Quentin Blake: From the Studio @ the House of Illustration

Sir Quentin Blake is arguably the UK’s most famous book illustrator, as well as a fine artist, designer and writer in his own right. He was a leading spirit behind the establishment of the House of Illustration, the only gallery in the UK devoted entirely to the work of illustrators, which opened in 2014, and is housed in a restored Victorian building spitting distance from King’s Cross station.

The House has three galleries. In the main one (three rooms and a small video room) at the moment is a retrospective of work by cartoonist and graphic novelist Posy Simmonds. In the second gallery (one biggish room) is an exhibition of works by the Taiwanese artist YiMiao Shih. In between these two is a really small, L-shaped room. This is the permanent Quentin Blake gallery, tribute to the nation’s most popular illustrator and a pay-off we presume for leading the campaign to set up the gallery.

The Quentin Blake gallery hosts a changing display of works by the great man on different themes, for example last Valentine’s Day it featured a set of twenty or so very funny cartoons on the theme of love and cupid’s arrow.

The current exhibition is titled ‘From the studio’ which allows Blake to tell us a little about his working practices. He tells us that for the past forty years most of his works have been produced in a room overlooking a tree-lined London square. He stands with his back to the French windows and balcony, pen in hand. The room contains four ‘plan chests’ and two tables and a litter of drawings.

The exhibition allows him to share with us some works in progress, first drafts of illustrations which he is currently working on.

Sheffield Children’s Hospital

Sheffield Children’s Hospital opened a new wing opened last year, containing has four wards which, alongside beds also offers therapy and treatment rooms, a patient dining room, a parents’ relaxation room, a social room for teenagers, and a ‘play tower’ installation, for younger children.

Blake was commissioned to create artworks for the walls of corridors in three of the wing’s wards, and as larger-scale murals in communal areas. The designs were drawn on paper, then scanned, enlarged and printed in large scale onto washable wall coverings.

Mural by Quentin Blake at Sheffield Children’s Hospital

The King of the Golden River

In 1841 the critic John Ruskin published this children’s story as a parable about the impact of human actions on the environment. This year the book was republished by Thames and Hudson with illustrations by Blake. Blake tells us that he went about illustrating it ‘the old-fashioned way’, cutting up the text to stick it into position, then drawing in rough illustrations around it.

From The King of the Golden River © Quentin Blake

Moonlight travellers

Blake’s series of paintings of people travelling through bleak moonlit landscapes began as a personal project in 2017, as an experiment in pure imagination. Later this year they will be published alongside a ‘response’ by author Will Self. He is quoted as saying ‘made them up as I went along, almost like a performance’.

Moonlight Travellers © Quentin Blake

Mouse on a Tricycle

This wordless book opens with a tiny picture of a mouse on a tricycle. It imagines the public’s response to the fact of a cycling rodent. Some cheer it on, some are outraged, some are scared, some deliver hectoring sermons. I loved this picture. It says so much about human nature.

Mouse on a Tricycle © Quentin Blake

It is incredible how just a handful of drawings and paintings can fill your heart with happiness and delight!


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Faith Ringgold @ the Serpentine Gallery

‘I can’t get through the world without recognizing that race and sex influence
everything I do in my life.’ Faith Ringgold

Cycle through London’s diesel-polluted streets to the Serpentine Galleries for the launch of the second of two exhibitions showcasing the art of American woman artists. This one is a ground-breaking survey of the work of African-American woman artist Faith Ringgold.

Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow #1: Somebody Stole My Broken Heart (2004) by Faith Ringgold © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

Faith Ringgold’s biography

The press release includes a potted biography of the artist, thus:

Faith Ringgold was born in Harlem, New York in 1930 (so she is currently 88 years old).

Faith Ringgold is an artist, teacher, lecturer and author of numerous award-winning children’s books.

Faith Ringgold received her BS and MA degrees in visual art from City College of New York in 1955 and 1959.

A Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of California in San Diego, Ringgold has received 23 Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees.

Ringgold is the recipient of more than 80 awards and honours including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, The American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and recently the Medal of Honour for Fine Arts from the National Arts Club.

In 2017, Ringgold was elected a member into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston.

Ringgold’s work has been shown internationally, most recently:

  • in the group exhibition Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, London (2017)
  • We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965 – 85, Brooklyn Museum (2017)
  • Post-Picasso Contemporary Reactions, Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Spain (2014)
  • American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960’s, the Neuberger Museum, Purchase, New York (2011)

Ringgold’s work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums in the United States including:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Museum of Modern Art
  • Whitney Museum of American Art
  • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
  • The Brooklyn Museum
  • The Studio Museum in Harlem
  • The National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC
  • The Art Institute of Chicago
  • The Boston Museum of Fine Art

Politics

Ringgold’s art is drenched in politics, specifically American race politics, from the Civil Rights Movement through Black Power to Black Lives Matter. And in feminism, the women’s movement, from women’s liberation through to the #Metoo movement. Almost all her works have a subject, and that subject is political in intention, either publicly and polemically political, or more subtly personal, implicit in the stories of her extended families and their experiences as black people in America.

The Flag is Bleeding #2 (American Collection #6) (1997) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As the press release puts it:

For more than five decades, Ringgold has consistently challenged perceptions of African American identity and gender inequality through the lenses of the feminist and the civil rights movements. As cultural assumptions and prejudices persist, her work retains its contemporary resonance.

Hence she has produced series of works with titles like ‘Slave Rape’ and the ‘Feminist series’, and ‘Black Light’, and works like ‘Woman Free Yourself’.

Protest and activism have remained integral to Ringgold’s practice since she co-founded the group the National Black Feminist Organization in 1973 along with her then 18 year-old daughter, Michele Wallace.

In her earliest works in the 1960s, the ‘American People’ series (1963-67), Ringgold took ‘the American dream’ as her subject to expose social inequalities.

By the 1970s, Ringgold, along with her daughter, was leading protests against the lack of diversity in the exhibitions programme at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Forty years later her work was included in an exhibition at the same museum, on the subject of protest.

Fifty years after her earliest work, she published in 2016 We Came to America, a children’s book that celebrates cultural diversity. From start to finish her art is concerned with the political implications of black life in America.

And as a white man viewing the exhibition, I have no doubt African Americans were horribly oppressed – through centuries of slavery, the inequities of the Reconstruction period, the Jim Crow laws, lynchings, segregation in the Deep South which lasted well into my own lifetime – and that Ringgold’s work is testimony to the enduring hurt and trauma of the suffering of the black experience in America right up to the present day.

But… well… I feel I have watched so many documentaries, been to so many exhibitions, watched so many movies and TV shows and read so many books about the suffering of African Americans that, horrible and true though it all is… well…The subject is certainly not new.

And also, although her treatment of it is sometimes harsh and explicit, more often it is oblique, with a lot of emphasis on Ringgold’s own personal experiences and the stories of her extended family.

And also the nature of the art itself – the use of soft and even luxurious fabrics – tends to soften and mediate the impact of a lot of what she’s saying.

The art

What I’m struggling to define is that I found the subject matter of many of the works less interesting than the form and the variety of experiments in form and presentation which Ringgold has made throughout her career as an artist rather than as a political activist.

Rather than shaking my head at the atrocities of slavery and institutional violence against African Americans, I more often found myself nodding my head at the inventiveness and exuberance and optimism of much of her art.

Roughly speaking, the works came in four shapes or styles:

  1. Paintings
  2. Posters
  3. Tankas
  4. Quilts

These four can be divided into a simpler binary division – before and after the tankas.

