Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity (2005)

This is the catalogue of a major exhibition of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portraits held at Tate Britain back in 2005. I went, loved the exhibition and bought this catalogue. In my opinion the written content of the catalogue is poor, but the colour reproductions of 100 or so of Reynolds’s best paintings are spectacular.

The catalogue contains a biography of Reynolds by Martin Postle and four essays by Reynolds scholars:

  • ‘The Modern Apelles’: Joshua Reynolds and the Creation of Celebrity by Martin Postle
  • Reynolds, Celebrity and The Exhibition Space by Mark Hallett
  • ‘Figures of Fame’: Reynolds and the printed Image by Tim Clayton
  • ‘Paths of Glory’: Fame and the Public in Eighteenth-Century London by Stella Tillyard

The essays are followed by some 100 full-colour reproductions, divided into the following sections:

  • Reynolds and the Self-Portrait
  • Heroes
  • Aristocrats
  • The Temple of Fame
  • The Streatham Worthies
  • Painted Women
  • The Theatre of Life

With separate sections of images devoted to:

  • Reynolds and the Reproductive Print
  • Reynolds and the Sculpted Image

The concept of celebrity

As the title suggests, the idea is somehow to tie Reynolds’s 18th century art and career to modern 21st century ideas of ‘celebrity’. In my opinion all four essays fail to do this. Despite frequently using sentences with the word ‘celebrity’ in them, the catalogue nowhere really explains what ‘celebrity’ is.

The authors have a hard time really distinguishing it from the notion of ‘fame’ and the pursuit of ‘fame’ and the risks of ‘fame’ – subjects which have been thoroughly discussed since ancient Greek times.

In Greek mythology Pheme was the personification of fame and renown, her favour being notability, her wrath being scandalous rumors… She was described as ‘she who initiates and furthers communication’… A tremendous gossip, Pheme was said to have pried into the affairs of mortals and gods, then repeated what she learned, starting off at first with just a dull whisper, but repeating it louder each time, until everyone knew. In art, she was usually depicted with wings and a trumpet… In Roman mythology, Fama was described as having multiple tongues, eyes, ears and feathers by Virgil (in Aeneid IV line 180 ff.) and other authors.

In other words, the concept of ‘fame’ and the way it unavoidably attracts a spectrum of public comment, from dignified praise at one end through to scurrilous rumour at the other end – is as old as Western civilisation.

In my opinion the authors struggle to establish a really clear distinction between these multiple and time-honoured notions of fame with all its consequences, and their attempt to shoe-horn modern-day ‘celebrity’ into the picture.

The whole thing is obviously an attempt by Tate to make Reynolds and his paintings more ‘relevant’ to a ‘modern’ audience, maybe to attract in those elusive ‘younger’ visitors which all arts venues need to attract to sustain their grants. Or to open a new perspective from our time back to his, which makes his society, his aims and his paintings more understandable in terms of modern concepts.

I can see what they’re trying to do, and it is obvious that the four authors have been told to make as many snappy comparisons between the society of Reynolds’s day and our own times as possible – but flashy references to the eighteenth-century ‘media’ or to Reynolds’s sitters getting their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, aren’t enough, by themselves, to give any insight. In fact, these flashy comparisons tend to obscure the complexity of 18th century society by railroading complex facts and anecdotes into narrow 21st notions and catchphrases.

Being modish risks becoming dated

The authors’ comparisons have themselves become dated in at least two ways:

  1. the modern-day celebrities they invoke have dated quickly (David Beckham is given as a current example)
  2. it was written in 2005, before the advent of social media, Instagram, twitter etc, so has itself become completely out of date about the workings of ‘modern celebrity’

There is a third aspect which is – Who would you trust to give you a better understanding of social media, contemporary fame, celebrity, influencers, tik tok and so on – a social media marketing manager, a celebrity journalist or… a starchy, middle-aged, white English academic?

There is a humorous aspect to listening to posh academics trying to get down wiv da kids, and elaborately explaining to their posh white readership how such things as ‘the media’ work, what ‘the glitterati’ are, and showing off their familiarity with ‘the media spotlight’ – things which, one suspects, library-bound academics are not, in fact, all that familiar with.

The authors’ definitions of celebrity

The authors attempt numerous definitions of celebrity:

Reynolds’s attitude towards fame, and how it was inextricably bound up with a concern for his public persona, or what we today would call his ‘celebrity‘ status.

So Reynolds was concerned about his fame, about building a professional reputation and then defending it, but wasn’t every other painter, craftsman and indeed notable figure of the time? As Postle concedes:

In this respect he was not untypical of a whole range of writers, actors and artists  who regarded fame as the standard for judging the worthiness of their own performance against the achievements of the past.

Postle goes on to try and distinguish fame from celebrity:

However, Reynolds [achieved fame] by using the mechanisms associated with what has become known as ‘celebrity‘, a hybrid of fame driven by commerce and the cult of personality.

Hmm. Is he saying no public figures prior to Joshua Reynolds cultivated a ‘cult of personality’ or that no public figures tried to cash in on their fame? Because that is clearly nonsense. And putting the word celebrity in scare quotes doesn’t help much:

Reynolds pandered to the Prince [of Wales]’s thirst for ‘celebrity‘ and fuelled his narcissistic fantasies.

The author doesn’t explain what he means by ‘celebrity’ in this context or why the prince thirsted for it and how he was different in this respect from any other 18th century aristocrat who ‘thirsted’ for fame and respect.

Through portraits such as these [of the Duc d’Orleans], Reynolds openly identified with fashionable Whig society; the Georgian ‘glitterati’ – liberal in the politics, liberated in their social attitudes, and libidinous in their sexual behaviour.

Does use of the word ‘glitterati’ add anything to our understanding?

He was also the first artist to pursue his career in the media spotlight.

‘Media spotlight’? Simply using modern clichés like ‘media spotlight’ and ‘celebrity’ and ‘glitterati’ didn’t seem to me to shed much light on anything. The reader wants to ask a) what do you understand by ‘media spotlight’? b) in what way did Reynolds pursue his career in a media spotlight?

As experience of the modern media tells us, a sure sign that an individual’s fame has been transmuted into ‘celebrity’ is when press interest in his or her professional achievements extends to their private and social life.

I’m struggling to think of a time when there hasn’t been intrusive interest in the lives of the rich and famous, and when it hasn’t been recorded in scurrilous satires, squibs, poems.

People gossiped about Julius Caesar, about all the Caesars. We have written records of the way Athenians gossiped about Socrates and his wife. Prurient interest in the personal lives of anyone notable in an urban environment go back as far as we have written records.

Here’s another definition:

In a process that seems to prefigure the ephemeral dynamics of heroism and redundancy found in today’s celebrity culture, the exploitation of celebrity typified by Reynolds’s representation of [the famous soldier, the Marquess of] Granby depended not only on the glorification, in portrait form, of individuals who had already gained a certain kind of renown within the wider realms of urban culture, but also on a continual replenishment – from one year to the next – of this hyperbolic imagery of bravery, beauty and fame.

I think he’s saying that visitors to the annual exhibitions liked to see new pictures – or, as he puts it with typical art scholar grandiosity, ‘a continual replenishment of this hyperbolic imagery’.

‘The ephemeral dynamics of heroism and redundancy found in today’s celebrity culture’? Does that tortuous definition have any relevance to Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Rihanna et al?

What these authors are all struggling to express is that Reynolds made a fabulously successful career by painting the well-known and eminent people of his day, making sure to paint army or naval heroes as soon as they returned from famous victories, making sure he painted portraits of the latest author after a hit novel or play, painting well-known courtesans, carefully associating his own name (or brand) with success and fame.

It was a dialectical process in which Reynolds’s portraits, often hung at the annual Royal Academy exhibition – which was itself the talk of the town while it lasted – promoted both the sitter and their fame, but also kept Sir Joshua’s name and reputation as Top Painter Of The Famous continually in the public eye.

That’s what the essay writers are trying to say. But you have to wade through a lot of academic rhetoric to get there. Take this questionable generalisation thrown out by Stella Tillyard, which sounds reasonable, until you start to think about it.

Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now, celebrity appears to have been made in the eighteenth century and in particular in eighteenth century London, with its dozens of newspapers and print shops, its crowds and coffee houses, theatres, exhibitions, spectacles, pleasure gardens and teeming pavements. (Stella Tillyard, p.61)

‘Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now’? What would you say defines modern society in 2020? I’d guess the list would include the internet, social media, webcams and digital technology generally, big cars, long-haul flights, cheap foreign holidays, mass immigration, multi-cultural societies, foreign food… things like that.

Quite obviously none of these originated in eighteenth century London.

Tillyard’s essay is the best of the four but it still contains highly questionable assertions. She thinks there is a basic ‘narrative’ of ‘celebrity’ which is one of rise, stardom, fall and rise again. The examples she gives are Bill Clinton getting into trouble because of Monica Lewinsky, and the footballers Francesco Totti and David Beckham. She thinks this basic narrative arc echoes the story of Jesus Christ, rising from obscurity, gaining fame, being executed, and rising from the dead. You have to wonder what drugs she is on.

Nonetheless, Tillyard’s is the best essay of the four because she’s an actual historian and so has a wide enough grasp of the facts to make some sensible points. She also gives the one and only good definition of celebrity in the book when she writes that:

Celebrity was born at the moment private life became a tradeable public commodity. (p.62)

Aha. Right at the end of the four essays we get the first solid, testable and genuinely insightful definition of celebrity.

According to Tillyard’s definition, the really new thing about celebrity is not the interest in gossip about the rich and famous – that, as pointed out, has been with us forever – it is that this kind of fame can be packaged into new formats and sold. It has become part of the newly mercantile society of the 18th century.

Celebrity, among other things, is about the commodification of fame, about the dissemination of images representing the individual celebrity, and about the collective conversations and fantasies generated by these processes. (p.37)

The assertion is that Reynolds was able to capitalise on his reputation. He made money out of it. He was able to exploit the new aspects of mid-18th century fame in order to build up a successful business and make a fortune.

He developed a process for making his portraits well known. The lead element in this was ensuring they were prominently hung at the annual exhibition of paintings by members of the new Royal Academy and so became the subject of the enormous amount of comment the exhibition attracted in the scores of newspapers, magazines, cartoons, lampoons, caricatures, poems and plays which infested Georgian London.

Deftly riding this tide of gossip and talk and critical comment, Reynolds was able to assure his sitters that he would make them famous – and he made himself famous in the process. And, as a result, he was able to charge a lot of money for his portraits.

He was able to turn the insubstantial, social quality of ‘fame’ into hard cash. That’s how the argument goes. I’ve put it far more plainly than any of these four writers do, and it’s an interesting point, but still begs a lot of questions…

Robert Orme’s 15 minutes of fame

When Postle says that the soldier Robert Orme got his ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ (p.27) it strikes me as being a flashy but misleading reference.

Andy Warhol’s expression, ‘in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes’, refers very specifically to the 15-minute time slots allocated on the kind of American TV programmes which are punctuated every 15 minutes or so with ad breaks. Its merit derives from its source in a very specific technology and at a very specific moment in that technology (the later 1960s).

Whereas Robert Orme took part in an important battle of the Seven Years War (surviving the massacre of General Edward Braddock’s forces by French and Indians in July 1755), returned to England and was for a while feted and invited to dinners to give first-hand accounts of the massacre.

OK, so interest in Orme petered out after a while, but his story hardly conforms to the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ description in the very precise, TV-age way Warhol had intended.

It’s an example of the way the authors are prepared to twist the historical record in order to shoehorn in their strained comparisons with modern ‘celebrity’ or the ‘glitterati’ or ‘the media spotlight’.

My point is that just chucking modern buzzwords at historical events doesn’t help us understand the historical events and doesn’t shed much light on the buzzwords or the ideas behind them, either. Not without a much more detailed analysis, anyway.

What was new about 18th century ‘media’

The one place in the four essays which comes alive i.e. presents new facts or insights, is in historian Stella Tillyard’s essay, where she explains that a new concept of ‘fame’ was being driven by some genuinely new developments in mass publication. She suggests four factors which account for the rise of a new type of fame in the mid-18th century:

1. A limited monarchy – the mystique surrounding the Divine Right of Kings which had clung to the Stuart Monarchy (1660-1714) drained away from the stolid Hanoverian monarchs who replaced them after 1714. Their powers were circumscribed from the start by Parliament and this made them much more human, much more worldly and, well, sometimes boring figures, for example. George III, widely known as Farmer George.

2. Royal glamour migrated – instead of surrounding the monarch in a nimbus of glory the human desire to have glamorous figures to look up to and gossip about migrated to new categories of ‘star’ or ‘celebrity’, namely top military figures, successful actors and even writers.

3. The lapse of the Licensing Act left the press a huge amount of freedom. By 1770 there were 60 newspapers printed in London every week, all looking for gossip and tittle tattle to market. Combined with a very weak libel law which allowed almost any rumour and speculation to be printed. Well before the tabloids were invented, the taste for an endless diet of celebrity tittle tattle was being catered to.

4. A public interested in new ways of thinking about themselves or others. This is the tricksiest notion, but Tillyard argues that this huge influx of new printed matter, combined with shops full of cheap prints, to make literate urban populations think about themselves and their roles as citizens of a busy city, and as consumers, in new ways.

Now all this chimes very well with the picture painted in Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds, which clearly shows how almost every incident, not only from his personal life but of the lives of all his famous friends (e.g. the writer Dr Johnson, the actor David Garrick, the historian Edmund Gibbon, the poet Oliver Goldsmith) was quickly leaked to scurrilous journalists, who reported them in their scandal sheets, or made cartoons or comic poems about them.

