Family Britain: A Thicker Cut, 1954-57 by David Kynaston (2009)

This is the second part of the second volume of David Kynaston’s social history of post-war Britain. As usual, it is a dense collage of quotes from the diaries, letters, interviews, surveys and speeches of an enormous range of people from Prime Minister Winston Churchill to vox pops of shoppers in the street via civil servants, actors, coal miners, housewives, writers who were kids at the time recalling their early memories (John Fowles, David Hare, Alan Bennett, Hunter Davies) – all combining to give you a really deeply felt sense of what it was like to live through these years.

Chronological events part one

Thus, without any preliminary introduction the book opens straight into a cabinet meeting discussing the problem of coloured workers, held on Wednesday 3 February 1954: ‘Are we to saddle ourselves with colour problems in the UK?’ Winston Churchill asked, a sentiment which is echoed half a dozen times as the race problem and the ‘colour bar’ are revisited throughout the book, reflecting the rising rate of immigration from the Commonwealth.

This very long book then touches on:

1954

  • the housing problem, the debate about whether to build flats or houses, and whether to shunt people out to the periphery (as believed by ‘dispersionists’) or keep them in high rise inner cities (‘urbanists’)
  • whether to decriminalise homosexuality, specifically in light of the trial of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood, which began in 15 March
  • Billy Graham’s Greater London Crusade starting 1 March
  • the campaign to set up a commercial TV channel to rival the BBC’s monopoly; the canny entrepreneurs lobbying for commercial TV choose Sir Kenneth Clarke as their ultra-respectable front man and he gives a speech supporting it; next time he enters his club, he is roundly booed
  • 5 April Commons debate about the H-bomb, necessary if Britain is to remain ‘a world power’
  • repeated crashes of the British-built Comet airliner result in it being grounded and overtaken by the American Boeing
  • newspapers report on fighting at youth clubs and dance halls involving teenagers with a new look, the Teddy Boys: ‘The effect of the whole décor is thin, mean and sinister, and is obviously meant to be’ (Cyril Dunn in his diary)
  • Doctor in the House starring Dirk Bogarde is the box office smash of 1954
  • 6 May 1954 at Iffley Road track in Oxford, Roger Bannister breaks the four-minute mile
  • on 27 May, Hungary beat England 7-1 (West Germany go on to beat Hungary in the World Cup Final in July)
  • Iris Murdoch publishes her first novel, Under the Net. She is a committed communist
  • butter comes off the ration
  • June, Benny Hill shoots to TV stardom doing impersonations on Showcase
  • the myxomatosis epidemic among wild rabbits continued, eventually 99% of the population is wiped out
  • refrigerators are beginning to be a sign of status, notes sociologist Phyllis Willmott (p.399); restrictions on hire-purchase are removed for a wide range of consumer goods such as fridges, hoovers, radios, TVs, motorbikes and cars, setting in train the consumer society
  • August – Salad Days is a surprise hit in the theatre, starting a run which continues till 1960
  • Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring published, followed in November by the Two Towers
  • September – the Third Programme’s live broadcast of Benjamin Britten’s new opera, A Turn of the Screw
  • Kidbrook school opens, London’s first purpose-built comprehensive
  • October – an exhibition of paintings by John Bratby leads critic David Sylvester to coin the term ‘kitchen sink’ school, which goes on to be widely applied to theatre and film
  • 2 November – début of Hancock’s Half Hour on BBC radio
  • by the end of the year there are nearly 4 million TV licences

1955

  • January – BBC documentary Has Britain a Colour Bar? to which the answer was emphatically yes
  • February: road traffic has almost doubled since 1938 and so the government publishes a major road expansion plan including the building of two motorways, M1 and M6
  • government also announces plans to build 12 nuclear power stations, the most advanced scheme of nuclear power anywhere in the world
  • January – debut on TV of The Sooty Show and The Benny Hill Show
  • February – debut of Kitchen Magic, presented by Fanny Cradock, first of the celebrity chefs, coinciding with the era of rationing passing into memory i.e. the start of conspicuous consumption
  • March – national newspaper strike
  • 5 April Winston Churchill (aged 80) steps down as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister
  • 6 April replaced by Anthony Eden (Eton and Christ Church, Oxford) who announces a snap general election for 26 May (the voting age was still 21, as it continued to be until 1969)
  • May General Election: Conservatives 321 seats, Labour 277, Liberals 6, the 17 communist candidates polled 33,000 votes between them. Turnout was down from 82 to 76% amid what Kynaston portrays as widespread apathy, the general interpretation being that the economy was booming, rationing was over, consumer goods were becoming widely available, who cares about politics? Hugh Gaitskell, and Kynaston, attribute it to Tory success with housewives.
  • May Day – Stirling Moss became the first British driver to win the Mille Miglia in Italy
  • May – The Dam Busters released, the outstanding British film of the year ‘maybe of the decade’
  • Miners strike, train drivers strike, dockers’ strike
  • 13 July Ruth Ellis hanged for murder, last woman hanged (the last men hanged were executed in August 1964)
  • August – Kingsley Amis’s second novel, That Uncertain Feeling, and publication of the first edition of the Guinness Book of Records
  • September – Henry Fairlie writes an article in the Spectator describing the ‘Establishment’ that runs Britain
  • 22 September – commercial television (ITV) starts broadcasting in the London area
  • October was dominated by controversy among politicians, press and people on the long-running saga about whether young Princess Margaret Rose (25) should or should not marry divorced father-of-two Group-Captain Peter Townsend (30) with whom she was clearly in love. After dividing the nation, she decided not to.

Sociological studies

About two-thirds of the way through the text it abruptly stops giving a month-by-month overview of political and popular events and turns into an extended consideration of various sociological issues, moving seamlessly through religious belief, attitudes to marriage, sex, homosexuality, unmarried mothers, abortion, prostitution, the role of women, women in the home, women in the workplace and so on.

As usual Kynaston draws evidence from a wide range of sources: from social historians, from the surprising number of surveys and sociological studies carried out at the time, from the diaries or letters of ordinary people and politicians or the autobiographies of writers, from questionnaires carried out by contemporary magazines, from government-sponsored reports, and so on.

Inevitably, in the longish sequence about the social expectations on women in the 1950s, the white, private-school-educated man Kynaston bends over backwards to emphasise his feminist credentials and bring out how lazy and selfish 1950s men were, and the pressure of social expectations on women. There’s a lot less about the social expectations on men – to be financial provider, role model, father, and good companion in marriage.