1. Paintings

Her earliest works appear to be fairly traditional paintings, mostly of people, contemporary Americans, done in a naive, kind of cartoon Modernism. The earliest works here come from the ‘American People’ series, which mostly depict white bourgeois figures with more than a hint of irony or satire.

As such, some of them sort of reminded me of Weimar satire from the 1930s. The reduction of this woman’s neck and boobs to circles and tubes, and the deliberately garish unnatural colouring reminded me of 1930s Picasso.

American People #9: The American Dream (1964) Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There are about ten or so of these early paintings and their feel for design and layout, and their type of super-simplified, Henri Rousseau-style, naive figuration is extremely beguiling.

American People #15: Hide Little Children (1966) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

As the 60s progressed Ringgold created a series titled ‘Black Light’ which took the same kind of stylised human faces, but experimented with casting them in varying shades of black and brown. Literally investigating the changing effects of blackness and brownness in painted portraits.

2. Posters

By the later 1960s the social situation in America had become revolutionised, not least for African Americans, with the much more aggressive Black Power and Black Panther groups replacing the peaceful, early 60s, Christian activism of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. Also, the Women’s Liberation movement was inaugurated and spread like wildfire through a generation of frustrated, intelligent women, impatient at being pigeon-holed, stereotyped, objectified and held back in every area of civil life.

Ringgold responded to this explosion of activism by creating banners and posters with stark textual messages, such as ‘Woman Free yourself’, ‘Woman Freedom Now’, ‘United States of Attica’ (a response to the uprising at Attica Prison in New York State where 2,000 prisoners seized hostages and held out for four days till the state police took back control in a pitched battle in which 43 people were killed [10 staff, 33 prisoners]).

The posters use cut-out paper to create vibrant text against jangling colours, as well as offset prints and silkscreen techniques. Text, colour, patterns and shapes.

Woman Free Angela (1971) by Faith Ringgold

Next to the posters are hung a series of images from the same period (1970-72) depicting the American flag – ‘The People’s Flag Show’ as well as ‘United States of America’ – a map on which has been written every instance of anti-black police brutality. Politics, black anger.

There’s one titled ‘Judson 3’ which refers to the following event:

In 1970, there was a Flag Show that took place at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park, for which Faith designed the poster. The show, after massive participation on the part of artists in New York, was closed by the Attorney General’s office. Faith, Jon Hendricks and Jon Toche were arrested and charged with Desecration of the Flag. As a consequence, they were dubbed the Judson 3. They were subsequently vindicated of all charges on appeal by lawyers who were assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union. It was an important case for Freedom of Speech among artists.

So Ringgold herself was directly, personally, physically involved in the kinds of protests and events she celebrates.

The urgency of the commitment to political issues at the end of the 60s, which found expression in posters, placards, banners, mottos and logos, reminds me of the banners and posters being made at exactly the same time by the nun-turned-artist Corita Kent, who was recently the subject of an eye-opening exhibition at the House of Illustration at King’s Cross.

3. Tankas

So far so bold, brash and colourful. But her career takes a massive and decisive shoft with the discovery of fabrics. 

The story goes that Ringgold was on a visit to Europe and in a museum in Amsterdam looking at the venerable art of the Old Masters, when someone suggested she take a look at a nearby display of tankas.

tanka is a Tibetan hanging tapestry made of cotton or silk which contains or frames a painting of Buddhist deities, scenes, or a mandala. Tankas are generally portrait-shape and very, very big.

In a flash Ringgold realised this represented a liberation from the western white male tradition of the Oil Painting.

Here was something which broke with traditions of painting, of a discrete privileged image contained in and defined by a heavy gold frame and hung on a wall to be admired by millionaire owners.

Here was a way of presenting images within a much more populist, accessible, craft setting – and in a way which created a much more complicated interplay of fabrics and textures and mixed surfaces.

Almost immediately after the trip, in 1972-3, Ringgold made a series titled ‘Feminist series’ which explores this new medium. The oriental origin of the form appears to be reflected in:

  • the tall narrow format
  • the impressionistic treatment of trees and forests
  • and the use of text (as in the posters) but written vertically, in the Chinese style, completely against the western tradition

In the example below, note the way a) the main image is painted in acrylic but b) embedded in a fairly complex surround of fabrics c) the way it is designed to be hung and so has a loop of fabric at the top allowing a metal bar like a curtain rail to go through it and d) there are braided tassels hanging from each end of the curtain loop. (N.B. There is some text in the blue sky at the top of the painting, descending vertically as I mentioned, and conveying a feminist message – but too small to be legible in this reproduction.)

Feminist Series: We Meet the Monster #12 of 20 by Faith Ringgold (1972) Acrylic on canvas framed in cloth

A door had opened. From this point onwards, all of Ringgold’s work right up to the present day involves greater or lesser amounts of fabric.

A few years later (in 1974) she produced a series titled ‘Windows of the Wedding’, experiments with using the fabric surround of the tanka to frame purely abstract geometric shapes. In just a decade she’s come from the semi-Weimar satire on white people in America through to these multi-textured, abstract and fabric experiments. A hell of an odyssey.

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

The five examples of the series in the exhibition take up one wall and create a restful, if complicatedly decorative effect. But they appear to be quite unique in her oeuvre in being the only works on display here which do not depict the human face or figure. It was nice to sit and watch them for a while. Ringgold is known – perhaps over-known – for her black consciousness and feminist messages but I’m glad the curators showed that there is also this other, purely decorative side to her output.

In the final room we jump forward nearly 40 years to 2010, when she produced another series of tankas, each of these ones centring an iconic black figure, painted in a faux-naive style in the centre and surrounded with relevant text from a sermon or speech or text by the figure (too small to see in this photo).

Each portrait is embedded in a decorative arrangement of flowers, or just zoomorphic shapes, and this square it itself embedded in a luxurious velvet fabric which really makes you want to reach out and stroke them. As you can see each tanka is suspended from a green wooden rod at each end of which hangs a couple of golden tassels. Made me think of Muslim prayer mats or rugs… Certainly a tradition very different from Rembrandt in a gold frame.

From left to right, they are:

  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Martin Luther King Jnr Tanka #3 I Have A Dream (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Sojourner Truth Tanka #2 Ain’t I A Woman (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Harriet Tubman Tanka #1 Escape To Freedom (2010),

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

4. Quilts

And then there are the quilts. Melissa Blanchflower, the show’s curator, explained that Ringgold’s great, great grandmother Susie Shannon, who was born into slavery, was made to sew quilts for plantation owners. On the slave plantations slave women were often set to sew and create quilts for the master’s family. It was collaborative work, many women working on the same quilt. The quilts might bear all kinds of images, from Christian imagery, through to fairy tales or folk stories, as well as improving mottos. The women might also sew in coded messages.

The skill was passed down the female line of the family to Ringgold’s mother, who was a fashion designer, so that Faith grew up with the sight and smell and touch and shape of all kinds of fabrics, and a feel for what goes with what, what compliments, and what jars and offsets – for the world of effects which can be created by pre-designed fabrics.

The difference between the tankas and the quilts is that the former are designed to be hung while the latter end up being hung but can also be laid flat. The real innovation is in the use of the apparently passive ‘feminine’ format of the quilt for all kinds of vivid, angry and emotive social messages.

Take the emotive series titled ‘Slave Rape’. In this photo you can see:

  • Slave Rape #1 of 3: Fear Will Make You Weak (1973)
  • Slave Rape #2 of 3: Run You Might Get Away (1973)
  • Slave Rape #3 of 3: Fight To Save Your Life (1973)

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

If you described the subject and the figure’s facial attitudes and postures in words, your auditor might expect them to be dark and harrowing but, as you can see, they are brightly coloured, and the figures done in Ringgold’s characteristic faux-naive style are almost (I hate to say it) pretty.