Reynolds’s world was infested with gossip and rumour.

By contrast with Tillyard’s authoritative historian’s-eye view, Postle’s art critic assertions are less precise and less persuasive:

Reynolds grew up in an age that witnessed the birth of modern journalism.

Did he, though? ‘Modern’ journalism?

Googling ‘birth of modern journalism’ you discover that ‘modern journalism’ began with a piece written by Defoe in 1703. Or was it during the American Civil War in the 1860s? Or maybe it was with Walter Lippmann, writing in the 1920s, often referred to as the ‘father of modern journalism’?

In other words, the birth of ‘modern’ journalism happened more or less any time you want it to have done, any time you need to add this cliché into your essay to prop up your argument. And that little bit of googling suggests how risky it is making these kinds of sweeping assertions.

In fact it suggests that any generalisation which contains the word ‘modern’ is dodgy because the term ‘modern’ itself is so elastic as to be almost meaningless. Historians themselves date ‘the modern period’ to the 1500s. Do you think of the Elizabethan era as ‘modern’?

The modern era of history is usually defined as the time after the Middle Ages. This is divided into the early modern era and the late modern era. (Define modern era in history)

Postle’s assertion that there was something uniquely and newly journalistic about Reynolds’s era sounds fine until you think of earlier periods – take the turn-of-the 18th century and the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) which was packed with coffee house publications and scurrilous poems written against each other by leading figures. Alexander Pope’s entire career exemplifies a world of literary gossip and animosity.

Going further back, wasn’t the court of Charles II the subject of all kinds of cartoons, pictures, scurrilous paintings and poems and plays? Lots of John Dryden’s poems only make sense if you realise they’re about leading figures of the day, either praising or blaming them. During the British civil wars (1637-51) there was an explosion of pamphlets and leaflets and poems and manifestos denouncing the actions of more or less every notable figure, and giving a running commentary on the political developments of the day. Wasn’t Shakespeare’s time (1590 to 1615) one of rumour and gossip and pamphlet wars?

Maybe not to the same extent as Reynolds’s time, but surely it was a matter of degree not kind. Earlier artists (van Dyck, Peter Lely, Godfrey Kneller) had had types of fame and tried to capitalise on it. By Reynolds’s day there were just more outlets for it, more magazines, newspapers, journals – reflecting a steadily growing urban population and market for all things gossip-related. Between 1650 and 1750 the British population increased, the population of London increased, the number of literate people increased, and so the market for reading matter increased.

So when Postle asserts that newspapers played an increasingly important part in the critical reception of art, well, they played an increasingly important role in the critical reception of everything, such as war and politics and religion, such as the Seven Years War, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and every other kind of debate and issue.

That is what newspapers do – tell people what’s going on and editorialise about it – and there were more and more of them, because the population was growing and the number of literate consumers steadily growing with it.

Reynolds didn’t invent any of this. He just took advantage of it very effectively.

Reynolds’s strategies for success

  • Reynolds was apprenticed to a fellow Devonian, Thomas Hudson, who not only taught him how to paint portraits but introduced him to important patrons
  • Hudson introduced Reynolds to leading gentlemen’s clubs of the time (the 1740s)
  • Reynolds took care to keep a large table i.e. to invite notable people to dinner, specially if they had had a recent ‘hit’ with a novel or play or work of art
  • Reynolds took dancing lessons, attended balls and masquerades, cultivated a man about town persona
  • as Reynolds became well known he was invited to join top clubs and societies e.g. the Royal Society and the Society of Dilettanti
  • he helped to found the blandly named The Club, with a small number of very eminent figures in literature, theatre and politics, including Garrick, Goldsmith, Johnson and Edmund Burke, later to include Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan
  • in the 1770s Reynolds painted portraits of the friends to be met at the Streatham house of his friend Mrs Hester Thrale (who became nicknamed ‘the Streatham Worthies‘)
  • during the 1770s and 80s there was a growth in a new genre, ‘intimate biographies’ told by authors who knew the subjects well, such as Johnsons Lives of the Poets (1781) and Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson (1785) – the intimate portraits of the Streatham Worthies tied into this taste, in fact Boswell considered writing an intimate biography of Reynolds
  • the point of having a cohort of friends like this was that they provided a mutual admiration and mutual support society, promoting each others’ work – for example, Oliver Goldsmith dedicated his famous poem, The Deserted Village to Reynolds, James Boswell’s vast ‘intimate biography’ The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) was dedicated to Reynolds, as was Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777)
  • in former times, getting an appointment to work for the king had been crucial to artists’ careers – by Reynolds’s day, however, it was no longer vital because 1. the monarch no longer had the absolute powers of the Stuarts – the Hanoverian kings’ powers and patronage were much more limited and often determined by Parliament 2. there was a well enough developed domestic market for art for a painter to make a career and livelihood without explicit royal patronage
  • Reynolds very consciously bought a large house in fashionable Leicester Fields; the Prince of Wales owned a big house in the same square
  • Reynolds bought an expensive coach that had formerly belonged to the Lord Mayor of London, renovated it and encouraged his sister Fanny to drive round in it in order to prompt gossip and awe

But was Reynolds unique?

As mentioned above, the four essayists have clearly received a brief to make Reynolds sound as modern and edgy and contemporary and down with the kids as possible.

But the tendency of the essays is also to try and make Reynolds sound unique – in his painterly ambition, in the way he used connections and pulled strings to paint famous sitters, promoted himself socially (by being a member of many clubs and inviting all the famous men and women of the time to large dinners), promoted his work through public exhibitions, tried to wangle key painting positions to the royal family, and by having prints made of his portraits which could be sold on to a wider audience.

The trouble is that – having just read Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds which presents an encyclopedic overview of his times, its clubs, newspapers, magazines, his colleagues and rivals, of the mechanisms of a career in art and an in-depth overview of all Georgian society – I realise these were the standard procedures of the day.

For example, the authors point out that Reynolds was keen to paint portraits of famous people to boost his career – but what portrait painter of the day wasn’t? Allan Ramsay and Thomas Gainsborough, to name just two contemporary painters, lobbied hard to win aristocratic patrons, to promote their portraits to other potential clients, to expand their client base, and so on. It was a highly competitive and commercial world.

The catalogue contains sections on the portraits of aristocratic ladies, military heroes and courtesans as if Reynolds had invented the idea of painting these kinds of figures – but paintings of aristocrats go back at least as far as the Renaissance, and statues of emperors, notable figures and military leaders go back through the ancient Romans to the Greeks.

There’s a section devoted to showing how Reynolds used prints extensively to promote his career, not only here but abroad, where British art prints commanded good prices. (One of the few new things I learned from the essays was that British mezzotinting was so highly regarded as to become known as la maniere anglaise, p.51)

But all his rivals and colleagues did just the same, too – otherwise there wouldn’t have been a thriving community of printmakers and of printbuyers.

And the authors strain to prove that the kind of high-profile aristocrats, military leaders, and top artists-writers-actors of the day that Reynolds portrayed were often discussed, profiled, ridiculed and lampooned in London’s countless scurrilous newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, poems, broadsides, gossip columns and so on.

But this was just as true of all the notable figures that all the other portrait painters of his day painted. It was an extremely gossipy society.

In other words, none of the activities the authors attribute to Reynolds was unique to him – they were being energetically carried out by scores of rivals and colleagues in the swarming ant hill of rivalry and competition that was Georgian London. What is interesting, is the extent to which Reynolds did all these things best (when he did), or where he failed, or where he pioneered a new aspect of this or that activity.

Unfortunately, the four authors don’t really have much space to make their cases. The four essays are relatively short. They have nowhere like the 550 closely-typed pages that Ian McIntyre has in his masterful biography of Reynolds. Therefore, to anyone who’s read McIntyre, the four essays come over as fleeting and superficial sketches of subjects and issues which deserve to be dealt with in much, much greater detail if you want to understand why Reynolds was the towering figure that he was.

It wasn’t that he did all these activities listed above – it’s that he did many of them better, more comprehensively, and more systematically than his rivals.

And also that he just worked harder at it. He was extremely disciplined and professional, working a solid 6 or 7 hour days, every day, often on Sundays. He produced, on average, well over one hundred commissions a year, an extraordinary workrate. This isn’t mentioned anywhere in the essays, but it is a key reason for his success.

Or the even more obvious fact that a his success was down to the fact that he was, quite simply, the best portrait painter of his time. He may well have adopted the canny career strategies listed above, but they’d have been meaningless if he hadn’t also been a painter of genius.


Art scholarship prose style

This section contains no facts and is devoted to an analysis and skewering of pretentious artspeak. Art scholar prose is very identifiable. It has at least three elements:

  1. use of fashionable, pretentious buzzwords such as subvert, interrogate, engage, gendered, identity, desire, site, gaze, other
  2. combined with a curiously starchy, old-fashioned locutions such as whilst, amongst
  3. thin actual content

1. Buzzwords

In terms of his desire to associate himself with the celebrity of others, the most compelling paintings by Reynolds are surely his portraits of prostitutes… (p.29)

‘Wish’ wouldn’t be a better word?

When the ancient philosopher, Socrates, visited the artist’s house with friends, the courtesan was to be found under the gaze of the painter (p.29)

The word ‘gaze’ now has the adjective ‘male’ attached to it in all contexts, and is always a bad thing.

[At the new public exhibitions of the 1760s] the visitor’s encounter with the painted images of celebrities was crucially informed by those other burgeoning cultural sites of the period, the newspaper and the periodical. (p.35)

Do you think of a newspaper or magazine you read as a cultural site? Alliteration is always good, makes your ideas sound grander and more important.

In arranging that his pictures of such women [the royal bridesmaids at the wedding of George III and Queen Charlotte]… Reynolds… was contributing to, and trading upon, a burgeoning cult of aristocratic celebrity within the sites and spaces of urban culture. (p.39)

Tillyard in particular likes the word and idea of the ‘site’:

In response to the overwhelming attention of the London public [Jean-Jacques Rousseau] took himself off to the wilds of Derbyshire and began to write his Confessions, in which he demanded the right to be heard on his own terms rather than to become the site for others’ imaginings. (p.66)

Omai [a South Sea islander Reynolds painted] is both sophisticate and innocent, celebrity and savage, an eloquent but mute subject whose lack of the English language and inability to write allowed his audience and the picture’s viewers to make him a site for their own imaginings. (p.69)

It is surprising that Omai isn’t taken as an example of The Other, an almost meaningless word commonly used to describe anyone who isn’t a privileged white male.

The press functioned as one vital counterpart to the exhibition space in terms of what was emerging as a recognisably modern economy of celebrity… (p.37)

The ‘modern economy of celebrity’ sounds impressive but what does it mean, what is an ‘economy of celebrity’ (and remember the warning about using the word ‘modern’ which is generally an empty adjective used solely for its sound, to make the text sound grand and knowledgeable).

Reynolds painted a number of portraits of aristocratic patrons such as Maria, Countess Waldegrave and Elizabeth Keppel. This allows art scholar Mark Hallett to write:

In being invited to track the shifting imagery of such women as Keppel, Bunbury and Waldegrave, attentive visitors to the London exhibition rooms thus became witness to an extended process of pictorial and narrative transformation, choreographed by Reynolds himself, in which his sitters became part of a gendered, role-playing theatre of aristocratic celebrity that was acted out on an annual basis in the public spaces of the exhibition room. (p.39)

If you read and reread it, I think you realise that this long pretentious sentence doesn’t actually tell you anything. It is prose poetry in the tradition of the mellifluous aesthete, Walter Pater, just using a different jargon.

‘Narrative’, ‘gendered’, ‘theatre’, ‘spaces’ are all modish critical buzzwords. What does ‘gendered’ even mean? That some portraits were of women and some of men? Hmm. And a gallery isn’t really a theatre, no matter how hard art scholars wish their working environment was more jazzy and exciting. It’s a gallery. It consists of pictures hung on a wall. Therefore to say a gallery is a ‘role-playing theatre’ is simply a literary analogy, it is a type of literary artifice which makes absolutely no factual addition to our knowledge.

Translated, that sentence means that regular visitors to the Royal Academy exhibition often saw portraits of the same famous sitters and so could judge different artists’ treatment of them, or gossip about how their appearance changed from year to year. That’s what ‘pictorial and narrative transformation’ means.

The artist’s portrait of Granby can now be understood as just one element within an unfolding iconography of military celebrity that was being articulated by the artist in the exhibition space during the 1760s.

Translated, this means that Reynolds painted many portraits of successful military heroes. As did lots and lots of other portrait painters of the time. But it sounds more impressive the way Hallett expresses it using key buzzwords.

We can even suggest that such details as the Duchess [of Devonshire]’s ‘antique’ dress and rural surroundings… transform her into a figure of pastoral fantasy, a delicately classicised icon of aristocratic otherness… (p.43)

Ah, ‘the Other’ and ‘otherness’, it was the last empty space on my bullshit bingo card. What does ‘otherness’ mean here? That aristocrats aren’t like you and me? That, dressed up in fake Greek robes, leaning against a classical pillar in a broad landscape, they seem like visions from another world? Better to say ‘otherness’. Makes it sound as if you understand complex and only-hinted-at deeply intellectual ideas (taken, in fact, from Jacques Lacan and other French theorists).

2. Starchy prose style

It’s peculiar the way art scholars combine these flashy buzzwords from Critical Theory (interrogate, subvert, gender, identity, The Other) with creaky old phrases which sound as if they’ve come from the mouth of a dowager duchess.

