Kara Walker @ Tate Modern

Kara Walker

Kara Walker was born in California in 1969. She is an American contemporary painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker. I have previously come across her work in:

1. The big exhibition of prints held at the British Museum in 2017, where I wrote:

In this room the standout artist for me was Kara Walker, with her stylised black-and-white silhouettes of figures from the ante-bellum Deep South. I’ve seen an exhibition of these before, so there’s an element of recognition and familiarity in my positive response. Coming towards the end of a rather exhausting exhibition featuring over 200 images, the clarity, purity of line and savage humour of her work sets her apart.

But her style is also capable of a strange dreamlike quality, fantasias of colour, exploitation, journeying across the seas, converting history into eerie illustrations for a very grown-up set of fairy tales.

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

2. The other place I’d come across Walker is in the huge book, Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick (2012) where Chadwick writes:

  • Works like [Kara Walker’s] installation Narratives of a Negress (2003) raise complex issues about history, memory, and ethnic, gender and cultural identity. (p.492)

So I was familiar with Walker’s crisp, black silhouettes, and the way that, despite their often emotive titles the actual illustrations are often more teasing, strange and fantastical than the apparent straightforward obsession with slavery would suggest.

Slavery! Slavery! by Kara Walker (1997) Installation at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Kara Walker and the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument

So when Tate announced that this year’s annual commission would be given to Walker, anyone familiar with her work will have expected it to touch on the issue of slavery – and she didn’t disappoint. She has created a huge sculpture which parodies the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument outside Buckingham Palace.

To understand how Walker has parodied the original, let’s take a moment to refresh our memories.

The Queen Victoria Memorial, outside Buckingham Palace, London

The Victoria monument is 25 metres high and contains 2,300 tonnes of white Carrara marble. As well as a solid, matronly Queen Victoria seated holding the orb and sceptre, the memorial also carries statues representing courage, constancy, victory, charity, truth and motherhood. The central monument, created between 1906 and 1924, is by Sir Thomas Brock, but the whole design, including the nearby Memorial Gardens, was conceived by Sir Aston Webb and the Memorial was formally unveiled by King George V in 1911.

Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus

Walker decided that, in London, home of the slave trade for so many centuries, and a city stuffed to the gills with very white marble statues of and monuments to very white imperial heroes, it would be an interesting gesture to create a memorial, on a similarly imposing scale, to all the victims of the transatlantic slave trade.

The result is Fons Americanus (Latin for American fountain), an enormous monument made up of various human statues and a water feature spouting water into a set of concentric pools at its base, also filled with miscellaneous statues of people and a surprising number of sharks.

Installation view of Fons Americanus by Kara Walker (2019)

Walker replaces the smooth Victorian allegorical figures of the original with crudely carved cartoon figures representing archetypes from the slave trade, topped off with a staggering female figure spouting water from her breasts (and also from a nasty gash in her neck).

Each of these figures has a symbolic meaning and, although it’s not immediately obvious, most of them actually reference works of art from the British tradition, nineteenth century paintings of rafts and slaves and so on. There’s a full list of the different figures and explanations on the Tate website:

Broadly speaking, Walker replaces the British or imperial icons, depicted in the smooth neo-classical style of the original monument, with figures from various aspects of the slave trade – a weeping boy, a native woman instead of smug Queen Vic, a generic sea captain, a kneeling praying man in chains, and a tree with a noose dangling from it to represent the countless Africans who were hunted down, tortured, lynched and hanged.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood


First thoughts

1. Scale

The most obvious thing about filing the Turbine Hall is that your work must be big, and Fons Americanus is big alright. You can view it from the ground floor walkway but it’s worth going down to the lower level to walk around it and really get a sense of its hugeness. It towers over the mere mortals at its feet.

2. Aesthetics

All the Tate labels and webpages emphasise that the point of Fons Americanus is to subvert and parody the smooth surfaces of traditional monuments, as those monuments in their turn smooth over and gloss over the violence, and horror and exploitation which lay at the basis of the British Empire.

And that this explains why the surfaces of all the figures have been left deliberately pockmarked and rough to the touch. And, in the same spirit, explains why the human figures aren’t perfectly proportioned human figures based on the ancient Greek ideals of standardised beauty; instead they are deliberately rough and crude, because life is crude and real people are rough.