Only the titles bespeak the atrocities they commemorate. And, after I’d looked at the human figures, and enjoyed their interplay with the jungle foliage around them, my eye tended to forget the ostensible subject matter and wandered off to enjoy the fabrics – the use of variegated fabrics in the surrounds, materials which could easily be offcuts of curtains or sofa coverings, but which, sewn together in subtle asymmetries, provide a pleasing counterpoint to the central narrative figures.

In later quilts Ringgold revived the use of texts from her poster days to weave together her personal stories and writings with the history of African Americans. ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ from 1983 was her first ‘story quilt’, made up of alternating squares containing schoolgirl-style depictions of members of her family, and numbered squares of text, which tell the story of her early life.

Installation view of ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ by Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

There are half a dozen or so of these story quilts from the later 1980s and they combine a complex interplay of hand-written text with painted imagery, embedded in patchworks of fabric, to create a profound impact – a sophisticated, politically alert reworking of a time-honoured, and family tradition.

Works from the 1990s, such as the ‘American Collection’ series (with titles such as ‘We Came To America’ and ‘The Flag is Bleeding’ [the second image in this review, above] combine all the techniques she has mastered, to create images of greater violence and intensity. After the hope of the 1960s, life for many urban American blacks seems to have become steadily bleaker, more drug addicted and violent, and the experience of immigrants to America more fraught and dangerous.

And yet the same period saw the far more relaxed, vibrant and optimistic series ‘Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow’ (first image in this review).

Ringgold has reflected her times, and the rise and cultural spread of the two great social movements of black power and feminism over the past fifty years, but there is also – within her voice or brand or oeuvre – a surprising variety of tone and style.

Arriving back at the ‘American People’ series from the 1960s you are staggered at the journey she has been on, and by all the things she has seen and felt and expressed with such confidence and imagination. She did it her way. She did it with style. Inspiring.

Interview with Faith Ringgold

A conversation between Faith Ringgold and Serpentine Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist.

In fact, being a grand old lady of American art means there are scads of videos about Faith Ringgold and many illuminating interviews with her.


Related links

  • Faith Ringgold continues at the Serpentine Gallery until 20 October 2019

Books by Faith Ringgold

Shes quite a prolific author, too.

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Quentin Blake: Voyages to the Moon and the Sun @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration contains three galleries. The main one is currently hosting an overview of the career of designer and fabric-maker Enid Marx (1902-1998). Through the double doors to one side of the reception area-cum-shop is a corridor leading to the south gallery, currently hosting a display of work by Christy Burdock.

And leading off this corridor is the small and quirky Quentin Blake Gallery. Blake gets a space to himself because he was the lead instigator of the campaign to get a gallery opened devoted solely to illustrators, and thus the founding patron of the House of Illustration.

The 'moon' section of the display of Quentin Blake's illustrations for Voyages to the Moon and the Sun at the house of Illustration

The ‘moon’ section of the display of Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Voyages to the Moon and the Sun at the House of Illustration. Note the dark night-time wallpaper!

The Quentin Blake Gallery at House of Illustration

To quote the museum blurb:

The Quentin Blake Gallery at House of Illustration is the permanent gallery of the UK’s most celebrated illustrator. Changing exhibitions are drawn from Blake’s own collection as well as his unparalleled personal archive of over 35,000 works, offering a unique insight into his contribution to art, education and public life, as well as his own creative practice.

The space

The Quentin Blake Gallery turns out to be a tiny but stylishly presented L-shaped room. It is currently hosting a display of 25 drawings Blake made to illustrate the early science fantasy story, Voyages to the Moon and the Sun by the 17th century libertine, poet and playwright, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Voyages to the Moon and The Sun © Quentin Blake

Voyages to the Moon and The Sun © Quentin Blake

Blake first illustrated the text for The Folio Society in 1991. Now he’s revisited the book and added some more illustrations for a new edition released this year. The exhibition displays a selection of Blake’s humorous drawings for both editions.

Voyages to the Moon and the Sun was first published in Paris in 1657. The main character, also named Cyrano, travels to the Moon, is imprisoned on Earth and then escapes to the Sun, where he is put on trial by its resident birds. The wall labels quote Blake as saying:

What attracted me first of all to Cyrano de Bergerac’s book was the multiplicity of things to draw – of unexpected things to draw. But that is the nature of the book itself. It is a precursor to Gulliver’s Travels, but where Jonathan Swift is bent on satire Cyrano is interested in everything and questions everything. In the mid-17th century he describes the audio book, wonders if plants have feelings, and is rocket-launched to the Moon. Everyone should know him.

What is not to love and adore about Blake’s scratchy, quirky, vivid and always good-humoured illustrations?

Voyages to the Moon and the Sun by Quentin Blake

Illustration for Voyages to the Moon and the Sun © Quentin Blake

Idle thoughts

FLYING AND FALLING Blake delights in depicting people falling. A moment’s reflection makes you realise that when (cartoon) people are falling they can be depicted in absolutely any posture, as any combination of windmilling limbs you fancy and with any number of possible expressions on their faces. Not only is falling a kind of ultimate dream or fantasy, from the point of view of the viewer, but for the artist it offers limitless permutations.

Falling acrobat by Quentin Blake

Falling acrobat © Quentin Blake

BIRDS Blake has a special affinity with birds. Not only can they fly (a major preoccupation) but they come in an astonishing range of shapes and sizes. Big ones can be super-powerful, like the four eagles we see carrying Cyrano through the air. Or they can be small and pert, like a small parrot which is wearing a crown in one of the pictures, and – since Cyrano appears to be bowing to it – is presumably the King of the Birds.

Or birds can just be weird and wonderful, like the ostrich we see Cyrano riding. You can do a lot with birds!

Voyages to the Moon and the Sun © Quentin Blake

Illustration for Voyages to the Moon and the Sun © Quentin Blake

The House of Illustration takes an impressive amount of effort to dress the Blake Gallery appropriately to each exhibition. The previous show was based on Valentine’s Day and so the walls were painted a vivid pink.

Here – given the dual nature of the subject – a voyage to the moon and a separate voyage to the sun – the two parts of the L-shaped room have been painted different shades of blue, dark for the night-time moon, lighter for the daytime sun.

The 'Sun' wing of the Quentin Blake exhibition at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

The ‘Sun’ wing of the Quentin Blake exhibition at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Captions, please

I have one niggle. The gallery has gone to a lot of trouble with the wall colour, and with printing onto the walls emblems of moon and sun, and also some evocative quotes from the de Bergerac story.

What was lacking, what I would sorely have loved, was a sentence or two describing which part of the narrative each picture was illustrating. Explaining what was going on. As it is, the drawings have no names, titles or explanations whatsoever. I’d like to have known just why Cyrano was being carried off by four eagles, whether it really was the King of the Birds he was bowing to, and so on.

Well, maybe I’ll have to buy the book to find out.

This is a neat, imaginative and – as always- humorous little display. How can you fail with Quentin Blake? £7.50 gets you admission to this, and the Enid Marx, and the Christy Burdock exhibitions. Excellent value!


Related links

Also currently on at the House of Illustration

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Enid Marx: Print, Pattern and Popular Art @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration has three galleries and three exhibitions on at any given time.

Just opened in the Main Gallery is an impressive retrospective of textile designer, printmaker and illustrator Enid Marx (1902-1998). Marx was at the Royal College of Art in 1922, where her contemporaries included Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, and together with the latter in particular she helped to define the look and feel of mid-20th century commercial design.