It’s as if Lady Bracknell had read a dummy’s guide to Critical Theory and was trying to incorporate the latest buzzwords into her plummy, old-fashioned idiolect. For example, art scholars always prefer ‘within’ to ‘in’, ‘amongst’ to among, and ‘whilst’ to while – versions of common English words which help them sound grander.

Some contemporary critics thought Reynolds’s experiments with oil and painting techniques meant his works would eventually decay and disintegrate. Mark Hallett says:

The fact that an exhibition including paintings such as these is now taking place, more than two hundred years after Reynolds’s death, helps put paid to such aspersions.

‘Helps put paid to such aspersions’? Isn’t that the voice of Lady Bracknell? ‘I should certainly hope, Mr Moncrieff, that in future you shall keep your aspersions and animadversions to yourself.’

3. Thin content

See above where I’ve highlighted the relative lack of new or interesting insights in the four critical essays, which can’t be concealed by tarting them up with references to the eighteenth century ‘glitterati’ or Andy Warhol.

Sometimes the essays descend to the bathetic. When we read that scholar Richard Wendorf has written a paper in which he observes that

Reynolds was adept at cultivating patrons through observing the rules of polite society

we are straying close to the University of the Bleeding Obvious.

When we learn that Reynolds sometimes flouted these rules in order to create a Bohemian effect, in order to copy the more raffish end of the aristocratic spectrum of behaviour, it feels like a variation on the obvious, and hardly something which required an entire essay to ‘explain’.


Conclusion

Having read the four essays twice, what you take away is that Reynolds specialised in painting portraits of famous people, this ensured the portraits were much talked about, written about and commented on by the larger-than-ever number of daily newspapers and magazines, and encouraged other famous people to commission their portraits from him, all of which boosted his professional career.

And that he was canny in using the means available to him – aristocratic patrons, choosing famous people to paint – famous soldiers, sailors, aristocrats, courtesans, writers and fellow artists – socialising and hosting grand dinners, joining top clubs, getting supporters to talk him up in the press, and encouraging the distribution of prints of his work – to build a successful and profitable career.

All of these were strategies adopted by most of his contemporaries were doing. He just did it better.

I’m confident making a statement like that because I’ve just read Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds which places the great man in the incredibly busy, buzzing, competitive, dog-eat-dog environment of Georgian London, and  gives extended portraits of scores and scores of his peers, rivals, colleagues and competitors.

It shows how British society changed during Reynolds’s long career, from his earliest paintings in the 1740s to his last ones in 1790. He changed, art changed, society changed.

None of the essays in this catalogue have much space to play with and so these art scholars play very fast and loose with the historical record, yanking together quotes and events which were actually far separated in time, in order to impose on the people and culture of a very different society the modish contemporary art scholar concerns of ‘gender’, ‘identity’ and ‘celebrity’.

The point being: these essays are actually quite an unreliable introduction to the life and career of Joshua Reynolds, written at the behest of a gallery with an agenda and a marketing plan. By all means buy or borrow this book for its wonderful reproductions of the paintings. But read the McIntyre biography to understand the man and his times.

Unanswered questions

Having read both MacIntyre’s book and this catalogue, I still have a couple of unanswered questions:

1. They both tell me that History Painting was meant to be the highest and most prestigious genre of the day. In which case, how come the greatest painter of the age, Reynolds, didn’t paint any history paintings, and neither did his closest rivals, Allan Ramsay or Thomas Gainsborough?

2. Why are there so many black servants in 18th century portraits?


Related links

Blog posts about the 18th century

Aubrey Beardsley @ Tate Britain

Aubrey Beardsley must be the most distinctive British artist. If you see any of his mature works, they are immediately recognisable and almost always deeply satisfying, their elegance of line and composition emphasised by the stylish use of huge areas of unmediated black or white, and the sophistication of his sensually charged portrayal of the human figure.

The Black Cape, illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) Photo © Tate

This exhibition is a feast of Beardsleiana, bringing together 200 spectacular works to make the largest display of his original drawings in over 50 years and the first exhibition of his work at Tate since 1923.

The wall labels to the fifteen or so sections the exhibition is divided into are available online:

And it contains a detailed timeline of his career. Rather than repeat all that, I’ll just single out what were, for me, the key learnings or best bits.

Key learnings

As he turned 18 and needed a job, Beardsley got a job working in an insurance office which, as you might imagine, he hated. What other early modern ‘great’ worked in an insurance office, created a distinctive body of work, and died of tuberculosis? Franz Kafka

Arts & Crafts It is interesting to see Beardsley’s tremendous indebtedness to Arts & Crafts ideas of total design, and the importance of intertwining flower and stem motifs. And considering he was only 19!

Withered Spring by Aubrey Beardsley (1891)

Beardsley began his career just as William Morris was producing his luxury designed books from the Kelmscott Press. The curators usefully summarise the elements of a Kelmscott production as:

  • elaborate decorated borders
  • decorated initial letters
  • full page illustration

The hair-line style The exhibition shows how Beardsley quickly moved from this relatively ‘heavy’ line to move to the extreme opposite, to complex compositions which are covered in a crazy network of super-fine lines. The curators call this his ‘hair line’ style.

How Arthur saw the Questing Beast by Aubrey Beardsley (1893) Victoria and Albert Museum

It is also an early example of Beardsley slipping surreptitious rudeness or irrelevancies into his pictures. At the bottom left of the ‘river bank’, right up against the frame, is the silhouette of an erect penis and scrotum. Towards the top right is a concealed treble clef.

Morte d’Arthur The picture above is one of the Morte d’Arthur series which made Beardsley’s reputation. He was commissioned to make a hefty 353 illustrations for a new edition of the Morte by publisher J.M. Dent, including full and double-page illustrations, elaborate border designs and numerous small-scale ornamental chapter headings.

However, Beardsley quickly became bored and irked by the subject limitations and began introducing extraneous elements and flights of fancy. Thus the picture above is supposed to be of a medieval knight and a dragon though you wouldn’t really think so. Most disruptive of all is the presence of a pan or satyr from Greek mythology, absolutely nothing to do with medieval legend.

Japanese influence The exhibition includes one print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a lovely coloured woodblock which exemplifies the kind of Japanese influence which impacted European art from the 1870s onwards, and influenced everyone with their:

  • abstract depiction of pictorial space
  • linear intricacy
  • emphasis on flat pattern

Kakemonokakemono is a Japanese hanging scroll used to display and exhibit paintings and calligraphy inscriptions and designs mounted usually with silk fabric edges on a flexible backing, so that it can be rolled for storage. It is a distinctly different shape from traditional Western portrait shape, and Beardsley was to incorporate it into many later works.

Mantegna Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was a key influence for Beardsley. The Italian was famous for his frescos and murals showing parades and processions and groups of people, and Beardsley used ideas and figures and compositions from Mantegna throughout his career. Even in his last accommodation, a hotel room in the south of France, he had a set of photos of works by Mantegna pinned to his wall. Indeed Beardsley produced several Mantegna-style processions, notably The Procession of Joan of Arc which was included as a foldout supplement to the second edition of The Studio magazine in 1892.

Wagnerite Beardsley was a keen fan of Wagner, attending productions of his operas and illustrating scenes from them. He had ambitions as a writer as well as illustrator and in his last few years worked at a text which was a comic version of the legend of Tannhäuser which Wagner had made into an opera. Given the working title of the Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, excerpts were eventually published in The Savoy magazine under the title Under The Hill, an oddly Hobbit-like title for such a grand Wagnerian subject.

Photo Lineblock Just as important for the quick evolution of Beardsley’s style was the introduction in the 1890s of the new technology of photo lineblock printing, a photomechanical process. Beardsley was disappointed at the poor reproduction of his washes and shading using this new method, but quickly adapted and made a virtue of leaving large areas of a page completely untouched, others pure black, and ensuring the lines and patterns were crisp and clear. The result is startling.

How la Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram by Aubrey Beardsley (c.1893) Alessandra and Simon Wilson

In fact this picture is singled out by the curators as exemplifying another of Beardsley’s traits which was his extraordinary ability to assimilate influences and make them his own. Thus the curators point out in this image:

  • Isoud resembles Jane Morris, with the classic pre-Raphaelite jutting chin and mountain of frizzy hair
  • the Germanic form of the desk is borrowed from Albrecht Dürer’s engraving St Jerome in his Study
  • the flattened use of space recalls the influence of Japanese prints
  • whereas the elaborate border of intertwining flower motifs recalls Arts & Crafts designs

Salomé In 1892 Beardsley made a drawing in response to Salomé, Oscar Wilde’s play, originally written in French and based on the biblical story. Wilde admired the drawing and he and his publisher, John Lane, chose Beardsley to illustrate the English translation of the play. Beardsley produced eighteen designs in total, of which only ten appeared in the first printing of the play. Publisher John Lane suppressed or censored three of Beardsley’s illustrations for their overt sexual references, in particular when female characters’ hands are wandering towards their privates, as if about to masturbate, or unnecessary depictions of the male characters’ phalluses.

The Climax – illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) by Aubrey Beardsley. Photo © Tate

The Yellow Book The exhibition clarified the timeline around the Yellow Book, and has an entire room devoted to it. Beardsley was made its art editor at its inception in 1894 and contributed the front and back covers for the first five editions. But Beardsley was closely associated with Oscar Wilde (having contributed a suite of illustrations for Wilde’s ‘immoral’ play about Salome), and so soon after Wilde’s arrest in May 1895, Beardsley was fired from the Yellow Book.

On one of the days of his trial, Wilde was seen going into court holding a copy of the Yellow Book and that clinched it for the angry mobs and journalists outside. The offices of the Yellow Book’s publishers, Bodley Head, were attacked by a mob who smashed its windows. In order tonsure the survival of the firm, and its staff, and the continuity of publication of the magazine and all his other titles, publisher John Lane had little choice but to distance himself from Beardsley. The sixth volume, of July 1895, still had the cover and several illustrations by Beardsley but he no longer worked for it. (Later it transpired that Wilde hadn’t been holding a copy of the Yellow Book at all, but a French novel, which tended to be published with yellow covers.)

The Yellow Book Volume I (1894) bound volume. Photo © Tate

It looks as if you can examine every volume of the Yellow Book, all its literary and art contents, online

The room has an example of all five volumes of the Yellow Book that Beardsley was involved with. I’ve read about it ever since I was a teenager at school forty years ago, but I don’t think I’d ever seen a copy before and certainly not six. I’d always envisioned it as magazine-size, but it does indeed look like a hardback book, in size and shape and leather binding.

Beardsley’s work desk The exhibition includes the very table or desk which Beardsley used during his glory years. Standing a few feet from it, it is hard to imagine that the man produced all these pitch-perfect works without the aid of architects’ tools or computers – just him, a ruler and a pen.

Beardsley’s address With the money he made from the Salome illustrations and a small legacy Beardsley bought a house at 111 Cambridge Street, Pimlico with his mother and sister, Mabel, to both of whom he remained very close throughout his short life. Only a few hundred yards from Tate Britain where this exhibition is being held…

Oscar Wilde Wilde was an established writer when he saw the first of Beardsley’s drawings and immediately liked them. He approved the suggestion that Beardsley illustrate the original French version of Salomé and they socialised. So far, so well known. I hadn’t realised that Beardsley satirised Wilde quite so much. There are straightforward lampoons of the increasingly fat and pompous aesthete, but he also slyly slips Wilde’s epicene features into numerous other illustrations, in one giving the moon the eyes and nose of Wilde.

The Woman in the Moon by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

The Rape of The Lock is the title of Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic 18th century satire. I suppose it’s worth clarifying that ‘rape’ in the title doesn’t mean rape in our modern sense, but the older sense of ‘theft’ or stealing away. Thus Pope conceived an extended poem which uses all the devices and machinery of the classical epic to describe how one jaded aristocrat cuts a lock of hair from the head of another jaded aristocrat, and this leads to a feud between their families. Believe it or not this elaborate literary joke extends to five cantos with many extended scenes. Beardsley created nine photo-engravings for an 1896 republication of the poem, five of which are on display here for the first time.

Beardsley had been a fan of 18th century rococo prints, maybe because they – like him – are sophisticated, worldly, stylish and much more open about sexuality than the Victorians. The exhibition shows us some of the original 18th century prints which Beardsley bought at auction in Paris, and then goes on to show all the Pope pictures.

The Dream by Aubrey Beardsley (1896) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

What’s immediately obvious is the that the stark clarity of the Salome illustrations has been abandoned for a much more elaborate style, characterised above all by the stippling that creates a sort of lace doily effect on almost all the fabrics. And look at the patterning of the carpet. A long way from the stark black and white of the Salome illustrations. Many critics thought these his best works as an illustrator.

Posters the 1890s were the glory decade for poster design in Paris, led by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret. I didn’t realise Beardsley produced a number of posters which modified his own style to take on board the need for a) size b) colour.

There’s a room devoted to half a dozen of his posters, none of which match the quality of Lautre or Chéret, and most of which are advertiser’s promotions of new ranges of childrens books or books by women, alongside promotional posters for The Yellow Book and several plays and operas. The section contains the telling quote:

I have no great care for colour, but [in posters] colour is essential.

‘I have no great care for colour’. Worth pondering. And relevant to the one and only oil painting Beardsley is known to have made.

Oil painting There’s a rare outing for Beardsley’s only oil painting and you can see why – it’s rubbish. His entire style was built around absences, around huge areas of untouched whiteness. Trying to translate that into oil, which specialises in depth and shadow, was a hopeless task.