In fact, although a huge amount of the content is informative and illuminating, not much is very surprising: the four books I’ve read so far tend to confirm everything you already suspected, but just with an awesome range of witnesses and voices adding texture and lived experience to the statistics and stereotypes, making the era really come to life.

Some of the sociological findings do raise a smile for confirming sociology’s tendency to state the bleeding obvious. For example, on pages 576-77 Kynaston quotes several surveys which, after hundreds of interviews and hard work compiling the data, present the dazzling conclusion that, for lots of working women, the main motivation for going out to work was — to earn money! 73% of married women gave ‘financial reasons’ as their main motive for going to work. Not, maybe, earth-shattering news.

This list gives you a sense of the scope and number of surveys Kynaston refers to, as well as indicating the subject matter they address:

  • Brian Abel-Smith and Richard Titmuss study of NHS services underpinned the 1956 Guillebaud Committee report on the NHS which recommended no major changes
  • BBC survey 1955-6 about Britain’s decline (28% thought there’d been a decline in Britain’s economic ranking, blaming the trade unions and strikes)
  • White and Coloured by Michael Banton (p.451) recorded how cities across the UK recruited west Indian bus drivers and conductors through the first half of the 1950s
  • 1956 survey of racial attitudes in Birmingham (two thirds thought coloured people were intrinsically less intelligent than white people)
  • Family and Social Network by Elizabeth Bott (1957), including the Bott hypothesis that the connectedness or the density of a husband’s and wife’s separate social networks is positively associated with marital role segregation
  • Tom Brennan, author of a 1956 study of occupants of the Gorbals and attitudes to redevelopment
  • The Sexual, Marital and Family Relationships of the English Woman (1956) by Eustace Chesser (women look for physical strength in man more than looks; the higher up the social scale the more likely a woman was to experience sexual satisfaction; husband doesn’t pet enough [foreplay]; ‘overwhelmingly it was felt by wives that men wanted sex more frequently than women did’, p.592)
  • Citizens of Tomorrow by a working party of educationalists and sociologists
  • Peter Collison – study of the Cutteslowe Wall in Oxford
  • Professor Kate Fisher, pioneering historian of sex e.g. , Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960 (2007)
  • February 1957 Gallup survey about church going
  • 1954 BBC-commissioned Gallup survey into church attendance
  • anthropologist Frank Girling spent 18 months on a Scottish housing estate studying the unskilled workers and their families (women had a dominant position in the social life of the area and their homes)
  • Social Mobility in Britain by David Glass finding a generally low level of social mobility (p.410)
  • 1951 survey of British life by Geoffrey Gorer
  • Ken Grainger did a study of Herbert’s the machine tool firm in Coventry
  • Natalie Higgins, author of a study of marriage in mid-twentieth century England (women looked for a man who was clean, decent and hard working)
  • Margot Jefferys author of a study of married women working in the civil service
  • Pearl Jephcott investigated youth clubs in London and Nottingham
  • 1956 survey by Joyce Joseph of 600 adolescent girls attending school in the Home Counties and the West Country
  • 1949 Mass-Observation on household income
  • 1951 Mass-Observation survey of 700 working class housewives
  • 1955 Mass-Observation survey into capital punishment
  • 1956 Mass-Observation study of the housewife’s day
  • 1957 Mass-Observation survey on women in work
  • John Barron May’s study of a police division in inner-city Liverpool
  • John Barron May’s 1956 study of Liverpool’s Crown Street area
  • John Mogey’s study of working class life in Oxford
  • 1954 NHS survey of services for the elderly
  • Anthony Richmond author of The Colour Problem
  • Elizabeth Roberts, author of a 1990s oral history of Barrow, Lancaster and Preston – parents became closer to their children, than their own parents had been
  • Women of the Streets (1955) edited by C.H. Rolph
  • English Life and Leisure (1951)  by Rowntree and Lavers
  • Lulie Shaw, author of a study of a working class suburb in the 1950s
  • John Smith in 1955 conducted field work at the Peak Freen biscuit factory in Bermondsey
  • Steven Tolliday’s study of Coventry engineering workers
  • The Family Life of Old People (1957) by Peter Townsend
  • Margaret Williamson – interviews in the ironstone region of Cleveland: post-war fathers more involved and willing to play with their children than pre-war fathers
  • Family and Kinship in East London (1957) by Michael Young and Peter Willmott
  • More About the Sex Factor by Dr Helena Wright (1947)

The single finding I found most interesting was the notion that the extended kinship system Young and Willmott found in the East End (grandparents and siblings living nearby and able to babysit and do errands) disappeared as young couples moved out to housing estates on the edge of town, and to new towns. Being isolated and thrown back on their own resources coincided or led to a) families being smaller (two children) and b) a greater sharing of household work and parenting, more involvement by dads i.e. the loss of an extended family network was compensated by more ‘modern’ gender roles. Although it did also just lead to lots of lonely, isolated mums.

Chronological events part two

1955

  • October 15 Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets enters the Billboard Top 20
  • November: Cabinet decided not to support the Home Secretary’s plan for legislation to limit immigration from the Commonwealth
  • books of the year: The Cruel Sea, Reach for the Sky, HMS Ulysses
  • Christmas Day: Somerset Maugham published an attack on Kingsley Amis’s characters, calling them ‘scum’
  • December Clement Attlee stands down as leader of the Labour Party, replaced by Hugh Gaitskell (aged 49, educated at Winchester Public School and New College, Oxford)

1956

  • January – a concert by young turks Harrison Birtwhistle and Peter Maxwell Davies
  • February – London Transport starts to recruit staff from Barbados, followed by Trinidad and Jamaica
  • high prices bring discontent, complaints about Eden’s premiership, and worries about growing manufacturing competition from Germany and Japan
  • March – politicians and commentators react to news of Nikita Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin and his crimes – a number of intellectuals quit the communist party and were to form the nucleus of the New Left which flourished in the 1960s
  • April – release of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier amid an orgy of merchandising
  • April – Khrushchev and Soviet premier Bulganin visit Britain, attending a race meeting, tea with the Queen, lunch at the House of Commons, and questions at the Oxford Union
  • 8 May – first night of Look Back In Anger by John Osborne divides the critics
  • 19 May – Elvis Presley entered the British charts for the first time with Heartbreak Hotel
  • May – opening of the This is Tomorrow art exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, including Richard Hamilton’s iconic collage, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing, the earliest example of Pop Art
Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing (1956) by Richard Hamilton

Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing (1956) by Richard Hamilton

  • 12 June – bulldozers start clearing hedgerows for the building of the M6, Britain’s first motorway (opened in 1958, the M1 was opened in 1959)
  • winter, spring and summer dominated by strikes, strident speeches by trade union leaders and complaints from the media about their selfishness
  • October – Tommy Steele enters the top 20 with Rock with the Caveman becoming Britain’s first rock’n’roll star
  • 17 October Windscale nuclear power station became the first nuclear power plant to feed electricity into a national grid anywhere in the world
  • November – Post Office Premium Bonds launched

1957

  • Wednesday 9 January – Sir Anthony Eden resigns as Tory leader and Prime Minister on grounds of ill health
  • Thursday 10 January – replaced by Harold Macmillan (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford)

Suez and Hungary

Traditional history of the 1950s focus on the Suez Crisis as a symptom of the end of Britain’s role as a genuine global power. Characteristically Kynaston reserves it for almost an afterthought in the last fifteen or so pages of the book, and even then his account is interspersed with references to Elvis Presley, Fanny Cradock and petrol prices, and he doesn’t concern himself with the military or geopolitical issues, but focuses on how the unfolding crisis was received by his usual cast of diarists – Nella Last, Anthony Heap and so on – as well as the diary entries of Prime Minister Eden’s wife and the private thoughts of other politicians. Two things come over:

  • I hadn’t realised that the Anglo-French invasion of Suez and the Soviet tanks rukbling in to suppress the Hungarian Uprising were so closely synchronised – the first shots fired by the Hungarian security forces on protesters were on 23 October, the next day Soviet tanks occupied Budapest. On 29 October Israeli jets attacked Egyptian positions and on 31 October the British and French began bombing Egyptian positions on 31 October. Part of what made liberals so angry about Suez was that it was an illegal unilateral action not sanctioned by the UN. At a stroke this removed the moral superiority or ability of the West to criticise the Soviets. If there had been no Suez the West would have been infinitely better placed to protest the Soviet invasion and sanction the USSR.
  • I knew that Suez divided the nation but Kynaston’s strength, here as everywhere else in the book, is to use diaries, letters, speeches, memoirs to really bring home the virulent anger on both sides. As families and husbands and wives and generations bitterly fell out over the best course of action, it’s impossible not to see the parallels with Brexit.

Class

Of the Conservative Party’s 600 candidates in the 1955 general election, 80% went to private school, and 80 had gone to Eton. Ten of Anthony Eden’s 18-strong cabinet went to Eton, five of whom also went on to Christ Church, Oxford (‘the House’, as it is known). Small world, the ruling class.

The education dilemma

Nearly seventy years after the debates about education which Kynaston quotes so extensively in his book, we:

  • still have an extensive network of private schools, whose alumni continue to dominate all aspects of public and economic life
  • are still agonising and hand-wringing about whether selection at age 11, the 11-plus, and grammar schools are a good or a bad thing

Examples of such agonising and debating:

Why are the basic facts about education i.e. what works best for individuals and for society as a whole, still not definitely known? What have all those educationalists and university departments of education and educational psychologists and all the rest of them been doing for the past 65 years?

Consumer society

My impression of British history over the past 70 years is that people wanted more stuff.

Governments came and went, politicians agonised over the precise wording of manifestos and speeches, clever Oxbridge graduates devised wizard wheezes (the poll tax, universal credit) but Kynaston’s approach to history makes it crystal clear that most people don’t give a stuff about politics – again and again disillusioned politicians find themselves speaking to tiny audiences in the rain, or surveys show that half the people surveyed have never even heard the phrase ‘welfare state’, let alone have sophisticated ideas about how to fund it.

What comes over strongly – especially in the recurrent thread about housing, slum clearance, the creation of flats and so on – is that people want to be left alone to get on with their lives. Again and again we read that people want to live in houses because of the privacy and don’t want to live in flats because of the lack of privacy.

And all through the book there is a massive disconnect between the university-educated politicians and theorists and writers and planners and activators and sociologists and anthropologists who agonise about definitions of ‘community’ and the ‘working class’ and the ‘proletariat’ — and the people living in Coventry or Birmingham or Glasgow (the most rundown city in Britain) who want: a clean home, hot water, a sink, a bathroom, an inside toilet.

And once they’ve got that, they want one of those TV sets that everyone is talking about, and one of the new line of fridges in which they can put the new range of frozen foods which were just being launched in the mid-1950s, led by Birds Eye fish fingers, they want instant coffee and tinned beer they can bring home to sup as they watch Fabian of the Yard or Variety Hour..

An indication of how things were changing was Elizabeth David’s comment in the preface to the 1956 edition of A Book of Mediterranean Food that the food situation was ‘startlingly different’ to how it had been just two years before. Vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fridge freezers, convenience foods, formica table and work tops, affordable eating out (Berni Inns opened in 1954 with their trademark meal of rump steak, chips and peas, a roll and butter and pudding for just 7/6d). Local traders were closing down while Marks and Spencer opened stores throughout the country. Tesco opened its first true supermarket (entirely self-service) in Maldon in 1956.

And the age of DIY was dawning, with cheap and effective Dulux paint going on sale in 1953 while Black and Decker decided to enter the domestic market in 1954, selling drills and lathes and saws, and the first DIY magazine, Practical Householder, was launched in October 1955.

While Doris Lessing was writing articles in praise of Stalin and E.P. Thompson was agonising about whether to leave the communist party over Hungary – precisely the type of upper-middle-class university-educated people and highfalutin’ issues that upper-middle-class university-educated historians usually focus on in their highfalutin’ histories – the people, the ‘masses’ who they so fatuously claimed to be speaking for – were going shopping, collecting the new green shield stamps and buying a new Morris Minor on the never-never.

They knew who the future belonged to – and it wasn’t Comrade Khrushchev.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of fiction from the period

Killed Negatives @ the Whitechapel Gallery

The Farm Security Administration Photography Program

The Great Depression of the 1930s wreaked havoc on America’s farmers. Collapse in demand coincided with several years of drought-like conditions to turn a lot of the mid-West into what contemporaries described as the ‘dustbowl’.