Designs by Enid Marx

Designs by Enid Marx

The exhibition coincides with the 20th anniversary of Marx’s death and is the most comprehensive retrospective of her work mounted in the last 40 years. It brings together over 150 pieces from private and public collections, many displayed for the first time and is divided among the Main Gallery’s four rooms.

Room 4

Arguably the best way to start is to go to the smallest room (on the left) and watch the five-minute film about Enid which is playing in a loop and which features contributions from fellow print-makers, friends and art scholars.

The film introduces you to what I think are two important elements: she was not a fine artist working in oil or sculpture to make big depictions of the human condition or portraits or nudes; the reverse: she was first and foremost a textile or fabric designer who also tried her hand at designing book jackets, book illustration, posters, stamps, train seats and so on.

And this is the second thought – the diversity of her output. According to a friend in the film she was never happier than when drawing pen in hand, or using the tools to carve out of wood or lino a block for printing.

Room 1

Room one is dominated by a huge blow-up of a drawing of Enid’s studio at number 43 Ordance Road, St John’s Wood, made by her friend Eric Ravilious, which has been printed onto the gallery wall. This sets the tone of a kind of cluttered, homely workspace, of the makeshift setup of a young artist just setting out to forge a career.

Installation view of Enid Marx at the House of Illustration showing the wall-sized sketch of Marx's flat by Eric Ravilious, wall cases of fabrics and a central display of tools. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation view of Enid Marx at the House of Illustration showing the wall-sized sketch of Marx’s flat by Eric Ravilious, wall cases of fabrics and a central display of tools. Photo by Paul Grover

The room introduces us to ten or so large fabric designs, mostly assembled (if I’ve understood this correctly) by carving the original pattern into a woodblock, then inking the block and imprinting it on ready-made fabric, then re-inking the block and printing the section of fabric next to it, and so on, to make repeat-pattern prints. This is a very laborious hand process which made the resulting fabrics quite expensive.

The first of the ten display cases in the exhibition contains the very tools that Marx used in her craft, including a folding holder for wood cutting tools, an ‘ogee’ and ‘spook’ wood block, as well as an invitation to one of her earliest shows, a studio card, a dye recipe book copied out laboriously by hand, textile samples, an order book and so on. All very practical, very business like.

Being a woman

Enid suffered various professional disadvantages from being a woman. At the Royal College of Art she was banned from the Design department where the wood carving equipment was kept, although Ravilious used to sneak her in after hours. She was refused a diploma at the painting school because she was considered too modern. At various points in later life she was blocked out of commissions or not given adequate technical information to fulfil them.

I expected an emphasis on this part of her story, given the domination of art scholarship and art curation by women who feel they have to bring out the grievances and injustices experienced by all women in the past.

Enid Marx working on a textile design post-1945

Enid Marx working on a textile design post-1945

What was more interesting because less expected was the way one of the historians in the film pointed out that Marx benefited from the growth of women-led shops and businesses in the 1920s and 30s.

After the Great War women emerged more independent, with greater spending power. Thus shops with all kinds of domestic and fashionable goods sprang up to cater for this new market, and alongside them, a network of new women designers, craftspeople, businesswomen and so on.

Thus after leaving the Royal College of Art, Enid became assistant to Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher who were reviving the old technique of using hand-carved blocks of wood. Her work from the 1930s was popular with clients such as the women-led craft shops Dunbar Hay and the Little Gallery.

Her talent was eventually to become widely acknowledged. Among other accolades, she was the first female engraver to be awarded the title of Royal Designer for Industry.

This first room, then, gives us a basic introduction to her life, to some examples of the large, repeat-pattern fabric designs, explained how there was a new market for them in the 1920s, and shows us some of the tools of the trade.

Room 2

Room two is the biggest room and contains an impressive variety of her design output from the 1920s to the 1960s. Where to start?

In 1929 she made her first designs for the covers of books by Chatto and Windus, initially as wood engravings, then as lithographic or line-block reproduction in colour. She designed book covers for the Curwen Press throughout the 1930s and in 1939 won a contract to design the covers of some of the new King Penguins, starting with Some British Moths by Norman Riley in 1945.

Small and discreet and dignified, these stylishly patterned covers are objects of great beauty.

Book cover designs by Enid Marx

Book cover designs by Enid Marx

In 1937 London Underground commissioned young designers to submit ideas for new seating moquettes, ‘a thick pile fabric used for carpets and upholstery’. The design had to be woven into the fabric not printed on top of it, as Enid had previously done, so this represented a whole new set of technical challenges.

The exhibition includes a couple of big panels showing two of the fabrics she eventually designed and London Transport purchased. Imaginatively, the curators of the exhibition have embedded these samples in a wall-sized blow up of a black and white photo of an old Tube train carriage, showing them in situ.

Installation view of Enic Marx at the House of Illustration showing her designs for Tube train seat covers

Installation view of Enid Marx at the House of Illustration showing her designs for Tube train seat covers placed over an enlarged b&w photo of an old Tube carriage

In 1944 Enid was recruited to the Board of Trade Utility Furniture Committee to design curtain and seating fabrics to be sold at a fixed, affordable price to owners of bombed-out homes. She created 30 upholstery and curtain fabric designs using limited wartime supplies of yarn.

In 1951 she was invited to design the stamps to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Next to these rather staid creations, featuring an orthodox photobust of the Queen are displayed the much more funky set she designed 20 years later around the theme of medieval English embroidery.

Stamps designed by Enid Marx, 1976

Stamps designed by Enid Marx, 1976

In 1957 Enid was commissioned to design two London Underground posters featuring London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo. Many of her earlier designs and illustrations had featured animals, birds and fish so this was a great pleasure for her. The results are funky sharp prints full of colour.

The end wall of room two features a dozen or so prints made from woodcuts showing she was a real mistress of this technique. Her woodcuts were used for book illustrations and covers, catalogues, book plates and repeat patterns. There are several impressive big woodcuts of cats and one of sunflowers. To my mind they echo the ‘primitive’ technique of some German Expressionists but utterly transformed into a world of charm and feminine tranquility.

The Main Gallery at the House of Illustration displaying Marx's prints (on the far wall), London Underground posters (on the right wall) and books and children's illustrations (in the display cases)

The Main Gallery at the House of Illustration displaying Marx’s prints (on the far wall, left), London Underground posters (on the right wall) and books and children’s illustrations (in the display cases)

Some of the display cases give abundant evidence of the fun she had designing ‘chapbooks’ (cheaply produced booklets), quiz books, story books and so on for children. These were ideal for wartime rationing conditions. She created a couple of sheets of paper titled Menagerie which contained the outlines of animals which could be cut up and folded together to make 3-D toys. She designed a 1939 chapbook with animal stories attached to each of the 26 letters of the alphabet.

Envelope for Menagerie Cut Out Game, Royle Publications (1947) by by Enid Marx. Courtesy of Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

Envelope for Menagerie Cut Out Game, Royle Publications (1947) by by Enid Marx. Courtesy of Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

She wrote a children’s story early in the Second World War titled Bulgy the Barrage Balloon, quickly followed by Nelson, the Kite of the King’s NavyThe Pigeon Ace and The Little White Bear.

Room 3

Room three offers an insight into Enid’s private life. In 1931 she met the historian Margaret Lambert and they were to spend the rest of their long lives together, known to their friends as ‘Marco’ and ‘Lambo’.

They shared an interest in British folk and traditional art, travelling far and wide and collecting a huge range of examples of popular and demotic art. This room is packed with charming and touching examples.