Porn After Beardsley was sacked from The Yellow Book, almost the only publisher who would use his drawings was Leonard Smithers. Smithers operated on the fringes of the rare book trade, issuing small, clandestine editions of risqué books with the boast: ‘I will publish the things the others are afraid to touch’. Smithers encouraged Beardsley’s already growing interest in risqué French, Latin and Greek texts and commissioned drawings to illustrate the Satires of the late Roman poet Juvenal and, most famously, Aristophanes’s bawdy satirical play Lysistrata.

In Lysistrata the women of Athens go on a sex strike, refusing to have sex with their menfolk until they stop the ridiculous war against Sparta. Beardsley made eight outrageously sexual illustrations for Smithers’ edition. Among other subjects, this is the set which includes start, beautifully made black and white line drawings of ancient Greeks with humongous erect penises. Maybe if you’re very young or innocent these are ‘shocking’ images, but to the modern viewer they are vaguely reassuring, certainly humorous. The two figures on the right are mildly realistic but it’s the guy on the left who gets the attention, not because of  his phallus as such but because the entire character is obviously created for grotesque comedy.

Illustration for Lysistrata by Aubrey Beardsley (1896)

The grotesque He knew he was attracted to ‘the grotesque’ and there is a wall label which usefully explains the origins of the grotesque in art. Grotesque originally referred to the decoration of grottos, and came to denote the depiction of deliberately hybrid and monstrous forms, which often combined body parts from different animals, like a centaur or mermaid. As the man himself said:

I see everything in a grotesque way. When I go to the theatre, for example, things shape themselves before my eyes just as I draw them. .. They all seem weird and strange to me. Things have always impressed me in this way.

Foetuses Nobody knows to this day why he drew so many foetuses, either as insets in frames or as characters in the more grotesque illustrations. Maybe it was simply because they are a kind of quintessence of the grotesque.

My favourite Venus framed by two statues of male gods in the form of herms (a sculpture with a head and perhaps a torso above a plain, usually squared lower section’). I like it because of its formal precision, its symmetry which is, however, broken by the asymmetric sway of Venus’s long dress. I like it because there is no indecency, boobs or penises in sight. Instead there is a sense of genuine menace from the devil eyes of the two herms. And I like it because it is a kind of reversion or revisiting of the Arts & Crafts theme of incredibly ornately interwoven bushes, stems and flowers of (I think) roses. But mostly because it is a pleasingly complete, formal, complex and rather threatening image.

Venus between Terminal Gods (1895) Drawing with india ink by Aubrey Beardsley. The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford

Walter Sickert Almost the best thing in the exhibition is the full-length portrait painting of Beardsley made by the English painter Walter Sickert, after they’d both attended a commemoration ceremony for John Keats. Its sketchy unfinished quality makes it a haunting gesture to the memory of the dandy and artist who died aged just 25.

Aubrey Beardsley by Walter Sickert (1894)

Crucifix The exhibition includes the last photo of Beardsley, taken in the hotel room in the Hotel Cosmopolitain in Menton where he had gone in search of a warmer dryer climate which would be more favourable to his tuberculosis. The photo shows Beardsley looking tremendously smart in a suit and well-polished shoes opposite a wall on which are pinned reproductions of his beloved Mantegna, and a mantelpiece on which sits a crucifix.

Because although I’ve probably read it numerous times, I’d forgotten that in his last months Beardsley converted to Catholicism. He died holding a crucifix. Just a few days before he died he wrote a letter to Leonard Smithers asking him to destroy all of Beardsley’s risqué images, the Lysistrata illustrations etc. Smithers refused and so they were saved for generations of schoolboys to giggle over.

Who does a deathbed request to destroy his works which its address completely ignored remind you of? Franz Kafka.

Film There is a room with benches so you can watch Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova’s 1923 silent movie version of Salomé immediately following the room of Beardsley’s illustrations. For some reason the gallery lights had been left on full power in this room which made it harder to see the image on the screen.

Legacy The exhibition closes with a sketchy overview of Beardsley’s legacy from his influence on the long sinuous lines of Art Nouveau via a string of now mostly forgotten book illustrators who copied his style (Harry Clarke, Hans Henning Voigt) through the revival of Beardley’s reputation and style which was sparked by a major retrospective of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1966 which led to the incorporation of Beardsleyesque black and white swirling lines into lots of psychedelic posters and, most famously of all, into the portrait of the four Beatles in the cover art for their LP Revolver.

Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley 1893 by Frederick Evans. Photo-etching and platinum print on paper. Wilson Centre for Photography

This is a long, very thorough, exhaustive and informative exhibition about a truly world class and utterly distinctive English artist.

Curators

  • Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, Curator of British Art 1850 – 1915
  • Stephen Calloway
  • with Alice Insley, Assistant Curator of Historic British Art

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Content warnings at Tate

Warning: This blog post contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including depictions of slavery, violence and suffering.

Baroque Britain

When I visited the Baroque Britain exhibition at Tate Britain I was surprised that there was a Content Warning at the entrance to the second room. This warned us that some of the images were disturbing and might upset visitors. Specifically, a massive painting by Benedetto Gennari the Younger which shows black people in collars and chains. Slaves, in other words.

Portrait of Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin by Benedetto Gennari the Younger (1674)

A handful of other paintings show rich people – men and women – being served or accompanied by black servants, but this is the only one where the black people (all boys, I think) are wearing very obvious metal slave collars round their throats.

William Blake

This is the second warning notice I’m aware of Tate putting up. The William Blake exhibition last year also warned visitors, in these words:

The art of William Blake contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of violence and suffering.

That’s putting it mildly, seeing as Blake illustrated Dante’s Divine Comedy with its extensive descriptions of thousands of sinners being subjected to all sorts of tortures and torments in Hell, and Milton’s Paradise Lost which opens with Satan and the fallen angels languishing in agony in a lake of fire. Presumably it was these images of fire and brimstone which the warning was talking about.

Satan, Sin and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell by William Blake (1807)

Although when you actually look at Blake’s images, they are pretty inoffensive, aren’t they? Is an image like the above really thought to be so scary that visitors to an art gallery need a warning about it?

I wonder if the curators have ever seen a Hollywood film? Or even an average episode of Eastenders? Chock full of threat and violence. I can think of plenty of other Tate exhibitions which were full of much more genuinely upsetting images.

Notes and queries

Maybe visitors do need to be warned that art galleries and exhibitions contain images of slavery or violence or threat, but this new trend obviously raises a few questions:

Slavery 1 – black slavery

There must be thousands of images of black slavery scattered around the art world. Will every single one of them eventually require a Warning? For example, the huge memorial sculpture to slavery by Kara Walker currently on display in the atrium of Tate Modern. I don’t recall there being a warning for visitors about to encounter this. Should there be one?

Much more appalling and upsetting than any painting is actual period photographs of black slaves, which survive by the tens of thousands. I suppose if there’s an exhibition about slavery, or about these kinds of photographs it will be self-evident but, presumably if they’re included in exhibitions focused on other subjects – like the American Civil War or American history – presumably any photos of slavery will require a warning, as well.

Slavery 2 – white slavery

Most pre-modern societies had some form of slavery: ancient Rome and ancient Greece were based on slavery, and the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings traded in slaves (it’s estimated that at the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066, 1 in 10 of the British population were slaves).

The Mayans and Aztecs kept slaves in the Americas, as did the Sumerians and Babylonians in the Near East. The Egyptians employed huge numbers of slaves, including Israelites, Europeans and Ethiopians. Slave armies were kept by the Ottomans and Egyptians.

In Imperial Russia, in the first half of the 19th century, one third of the population were serfs who, like the slaves in the Americas, had the status of chattels and could be bought and sold.

In fact the English word ‘slave’ is derived from Slav, the white ethnic underclass of Eastern Europe that provided the bulk of medieval-and-later slaves, not only to Europe but to the Turks, Arabs and Tatars.

SLAVE – late 13the century, ‘person who is the chattel or property of another’, from the Old French esclave (13c.), from Medieval Latin Sclavus ‘slave’ (source also of Italian schiavo, French esclave, Spanish esclavo), originally ‘Slav’; used in this secondary sense because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering peoples. (Etymological dictionary)

Will any gallery displaying any images of slaves from any of these historical cultures, from any period of history, from anywhere around the world, require there to be warning messages for visitors?

‘Trade negotiations in the country of Eastern Slavs by Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov (1909)

If not, why not?

Violence 1 – secular

Human history is more or less the ceaseless history of wars and empires, human history is saturated with conflict and violence. Will notices warning of ‘strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of violence and suffering’ have to be placed outside every gallery which includes any images of conflict and war?

The first VC of the Great War won by Capt Francis Grenfell of the 9th Lancers at Audregnies, Belgium on 24th August, 1914 by Richard Caton Woodville

Violence 2 – religious

Christianity is saturated with violence. Its central image is of a man being tortured to death, and is closely accompanied by the stories and images of countless thousands of other Christian martyrs, most of whom died blood-curdling deaths.

Will all of these images require a warning notice? They would have to be put up in every gallery which includes images of the Passion of Christ or of the saints and, if we follow this logic through, outside every Roman Catholic church in the world.

Crucifix at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, USA

Why now?

Why now? The painting by Benedetto Gennari the Younger has existed for 340 years and been sporadically on public display throughout that period, the Blake images for over 200 years during which they have featured in numerous books and exhibitions.

Why are these warning notices making their appearance now?

It’s not as if we are suddenly more opposed to slavery – the Campaign to Abolish the Slave Trade got going during the 1780s, 240 years ago, and used as many images of atrocities against slaves as it could find. Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest international human rights organisation, was founded in London in 1839 and is still very active. I.e. graphic images of slavery have been in the public domain for over 200 years.

As to images of threat or violence, my God what have most movies for the past 100 years been about, plenty of plays and countless hundreds of thousands of art works not to mention millions of photographs taken of every war since the Crimea or the Indian Mutiny.

What is it in contemporary society which suggests that art lovers, old and young, native and foreign, have, for the last 300 years or so, been able to confront and process images like this without any kind of warning… but now they can’t.

Re. the slavery images, is it because the black population of the UK has reached a kind of tipping point where images like this are no longer acceptable, even in an obviously academic and historical context?

Have changes in social attitudes across the British population suddenly made images of black people in chains unacceptable?

But what about the warning about Blake’s pretty harmless cartoons? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

Or is it not British society, is it the attitudes of art curators which have changed?

Is it not the British public that the curators are concerned about? Is it the art curating profession which has been swept by progressive views, and whose modern woke training has told them that images like this are objectionable.

When they envision visitors being offended, is it really themselves and their progressive cohorts who they are envisioning?

Conclusion

So I’m not belittling the impact that images of black slavery might well have on black, or any other, visitors to an exhibition like this, or the emotional impact of images of threat or violence might have on gallery goers more broadly.

But up until a year or so ago, curators of pretty much every gallery and museum in the world were happy to assume that gallery visitors were grown-up enough, adult enough, to take images like this in their stride. To be shocked, maybe, maybe even to have an emotional response, but to be able to cope with it.

I’m genuinely curious to know 1. what has changed and 2. where this new trend will go.

And 3. am I going to have to put warnings at the top of every one of my blog posts which is about war or slavery or violence or conflict or threat? Because that’s most of them…


Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

John Opie @ Tate Britain

Tate Britain is labyrinthine enough to have half a dozen side rooms and spaces where it mounts small (and sometimes not so small) ‘spotlight’ exhibitions, focusing on a particular topic or artist.

In a modest room off the main atrium, little more than a glorified corridor, Tate Britain is hosting a small but beautifully formed exhibition about the painting and cultural environment of the late-eighteenth century English painter, John Opie (1761 – 1807).

The Cornish Wonder

Opie’s success is surprising because of his background. In the late eighteenth century artists generally came from artistic families, or from educated, middle-class homes where their interest in such a risky career could be indulged.

In contrast, Opie was born at St Agnes, near Truro in Cornwall, the son of a mine carpenter. Although he did attend school, he was probably largely self-educated. A wealthy local couple later reported that he visited the library in their house and ‘read every book in it’. But Opie’s father opposed his intellectual and artistic interests, and trained him as a carpenter.

Opie’s life was transformed when he encountered the poet and art critic, Dr John Wolcot, who brought Opie to London and launched him on his career. Wolcot became the painter’s manager, taking a cut of his earnings and helped him gain fame as a sort of self-taught genius. Opie’s dramatic style and mastery of light and shade that prompted comparisons with the most admired Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio, and earned him the reputation of ‘the Cornish wonder’.

Portrait of the Artist by John Opie (c.1790)

The common people

When Opie first came to London, much was made of his humble origins. The Peasant’s Family is a good example of his dignified images of ordinary people. One critic wrote:

Could people in vulgar life [the working-class] afford to pay for pictures, Opie would be their man.

Little is known of the early history of this painting. There is no documentation to prove without doubt that Opie painted it, but it has always been accepted as by him.

The Peasant’s Family by John Opie (c.1783-5)

Portraits

Opie produced portraits and subject paintings of striking originality and realism. Although little-known today, his work created a sensation in exhibitions during his lifetime. Opie was working at a time when fame was becoming an increasingly important part of artistic success. Artists jostled to grab public attention, painting more flamboyant and dramatic pictures.

We do not know the identity of the woman in this painting who is depicted as the heroine of Shakespeare’s tragedy Troilus and Cressida, but she is probably a celebrity or actress who contemporary viewers would have recognised.

Portrait of a Lady in the Character of Cressida by John Opie (1800)

Radicals

Mary Wollstonecraft was a ground-breaking feminist. This portrait shows her looking directly towards us, temporarily distracted from her studies. Such a pose would more typically be used for a male sitter. Women would normally be presented as more passive, often gazing away from the viewer like Cressida above.