President Roosevelt instituted a broad set of economic policies designed to stimulate the whole U.S. economy, referred to as the New Deal. To help and support farmers struggling in real poverty, often close to the starvation line, Roosevelt set up the Resettlement Administration (1935–1937) which was succeeded by the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Among numerous other strands of activity, the FSA commissioned a photography program which ran from 1935 to 1944. The aims were to send America’s best photographers to the poorest parts of the country to expose and document the terrible extent of American rural poverty. The shots were used in government publications to justify government spending and were widely distributed to newspapers and magazines to alert urban readers to the terrible conditions in the countryside.

Installation view of Killed Negatives at the Whitechapel Gallery

Installation view of Killed Negatives at the Whitechapel Gallery

In total the FSA photography programme generated some 175,000 photographs, amounting to a vast pictorial record of rural American life between 1935 and 1944.

The photography programme was headed for most of its existence by Roy E. Stryker, in his capacity as head of the Information Division of the FSA. He launched the photography program in 1935 and continued to oversee it after it underwent various administrative mutations, through until 1944.

Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression

Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression

The programme clinched the reputations of some of the great photojournalists including Walker Evans (1903–1975), Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) and Russell Lee (1903 – 1986), who produced heart-rending images of rural life which have also come to be seen as great art. Books were compiled from the photos – such as the influential Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) which had an elegiac text by writer James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans. Original prints of the more famous shots now command large sums at auction. (N.B. An exhibition of Dorothea Lange’s photos is just about to open at the Barbican.)

So far, so well known. But there is a little-told aspect of the whole programme which this exhibition is designed to bring to a wider audience.

Strict control and killed negatives

For what is not often mentioned is the iron control which Stryker exerted over the photographers and their work.

Stryker personally selected the photographers and gave them detailed briefs or ‘shooting scripts’ to work from. He kept in close touch with ‘his’ photographers, via letters and telegrams sending his responses to the photographers’ work and giving detailed suggestions on how they could improve, which locations they should be going to, what they should be snapping – always cajoling and instructing them on how to take the kind of images which the Administration needed to support and validate its work.

Most harshly of all, Stryker developed a ruthless method of editing work he didn’t like. He examined every roll of film by every photographer, as they were posted back to, and developed at, the Administration’s Washington headquarters.

And if he didn’t like it, if it wasn’t good enough quality, or was off subject, then Stryker personally mutilated the negative with a hole puncher. Any prints made of these rejected images would be definitively unusable because of the big black dot plonked right in the middle by Stryker’s hole puncher.

Untitled photo by Russell Lee, possibly related to Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota, August 1937

Untitled photo by Russell Lee, possibly related to Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota, August 1937

And so thousands of negatives by American photographers were systematically destroyed in the 1930s, these irreparable images becoming known as ‘killed negatives’.

The exhibition

This one-room free exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery display presents about 70 prints made from some of the thousands of negatives rejected and mutilated by Stryker, shedding a fascinating sidelight on this well-known period and its photographic output.

Some photos you can see straight away aren’t that powerful and not good enough to be included in a book or magazine article. But quite a few others have the potential to be really powerful.

Untitled photo by Arthur Rothstein, possibly related to Sharecropper's wife and children, Arkansas August 1935

Untitled photo by Arthur Rothstein, possibly related to Sharecropper’s wife and children, Arkansas August 1935

The 70 or so prints are hung in a great cluster across two walls of the gallery. Nearby are display cases showing original correspondence from Styker to his snappers, demonstrating just how much detail he went into when critiquing the work of his photographers. The cases include examples of the typed-out shooting scripts which the photographers were given, alongside a selection of the photographers’ personal and administrative records. Both the letters and the shooting scripts give a really candid insight into the tone of voice used among these professional men, and into the day-to-day practicalities of selecting destinations, finding likely subjects, hiring cars, arranging hotels and so on.

Censorship to surrealism

So far, so interesting and so much a contribution to a little-known aspect of a well-known part of photography history.

But bringing all these killed negatives together like this has the odd effect of creating a distinct aesthetic. Having a big black circle added to them somehow lends quite a few of these images a strange surreal beauty.

Untitled photo by Paul Carter, possibly related to Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts, March 1936

Untitled photo by Paul Carter, possibly related to Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts, March 1936

Viewed from our modern perspective, eighty years later, and taken together, as a collection, the effect of the ‘black spot’ stamped harshly onto faces, buildings and landscapes is to transform old images into something weird, extra and beguiling.

And so, quite unexpectedly, something which ought to be a dry historical footnote has been turned, by selective curating, into a kind of work of art in itself.

Untitled photo by Carl Mydans, possibly related to Transients clearing land. Prince George's County, Maryland, November 1935

Untitled photo by Carl Mydans, possibly related to Transients clearing land. Prince George’s County, Maryland, November 1935

Contemporary responses

So much so, that the collection has prompted responses to the killed negatives from contemporary artists, some of which are included here.

Etienne Chambaud (b. 1980) responds to a Walker Evans ‘killed negative’ by attempting to fill the hole. William E. Jones’ (b.1962) work Punctured is itself created from a sequence of ‘killed negatives’. Bill McDowell’s (b. 1956) art book Ground takes ‘killed negatives’ as its subject. Lisa Oppenheim (b. 1975) is interested in the space obscured by the hole; her print After Walker Evans fills in the hole in a photo of wooden shacks with colour detail, while blacking out the rest of the image.

Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans (Untitled) by Lisa Oppenheim (2015) © Lisa Oppenheim. Courtesy The Approach, London

Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans (Untitled) by Lisa Oppenheim (2015) © Lisa Oppenheim. Courtesy The Approach, London

Interesting and creative, aren’t they? But can’t really compete with the originals’ peculiar combination of black and white nostalgia for a time of terrible poverty with this strangely modernist feature of the random black dots lifting them into Marcel Duchamp territory. Fascinating and eerie.


Related links

Other exhibitions currently on at the Whitechapel Gallery

Reviews of other Whitechapel Gallery exhibitions

The London Open 2018 @ the Whitechapel Gallery

Every three years the Whitechapel Gallery just next to Aldgate East Tube station holds an art competition. It’s open to artists of any nationality so long as they are aged 26 or over, and live in one of London’s 32 boroughs.