Installation view of Edith Marx at the House of Illustration showing some of her collection of folk art

Installation view of some of Edith Marx’s collection of folk art at the House of Illustration

It led to the book English Popular and Traditional Art, published in 1946, which aimed to showcase ‘the art which ordinary people have created for their own lives in contrast to the “fine arts” made for special patrons’.

Enid hoped that folk art would suggest a way ahead for English art which would reject the coldness and brutality of Modernism in favour of an art of ‘gaiety, delight in bright colours and a sense of well-balanced design.’

It’s a lovely note to end on, democratic, open to novelty and eccentricity, profoundly English and deeply affectionate, quietly loving, charming and humorous. Next to this entertaining bric-a-brac are hung three lovely landscape watercolours by Enid. It would have been nice to see more of those.

Marx, Bawden and Ravilious

The exhibition guide – and other sources you read about Enid – laments that she is not as well known as Ravilious and Bawden, both of whose reputations are currently undergoing a revival.

Having just visited the fabulous new exhibition of Edward Bawden at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, I can suggest two reasons for this. One is that – putting aside any assessment of the quality of their respective work – Ravilious in the 1930s, and Bawden much more so on the 1950s and 60s, were lucky enough / proactive enough, to be involved in book-length projects which promoted their work.

Enid certainly did illustrations for, and wrote her own children’s books, as well as making charming woodcuts for nursery rhymes and the alphabet, all of which are in evidence here. But Ravilious produced a set of illustrations for the classic 1938 book High Street (text by the architectural historian J. M. Richards), as well as sets of illustrations like his project to do watercolours of all the ancient figures carved out of the turf on the southern Downs, which had real mass appeal.

An illustration from High Street by Eric Ravilious and J.M. Richards

An illustration from High Street by Eric Ravilious and J.M. Richards

The large number of gorgeous cartoon-like pictures he did of the English high street or countryside can to this day be repackaged into books, calendars and cards, every one of which is immediately ‘grabby’.

Or compare Bawden’s reinvention of himself after the Second World War as a master of linocut printing, especially of architectural subjects, producing not only attractively stylised images of Brighton, or London landmarks or markets – but sets and series of them, which could be packaged up into books such as Bawden’s London, which also lend themselves to the world of calendars, postcards, posters and so on.

By contrast, although everything she did is striking and attractive, Enid doesn’t seem to have produced the same kind of sets or series designed to accompany a general text, in the way that Bawden and Ravilious did. Maybe this is one reason why her work then, and now, is less easily accessible.

Reason Number Two might be something to do with the nature of commercial and abstract design itself, which is that it works very well in situ, in context, but – taken out of context – loses power and impact.

Patterns and designs by Enid Marx at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Patterns and designs by Enid Marx at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Each one of Enid’s designs was made for a reason and context (curtain, chair cover, book cover) in which it made a statement. Each one is certainly worthy of study and admiration (I noticed the number of visitors to this exhibition with their noses right up against the glass, studying the detail of the designs). But if you take large numbers of her designs and place them next to each other, it tends to dissipate the impact rather than augment it. For some reason a whole load of snippets of design patterns placed together tend to neutralise each other.

By contrast, if you place Edward Bawden’s six big linocut prints of London markets together they complement and empower each other, making a strong cumulative statement.

Covent Garden by Edward Bawden (1967)

Covent Garden by Edward Bawden (1967)

Apart from the strong styling, each of Bawden’s illustrations has a kind of narrative – the element of human figures going about their work – which is both attractive, and builds up interest the more examples you see.

By contrast, Enid’s designs are not only subtle and small-scale (the book covers are only meant to be book sized) but mostly have no narrative or any kind of feature you can take and accumulate. Abstract patterns don’t tell a story.

Summary

To summarise, Enid a) mostly devoted herself to abstract designs, which, taken out of context as snippets, tend to appeal only to specialists, and don’t take well to being displayed en masse in a gallery. b) When she did do more figurative work – in her book illustrations and large prints – the illustrations were for books which remained obscure (wartime chapbooks, the children’s books which haven’t lasted) and the prints, lovely in themselves, don’t lend themselves to packaging up into books with strong themes or selling angles.

Her work, in other words, has a subtlety and understatement which doesn’t lend itself to the variety of commercial exploitation which that of Ravilious and Bawden does. And these may be some of the reasons why her work tends to be overlooked when 1930s and 1940s design and art is discussed.

Anyway, hopefully this lovely, uplifting exhibition will go a long way to raising her profile, winning her new fans and enthusiasts, and to making her name one to mention in the same breath as her contemporaries.

Co-curators

The co-curators are Dr Alan Powers, author of the first monograph on Enid Marx (Lund Humphries) and House of Illustration curator, Olivia Ahmad.

The House of Illustration

House of Illustration is the UK’s only public gallery dedicated solely to illustration and graphic art. Founded by Sir Quentin Blake it opened in July 2014 in King’s Cross, London. Its exhibition programme explores historic and contemporary illustration as well as the work of emerging illustrators, and is accompanied by a vibrant programme of talks and events.

Feline Phantasy. Linocut in four colours (1948) by Enid Marx © Estate of Enid Marx

Feline Phantasy. Linocut in four colours (1948) by Enid Marx © Estate of Enid Marx


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Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the art of the (female) Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964 and still going strong, so something of a mid-career snapshot. It brings together over 100 works in the five enormous exhibition rooms of Hayward Gallery, plus some work located outside.

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing showing Monster Pink (left) and Civitas Solis II (in the background) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

As you walk into room one, you immediately realise that much of Lee’s art is big, involving costumes, installations, mannequins and dummies.

You also realise that it is done to a high degree of finish. Everything looks very professional and seamless. It comes as no surprise to learn that much of her recent work is conceived by her but created by a studio of craftspeople and technicians.

I’m always a little envious of my teenage kids. When they come to art exhibitions like this, they roam at will, attracted by whatever is big and brash, rarely bothering with the boring wall labels or grown-up ‘issues’, enjoying things purely for what they look like and how much fun they are. They would certainly find lots to admire here, from the point of view of the spectacular and dramatic.

Monster Pink, pictured above, is accompanied by Monster White both of which look like assemblages of wriggling worms, like some mutant aliens from Dr Who. The same sci-fi vibe attaches to what look like fragments of space suits dangling from the ceiling. On closer examination you can see that these are life-size depictions of the human body in the style of Japanese manga comics, in which both men and women have sleek, perfect bodies, often encased in futuristic body armour.

Lee has produced dismembered versions of these, half a sleek, armoured torso, or combinations of limbs and extremities, moulded into striking but disconcerting fragments of mannequins. Soft pink sacks hang next to sleek machine-tooled silhouettes.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Cyborg WI on the left (photo by the author)

Up the concrete ramp, in room three, there’s what seems to be a model of a futuristic city, held up by thin scaffolding, some kind of hyper-freeway emerging from a tall plastic mountain, complete with a massive neon sign clicking on and off.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… (2005) Photo by the author

Nearby is a big ‘cave’ made of shiny plastic, with a ‘door’ to go in through, a ‘window’ to look out of, and walls decorated with a mosaic of mirror fragments.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (photo by the author)

Best of all, from an excitable teenager’s point of view, are two big transport machines.

Downstairs in long, low room two, is what appears to be a space-age hovercar not unlike the one Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi use to go to the city of Mos Eisley to look for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Live Forever III (photo by the author)

To my amazement, visitors are actually encouraged to get into this device (once they’ve slipped on some protective plastic bags to go over their shoes). As I was saying to myself the immortal line ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’, the gallery assistant lowered the roof and sealed me in.