The painting dates to around the time she published A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). This argued against the idea that women were naturally inferior to men and emphasised the importance of education.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie ( c.1790-1)

The intellectual milieu

In fact Opie was part of the leading radical circles of the day. After the French Revolution broke out in 1789 and then Britain went to war with revolutionary France in 1793, radical beliefs of any sort became dangerous, but Opie was part of a liberal metropolitan circle which included Wollstonecraft, her philosopher husband William Godwin and the ‘sensation’ painter Henry Fuseli.

Aside from the portraits, one of the most interesting exhibits here is an elaborate anti-radical cartoon by the famous Georgian caricaturist James Gillray. It depicts sequences from a long anti-revolutionary poem by George Canning.

The caricature warns of post-apocalyptic world where evil has triumphed, where the president of the French Directory (Revelliere-Lepeaux) is being installed at St Paul’s Cathedral as the head of a new religion named ‘theophilanthropy’, and where the Leviathan arrives accompanied (and ridden) by an extensive retinue of triumphant British followers waving their revolutionary bonnets rouges.

NEW MORALITY, or, The promis’d Installment of the High Priest of the THEOPHILANTHROPES, with the Homage of Leviathan and his Suite by James Gillray (1798)

As intended, it’s fun reading the elaborate caption under the cartoon and trying to identify the contemporary political and intellectual figures who are being so thoroughly lampooned. And the wall label tells us that Opie in fact painted many of these ridiculed radicals – including Charles James Fox, John Nichols, Lord Moira and Samuel Whitbread, the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Stanhope, the scientist Joseph Priestley and the radical John Horne Tooke.

The ‘cornucopia of ignorance’ which the acolytes are emptying before the altar contains works by Mary Wollstonecroft, the playwright Thomas Holcroft, and the novelist Charlotte Smith, all of whom had sat for Opie.

Amelia Opie

And he married someone from this progressive world – the liberal novelist and poet Amelia Alderson.

Amelia Opie by John Opie (1798)

Amelia was the daughter of a successful physician. She was already gaining notice as a writer with strong liberal and radical sympathies when she met John around 1796. He probably painted this wonderfully feeling portrait in 1798, the year of their marriage. As Amelia Opie she went on to achieve success as a novelist, poet and political activist, especially against the slave trade.

Early death

Despite his unconventional manners and his resolutely working class origins (his father in law was revolted by his table manners; even his wife admitted his studio was like a ‘pigsty’), John carved a career for himself in London’s fast-moving and competitive art market. He had just been made Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy when he died suddenly, at the early age of 45. For the rest of her life, Amelia did much to promote his memory and achievement.

Thoughts

This is a charming, funny and interesting little display. There must be hundreds of similarly obscure and forgotten British painters who would benefit from the same care and attention.


Related links

  • John Opie continues at Tate Britain until 23 February 2020 and it is FREE

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Bauhaus and Britain @ Tate Britain

This one-room FREE display at Tate Britain celebrated the centenary of the opening of the Bauhaus School of Art and Design in Germany in 1919 with a display showing the interaction between Bauhaus ideas and exponents, and their followers and collaborators in Britain.

The Bauhaus aimed to promote modern art for a modern world and to demonstrate the practical use of all the arts to improve society. As part of this goal it set out to integrate disciplines including the fine arts, architecture, craft, graphic design and photography.

During its 14 year existence an astonishing array of some of the most creative 20th century artists, sculptors, designers, architects and photographers lived and taught and made wonderful things at the school’s Weimar campus.

K VII (1922) by László Moholy-Nagy. Tate

As soon as they came to power in 1933 the Nazis, who not incorrectly saw the Bauhaus as a hotbed of radicalism, shut it down. Many artists associated with the school came to Britain in search of safety and work and British artists with similar interests to those of the Bauhaus welcomed their émigré colleagues. Many key Bauhaus figures went on to the United States, opening the New Bauhaus in Chicago in 1937, but some remained in Britain, and this exhibition focuses on a) those who stayed b) the British periods of those who stayed for a year or two before moving on.

Ball, Plane and Hole (1936) by Dame Barbara Hepworth

So it is that the exhibition interleaved works produced by both Bauhaus and British artists and designers across a characteristically wide range of media. I counted:

  • paintings by Ben Nicholson, László Moholy-Nagy, John Stephenson, Alastair Morton artistic director of Edinburgh Weavers who commissioned work from Nicholson
  • watercolours by Grete Marks
  • sculptures by Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo, who settled permanently in London and became a leading figure in the development of abstract art in Britain
  • a tea service by Grete Marks and a teapot by Naum Slutzky
  • ceramics such as the vase by Grete Marks
  • carpets by Ben Nicholson
  • fabrics by Ben Nicholson
  • furniture i.e. streamlined modern chairs by Marcel Breuer
  • a bakelite radio set designed by Wells Coates
  • photos of modernist blocks of flats (Kensal House, Kensal Rise) by Edith Tudor-Hart, and portraits by Lucia Moholy-Nagy
  • architecture – Kensal House designed by Elizabeth Denby with architect Maxwell Fry, who had been English partner to Bauhaus director Walter Gropius during his sojourn in England 1934-37
  • a selection of jewellery, namely brooches, necklaces and rings – by goldsmith, industrial designer and master craftsman Naum Slutzky

Dove brooch by Naum Slutzky

And books. There are several display cases showing old magazines from the 1930s by such earnest advocates of modernism as Sir Herbert Read, the dustjacket of whose 1934 book Art and Industry was designed by Bauhaus-trained Herbert Bayer. Read went on to try and create an inter-disciplinary art & design college in Edinburgh.

There’s a rare copy of The New Architecture and The Bauhaus by the Bauhaus’s founding director, Walter Gropius, published in 1937, one of the first books about the school in English. And of the 1939 Pelican Special A Hundred Years of Photography by Lucia Moholy-Nagy, László’s photographer wife.

Another display case shows magazine articles written by some of these artists, alongside personal photos of, for example, the Nicholsons at home, and postcards from Moholy-Nagy to the Nicholsons.

Ben Nicholson always features prominently in these exhibitions as one of the 1930s British artists who experimented most extensively with abstract and geometric shapes, in both painting and small sculptures and (as here) a carpet and fabrics.

I don’t quite know why, but he’s never lit my candle at all – I’ve always thought of him as a poor British cousin of the far more exciting and innovative Europeans. Here’s a typical piece of Nicholsonia. Its heart’s in the right place but… for some reason it leaves me cold…

Sculpture (c.1936) by Ben Nicholson. Tate

Nicholson lived in North London with his partner Barbara Hepworth (whose work I’ve always found much more interesting). They befriended their art historian neighbour Read among other arty types, and a number of the Bauhaus exiles settled in North London near them, forming quite an artistic colony, including exiles like Bauhaus-trained Marcel Breuer who designed book covers, tables and chairs, some of which are in the exhibition.

B9 table by Marcel Breuer (1927)

The exhibition even includes an entertaining film – Lobsters! It was co-directed by Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy, who was commissioned to work on the film with English director John Mathias. While in Britain Moholy-Nagy took on short-term roles in photography, film and commercial design. He designed ads for London Transport and collaborated on this short film depicting fishermen on the Sussex coast. The surprising angles and close-ups are attributed to Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus sensibility but I personally was more struck by the plummy tones of the commentary and the jolly score by Arthur Benjamin.

After a while I noticed that almost all the objects on display are owned by Tate, and it occurred to the cynic in me that the Bauhaus centenary was probably an opportunity for the gallery to dust off some of these rather dowdy antiques and given them an airing.

I’m not criticising. The insight just helped to explain why most of the exhibits were only so-so, or included sort-of interesting postcards and magazines, but lacked any real killer exhibits.

That said, not choosing to go to town on the centenary but limiting the celebration to a modest and FREE display made it in some ways feel much more relaxed and casual and accessible than it might have been.


Related links

Other Weimar Germany-related reviews

Art and culture

History

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Year 3 by Steve McQueen @ Tate Britain

Steve McQueen

The black British artist and film director Steven Rodney McQueen CBE was born 1969 and is probably best known for writing and directing the big budget movie 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of an 1853 slave narrative memoir for which he won an Oscar.

McQueen won the Turner Prize back in 1999. In 2006, he went to Iraq as an official war artist and the following year presented Queen and Country, a piece that commemorated the deaths of British soldiers who died in the Iraq War by presenting their portraits as sheets of stamps.

So he’s had quite a long, varied and successful career.

Year 3

Now a new exhibition has opened in the big long central atrium of Tate Britain titled Year 3. To art fans bewildered by years of conceptual, or politically correct, or otherwise demanding ‘art’, the idea is disarmingly simple.

McQueen invited every Year 3 pupil in London to have their photograph taken by a team of specially trained Tate photographers. They included children from state primaries, independent schools, faith schools, special schools, pupil referral units and home-educated pupils.

These class photos are brought together into a single large-scale installation, capturing tens of thousands of Year 3 pupils in a milestone year in their development.

All the photo were shot in the same identical style. The teachers were all told to assemble their pupils in the same kind of official photo layout, very prim and formal, with teacher embedded in the middle. The pupils are wearing school uniforms.

Clifton Primary School © Steve McQueen & Tate

The resulting prints are a uniform shape (landscape) and size. And they are hung in rigidly geometric grids, twelve photos high and fifteen wide in such a way as to completely wallpaper the entire Tate atrium.

Portrait of Steve McQueen in Year 3 at Tate Britain © Tate. Photo Jessica McDermott

There are no fewer than 3,000 class photographs depicting 76,000 children, although this represents only two-thirds of London’s year 3 pupils.

There are no name plaques or notes of any kind identifying any of the children or schools. Instead (as one of the Tate ‘visitor assistants’ pointed out to me), right down on the stone skirting board beneath each grid there’s a small number (we were standing next to grid 23 when she explained this). She told me that each school will have been told which grid their school photo is in, and then its grid reference (e.g. grid 23, row 4, 7 from the left).

Tyssen Community Primary School © Steve McQueen & Tate

This, of course, makes a fairly good game: bring your children along your kids who had their photo taken and see if they can find the photo. And so by 11am, as I emerged dazed from the Mark Leckey installation, I found the atrium absolutely packed with parents, buggies and small kids racing round. It was a lovely atmosphere. It’s a great idea. I’m not sure where you go with it, though, after you’ve found your school photo and looked at half a dozen, or a dozen others, or a dozen more…

Year 3 Class Photograph © Steve McQueen & Tate

What is year 3?

I had to google to find out what year 3 actually means:

In schools in England Year 3 is the third year after Reception. It is the third full year of compulsory education, with children being admitted who are aged 7 before 1 September in any given academic year. It is also the first year of Key Stage 2 in which the National Curriculum is taught.

Year 3 kids. They’re small. They’re cute. Looking at the backdrops is mildly interesting, or assessing the schoolteacher included in the photo: over 80% of infant and junior school teachers are female and the photos reflect that. At that age your teacher is the world and the photos made me strain back through the mists of time to remember my year three teacher. Memories.

Since we know that a good deal of a child’s future life chances are established by the age of five, it’s also interesting to compare and contrast the atmosphere, the vibe and appearance of the various groups. I couldn’t help be impressed by the spiffily smart uniforms of some of the schools, and compare them with the rough and ready sweatshirts of other classes.

Alpha Preparatory School © Steve McQueen & Tate

Who knows if these are decisive social and educational factors – I don’t. I’m just pointing out that this was one of the obvious visual elements which your eye is drawn to compare and contrast.

Maybe I’m not getting the sense of optimism and hope the photos are obviously meant to generate. The Artangel website explains that:

Year 3 is considered a milestone year in a child’s development and sense of identity. It’s when children aged 7–8 years old become more conscious of a much bigger world beyond their immediate family. This portrait of London captures that moment of excitement, anticipation and hope. It’s a celebration of the young people who will make London their own, and a meditation on the personal circumstances and social forces that shape all our lives.

Maybe this resonates with many of the young families with small children running all round the Tate atrium who I saw enjoying the exhibition.

Visiting Tate

And there is also an art educational element for the children themselves.

Over the months ahead, pupils featured in the exhibition will be visiting Tate Britain with their schools. As part of this learning experience, pupils will see their photograph up close in dedicated learning spaces around the gallery and take part in activities that explore the exhibition themes.

Sounds like a worthy idea: introducing fairly small children to the world of art and imaginative opportunity. Who could quibble?

Billboards

Running in parallel to the exhibition at Tate Britain, Artangel is staging an outdoor exhibition of the photos i.e. hanging them on no fewer than 600 billboards across all of 33 London boroughs in a rather forlorn attempt to brighten up our shitty city.

Steve McQueen Year 3 billboard at Camden Road, London Borough of Camden. Photo by Theo Christelis

And:

At the end of the exhibition each picture will be returned to the school where the photograph was taken.

Sweet.

The video

Curators

Year 3 at Tate Britain is curated by Clarrie Wallis, Senior Curator of Contemporary British Art and Nathan Ladd, Assistant Curator of Contemporary British Art; and is produced by Erin Barnes and Gemma Clarke.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Mark Leckey: O’ Magic Power of Bleakness @ Tate Britain

This is an absolutely brilliant, transformative piece of work, hugely staged and thrillingly experienced. It consists of a massive installation and three videos by contemporary artist Mark Leckey. Here’s the promotional video to gt a quick feel:

The big exhibition space on the east side of Tate’s central atrium has had all its partitions removed to create one enormous gallery space. In this space they have recreated a lift-size model of an enormous concrete motorway bridge. To be precise, a recreation of a section of the M53 flyover close to Leckey’s childhood home on the Wirral where he used to play with his boyhood friends.