The triannual event fell due this year and attracted over 2,600 submissions. The judges whittled these down to a selection of works by 22 artists. The London Open thus amounts to a fascinating snapshot of what young(ish) contemporary London-based artists are up to, what they’re thinking about, how they’re expressing themselves, and what media they’re choosing to do it in.

Or, as the press release puts it:

The exhibition features a diverse selection of 22 artists working in London and engaging with topical concerns; from the rapidly changing urban context, the environment, technology, gender to race representation, human relations, activism and post-colonial histories. Many artists work in unprecedented ways and across different artistic forms, ranging from painting, video and sound to installation, sculpture, performance and work online.

Downstairs

The first thing you see when you walk into the main gallery downstairs is a large frame from which hangs a kind of collage of fabrics, shreds and patches of all shapes, all rather drab in colour, with holes and gaps. It is The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin, born in California in 1976.

The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

This screen is in fact the ‘set’ against which three actors, wearing similarly styled clothes made from shreds and patches of fabric, perform a sort of play.

Costumes for The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

Costumes for The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

According to the exhibition guide, this

large-scale installation deconstructs the limits of painting, sculpture and performance. The piece will be activated by actors and dancers as part of a series of live events accompanying the exhibition, The London Open Live.

Walking past it you encounter probably the most striking piece in the show, New Spring Gardens (2016) by Rachel Champion, born in New York in 1982. From a small sea of building site rubble dotted with weeds emerge three large sculptures which echo the shapes of new high-rise buildings which are being built on the New Spring Gardens site at Vauxhall.

New Spring Gardens (2016) by Rachel Champion

New Spring Gardens (2016) by Rachel Champion

I was intrigued by what appeared to be live weeds growing from the rubble. How are they going to be fed during the exhibition, or are they very realistic plastic models?

On the left of the gallery I was taken by a set of three smallish sculptures by Renee So, born in Hong Kong in 1974. They are, from left to right, Cross-Legged Man (2018), Boot (2016), Woman (2018).

Three sculptures by Renee So

Three sculptures by Renee So

According to the guide, So:

bestows both monumental grandeur but also caricatural qualities to the figures in her works, which weave together a pattern of cross-cultural references.

Yes, I liked the humour implicit in the compositions and their squat, just-so, presence.

Beyond these was a complex installation by Rachel Pimm, born in Harare in 1984. The most prominent elements are a set of blue metal shelves containing various fragments of rock and numerous photos, next to a big screen showing a series of films. All of them concern the process of mining materials and minerals from the ground. To be precise:

Her installation tracks the fabrication of high-end architectural ceramic tiles, from initial mineral extraction to the fine finishing or rejection at the end of the production line.

Diagenetic Sequence Shelf (2017) by Rachel Pimm

Diagenetic Sequence Shelf (2017) by Rachel Pimm

On the opposite wall I warmed to a sequence of paintings by Des Lawrence, born in Wiltshire in 1970. Des takes inspiration from the obituary columns in newspapers, and then paints highly finished (as you can see) portraits relating to the subject’s career or achievements, painting with oil onto aluminium. In their photographic accuracy all four of his works here had an immediately strong visual impact.

Alexandr Serberov (2017) by Des Lawrence. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Todd White

Alexandr Serberov (2017) by Des Lawrence. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Todd White

Hanging from a nearby pillar was a clutch of headphones next to some chairs. You are invited to sit down, make yourself comfortable, slip on the headphones and listen to Grey Granular Fist, by the duo French and Mottershead – consisting of Rebecca French born in 1973 in London. and Andrew Mottershead born 1968 in Manchester.

Grey Granular Fist is from a series of audioworks with the overall title of Afterlife. It’s a 21-minute-long audiowork consisting of a soothing male voice reading out a quiet, methodical and spooky imagining of your own dead body sitting in a chair in a museum, slowly decomposing, and becoming incorporated into the other exhibits, with conservators competing with the natural process of physical decomposition to make your corpse into a sculpture, slowly ageing over time.

Grey Granular Fist is related to another work of theirs, Homebody, a 27-minute-long audio work in which the actress Lily Lowe Myers reads out a script inviting you to imagine yourself lying in your own bed, in your own home, surrounded by familiar objects except that, once again, you are dead. The voice proceeds to describe in loving detail how your body decomposes over days, years and centuries, alongside the disintegration of all your personal and social connections. Homebody can be enjoyed in its entirety online.

Placed in several locations around the ground floor gallery were sculptures by Jonathan Trayte, born in 1980 in Huddersfield. Trayte’s work:

reinterprets modern consumer behaviour and explores the psychology of desire through surface, material and light.

In fact, they are bizarrely shaped but working lights or lamps, made from a variety of materials of which plastic foam and soft fabrics are the most noticeable elements.

Lamps by Jonathan Trayte

Lamps by Jonathan Trayte

As noticeable as the lamps themselves was the way each one stands on a box covered with a kind of green carpet and the way this carpeting extends down across the floor to create a kind of ‘island’ for each set of his works, a carpet you must be careful not to tread on…

Pride of place at the end of the main gallery is an enormous red neon sign displaying a sequence of numbers.

This Much I'm Worth (The Self-Evaluating Art Work) by Rachel Ara (2017)

This Much I’m Worth (The Self-Evaluating Art Work) by Rachel Ara (2017)

The aim of the piece was to use a variety of algorithms to calculate the changing value of a piece of art like this. I wasn’t much impressed because this idea – that almost before it’s been created, a work of modern art is categorised and valued – strikes me as being very old: it is the modern cynic’s view of art going back from Damian Hirst via Jeff Koons to Andy Warhol who said, ‘Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.’

Indeed, one of the most famous things about modern art, to the outsider, is the ridiculous amounts of money nowadays being paid for it. The art market is a fascinating area of study in itself, related to, for example, the disposable income of Russian oligarchs and Middle Eastern Wealth Funds, as well as to the assessment of wealth managers as to whether this or that piece represents a good investment, related to whether the artist has managed to create a successful ‘look’ and style, has made themselves into a brand, has got a good contract with dealers in London, New York, Beijing and so on.

If any of this – the existence and value of art out there in the real world of buyers and sellers, in the international marketplace of art –  was present in the piece it really didn’t come across. What was more evident and visible was the extraordinary array of computers required along the bottom of the display, as well as the extremely messy tangle of wires and cables.