You’re forced to lie quite low in the beautifully upholstered leather chair and watch a TV monitor placed right in front of you. If only I could have flicked the ignition, heard the engine roar, made a secret tunnel door open up and slid down a chute into the nearby River Thames to begin a high-speed boat chase against the baddies who’d just blown up the MI6 building.

Alas, all that actually happens is that the screen hanging in front of your face plays tacky Korean karaoke videos. You’re invited to put on headphones, pick up the handy microphone and join in which I was far too intimidated to do.

Finally, up the Hayward’s heavy concrete stairwell to gallery four where a) the entire floor has been covered in futuristic reflective silver plastic, giving it a Dr Who-TV set appearance, and b) and in which floats one of Lee Bul’s most iconic works, a huge model of a zeppelin made from shiny reflective silver foil.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…

My son, a big fan of manga, animé, graphic novels and sci-fi, would have loved all this, consumed purely as spectacle, as weird and wonderful objects of fantasy and imagination.

However, art is rarely this simple or free. The artists themselves, and certainly their curators and critics, are all too ready to catch the butterfly of fantasy in a net of explanations, drag it back down to earth, and pin it to a board next to all the other specimens in their collection. For example, when you look up the Wikipedia article about Lee, it begins:

Lee’s work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres

firmly dragging Lee’s art into contemporary art discourse with its all-too-familiar obsessions of gender, race, ideology and politics.

The free exhibition handout and the wall labels are where you go for more information about Lee, and they certainly are extremely informative and illuminating. In addition, there are two timelines printed on walls – one telling the history of South Korea since the 1950-53 war to the present, and one describing the development of modern art in Korea from the time of Lee’s birth (1964) to the present day, with a special emphasis on women’s art and issues.

All very interesting, but the more you read, the more you become weighed down by interpretations of art which see it all in terms of ponderous ‘issues’ – of ‘challenges’ and ‘subversions’ and ‘questionings’ – the more it feels like you are sitting through a dreary two-hour-long sociology lecture.

KOREA

The South Korea Lee was born into was ruled by a right-wing dictator who had come to power in a military coup, General Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979. Park inaugurated a series of five year plans designed to modernise Korean society and the economy at breakneck speed.

But Lee’s parents were left-wing dissidents and, although they weren’t arrested, were subjected to harassment, periodic house searches, banned from government employment and hassled into keeping on the move, never settling long in one place.

Thus Lee’s childhood memories are of often cold and bleak makeshift homes and the oppressiveness of the authorities set against a vista of brave new towns, cities, motorways and buildings built quickly of shoddy cement, destined soon to crumble and become seedy and derelict.

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

Amidst all the other ‘issues’ addressed in the art, it was this latter notion – the failure of utopianism – which interested me most. It seems to me that we are currently living through just such an epoch of failure, the slow-motion failure of the dream of a digital future.

Having worked in four British government departments or agencies on their websites and IT projects for the past eight years I have seen all manner of cock-ups and mismanagement – the collapse of the unified NHS project, the likely failure of the system for Universal Credit which was launched in 2010 and still doesn’t work properly, let alone the regular bank failures like the recent TSB collapse. All this before you consider the sinister implications of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-U.S. Presidential elections debacle.

I have also observed the negative impact of phones and laptops on my own children i.e. they have both become phone addicts. As a result of all this I have very strong, and generally negative, opinions about ‘the Digital Future’.

That’s why I warmed to this aspect of the work of Chinese art superstar, Ai Weiwei, as displayed at the 2015 Royal Academy retrospective of his work. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of them sell themselves as agents of ‘liberation’ whereas they are, quite obviously in my opinion, implements of a new kind of surveillance society, instruments of turbo-charged consumerism, and the tools of Russian hackers and any number of other unknown forces.

Yet people love them, ignore the scandals, can’t give up their phones or Facebook accounts, and big corporation, banks and governments carry on piling all their services online as if nothing could possibly go wrong with this technology.

With all this in mind I was surprised that there was no mention anywhere of the digital utopia, of digital technology, of phones and screens and big data anywhere in this big exhibition. Instead the utopias Lee Bul is concerned with seemed to me very dated. People wearing futuristic (manga) outfits or living in futuristic cities – this all seemed very Flash Gordon to me, very old tech, a very 1950s and 60s definition of what the future is going to look like.

This feeling that her art is very retro in its vision was crystallised by one of her most iconic works, which was a star feature of the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 – the enormous foil zeppelin – Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon.

I’m perfectly aware that the Hindenburg Zeppelin is an enduring symbol of technological hubris and disaster – that it burst into flames and crashed to the ground in 1937. I’ve seen the black and white film footage many times, I’ve even watched the terrible 1975 disaster movie they made about it.

Willing To Be Vulnerable is one of Lee’s most recent works and yet… isn’t it a very old reference to a long-ago event. It would be like discussing the rise of right-wing populism by reference to Adolf Hitler (German Chancellor when the Hindenburg crashed). It’s a plausible reference, sort of, but it’s not very up to date, is it? It’s not where we are now.

And then again, it isn’t even a detailed or accurate model of the Hindenburg. It’s just a big shiny balloon. An awesomely big shiny balloon. My kids would love it. I couldn’t really see it interrogating or questioning anything.

ARCHITECTURE

The grandiose rhetoric of Korean President Park Chung-hee’s regime, and its relative failure to build the utopia it promised, also explain the strong theme of architecture throughout the exhibition.

When you look closer, you realise that the big model of the kind-of super highway emerging from a phallic mountain – Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… – pictured above, is accompanied by a series of paintings and sketches on the walls showing aspects of architecture, visions and fantasies of architecture which come to ruin.

They are subtler, quieter work which would be easy to overlook in the first impact of all the big models and installations. I particularly liked one collage painting which gives an impression of some kind of disaster involving a glass and chrome skyscraper. The idea – urban apocalypse, skyscrapers in ruins – has been done thousands of times – but I admired the layout and design of it, the shape of the main image with its ‘feeler’-like hairs at the left, and the way the small fragment floats freely above it.

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable - Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable – Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

POLITICAL CRITICISM

Again, it’s only if you read the wall labels and exhibition guide quite carefully that you realise there is a thread of political satire running through the show. In room one, in between the more striking cyborgs hanging from the ceiling, are a couple of small mannequin models of President Park, naked, in full anatomical detail (reminiscent in the way they’re less than life size and so somehow feeble and vulnerable, of Ron Mueck’s mannequins of his naked dead dad, back in the 1997 Sensation exhibition).

Next to the ‘bat cave’ installation (Bunker), which I described above, is what at first seems like an enormous ‘rock’, made out of some kind of plastic. It’s titled Thaw and if you look closer you just about see another model of President Park, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, as if he’s been frozen in ice in some alternative science fiction history, and is only waiting to thaw out and rise again…

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Next to this is a very big installation of a bath. Unusually, you are allowed to walk across the tiled floor which makes up a good part of the installation, towards the bath itself – a big rectangular affair as if in a sauna or maybe in the bath rooms of some kind of collective housing – to discover that it is ringed with what looks like white meringue tips, and that the bath itself is full of black ink.

This is Heaven and Hell and without the exhibition guide there’s no way you’d be able to guess that it commemorates Park Jong-chul, a student protester who was tortured and killed by the South Korean security services in a bathtub in 1987.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Thinking about political art, Peter Kennard’s blistering photomontages flaying political leaders such as Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair come to mind, for example the enormous photomontage of Tony Blair plastered with images of atrocities from the Iraq War which was on display at the recent Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial war Museum.

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, with a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State, a photomontage by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, and a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

There is nothing that overt or emotional here. Everything is much more controlled, inflected, allusive. Given that Lee Bul is sometimes referred to as a political artist, there’s nothing at all that – for me anyway – packed any kind of real political punch.