I understand the intention. I understand all that. But it’s still ugly. It’s still hard not to be repelled by the crudeness and ugliness of the figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Maybe she’s intending to give repellent content a repellent appearance, I understand the intention. But it’s notable how drastically Fons Americanus with its lunking crudity is unlike the silhouettes which brought her to fame. The silhouettes were notable for their style and grace and elegance of design.

I can’t help thinking that anyone familiar with the imaginative world of her silhouette works will be surprised and pretty disappointed by the blunt crudity of this enormous object.

3. Irony

There is a sort of politico-aesthetic irony here: I have read here and about other exhibitions, that Walker and many other BAME artists and writers are protesting against the white canons and the white rules of beauty which have dominated European and American art and media for so long. My impression is that for the past fifty years or more a lot of black artists and writers and film-makers have been campaigning to have black beauty, black pride, black appearance, black hair and black faces incorporated into much more diverse and inclusive notions of ‘beauty’.

OK, I understand the aim.

But there’s a kind of irony here that Walker seems to be playing to the crudest of racist stereotypes and clichés by making her black people so insistently and defiantly brutish and ugly, unfinished, rough and repellent. Maybe we are intended to overcome our repulsion from these crudely drawn figures and make the imaginative effort to sympathise for any human in dire need, no matter how crude and ungainly and clumpishly they’re depicted? Maybe the aesthetic clumsiness is part of a kind of moral test?

4. Patronising

But the biggest problem with this installation is the wall labels, the press release and all the relevant pages on the Tate website.

They all seem to assume that we’ve never heard of the Atlantic slave trade – that the existence of slavery 200 years ago will come as a massive surprise to Tate gallery visitors – and that the work will shine a dazzling new light on a previously unknown subject, confronting ‘a history often misremembered in Britain’ as the wall label puts it.

Misremembered by whom exactly? By art gallery visitors? Probably the most bien-pensant, liberal cohort of people you could assemble anywhere.

The notion that the slave trade is an obscure historical event which needs more publicising struck me as an extraordinary claim, especially since I went to see this sculpture during the 32nd Black History Month.

Had none of the previous 31 Black History Months mentioned slavery? Have no books been written on the subject, or TV documentaries made, or articles written or exhibitions about it held anywhere else? That assumption, which is taken as the premise of all the curator commentary, seemed astonishingly patronising, to me.

In fact I gave up reading the Tate web-page about the installation when I came to the sentence carefully explaining that London was ‘the capital of the British Empire’… OK. It was at that point that I realised the entire commentary was either for schoolchildren, or for people who have little or no knowledge about Britain or British history. But are these the kinds of people you are liable to meet at Tate Modern or Tate Britain?

In fact the type of person you meet most at Tate Modern are tourists. Every time I go, I end up helping some hapless foreigners find their way about, or explain the escalators and lifts, or the layout of two buildings to them (yesterday I had to explain to a family of Italians in the lift with me that they were going to the correct floor but in the wrong building).

Almost all the voices I heard as I walked round the installation were foreign: I particularly remember a French family who were posing their little kids for charming tourist pics on the edge of Fons Americanus‘s the pool, and plenty of other family groups were posing and taking family snaps around it, just as they do by the fountains in Trafalgar Square or at any number of other great big imposing public monuments in London.

What does its radical deconstruction of the tradition of neo-classical, British imperial monumentalising mean to them, I wonder?

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Ben Fisher

5. Artists and history

History, as a professional activity, is about the careful sifting of evidence. Historians undergo an extensive training in the use of archives and other sources, and ways of judging and assessing documents, speeches, books and so on.

Historians can obviously still be terribly biased, or commissioned by the state to write propaganda, and completely ‘objective’ history is probably impossible – but nonetheless the notion of objective history is still an ideal worth preserving and striving for, and most historians generally adhere to professional standards of presenting and interpreting evidence, which is or should be made available for others to sift and assess in their turn.

And hence the intellectual discipline of History – which amounts to an endless debate about all aspects of the past backed up by evidence.

Compare and contrast this meticulous approach with the worldview of artists, who are free to make great sweeping generalisations about life and art and society and capitalism and God and anything else they feel like, with little or no comeback, with no requirement for proof or evidence.

This is fine if they want to make provocative works out of industrial junk or surrealist paintings. But if they take it upon themselves to create works designed to be a complete reinterpretation of history over a period of hundreds of years – and if their new interpretation of history is going to be taught to schoolchildren and explained to school groups – then they assume a certain amount of responsibility.