It seemed to me that the piece was much more about its own construction than about any particular meaning.

But, to quote the guide:

Rachel Ara’s monumental neon sculpture continually displays its own value, calculated from a series of algorithms that reflect criteria such as age, gender, sexuality, race and provenance. The value of the artwork, displayed in brightly lit numbers, will change continually over the course of the exhibition. Ara’s practice draws on her former career as a computer system designer and is concerned with feminism and queer theory.

It seems to me symptomatic of the art world as a whole to obsess about gender and sexuality, race and post-colonialism, and simply ignore the world of economics – the real world which, at all levels (personal, national, international), determines our day to day activity (do I have a job? how much money am I getting? can I afford my rent?), the state of our societies (the impact of the age of Austerity and government cuts which we all live in), and the climate of international affairs (poverty and austerity driving xenophobia and populism in nations from America to Hungary). As usual, it seems to me a deliberately small, self-referencing world, a world obsessed with bodies, usually the artist’s own body, and skin colour, as if that is enough.

Upstairs – gallery 9

These kinds of thoughts were encouraged by the exhibition itself because politics is very much the theme of the first of the two upstairs galleries.

As far as I could make out, this big room is entirely devoted to works by film-maker and political activist, Andrea Luka Zimmerman, born in 1969 in Munich. Walking up the stairs the tone is set by a couple of uncompromising fabrics hanging from the walls.

Liars

Liars

And

Sex work is work

Sex work is work

The gallery is lined with an impressive collection of left-wing activist posters, some dating back decades – there’s an invitation to take part in a Women’s Day march in 1975, for women to meet at Greenham Common in 1983, posters showing the revolutionary poster-boy Che Guevara, and much more.

Wall of left wing posters

Wall of left-wing posters in the Andrea Luka Zimmerman room

On a table in the middle of the room is a board game based on snakes and ladders which Zimmerman has adapted so that the players advance up ladders or slide down snakes according to whether various activist causes thrive or hit setbacks. You’re encouraged to sit down and play, which is quite fun.

The whole room is in semi-darkness because one end is dominated by a big screen on which is projected a 28 minute long film, Civil Rites set in Newcastle.

Zimmerman spent months in the city, researching a really deep historical review of all the moments of civil protest and resistance which had taken place in the city going right back to the Civil War, taking in riots at the time of the French Revolution or during the depression which followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Chartist agitation, protests for shorter hours and better pay, to extend the suffrage, for women’s rights and the vote for women, through the Suffragettes, and on into the era of contemporary political activism from the late 1960s onwards.

As far as possible she has tracked down locations in the modern city where these events happened and films them in a classic square-on style, the camera completely static facing, say, an old Methodist chapel or a modern office block, behind railings, next to a busy street, while the English rain falls and unhappy looking people slouch by, a dog stops for a wee, and so on.

Comfy sofa in front of Civil Rites by Andrea Luka Zimmerman (2017)

The comfy sofa in front of Civil Rites by Andrea Luka Zimmerman (2017)

During the weeks of filming she asked passersby for their views on three issues raised by Martin Luther King Jnr in his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. He had called, back in 1968, for the abolition of three big evils – Poverty, Racism and War. What did people walking the streets of rainy Newcastle make of his call fifty years later?

And so, while the screen shows hypnotically static shots of Newcastle buildings, with a slow procession of captions commemorating all the moments of protest and civil resistance in the city’s long history, we hear on the soundtrack – but never see – all sorts of voices, rough working class voices, black voices, heavily accented Geordie voices, at least one American tourist or passerby – all giving their views on the current state of society and its ills.

It sounds pretentious but I found it completely absorbing. Not many other people were about so I was able to plonk myself on the comfy sofa, itself placed on the homely carpet, which is set in front of the screen, and watch the entire 28 minute film through once, and I began to watch it a second time before duty called and I had to move on.

The classic, square-on framing of the shots and the fact that each one lingers for quite a long time, so that there’s no frenetic cutting, fades or dissolves, no shaky hand-held shots – meant that visually the film was slow and secure and very calming.

What a relief, what a welcome change, to be watching an art film which is not about New York or blacks in the Deep South or transvestites in Mexico, but about ordinary English people in a very ordinary English city, Newcastle, a place which rarely features in ‘art’ exhibitions of any kind.

Your response to the politics, to the walls of old posters, will vary according to temperament and beliefs. But I thought the film was one of the best ‘art’ videos I’ve seen for a long time.

Upstairs – gallery 8

You walk through double doors out of the darkened politics room into gallery 8, which is light and spacious and long, with room for displays by another eight or so artists.

To be honest, I was feeling quite full by this stage, especially filled by the host of memories and thoughts about English history and English politics triggered by the Zimmerman room – so I didn’t have enough capacity left to really pay full attention to the artists here.

Uriel Orlow was represented by a big slide projection showing still from a 1963 documentary about the South African Botanical Gardens which featured white scientists and tourists celebrating the 50th anniversary of the garden, while African people only appear in the film as workers. Orlow invited actor Lindiwe Matshikiza to pose in front of blow-ups of these photos and ‘physically confront this archival material from the Apartheid era’.

The Fairest Heritage by Uriel Orlow (2016-17) Digital film still. Courtesy of the artist

The Fairest Heritage by Uriel Orlow (2016-17) Digital film still. Courtesy of the artist

Also ‘investigating the effects of colonialism’ is Larry Achiampong. The artist himself was in attendance to explain the idea behind his film Relic 1 (2017) which was showing in a purpose-built alcove. Relic 1 shows a black woman wearing a space helmet and bearing a pan-African flag exploring the ruins and wreckage of a white Europe which has collapsed and decayed, leaving only scattered objects and concrete ruins. According to the guide, Achiampong’s work reflects on:

the impact of colonial histories, exploring notions around race, class and culture in the digital age.

It reminded me of the experimental film I saw at Into the Unknown, the Barbican’s excellent exhibition of science fiction, Pumzi by Wanuri Kahiu.

As a plot, arrival from somewhere else arrives to investigate the ruins of Western society / human civilisation, strikes me as being one of the oldest storylines in science fiction, although it is shot in a very slow, beautiful style. Here’s a flavour:

I came in towards the end and so caught the list of credits at the end of the film. Right at the end the film is dedicated to two named individuals (friends/colleagues of Achiampong?) and ‘to Grenfell’.