The bridge goes over our heads at a diagonal, supported by enormous concrete piers. Off to the left is the concrete slope between the hard shoulder which ramps up to the underside of the bridge. It is an enormous brooding presence and absolutely brilliant, cavernous and terrifying.

The first motorway was opened in 1958 and these huge concrete monsters have been part of the British landscape for over 60 years. Why is so little written or painted or arted about them, and about the poisonous mega-roads and planet-strangling super-traffic they carry.

The room is almost pitch black. I nearly bumped into one of the enormous fake concrete motorway piers. But just about made them out because they – and the handful of concrete ‘benches’ scattered about – are illuminated by the flashing, fleering images from two enormous video screens on the far wall, and from a suite of six or so smaller screens off to the right.

Onto these are projected three art videos or films:

  • Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999)
  • Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD (2015)
  • Under Under In (2019)

I used to work in TV. In the late 1980s I produced and directed a dozen or so videos for commercial clients, before going on to produce live and prerecorded programmes for Channel 4, ITV and BBC1 So I’ve spent a lot of time in edit suites, with editors and directors, editing, discussing, cutting and mixing material. This means I have quite high standards and so find a lot of experimental art videos unwatchably amateurish.

To my own surprise, however, I ended up staying to watch all three videos in their entirety and being riveted, transfixed, transported. Yes yes yes, I wanted to shout, this is actual modern life in its shittyness, in its squalor, with working class lads making the most of the appalling built environments, the failing schools, the windswept concrete shopping centres and the high-rise slums designed for them by avant-garde architects and progressive town planners, by getting off their faces on booze and pills and dancing themselves stupid on the dance floors of thousands of provincial dance halls and clubs.

Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore

Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore is a compilation of found footage from dance floors chronicling Britain’s underground club scene from the 1970s to the 1990s, from the era of mullets and Northern Soul through to the ecstasy-fuelled raves of the 1990s.

God it takes me back to having that kind of haircut in the 1970s and crappy church halls discos where lads in Doc Martens ended up fighting each other, through the pogoing and gobbing of the punk era, with the straights going to crappy mirror-ball discos, and then on into the suddenly hard core, techno, trance and rave scene of the late 80s which burst out of nowhere with its amazing sound systems, lasers and powerful psychotropic drugs.

So much for the social history, but what makes Leckey’s films a cut above others in the same style is the use of sound. He has a phenomenal grasp of the importance of sound, sound effects and sound editing. Having sat in those darkened edit suites for years and years and years I can vouch for the drastic affect sound editing and mixing has on the pictures in TV or film. Take a sequence of a beautiful girl smiling: then superimpose on it the sounds of – someone having an orgasm, a woman screaming, or a little girl saying a nursery rhyme. Identical image, radically different impacts.

The picture cutting is brilliant and worth commenting on in its own right; but what lifts Leckey’s films into brilliant is the extremely sophisticated and creative use of sound effects; mashups of music, deep ominous booms, clips of speech, electronic or industrial sounds.

So it’s the sound effects which, in my opinion, make these more than films, but into a fully immersive experience. The space under the mocked-up motorway is pitch black, cavernous and echoing. That’s why it’s worth traveling to Tate Britain to have the full huge, disorientating, slightly scary and sense-bombardment experience. Watching it on a computer or phone screen is too small and contained. You need to be overwhelmed by it. Possessed.

Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD

In 1979, Leckey went to Eric’s, the Liverpool nightclub, to see a gig by Joy Division. Recently, the artist located amateur footage of the event on YouTube. He realised that many, maybe most, of what we think of as treasured personal memories can now be found online, and that was the inspiration to assemble a film.

So Dream English Kid 1964 – 1999 AD uses archival material from television shows, advertisements and music, to recreate a record of all the significant events in his life from the 1970s until the 1990s.

God, it’s wonderful a) as straightforward nostalgia – I didn’t grow up in Liverpool or a slum, but I remember the look and feel of shitty England in the 1970s, and the sequence which shows all the horrible packed food – Nesquik, Marmite, Smash, Kelloggs Frosties – brought back the look and taste of all the crap our parents stuffed us with;

b) again because of the sophistication of the picture editing, but more than that, of the sound: it creates a really haunting beguiling, shocking, in your face soundscape, alternating soft silent moments, with raucous live gig sound, urchins in the street, lads, and other much more haunting, weird and unsettling sound effects. It is as if History itself is struggling to break through the bounds of petty human existence. As if some deeper force is struggling to break free from our everyday concerns about haircuts and boyfriends and pop songs, and tell us the big all-important thing, which we’re all too busy to listen to.

Under Under In (2019)

The last of the three film is Under Under In 2019 is noticeably different in feel. It’s because the other two are mostly made up of old film and video footage cannily edited together, while this one is all contemporary, shot on digital camera.

It is all shot under the actual motorway bridge whose model we are standing under and it features half a dozen or so young gang members, dressed in up-to-the-minute street fashion (I assume) – Adidas hoodies zipped up over their faces, trainers, rap hand gestures. For the first ten minutes or so they’re just hanging under the bridge, pushing each other, giggling, and what looks like getting high by car oil products (I think).

But as I’ve highlighted above, the real impact derives not from the visuals – but from the amazing soundscape Leckey has crafted, in which whatever conversation the lads are having is cut and fragmented and distorted and mangled into spare phonemes and loose grunts and blips and frags of speech, echoing, dismantled, lost under the roaring motorway bridge.

Still from Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD (2015) © Mark Leckey

Apparently the film in some way addresses a supernatural encounter Leckey believes he had under the bridge as a child.

Many of my works have their wellspring in things and experiences from my childhood and youth that still haunt me.

What this means is that one of the larking-about kids seems to see something, a creature tucked in the angle of the bridge, hands reach out, small hands, large hand, white images, intercut sound track, it’s impossible to make out what’s happening but a little kid’s voice repeats, ‘Where you been?’ in a strong Scouse accent.

I’ve made it sound much more comprehensible than it is, the images are quickly intercut, treated, amplified distorted shown from above, the camera swoops down, the same gestures are repeated in juddering cuts or vanish.

It’s all shown on the six smaller screens I mentioned above. You have to stand throughout the entire screening but after a while I realised that behind us, up in the cramped space where the ramp meets the bridge of the model, was another screen onto which were projected images of the pumped-up lads crouching in a row, pushing each other joshing and interacting, which complemented the main action on the six screens. Which cut out at some moments, leaving us in puzzling darkness. Haunting & spooky.

Suddenly something more or less understandable emerges out of the blizzard of fragments and rave-era jump cuts. This is a completely computer-generated diagram of the flyover bridge, and then the point of view descends, under road level to reveal… another view o the same thing, an older type of wooden bridge… and keeps on going down to reveal an older structure yet over the same ravine… and down again and again until we come to a layer of standing stones, dolmen like Stonehenge is built from, and the camera stops descending but moves forward, between the stones, into some dark ominous mysterious chamber.

Leckey has written and spoken about his interest in older visions of Albion, in older imagery connected with faeries and magic inhabiting the countryside, and this sequence obviously comes out of that interest. But it’s one thing to say something, and quite another to come up with a visual and audio presentation of it which is so huge and overwhelming that it makes the viewers’ hair stand up on end.

The film below doesn’t feature in the installation, but it gives you a good sense of the mashup of ancient magic, incantation, a visionary way of reconceiving the shitty, concrete slabverse of our poisonous, toxic streets and motorways and flyover cities, choked with fumes, killing us all, and the aggressively visionary cutups of imagery from all available sources which Leckey uses. And the weird spellbinding obsession with the motorway flyover as a metaphor for our entire ruinous civilisation, which I found preposterous, ungainly, and yet weirdly compelling

Curators

  • Clarrie Wallis, Senior Curator of Contemporary British Art
  • Elsa Coustou, Curator of Contemporary British Art
  • with Aïcha Mehrez, Assistant Curator of Contemporary British Art at Tate

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

William Blake @ Tate Britain

This is the largest survey of work by William Blake to be held in the UK for a generation. It brings together over 300 famous and rarely seen works, from the whole of his career, from all of his publications and projects, and sets them alongside works by contemporaries, friends and influences, in a blockbuster exhibition which spreads over 13 rooms.

Engraving

Blake was born in 1757 into a poor family in London’s Soho – his father was a hosier – who, nonetheless, supported his ambitions to be an artist. Aged 15 he got an apprenticeship to an engraver. At the age of 21 he became a student at the Royal Academy. He appears to have been studious, the exhibition contains a typical plaster cast classical statue which students had to sketch along with Blake’s drawings of it.

Distinctive style

Muscles But from early on Blake developed an idiosyncratic and eccentric way of depicting the human body. Most of his work is depictions of the human body. Most of the bodies in question are naked or draped in simple Biblical robes, and all of them are extremely muscley, with a heavy, musclebound weight which is reminiscent of Michelangelo. Although the curators don’t mention it I’ve read somewhere that this striking musculature is in fact anatomically inaccurate, and designed purely for expressive purposes.

Capaneus the Blasphemer (1824-1827) by William Blake © National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Flat and close Other elements of his style include the lack of perspective. Figures almost always appear in a flat space. This gives them dramatic immediacy and directness, as in this striking image.

The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea by William Blake (1805)

Noses In both these images note the strikingly aquiline noses of his figures. Sounds trivial but its a trademark of his style.

Anti-commercial art Blake rejected much of the commercial art of his day, came to despise the Royal Academy, hated the way late 18th century art was dominated by society portraits or landscapes of rich people’s properties.

Visual purity He wanted to forge something much more visionary and pure. This search for a kind of revolutionary purity reminds me of the Republican phase of the art of the French painter Jacques-Louis David, which also features: legendary, classical or mythical subject matter; half naked men showing off their six-packs; in striking poses; flowing robes and togas.

Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

Drawings not paintings

But a comparison with David vividly brings out the difference: Blake was never an oil painter. None of his works evince the kind of lavish, luxurious depth and perspective and colour and light and shade of an oil painter like David.

Most of Blake’s images are engravings, of which he produced over a thousand, and a central quality of an engraving is its flatness.

There are also watercolours but, as the curators point out, these have the clarity of line, formality and flatness of engravings which have simply been coloured in.

There is rarely any perspective or depth. The backgrounds are generally sketchy. All the focus is on the (generally melodramatic postures) of the foreground figures.

Cain Fleeing from the Wrath of God by William Blake (1799-1809) © The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

Illustrations

Cain Fleeing exemplifies a major fact about Blake’s visual work, which is that the majority of was illustrations for classic works. Over his life he was commissioned to produce illustrations for:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft – Original Stories from Real Life (1791)
  • John Gay – Fables by John Gay with a Life of the Author, John Stockdale, Picadilly (1793)
  • Edward Young – Night-Thoughts (1797)
  • Thomas Gray – Poems (1798)
  • Robert Blair – The Grave (1805–1808)
  • John Milton – Paradise Lost (1808)
  • John Varley – Visionary Heads (1819–1820)
  • Robert John Thornton – Virgil (1821)
  • The Book of Job (1823–1826)
  • John Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress (1824–1827, unfinished)
  • Dante – Divine Comedy (1825–1827)

The exhibition features generous selections from most of these works, for example ten or more of Blake’s illustrations for the Grave or Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, etc.

Bad pictures

What comes over from many of these obscure and little exhibited illustrations is how bad they are. Milky, washed out, strangely lacking in the dynamism which Blake, in his written works, claimed for his art.

Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, Design 113 by William Blake (1797-8)

Bad, isn’t it? All the illustrations for the Elegy are like this.

Towards the end of his life Blake made 29 watercolour illustrations of the Pilgrim’s Progress which are similarly not much mentioned in his oeuvre. Being woke, the curators suggest this might be because his loyal, hard-working and artistic wife, Catherine, is said to have had a say in designing and colouring them, so their neglect is a sexist conspiracy. Maybe. Or maybe it’s just because they’re not very good. Here’s an example.

Illustration four for the Pilgrim’s Progress by William Blake

The composition, the use of perspective, the crappy buildings, the ludicrous posture of the figures, and the badness of their faces – everything conspires to make this picture, in my opinion, poor. And there are lots more of this low standard in the exhibition.

Good pictures

But what makes it impossible to dismiss and hard to evaluate is that Blake was also capable of coming up with images which turned his manifold weaknesses – the lack of depth, the odd stylised postures, the inaccurate anatomy – into strengths. This is true of many of the illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Take this depiction of the fate of the corrupt pope – the very unnaturalness of the postures and the weirdness of the setting work in its favour. To make it a deeply strange and troubling image.

The Simoniac Pope’ by William Blake (1824-7) Tate

Take another of his archetypal images, Newton. The closer you look, the weirder it becomes – not least his musculature which makes him look more like an insect with a segmented back than a human being – and yet, and yet… it’s so weird that it’s true – true not to lived life or anything anyone’s ever seen, but to something stranger, more mysterious and more visionary.

Newton by William Blake (1795-1805) Tate

The illustrated books

Of course Blake was also a poet, an epic poet, a writer of immense long epics featuring a mythology and mythological characters he made up out of a strange mishmash of the Bible, the classics and Milton. Not many people read these long poems nowadays although, as it happens, as a schoolboy I read all of them cover to cover in the Penguin Complete Blake edition, so I have a feel for the vastness and strangeness of his imaginary world.

Blake produced the poems in books which featured his own line illustrations and decorations of the handwritten texts.