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

With a certain inevitability, what the exhibition probably showcases most consistently is Lee Bul’s identity as a woman artist coming from a society which was extremely repressive, not only of political dissent, but of any form of feminism or gender politics.

The historical timeline tells us that a women’s movement only got going in Korea in the later 1980s and that Lee Bul was an enthusiastic part of it. It tells us that her earliest work went beyond sculpture to explore the possibilities of performance art.

Thus room two contains six screens on which we see some of Lee’s performances – ‘provocative performance works involving her own body’, as the commentary describes them – which she carried out between 1989 and 1996.

In Abortion (1989) she suspended herself from the ceiling of an auditorium for two hours and entertained the audience with lines from poems and pop songs as well as a description of her own abortion, a medical procedure which is still, to this day, apparently, illegal in South Korea.

The Monsters at the start of the show, the wriggly worm creations, turn out to be costumes which Lee wore either writhing around on the ground or walking the streets in order to question received ideas about X and subvert assumptions about Y.

Throughout the exhibition the ‘issue’ of gender and the ‘problematics’ of the female body are reiterated. For example, the timeline of women in Korean society describes ‘the rise of a generation of artists concerned with the representation of the female body‘ who also began ‘subverting the way that women are depicted in the media’.

The guide explains that

at the core of Lee’s recent work is an investigation into landscape, which for the artist includes the intimate landscape of the body

It turns out the her interest in the manga-style cyborgs comes less from a feeling for science fiction tropes or ideas around artificial intelligence and the possibility of improving human bodies by combining them with machine parts (from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs), no, she

is interested in what the figure of the cyborg – a transhuman hybrid of flesh and machine – can tell us about desire, our relationship to technology, and cultural attitudes towards the female body.

Or, as the press release puts it:

Shaped by her experience of growing up in South Korea during a period of political upheaval, much of Lee Bul’s work is concerned with trauma, and the way that idealism or the pursuit of perfection – bodily, political or aesthetic – might lead to failure, or disaster. Questioning women’s place in society, particularly Korean society, she also addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of ‘feminine’ beauty.

Actually, rather like the so-called ‘political’ works (Thaw and Heaven and Hell) I only discovered that Lee was addressing the ways popular culture shapes our idea of femininity or questions cultural attitudes towards the female body by reading the guidebook. It really wasn’t that obvious from just seeing the works themselves. The three or four cyborg fragments hanging from the ceiling are probably, but not very obviously, female. They could belong to any gender, and be about anything.

Later on there are a couple of ‘busts’ made of lurid plastic of human thoraxes encased in cyber-armour but they aren’t very obviously female. The fact that they’re made of garish pink plastic and the design of the manga-style armour is the striking thing about them.

In one or two of the videos, the artist is seen naked or semi-naked, which even I picked up on as probably a reference to the female body, although I’ve never understood how young, nubile women artists stripping off is meant to subvert anything. To me it plays directly to society’s expectation that the most important or interesting thing about nubile young women is their nubile young bodies.

But if you hadn’t been told by the exhibition website, press release, guide and wall labels that her work ‘questions ideas of femininity’ I’m not sure you’d particularly notice.

I was, for example, surprised to learn that the silver zeppelin ‘addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of feminine beauty’. Really?

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Via Negativa II

I haven’t yet mentioned another of the really impressive installations, Via Negativa II (2014) which is a maze made out of metal sheets suspended on stands, a bit like the stands you get at conferences but arranged to create an entrance into a convoluted labyrinth of shiny metal plates.

It’s not a very big maze – only three people are allowed in at a time. The ‘justification’ or ‘idea’ behind it? Well, the walls are covered with a text by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, in which he argued that early humans experienced a split consciousness when messages from one hemisphere of the brain to the other were experienced as auditory hallucinations. To make it art, the text is printed in a mirror image of itself i.e you can’t actually read it. You’d need to hold up a mirror to the text to see it printed properly.

I suppose this small metal maze is designed to recreate that sense of mild hallucination that Jaynes describes. At its heart there is certainly a great experience when you find yourself in a cubicle dominated by grids of yellow lights reflected to infinity in parallel mirrors. The other two visitors and I all jostled for the best position to take photos from. Maybe it’s meant to make you think about something, but it’s also just a great tourist photo opportunity.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

This is all great fun, but is it ‘questioning the limits of the human’ or ‘interrogating cultural ideas of the female’? Not really.

The international language of art

In fact, you don’t learn very much about the art or culture or history of Korea from this exhibition nor even – surprisingly – about feminism.

What comes over loud and clear is that this is now the international language of art – the same kind of brash, confident, well-manufactured, high concept work which you also see being produced by (the workshops of) Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, and numerous other superstars.

(Hirst sprang to mind as soon as I saw Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendour, a work consisting of rows of decomposing fish with sequins on, from 1997 which, of course, echoes Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s decomposing head which he displayed in 1990. Great minds think alike.)

Not long ago I visited the fascinating exhibition of everyday products from North Korea held at the House of Illustration behind King’s Cross station. There I learned about the unique political system, the Cult of the Leader and the special economic policy (Juche) of North Korea. I learned about the importance of opera, theatre and enormous public performance in their culture, about the way the Korean language lends itself to blocky futuristic design, and about their fondness for a much brighter, more acid colour palette than we in the West are used to.

In Lee Bul’s exhibition I don’t think I learned anything at all about South Korea apart from being reminded of the name of its military dictator, and that its repressive military dictatorship was, well, repressive.

For me this exhibition shows that whatever her origins, whatever her personal biography may have been (the difficult childhood, the early anti-establishment and feminist performances), Lee Bul is now – in 2018 – on a par with Ai and Hirst in creating aroma-less, origin-free, international objets d’art for the delectation of equally rootless, cosmopolitan art critics, and for transnational buyers and billionaire investors.

I went to the press launch where the show was introduced by the director of Hayward Gallery – the American Ralph Rugoff – and the show’s curator – the German Stephanie Rosenthal. As they spoke I was struck by how all three of the people behind the microphones were members of an international art élite, a cosmopolitan, transnational art world which seems impossibly glamorous to those of us forced to earn our livings in the country of our birth and unable to jet off to international biennales in Venice and Sydney, to visit art shows at the Met in New York or the Foundation Cartier in Paris or the Mori Gallery in Tokyo or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (all places where Lee has exhibited). Wow. What a glamorous jet-setting life!

Summary

This is a very well-put together overview of the career to date of one of the world’s most successful and distinctive artists. It’s packed with big, bold, funky, cool objects and installations.

If you think art needs to be ‘about’ something, then you will enjoy the way the commentary invokes issues around the female body, around social utopias, about architecture and landscape, about the interface of technology and humans, to explain Lee’s work.

Or, like me, you may come to the conclusion that these issues, ideas and texts may well be important to motivate and inspire the artist, to get her juices flowing – but that most of the works can just be enjoyed in and of themselves, as highly inventive three-dimensional objects – fun, strange, colourful, jokey – without requiring any sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’.


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Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

Lucinda Rogers: Drawings from Ridley Road Market @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration is located just north of King’s Cross station, London, and contains three exhibition spaces.

The Main Gallery (four rooms) is currently hosting a fascinating exhibition of posters and everyday products from North Korea, highlighting the distinctive graphic design and colour palette of that most isolated of countries.

Leading off a side-corridor is a small L-shaped room which is the Quentin Blake Gallery, periodically hosting small shows of selected works by Blake, who was a leading force behind the foundation of the House of Illustration.

And the South Gallery (one room as big as a church hall) is currently displaying a selection of the graphic journalism of Lucinda Rogers.