It made me reflect how quickly and totally the Grenfell Tower disaster has been assimilated into the canon of left-wing, post-colonial, right-on grievances, as swiftly and efficiently as medieval saints were assimilated, canonised and venerated by the medieval church, and for much the same reason – because it provides one more building block for a self-reinforcing framework of belief, for a rhetoric of opposition, for a discourse of radical anger.

Further along the gallery was a suite of paintings by Hannah Brown, born 1977 in Salisbury, who does surprisingly ‘conventional’ paintings of rural scenes, although sometimes with a contemporary kick in the title. As a keen walker in the countryside around London, and author of a walking blog, I appreciated these bucolic paintings for their composition and technical proficiency.

The field next to Tesco that is soon to be built on, 1 (2016-17) Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Anna Arca

The field next to Tesco that is soon to be built on, 1 (2016-17) Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Anna Arca

The exhibition closes with a video and sound installation by Tom Lock titled Within (2017). This is shown in a large darkened space around which are hung four big screens showing what amounts to a sequence of animations of zoomorphic patterns and shapes. There are no chairs or benches, but a couple of beanbags to slump in. All quite psychedelic and trippy.

Within by Tom Lock (2017)

Within by Tom Lock (2017)

Over the gently moving and evolving shapes is a voiceover speaking a narrative based on science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler’s 1987 novel, Lilith’s Brood. The narrative appears to be about the human race dying out and its only future being to cross-breed with an alien life form, thus creating a new hybrid species, the animations somehow depicting the new shapes and patterns this hybrid would take. Or see. Or think – it wasn’t very clear.

Either way, Within was a very soothing, restful end to the show, and an interesting counterpoint to the very human political concerns of the Zimmerman film earlier on.

Now I think about it, the leading feature of the three art films I’ve mentioned is how restful, slow and peaceful all of them are.

Conclusion

The London Open is FREE. Go along and see what cutting-edge, right up-to-the-minute artists are doing.

Although I am routinely amused and sometimes dismayed by the art world’s tiny-minded concerns with a very limited set of ‘issues’ – to quote the exhibition guide, various artists are ‘concerned with…’

  • notions around race, class and culture
  • the psychology of desire
  • relationships between gender, technology and systems of power
  • the politics of racial identity
  • an intimate female perspective on desire

– nonetheless, I am grateful to institutes like the Whitechapel for their commitment to select, showcase and explain contemporary and cutting-edge art from around the world.

22 artists

I’ve only mentioned the work of about half the artists in the exhibition, generally the larger-scale more eye-catching ones. The full list of London Open 2018 artists is:

  • Larry Achiampong
  • Rachel Ara
  • Gabriella Boyd
  • Hannah Brown
  • Rachael Champion
  • Gary Colclough
  • George Eksts
  • Ayan Farah
  • French & Mottershead
  • Vikesh Govind
  • Richard Healy
  • Des Lawrence
  • Tom Lock
  • Céline Manz
  • Uriel Orlow
  • Rachel Pimm
  • Renee So
  • Alexis Teplin
  • Elisabeth Tomlinson
  • Jonathan Trayte
  • Tom Varley
  • Andrea Luka Zimmerman

The curators

The London Open 2018 is curated by Emily Butler, Mahera and Mohammad Abu Ghazaleh Curator, Whitechapel Gallery with Cameron Foote, Assistant Curator, Whitechapel Gallery. As to the selection criteria, Butler is quoted as saying:

With recent debates about political, religious, gender and racial representation, we were drawn to artists whose work genuinely engages with the subjects explored in it.


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Eduardo Paolozzi @ The Whitechapel Gallery

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

Bio

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

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

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

Magazine collages

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

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

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

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

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

Sculpture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Textiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 1970s

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

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

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

Heads and bodies

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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


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

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Reviews of other Whitechapel shows

The Barjeel Art Foundation: Imperfect Chronology – Debating Modernism II @ The Whitechapel Gallery

The Barjeel Art Foundation

In 2010 the Barjeel Art Foundation was opened, a museum and cultural institution in the United Arab Emirates created to manage, preserve and exhibit the personal art collection of Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi.

Last December the first of four exhibitions opened at the Whitechapel Art Gallery next to Aldgate tube, showcasing highlights from the BAF collection. As the wall panel reminds us, the 22 nations of the Arab League are home to some 350 million people (same population as the USA). The aim is that the exhibitions, as a whole, will tell the story of Arab art over the past hundred years. It will feature over 100 paintings by 60 artists.

This is the second instalment – on show until 17 April 2017 – and it explores the development of abstract and figurative art in the twenty years after the fateful Six-Day War in 1967.

The first instalment featured forty oil paintings in one medium sized room. This one has only 24 paintings and immediately feels more relaxed and accessible.

The paintings

But as with part one, it still feels like a very mixed bunch, with all kinds of styles and subject matter hanging side by side. Again, it was difficult to get an overall view.

Central to the room is this large painting by Syrian artist Marwan. I thought it was a novel and interesting way to depict the human figure and face. Not much emotion. The oddity of being human.

The Three Palestinian Boys by Marwan Kassab Bachi (1970) Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

The Three Palestinian Boys by Marwan Kassab Bachi (1970) Barjeel Art Foundation

Marwan had been represented in the first show by two of his characteristic, very big lampoon portraits, distortions, caricatures, Munif al-Razzaz (1965) and Der Gemahl (1966), now this. He is still alive and a quick google search shows that his later style changed out of all recognition since then.

Five silk screens from the 1980s by the influential artist Kamal Boullata (born Jerusalem) based on Islamic calligraphy – which is traditionally curled and flowing – abstracted and turned into geometric designs. I didn’t massively like them but they were the most distinctive works here. The Visitor Assistant in the room explained how Arabic letters had been reduced to primal elements, and also that they play with Islamic tenets, hence ‘There Is No ‘I’ But ‘I’’, an obvious play on the basic Muslim creed, There is no God but God.