  • Songs of Innocence and of Experience (edited 1794)
  • Songs of Innocence (edited 1789)
  • The Book of Thel (written 1788–1790, edited 1789–1793)
  • The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (written 1790–1793)
  • Visions of the Daughters of Albion (edited 1793)
  • Continental prophecies
  • America a Prophecy (edited 1793)
  • Europe a Prophecy (edited 1794–1821)
  • The Song of Los (edited 1795)
  • There is No Natural Religion (written 1788, possible edited 1794–1795)
  • The First Book of Urizen (edited 1794–1818)
  • All Religions are One (written 1788, possible edited 1795)
  • The Book of Los (edited 1795)
  • The Book of Ahania (edited 1795)
  • Milton (written 1804–1810)
  • Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion (written 1804–1820, edited 1820–1827 and 1832)

The exhibition features many of these illustrations to his own verse. There is, for example, half a room devoted to individual pages from America a Prophecy, which have been removed from the book and framed as prints. Some of them are displayed in doublesided cases set up on plinths so that visitors can walk around and see both sides. The most immediate thing you notice is how very small they are, old-fashioned paperback book size, which makes much of the writing very hard to read without a maginifying glass.

Title page of America a Prophecy, copy A (printed 1795) by William Blake © The Morgan Library

The shorter works

Even his contemporaries struggled with the obscure mythology, strangely named characters (Los, Urizen) and difficult-to-make-out plots of the longer poems. By contrast, two of the shorter works have always been popular, namely the pithy proverbs gathered in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

  • “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”
  • “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

and the short and simple poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which contain his best-known and most anthologised poems. Of these probably the most famous is 

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

It is undoubtedly a classic, but there is an odd and telling thing about it, which is that has become, over time, essentially, a children’s poem.

And this is emphasised by the illustration Blake did for it, which often comes as a shock to people who are familiar with it as an isolated text before they come to it in Blake’s illustrated version. It’s not just a children’s book illustration. It’s almost a baby‘s book illustration.

Tyger Tyger from Songs of Experience (designed after 1789, printed in 1794) by William Blake

Extremely hit and miss

And I think at some stage during the exhibition, it struck me that at some level, Blake is not a serious artist. He took himself very seriously, the small group of acolytes who gathered round him in his last years – the self-styled Ancients – took him very seriously, and critics and curators ditto, but… his long poems are all but incomprehensible and his own illustrations to his books are strange but often curiously childish and amateurish. His illustrations for Pilgrims Progress or the Elegy are deeply damaging to your sense of him as an artist. Some of the illustrations of Paradise Lost or Dante have a peculiar power, but many feel weak or half-finished. And strange random images throughout the exhibition leap out as expressing something no-one else had conceived or tried.

The Ancient of Days

Because every now and then, his peculiarities of style and technique (he pioneered new methods of acid engraving which the exhibition explains) come together to create something magical and genuinely visionary, something of depth and maturity.

‘Europe’ Plate i Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days’ (1827) by William Blake (1757-1827) The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

The curators end the exhibition with this painting, which Blake was working on right up to his final days, at his house overlooking the Thames. Who is it, what is he doing, nobody is sure, although the hand gesture which seems to be creating a sort of compass is, unexpectedly, a negative gesture in Blake’s symbolism, because mathematics and science are the enemies of the liberated and revolutionary imagination which Blake defended and praised.

Still, as with so much of the rest of his ‘thought’ and personal opinions, it doesn’t matter. Again and again the curators have had to admit that nobody knows what this or that picture really means or whether it is illustrating this or that scene from one of his vast mythological books – so much about Blake’s output is scattered, broken up and mysterious, that one more mystery doesn’t make any difference.

At his best, Blake created images of startling power and resonance which, even if we don’t understand their intention or meaning, have stood the test of time. But the high risk this exhibition has taken is placing that dozen or so brilliant imagines amid a sea of ok, so-so, mediocre and downright poor images which do a lot to dilute their impact.

Two gaps

No explanation of Blake’s politics The curators mention in several places that Blake was a revolutionary thinker who engaged with the Great Issues of his day, and list those Great Issues as political revolution, sexual politics, and slavery, and he certainly did, in his long radical poems and his notes and essays.

The odd thing is you’d expect there to be, in such a big exhibition, some sections devoted to Blake the Revolutionary, explaining his revolutionary  views, his support of the American and French revolutions, his ideas of the power of the unfettered Imagination, sexual liberty and his violent anti-slavery sentiments.

But panels or sections devoted to Blake’s beliefs are strangely absent. His views are mentioned in passing, in the context of t his or that work, but you can’t make sense of a work like America A Prophecy without some explanation of the attitude English radicals took to the war their own government was fighting to put down men committed to freedom & Liberty.

No explanation of Blake’s mythology More importantly you can’t understand a lot of his images without delving into Blake’s own mythology, which was built around praising the power of the unfettered Imagination, in the arts and politics and private life, and which he elaborated out inventing a whole cast of pseudo-Biblical gods and goddesses.

This also was strangely absent – I mean all it would have taken was a panel explaining the symbolic roles of the characters he invented for the epic poems:

  • Urizen is the embodiment of conventional reason and law
  • his daughters Eleth, Uveth and Ona represent the three parts of the human body
  • his sons Thiriel, Utha, Grodna, Fuzon match the four elements but are also aligned with the signs of the Zodiac
  • Los is the fallen (earthly or human) form of Urthona, one of the four Zoas

and so on, to at least give you a flavour of how strange, eccentric, but oddly beguiling his personal mythology could be.

Maybe – I’m guessing – the curators wanted to focus narrowly on his art, and on the technical ways in which he experimented with techniques of engraving, and with the immediate facts of his biography. That would explain why there were rooms devoted to particular patrons such as John and Ann Flaxman, Thomas Stothard and George Cumberland, Thomas Butts and the Reverend Joseph Thomas.

I bought the audioguide. At the end of several sections on specific series of works, it said; ‘If you want to know more about the relationship between Blake and John Flaxman, press the green button’. My point being that all the additional information was biographical. Not one of them said: ‘If you want to hear more about Blake and the French Revolution, Blake and slavery, Blake and sexual Liberty, Blake’s theories of the imagination’ – all topics I’d love to have heard given a modern summary.

This biographical approach also explains why there is a big reproduction of a period map of London with markers indicating where Blake lived over the years. And even an entire room recreating the room in the family home in Broad Street where Blake staged a quirky one-man show in 1809, a show which was a disaster as hardly anyone showed up and the one critic who wrote about it dismissed Blake as ‘an unfortunate lunatic’.

I may be wrong but it seems to me that the curators have opted for a heavily biographical approach to Blake’s work, placing the works in the context of his real life career and biography, his houses and wife and friends and champions and critics. This is all interesting in its way, but not as interesting as Blake’s imaginative universe.

At the age of eight William Blake saw the prophet Ezekiel under a bush in Peckham Rye, then a rural backwater south of London. A few years later he had a vision of a tree full of angels nearby and, a month after that, a third vision of angels, walking towards him through the rye.

Blake really meant it. All through is life he claimed to have visions of angels and other divine beings, dancing and cavorting in London fields and streets. He was a visionary in the most literal sense of the word.

Although – with over 300 images – this exhibition is thoroughly documented and copiously illustrated, maybe the reason I left feeling so frustrated and dissatisfied was because I felt that Blake’s weird, peculiar and compelling imaginative universe had been almost completely left out of it.

There were plenty of framed pages taken from the illustrated versions of his ‘prophetic books’ covered with verse. But the verse itself wasn’t printed out on a label on the wall for us to actually read. There was an introduction to the subject matter of each one, but little explanation of what they meant or what he was trying to achieve.

This exhibition feels like a big, elaborately assembled, beautifully curated and presented catalogue of all Blake’s visual works. A list. A documentation of his works. But somehow, with all the fiery life, rebellion and pride of the Imagination taken out.

Blake’s life is presented as a story of professional frustration – rather than as a life of extraordinary imaginative triumph.


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Sleepless by France-Lise McGurn @ Tate Britain

Art Now is a series of free exhibitions at Tate Britain showcasing emerging talent and highlighting new developments in British art. It is generally held in the big exhibition room on your right, next to the rotunda, once you’ve gone up the stairs and through the main entrance to Tate Britain.

This big, white, well-lit room is currently hosting a site-specific exhibition by Glasgow-based artist France-Lise McGurn (born 1983).

Figurative outlines of people

McGurn mostly works with paint, and draws people, slender outlines of people caught in various postures and actions, often dancing, leaping, twisting, turning. That’s certainly what the work here looks like – light and elegant drawings of naked people — in the detail below, apparently bending stretching walking sitting – and these sketchy outlines are treated with random washes of primary colours applied in broad brushstrokes or patches.

Installation view of Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless at Tate Britain, 2019. Photo by Tate Photography

In a big white room

The room is big and light and airy. The walls are painted white and there are big skylights. I went on a sunny day. The overwhelming visual and psychological impact was of LIGHT and airiness. It felt lovely just to walk around the room, glancing now and then at the figures dancing on the wall. They felt like a sort of 21st century version of a Renaissance frieze except that the great majority of the wall had been left a pure and cleansing white.

Installation view of Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless at Tate Britain, 2019. Photo by Tate Photography

Interplay between canvas and wall

A lot of the figures – dancing, bending, posing, sitting amid blotches and spatters of yellow and orange paint – have been painted directly onto the wall. Presumably this is what it means to say the work is ‘site-specific’ in the sense that, eventually, when it ends, they will all be painted over.

Except for the half a dozen or so canvases, ranging in size from medium to very, very large, which are stuck to the walls. These canvases partake of the bigger pattern i.e. they are composed of line drawings of people in motion, with washes of paint which start on the canvas and wash over onto the walls, joining them to the bigger configuration.

On the whole, though, looking closely, it seemed to me that the figures and compositions on the canvases were more densely drawn and painted. They felt like the nexuses of the composition, out of which, and between which, flowed lines of energy. Focal points.

Installation view of Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless at Tate Britain, 2019. Photo by Tate Photography

Curators and sex

So the whole thing gave me the impression of light and airiness and dancing and happiness. Being in this room made me smile.

However, McGurn is a woman, and the curator of the installation is a woman, and so I was not at all surprised to learn, when I wandered over to the wall label, that the installation is actually all about sexuality and the body.

Much more so than their male equivalents, contemporary women artists are very often concerned with the body and sex, often with their own bodies, quite often with taking their clothes off to expose their own bodies, examine their own bodies, question their own bodies.

Both women artists and women curators are often obsessed with sex and gender in a way the rest of the world is not and in a way which has the effect of narrowing and limiting and confining responses and ideas and feelings and the imagination. This is what the curator writes:

McGurn draws on a collected archive of found imagery to create figurative installations which express notions of sexuality, ecstasy, loss and consciousness. The new body of work presented in Sleepless explores the experience of living in a city as one that is intimate and inherently sexual. The exhibition title itself evokes key themes in McGurn’s work, including partying, dreams, longing, motherhood and nostalgic popular culture, recalling the 1993 romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle.

Hmmm it is mildly interesting to learn that the piece is named after Sleepless in Seattle – although what these perfect, mute, rather Greek god-like figures have to do with very non-Greek-looking Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks is not immediately obvious. But:

‘The experience of living in a city as one that is intimate and inherently sexual.’

Hmmm. As you crowd onto the Tube at rush hour, as you wait for a bus in the rain, as you walk past deafening roadworks, as you breathe in the toxic mix of diesel fumes and carbon particulates… does your experience of living in the city strike you as being ‘inherently sexual’? Or  ‘intimate?’

My querying of these kinds of curatorial descriptions isn’t motivated by anti-intellectualism or anti-feminism. It’s that:

1. So often their descriptions of human existence seem wildly at odds with the experiences of myself, my family and everyone I know. I just asked my son if his experience of living as a student in the big city of Bristol struck him as ‘intimate and inherently sexual?’ I cannot reprint what he said. He thought I was mad.

2. More importantly, my view is that this kind of stock-in-trade obsession with sexuality, gender and identity, this kind of standardised, boilerplate rhetoric about sexuality and desire, actually conceals and masks the art itself. The art itself is made up of lines and patterns and colours. The ‘subject matter’ is an important part of it, no doubt (although learning that the title comes from Sleepless in Seattle narrows and limits and brings your experience of the wall paintings down to a very specific time and place and cultural reference with a bit of a thump).

But the art itself is a matter of lines and patterns and colours and surfaces which, as you follow them with your eyes, begin to make your imagination flow and bend and soar along with them. And as they spill over from the canvas you feel a lovely sense of freedom and unconfinedness, and as some of them dance up towards the sunny skylights you feel a wonderful sense of openness and freedom.

For me, far more important than any amount of guff about the inherent sexiness of ‘the city’ is the dynamic visual and tactile effect created by the contrast between the painted walls and the more composed canvases which stud them. That juxtaposition is visually and imaginatively exciting.

What irritates me about the way so many curators and wall labels and guides write about art is that they cramp and confine it by imposing narrow social definitions and ideas and fashionable ‘issues’ onto it, instead of attempting to explain how the art is made, and the effect it has on us. Not on our Guardian-reading social consciences, with their narrow Pavlovian responses to trigger words like gender and sexuality and race and refugees and equality and the male gaze, and the rest of contemporary art scholarship’s fantastically small and limited little box of woke issues.

But where art should and generally does work – deep down in the imagination, the soul, the spirit, the unconscious, the preconscious, on our feelings, on our feel for pattern and colour and the sometimes very fleeting moods and responses they trigger in us.

The actual art of Sleepless made me want to fly, I felt beguiled by the strange and unexpected whorls of lines and the dancing figures, which shimmer across the walls, some of them rising up into the sunlit sky.

The curator commentary on it brought me down to earth with a painful bump, thumping my mind with the worst kind of artspeak clichés.