Fruit mountain at the entrance to Ridley Road by Lucinda Rogers

Fruit mountain at the entrance to Ridley Road by Lucinda Rogers

Lucinda Rogers

The HoI is the only UK gallery which commissions illustrations for public display. For this, its fourth commission, it approached the young graphic illustrator, Lucinda Rogers.

Rogers is interested in realistic depictions of urban environments. As this exhibition more than proves, she has a staggering ability to capture the complex architecture and bustling street life of inner city environments. Rogers’ technique is to immerse herself in the setting of her chosen subject and record straight from eye to paper, without preliminary sketches or the photographs which some other illustrators use. She lives in London but has drawn in other urban settings from New York to Marrakech.

Lucinda Rogers at work in Ridley Road Market. Photo by Patricia Niven

Lucinda Rogers at work in Ridley Road Market. Photo by Patricia Niven

This exhibition combines Rogers’s ability as a highly gifted graphic artist with her campaigning concern for issues around gentrification and urban development.

On Gentrification: Drawings from Ridley Road Market

The show consists of 35 large-scale drawings which capture the bustling street life of Ridley Road Market in Dalston. Rogers spent over four months on location at the market, which has been held since the 1880s and is one of London’s oldest East End institutions.

Her drawings display a breath-taking way with line, a really gifted ability to capture volume and depth – but not of simple and easy subjects like a couple of aristocrats or the still lifes of the Old Masters – but the extraordinary visual complexity of the hyper-cluttered modern scene.

Just being able to draw a transit van from scratch would impress me, but then to sketch in all the street clutter surrounding it, the stacked crates on their trolley, the detail of the retractable awning, as well as the old geezer at the cafe table with his patterned tie, the pens in his pocket and his watch – is quite stunning.

View from Almond Lane coffee house by Lucinda Rogers

View from Almond Lane coffee house by Lucinda Rogers

Each of the drawings is accompanied by sometimes quite lengthy captions explaining the history and context of the subjects, of the different shops and stalls which throng the market.

The ‘issue’ behind the exhibition is the way this teeming street life is threatened by the erection of a luxury apartment block next to the market. This is bound to attract richer buyers, who will then fuel a need for ‘smart’ coffee shops, organic grocers, chi-chi bakers and bijou fashion stores. Then the influx of identikit estate agents.

Rogers’ view is that markets like Ridley Road often provide the only way for small businesses to start up, and they serve as a wonderfully colourful reflection of the diverse communities they serve. Both are lost when a neighbourhood becomes ‘gentrified’.

Outside Ka-sh fabric shop by Lucinda Rogers

Outside Ka-sh fabric shop by Lucinda Rogers

Admittedly an abstract concept like ‘gentrification’ is a little hard to capture solely with pictures. Just drawing the foundations of the luxury apartment block doesn’t really convey the complexity of the issues involved – hence the need for the sometimes lengthy captions. These you can read or not, depending on your interest in the issue.

Where Rogers’s drawings unambiguously score is in their astonishingly detailed and precise, yet loose and evocative impressions, of all aspects of the street market.

I particularly like the restrained, impressionistic use of colour. Only a minority of the images in any picture are coloured in: generally (as in the example above), she combines casual dabs and washes which overlap the borders of the object, with the very precise capturing of patterns and designs on just some of the elements.

I found her selectivity about what to colour and what to leave uncoloured absolutely perfect, displaying a wonderfully sure touch, knowing just how much colour to add to bring the image to life, and how much to leave out in order to leave it rough, sketchy and evocative of movement and street life.

In the picture above, I love the way the guy at the right is semi-transparent, like the fleeting impression of an over-exposed photo. And the way his trousers bunch around his snazzy, pointed shoes. All of the drawings here demonstrate a quite breath-taking talent and, in addition, a wonderful sureness and taste of colouring and restraint.

It is mostly left to the picture captions to explain the issues surrounding the threat to the market. These make a good case, which her drawings powerfully underpin. But it is also possible to not read any of the captions and still come away astonished at Rogers’ fleetness of hand and pen.

Bedding stall and Alex the plant man by Lucinda Rogers

Bedding stall and Alex the plant man by Lucinda Rogers

The House of Illustration

All three shows – North Korean produce, Quentin Blake’s Valentine drawings, and Lucinda Rogers Ridley Street drawings – are included in the one admission price of £7.50. Crack along!


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Quentin Blake: Arrows of Love @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration just north of King’s Cross station, London, contains three exhibition spaces.

The Main Gallery (four rooms) is currently hosting a fascinating exhibition of posters and other everyday products from North Korea, highlighting the distinctive graphic design and colour palette of that most isolated of countries.

In the South Gallery (one room, as big as a church hall) is a generous selection of the graphic journalism of Lucinda Rogers.

And off the corridor between the two is a small L-shaped room which will, apparently, be devoted in perpetuity to a succession of displays by the moving force behind the House of Illustration, the famous children’s illustrator, Sir Quentin Blake. Hence its title – the Quentin Blake Gallery.

Arrows of Love

To coincide with Valentine’s Day this year, Blake selected 18 pencil drawings from a series he’s been developing off and on, depicting women avoiding or embracing Cupid’s arrow.

Arrows of Love 7 by Quentin Blake

Arrows of Love 7 by Quentin Blake

In the charming wall label, Blake explains that, alongside commissioned work and projects, he always has numerous side works on the go – the results of moments of inspiration, or recurring ideas, which he sketches out and then puts to one side to get on with the paid work.

For example, he mentions a series he’s working on which features women on tightropes, sometimes with birds.

And another has been this series of women reacting in different ways to Cupid’s arrow(s).

Arrows of Love 6 by Quentin Blake

Arrows of Love 6 by Quentin Blake

These kind of offshoots and occasional works had nowhere to be shown – until now, with the arrival of the House of Illustration, and the advent of a small gallery devoted just to his work – the perfect venue for stylish little sets and jeu d’esprits!

Blake himself describes the drawings:

Each of them is an outline, an economical way to depict the shapes and gestures that tell us what they are feeling… And of course the arrows are not real arrows, but little flying graphic equivalents, there are only one or two moments when they even slightly real…

All of the women are nude except for one who is wearing a breastplate which the arrows are bouncing off. She might be the start of a sequence on the theme of ‘incongruous things to wear’…

Installation view of 'Arrows of Love' by Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation view of ‘Arrows of Love’ by Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Apart from the obvious charm and whimsy of his light, gawky, one-line style – and the beguiling inventiveness of the drawings, the way they surprise you with new and comic variations on the theme – I’m afraid the thing that struck me most was – the pubic hair!

Blake is of course overwhelmingly known as an illustrator of children’s books, pre-pubescent very innocent children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I have two children who both read their way through all the Roald Dahl books with their Blake illustrations, as well as some of the books he both wrote and illustrated, for example one of our family favourites, the wonderful Cockatoos.

Which is why in my mind I think of Blake as a kind of quintessence of innocence, associating him with the utter sexlessness of The BFG or The Twits or Fantastic Mr Fox.

So I could see the fun and whimsy in the working out of all the variations of the theme, and found almost all the pictures delightful and charming – but was just brought up a little short by, well, the unexpected pubes!

Arrows of Love 5 by Quentin Blake

Arrows of Love 5 by Quentin Blake

Obviously it’s not worth crossing London just to see 18 or so amusing pencil drawings – but it very much IS worth going out of your way to visit the exhibition of North Korean produce, AND the Lucinda Rogers exhibition, and to top them both off with these Blake frivolities – like the cherry on the top of a knickerbocker glory: all three shows are included in the same admission price of £7.50.


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