La Ana Illa Ana (There Is No ‘I’ But ‘I’) by Kamal Boullata (1983) Silkscreen. Image Courtesy of Meem Gallery. Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

La Ana Illa Ana (There Is No ‘I’ But ‘I’) by Kamal Boullata (1983) Silkscreen. Image Courtesy of Meem Gallery. Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

Dia Al-Azzawi (b.1939), Iraq’s most influential artist, also featured in the first show with the powerful Mask of the Pretenders. He was a co-founder of the New Visions group in Baghdad but fled the regime in 1976 and settled in London. Here we have three works (only two of which I can find online):

  • Untitled 1976
  • Composition 1980 Maybe my favourite piece in the show. I liked the ragged outline of the work, made of two sections as if cut out by scissors, the way the tongue of colour hangs down at the bottom, and yet it is all finished with a strong sense of design and colour.

Azzawi is obviously a big figure with a major career and a large body of interesting work, but that doesn’t come across here, you have to visit his websites to see this.

Sulemein Mansour (Palestine 1947) – Olive field

Abdul Qader Al Rais (United Arab Emirates) Untitled (1970). Surely this is very bad, the kind of thing you see lined up against the railings of London parks to be flogged off to undiscriminating tourists.

Walid Shami (b. Syria 1949) – Maryam 1972

Hamed Nada (Egypt) – Fortune teller and cat Superficially scratchy and angley like George Grosz, but really something different.

Tayseer Barakat (b. Palestine 1959) – Untitled 1983

Fateh al-Moudarres (Syria 1922-96) – Al-Wahesh wal Muskeen, 1987. A red dog on the left is menacing some blue meanies in the centre.

Abdelkader Guermaz (Syria 1919-96) – Rêve 1975

Miloud Labeid (Morocco) Composition 1973

Shafic Abboud (Lebanon 1926-2004) – Relief 1977

Farid Belkahia (Morocco 1934-2014) – Aube

Huguette (b. Lebanon 1931) A very well known Arab woman artist, apparently. According to the wall label she is ‘drawn to nuanced representations of her own body’, and Erotic composition ‘focuses on the sensitivity of her own body.’ Compare and contrast with the women photographing their own naked bodies at Tate Modern’s Performing for the camera exhibition, from the same time (late 60s, early 70s).

  • City II (1968)
  • Erotic composition (1967) Googling this, you find out it’s only one of scores of similar drawings and paintings which refer very allusively to the body. Would have been nice to see a series of them to put them in the context of her work.

Jafar Islah (b. Kuwait 1946) – Colour with black and grey (1968)

Ibrahim el-Salahi (b. Sudan 1930) In the present, 1987. One of the leading figures in Arab and African modernism, el-Salahi mingles traditional and Western depictions of the human figure. Like so many of these artists, he left his homeland and settled in England in the 1990s. Again, googling this image, I discovered there are scores more done in the same style. Displayed on its own it looks isolated and inexplicable. Set in the context of lots of other images done in the same style would help you understand how it is a complete way of seeing.

Hassan Sharif (b. UAE 1951) – Man, 1980

Conclusion

It’s not a great exhibition, and only worth visiting for a few pieces (the Marwan, Boullata’s silks, the Dia al-Awazzi). Basically, for making a detour upstairs if you were visiting the Whitechapel anyway, for the Electronic Superhighway show. Mostly it looks like the undistinguished kind of provincial modernism my parents used to buy as posters or framed prints from Ikea in the 1970s. Lots of brown.

In conversation with the Visitor Assistant, we agreed we’d both seen more interesting, in fact some dazzling work, by some of the artists on display here. Most of the pleasure has come from googling these artists and discovering a world of achievement. It’s only by doing this that I’ve discovered how eminent (and great) some of them are.

Which leads to two thoughts:

  1. Four consecutive shows spread over the year, each dedicated to one of the obviously major artists here, would have had more impact. ‘An Arab Year’ would have been a real event. Tricky to choose which four, though…
  2. Maybe the Barjeel foundation, no matter how good its intentions, in fact only has a very average collection. Maybe what we’re seeing here is a misleadingly second-rate snapshot of Arab art, for the sake of comprehensiveness including works which are definitely not up to snuff, and even of the leading figures like Marwan or Dia Al-Azzawi only showing very average examples.

It’s whetted my appetite to see more of the better artists, just got to figure out where…

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David Batchelor Monochrome Archive, 1997-2015 @ Whitechapel Gallery

Accompanying the Adventures of the Black Square exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery is a roomful of thematically-related works by Scottish artist David Batchelor. Over the course of the past 20 years or so Batchelor has taken photos of white squares or rectangles wherever he’s come across them, in urban settings from London to Sao Paolo.

David Batchelor - No. 19 Islington, London, 10.04.99 (1999) Photograph. © David Batchelor

David Batchelor – No. 19 Islington, London, 10.04.99 (1999) Photograph. © David Batchelor

I like going on long walks – years ago in London, more recently in the country – during which I always take photos and occasionally arrange found objects to create a subject, so I have a fellow feeling for the efforts of psycho-geographers like Iain Sinclair or Richard Long or Batchelor, or for long-dead Bruce Chatwin’s meditation on the centrality of walking and singing to human nature, Songlines (1987).

Walking at our own pace and not at the rush dictated by cars, coaches, buses, trains or planes, moving at the natural tread and step of the human animal through the three dimensional world, allows thoughts to unfurl in a civilised amble, at our own stride, whether the trajectory of those thoughts is a slow ironing out of the mind towards the emptiness of nirvana, or a squirrel-like alert, ever-stimulated response to the continual bombardment of new sights and impressions.

Batchelor’s squares combine both: they are apparitions of blankness in the hectic over-colouring of the urban environment, emptiness in the midst of overwrought plenitude, visual pauses in the unremitting gallop of metropolitan media, two dimensional escape routes from the pentamerous assaults on the senses.

David Batchelor - No. 57 Stoke Newington, London, 20.09.02 (2002) Photograph. © David Batchelor

David Batchelor – No. 57 Stoke Newington, London, 20.09.02 (2002) Photograph. © David Batchelor

The gallery is a single large room, the walls of rough industrial brick, no windows, the feel of a cellar or crypt, immediately likeable and surcharged, a good setting. There were a dozen or so static blow-ups of individual photos. BUT I think the curators (or Mr B) made a big mistake in having 2 or 3 video screens with slideshows of the photos moving at stroboscopic speed. Too fast, too fast.

The entire purpose of the images – pause, reflection, quiet amid the haste etc – destroyed by the frenzied flicker of barely-registered images. The strobe-speed encouraging you not to stop and study but to recoil and walk past. 20 years of close observation and attentive framing thrown away in milliseconds.

Alas.

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