I met a man at a dinner party the other day who goes to even more art exhibitions than me. He told me he has stopped reading any of the wall labels of any exhibitions of contemporary art, because he finds them so irritatingly narrow and repetitive and limiting. Although, by doing so, you risk missing out on important information, I’m beginning to think he’s got the right idea. That you should go to an art exhibition and just respond to the art without any interference from the curators and guides imposing their obsessive concerns with gender and race onto the visitor.

Demographics

This exhibition is FREE to stroll in, around and out of, and certainly isn’t worth going to Tate Britain just for itself – but if you’re going to Tate Britain anyway, you should make the effort to seek it out.

When I went at about noon on a weekday, there was one other person in the room.

Curators

Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless is curated by Zuzana Flaskova.


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Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers @ Tate Britain

The Asset Strippers by Mike Nelson

British installation artist Mike Nelson (b.1967) has filled the central atrium of Tate Britain with a rich collection of objects plundered from Britain’s industrial heritage, the entire installation titled The Asset Strippers.

There are old weaving machines, heavy-duty metal cabinets, two huge old-fashioned weighing scales, the threshing wheels of a tractor attachment, the huge rubber tracks from a mechanical digger. He has collected knitting machines from textile factories like the ones he grew up around in the East Midlands, woodwork stripped from a former army barracks, graffitied steel awnings once used to secure a condemned housing estate, doors from an NHS hospital, and much, much more. It is a rag and bone yard, a paradise of defunct paraphernalia artfully arranged to clutter and fill Tate’s long narrow central space.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

My experiences of manual and physical labour

I absolutely loved the sight and smell of this installation. It took me right back to my childhood. I grew up in a village store-cum-petrol station. I started working in the shop when I was about 11, graduating to the till when I was 14. They let me serve on the petrol pumps when I was 16, waiting for cars to pull in then leaping up, pulling the cold, metal, petrol nozzle out of its socket on the pump, and guiding the long, thick, dirty, rubber tube away from the pump itself and over towards the fuel filler door. Some doors you could open manually, some you had to ask the driver to ping open for you. Unscrew the metal cap or pull out the cheap plastic cap. Insert the nozzle and pull the trigger, setting off the familiar noise of the fuel pump. Asking the owner how much they wanted, then asking if they wanted their oil and water and tyre pressure checked as well.

Off to one side of the forecourt was the tyre bay where customers left their cars for a few hours and where a succession of the village lads eased the rubber tyres off with long heavy metal tyre levers, and patched up or replaced the inner tubes. Later there was an expensive new machine which gripped and removed the tyre from the metal wheel with great snorts of compressed air.

The bay was dark and smelt of rubber and oil and Swarfega. Out back of the main house was a huge shed, really a small warehouse, in which were piled hundreds of tyres of all shapes and sizes in vertical columns, towering tubes of smelly dirty rubber, often half full of stagnant oily rainwater which spilled over you as you made your way along the narrow walkways between them looking for a particular size and manufacture.

Beyond the village were the fields where you’d see the migrant workers endlessly bent over the ploughed furrows during the summer and autumn, picking vegetables, cabbage and kale, sometimes in the blistering sunshine, sometimes in the driving rain, chucking them onto the flat-bed truck pulled by a tractor which lumbered slowly in front of them. I stood at the pumps in a waterproof coat, the rain streaming down my face as I filled up another car, and wondered which of us had it worse.

Like many students, I got Christmas work as a temp postman. Going out on the rounds was fun, so long as it didn’t rain. I was fascinated by the big sorting rooms, with their arrays of metal cabinets and pigeonholes, the hundreds of fraying postal sacks everywhere, and the huge industrial weighing scales. There’s a pair of giant scales here in this exhibition. They are set on a brace of stinky, oily, creosoted old railway sleepers, with a couple of big granite rocks surreally placed on the scales themselves. They made my heart sing.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

Working as a dustman

Later, during my A-levels and in the holidays from university, I worked on building sites, and in factories. I worked as a temporary dustman in my local new town, up at 5am , on the road at 6.30am, done by noon. (Most of the dusties had second jobs they did in the afternoons. Each round had been designed to end at a pub where we a) processed all their rubbish b) had a well-earned pint.

There were two roles – pullers-out and chuckers-on (plus, I suppose, the driver). Pullers-out were dropped at the edge of this or that estate and spent an hour or so pulling out every single rubbish bag from every single rubbish bin and assembling them in piles out on the pavement. The cart would be off somewhere else for a while, clearing up another area, then, suddenly, would come storming into the puller-outs’ estate, and the chuckers-on would jump down from the bar at the back of the cart and walk along beside the cart as it drove slowly through the estate, stopping at each pile for the chuckers-on to, well, chuck the rubbish on.

The blighted landscapes of the 1970s! Rundown estates, high-rise blocks, wheel-less Ford Cortinas up on bricks, abandoned kids’ bikes and toys strewn across grass verges littered with dog poo, and everywhere rubbish, rubbish, rubbish spilling out of ripped bags onto the verges and pavement. Chicken bones, all sorts of packaging, half-eaten meals, unknown rotting vegetable matter, cardboard, sacks of ashes and burnt coals. A world of waste, every day, pulled out, piled up and chucked on by sweating, dirty, working men.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

How Mike Nelson assembled The Asset Strippers

All these thoughts and feelings and memories came flooding back as I strolled among this wonderful graveyard of old, heavy industrial machinery and furniture (cabinets and benches, looms and equipment). Work. The universe of work and the countless tools and devices and machinery which people have built and worked with over hundreds of years.

Mike Nelson assembled this collection by scouring online sales and auctions, focusing on big ‘statement’ pieces of equipment which were being sold off from closing-down factories or defunct businesses. He then arranged them:

  1. as units – most of them being made up not of one object but a pair or more of objects artfully combined
  2. carefully situated these ‘units’ throughout Tate Britain’s long narrow atrium, to create a walk-through phantasmagoria of industrial junk

The curators suggest that the pieces appear first as industrial artefacts, then you realise they have been assembled into sculptures, and from that point onwards they shimmer back and forth between mementos of the real world and aesthetic contrivances. Maybe. But my sensibility was too flooded by their size and bulk and strong industrial design. I just saw them as beautifully engineered and designed tools.

Are we really living in a post-industrial society?

The wall labels claim all these wonderful objects are testimony to, or heirlooms of, ‘a lost era and the vision of society it represented’.

I can’t help wondering if that’s true. Every week the dustmen still come and empty my bins, in fact there are more trucks than ever since there are now separate bins for waste, recycling and food, as well as periodic visits by the big caged van which takes large objects, as well as the one you order up to remove garden waste, cuttings, and prunings.

Someone picks all those up by hand. Someone drives the dustcarts back to the depot, which is supervised, run and maintained by people, who then supervise the sorting of bags into different skips, which are then sent to waste food aggregators, or to the incinerator or – at my local tip in Wandsworth – loaded onto river barges and sailed slowly down the Thames to be offloaded and carted up slopes of waste and thrown into vast landfill sites in Essex.

People do that, all of that. Driving the carts, humping the rubbish, loading the barges, skippering the tugs, docking the other end, unloading, carrying from the docks to vast holes in the ground with big diggers. Hard physical work, all down the line, involving dustcarts, huge containers loaded by massive cranes onto giant tugs pulled by big trawlers down to industrial docks and unloaded onto giant diggers which carry the waste across derelict landscapes to the big holes.

Maybe it’s not ‘industrial’ in the sense of taking place in big factors, but it is industrial in the sense of being highly mechanised and relying on giant machines powered by oil.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

Certainly all this wonderful equipment has been thrown away. But that doesn’t mean all the functions they performed have been superannuated. Far from it. It just means they’ve been replaced by newer, more effective equipment.

Indeed it is a little too easy to dismiss heavy industry, manufacturing and labouring as having somehow disappeared from Britain. For sure, the vast coal mining industry has more or less vanished, ship building pretty much gone, and industries like car-making and steel-making are much reduced and hugely more automated than they were in my youth (in the 1970s).

But, to quote the Manufacturers’ Association:

UK manufacturing is thriving, with the UK currently the world’s eighth largest industrial nation. If current growth trends continue, the UK will break into the top five by 2021. In the UK, manufacturing makes up 11% of GVA, 44% of total UK exports, 70% of business R&D, and directly employs 2.6 million people.

In other words, there are still lots and lots of our fellow citizens working with heavy machinery, in light and heavy industry, making things. And tens of thousands of people still work in docks and shipyards, at distribution centres and industrial warehouses, in agriculture and in food packing plants up and down the country, and in the basic kind of street cleaning/rubbish collection, gas-water-electricity mains maintenance jobs which I’ve described above. In manual labouring jobs.

A moment’s reflection makes me think of the huge HS2 project, and the Cross-Link project, both huge feats of engineering which require skilled workers and supervisors working with very heavy drilling, tunnel-making and railway-building equipment.

So it feels, to me at any rate, just a bit too easy for the curators to dismiss these objects as:

remnants from a bygone era… [with which] Nelson creates a melancholic journey through Britain’s recent social and political history.

Or to comment that the installation:

presents us with a vision of artefacts cannibalised from the last days of the industrial era…

Go ask the Manufacturers’ Association if we truly live in a post-industrial society, and they will tell you that the death of Britain’s manufacturing industry has been much exaggerated.

And in any case, many of these artefacts are not truly ‘industrial’.

Take the ‘doors from an NHS hospital’ which are included in the show. We still have NHS hospitals and they still have doors, so these objects are hardly ‘cannibalised from the last days of the industrial era…’

Similarly, the steel awnings used to block up the doors of abandoned council properties – well, I see the same kind of thing quite often as I cycle round my part of London, blocking up derelict buildings with steel panels still seems to be ongoing practice. So, again, there’s nothing particularly ‘industrial’ or ‘post-industrial’ about them.

The concrete tubing which features at the end of the hall, arranged on a couple of old telegraph poles, I’ve seen massive concrete tubes like that being installed in the current updates to the London water mains. And telegraph poles – we still have them, don’t we?

Many of these artefacts aren’t symbolic of anything, they’re just worn-out examples of objects which we still use and which still make up the built environment around us. To call all of this stuff ‘post-industrial’ or relics ‘from the last days of the industrial era…’ is to simplify their origins and effects.

Sure there are old-fashioned weaving looms and light engineering machinery which, yes, I dare say that’s been superseded. But rubber tyre tracks for diggers, doors for hospitals and metal grilles blocking up abandoned council houses – these are types of objects still very much in use.

What I’m driving at is I think the aesthetic and emotional, and even historical-intellectual, effects of this installation are far more complicated than the curators, and maybe even the artist himself, imagines. Some of the objects are relics of now-defunct industries and technologies. But others are just knackered examples of machinery and industrial designs which we are still using.

So the display is – in my opinion – saying something about the continuity between Britain’s heavy industrial era and the present, so-called, post-industrial age. Revealing unexpected continuities amid the wreckage of obsolescent machinery.

The dignity of work

Anyway. I loved this installation and loved these big heavy old smelly objects, loved their shape and size and weight, loved their smells of rubber and oil and machinery. I bent right down to smell the tough, rubber smell of the digger’s tracks, I wanted to open and close the huge heavy metal cabinets, I wanted to make the looms work again, I wanted to stand on the big red scale and see if it still works.

These are objects of love and veneration because they contain within them the cumulative toil and effort and care and labour of generations of workers who have spent the best hours of their lives building, installing, maintaining and using this equipment.

For me this huge installation is a hymn to the dignity of working life – which I know as well as anyone, is often undignified, dirty and degrading in itself – but which gains in human dignity by virtue of the effort and concentration and care which has gone into it. Here’s the section of big concrete tubing laid out on a ‘stand’ made of telegraph poles I mentioned earlier. I loved its round shape. I loved the smell of the wooden poles and the lost functionality indicated by the couple of white porcelain insulators, the bit which held the electric wires separate from the main pole and visible at the bottom of the photo.

All placed on rust-resistant-painted steel bars and laid on the kind of massive tarpaulin sheet you find in any number of industrial site.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

The installation is divided into three sections, with knackered wooden partitions dividing them off and creating walkways across the atrium for visitors going to other exhibitions. Even these partitions are made from the remnants of old buildings, with heavy wooden doors which many of the visitors I saw hesitated to touch or open because they looked, well, old and intimidating.

What beautiful objects! What an inspiring installation!

It prompted all kinds of half-articulate thoughts and feelings. Made me remember all the physical labouring job I’ve had, the memory of all the things my hands have held and lifted, in sun and rain and snow.

And reflect poignantly on the trillions of man and woman hours of work which have been expended in this country, in the toil and use of so many machines, so much equipment, from trawlers hauling in nets in the North sea to coalminers using heavy drills in South Wales, from the shipbuilders riveting and welding on the Clyde, to the fleets of light engineering factories along the A4, where my old man started his working life.

We commemorate the dead of the Great War or D-Day in big public ceremonies. I can’t quite see how it could be done practically, but we should also rejoice celebrate mourn condole and remember the vast amount of work work work our forebears carried out, day after day, dutifully, sometimes with love, sometimes with loathing. For better or worse we live amid the result of all their efforts. It is insulting to dismiss this vast, unimaginable legacy of toil and sweat in a few glib sentences. This exhibition is a moving tribute to the pith and marrow of our forebears’ lives, to the achievements of all their work.

Work by the Blue Orchids (1981)

Curators

Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers is curated by Clarrie Wallis, Senior Curator of Contemporary British Art, Tate, and Elsa Coustou, Curator of Contemporary British Art, Tate.


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