shibboleth of cultural studies and critical theory.

The premise is that Western cultures try to cover, repair and occlude physical scars and injuries, whereas non-Western cultures don’t and often wear them with pride.

OK. I’ll buy that.

Room 6 – Shifting Borders

The most recent work in the exhibition is a set of three videos being shown on three big monitors with benches in front of them, and headphones for you to put on so you can listen to the talking heads.

Each of the videos features Attia interviewing mental health professionals, academics and survivors of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea in which more than 600 people, most of them students, were killed.

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

In one of the videos a Vietnamese spiritualist describes holding a ceremony for the spirit of an American soldier who had possessed her brother-in-law. In another a professional doctor declares ‘I don’t think a psychiatrist is the only one who can heal.’ In other words:

Through the spoken testimonies that make up the video element of Shifting Borders, Attia addresses different forms of healing and in particular the therapeutic role played by shamanistic and spiritualist practices in non-Western societies.

West bad. Non-West good.

Thoughts

The first impact is the scale and variety of the work, sculptures, photos, installations, videos on display – Attia is covering the whole waterfront of contemporary media.

Next I was struck by how very out of date so much of it seemed – finding 70s housing estates crappy, oh-so-edgy photos of transgender prostitutes, the claim that European modern art ripped off African masks, the claim that traditional non-western ‘healers’ know things Western scientists don’t understand, a wall of political and jazz icons from the 1950s – all of these struck me as old, old, old ideas and images. Non-western medicine might have alternative ways of healing? A new idea? Really?

He wanted a political response and so I have responded to the ideas on show and I find them thin, deliberately misleading, superficial and, although dressed up in fashionable curator-speak, in fact stunningly old and dated.

The one big theme which I did find thought-provoking or interesting was this idea of ‘repair’ which runs through many of the works. Thus in the room of African masks placed next to western books to prove how wicked wicked Europeans ripped off African culture, there was suddenly a big hole in the wall, apparently unconnected to the grim lecturing of the other pieces.

Untitled (2014) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Untitled (2014) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

I liked this. Like the ball made of fabric and broken mirror, I just found this an arresting artefact, object, thing. Not something you see every day.

I get so bored by hectoring, lecturing, dogmatic, ideological modern art. It’s a refreshing change to come across something which just… is. Which connects with you at some inexplicable level… Which gives you a funny feeling about space, and secrets, and interiors and wrecks and rubble.

It reminded me of some of the works of Anish Kapoor which play with the integrity of the surface of the gallery i.e. disappear into the walls and ceilings.

Something similar could be said of this hypnotic jumble of sheep horns, that it creates an eerie and uncanny sensation in the viewer, a kind of discomforting sensation in your mind as you imagine running your hands over its sharp surfaces.

Schizphrenic Melancholia (2018) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Schizophrenic Melancholia (2018) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Unfortunately the wall label then goes on to give a lengthy explanation which does its best to eliminate all of the mystery and surprise from the piece, and convert it into another part of the heavy-handed anti-western lecture.

In this sculptural work, Attia elaborates on the relationship between contemporary Western medicine and traditional healing practices, in particular those that deal with mental illness. Attia’s research in this area – a key subject for the artist – took him to Dakar, Senegal, where he witnessed an ancient healing ceremony called ‘Ndeup’, in which the horns of sacrificial goats and sheep form the centrepiece of a ritual that involves the whole community. According to the Lebu people, by the ceremony’s end these horns would hold all the ‘bad energy’ that had been forced out of the afflicted individual during the ritual.

“Yeah, man, western society has lost its way, it’s like traditional peoples, man, they’re like so much more in touch with nature and their true selves, man. I’ve seen stuff on my trips, man, things you people can’t understand, stuff which defies western medicine, man.” Neil the hippy.

It was only on leaving the gallery that I realised that the enormous poster / hanging / digital print opposite the main entrance is also by Attia.

Rochers Carrés (2008) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Rochers Carrés (2008) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

It’s a striking composition although, like everything else in the exhibition, it cannot be allowed to simply be: it must immediately be stuffed full of Victorian moralising and curatorial meaning-making.

It has to be categorised and defined and described, to be titled and dated and explained and interpreted, in just the kind of way which Attia has made a career out of saying he is trying to run away from. So:

Kader Attia is interested in boundaries – ‘geographical, cultural, sexual, religious’ – and the way they function as in-between spaces. the son of Algerian immigrants, Attia grew up in Paris but spent his summer holidays in Algiers where he spent hours smoking, fishing and – like the teenagers in this photograph – watching the ships going back and forth between Algeria and Europe.

Rochers Carrés – in English ‘square rocks’ – is one of a series of images that Attia made of this breakwater ‘beach’ in the Algiers neighbourhood of Bab El Oued. In Attia’s words, this beach is ‘the ultimate boundary’ that separates these young people from their dreams of a better life.

Really? Is it really that much of a boundary to youths like Attia who could take a cab to the airport, get on a plane and fly back to their homes in Paris, secure in the heart of the scientific, economic, technological and artistic bosom of the West?

Summary

The world is much more perforated and mixed up and heterogenous and immigrated than Attia’s simplistic binary definitions (West bad, non-West good) allow.

And this big poster is a classic example of the way every single piece in the show has to be dated and defined, contextualised and interpreted, labelled and explained.

If Attia is sincerely trying to ‘escape’ from the European obsession with collecting and categorising, then this exhibition shows his efforts to have been a self-defeating failure.


Related links

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

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