In other words, to put it really bluntly – you shouldn’t rely on artists to teach you anything about history. You should rely on historians. That’s why they’re called historians. It is because they are lifelong specialists in an area of intellectual enquiry which is defined by rules, best practice, and policed by a community of peers, in academic journals and so on.

That’s Argument Number One against artists teaching history.

Argument Two concerns the idea of respecting the complexity of human history.

In my opinion, good history should try above all to capture the complexity of human motives and experiences. It’s a mistake not to take account of the extent to which people of the past were just as multi-faceted, complicated and capable of contradictory feelings, beliefs and actions, as we are today. They were people like us, not one-dimensional caricatures.

In order to create the space to let your imagination and empathy work, in order to fully enter into the spirit of another time and try to understand the people who lived in it and the multiple pressures and compulsions they lived under – we should not rush to judgement. As the American historian David Silbey writes in his incisive account of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion against Western imperialist forces in China:

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

The kind of history I like is continually upsetting my expectations, presenting me with counter-intuitive ideas, making me stop and think and really reconsider my existing beliefs. Thus the book about Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, which I read recently, overturned my ideas about all sorts of aspects of the past, made me view lots of general trends and specific areas of history (such, for example, as the importance of the imperial conquests of Russia) in a completely new light.

My view is that Walker’s version of history doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know – that you weren’t taught at school and haven’t had reinforced by countless books, documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles and Hollywood movies about slavery – and by thirty-two Black History Months with their annual outpouring of exhibitions, articles and documentaries.

Instead of making you really stop and think, of prompting unexpected insights and new ways of seeing, for me, at any rate, Fons Americanus seems to set out to confirm all your prejudices and stereotypes –

  • to confirm your impression that all blacks in all of history were helpless victims of the slave trade
  • to confirm the stereotype that all white masters were racist sadists
  • to erase the fact that the slaves were sold to the traders by Africans who made a fortune by enslaving their fellow blacks
  • to erase the hundreds of thousands who worked or bought their way out of slavery, set up businesses or had lives as fulfilling as plenty of the miserably poor whites (and other ethnic groups) they lived among
  • to erase the role of Britain and the Royal Navy in abolishing slavery and then policing the world’s oceans to try and prevent it. As James Walvin points out in his history of slavery, ‘Between 1820 and 1870 the Royal Navy seized 1,600 slave ships on the Atlantic and freed 150,000 slaves, especially heading to Cuba and Brazil.’ Somehow, I don’t think we’re going much about these positive achievements in the deluge of wokeness coming our way.

In other words, I feel nervous about the reduction of an immense and extraordinarily complicated history of the multifarious experiences of tens of millions of people over several hundred years down to half a dozen, crudely-drawn, Simpsonsesque cartoon figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Fons Americanus is big. It’s very big. American big. Like a skyscraper or a Big Mac.

But I recoiled from it a) aesthetically – it is crude and ugly and repellent, and b) intellectually – it is crude and patronising and dangerously simplistic.

Second Thoughts

To be honest, a lot of my negative response was triggered by Tate’s wall labels and by the Tate web-pages about Fons Americanus and the slave trade – commentary and labels which I found worryingly simple-minded, and single-minded: simplifying an enormous, complex, multifarious epoch of history down into a handful of slogans and images, and into a new, and worryingly simple-minded, orthodoxy.

My argument was, to a large extent, with the written interpretation of the work.

But there’s a different and much more obvious approach to the commission and presence of Fons Americanus here in Tate Modern, which is to ask: among all the hundreds of memorials and monuments and statues to countless white men and generals and politicians, most of whom served under the British Empire in one shape or another and which litter London’s public spaces: should there be a memorial to commemorate the transatlantic slave trade?

To which the answer is almost certainly an emphatic YES, Yes, there should be.

In which case the follow-up questions are:

  1. Should it be this one?
  2. and, Where should it go?

Where would you put it?


The Hyundai Commission at Tate Modern and global warming

Every year Tate commissions a contemporary artist to fill the vast space of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The funding comes from Hyundai.

Hyundai is a South Korean multinational automotive manufacturer headquartered in Seoul. It manufactures nearly 5 million automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles each year. If green activists have woken up to the fact that many art exhibitions are sponsored by oil companies, and violently object to their contribution to global warming, indeed have gone to the trouble of pouring oil at the front of the National Portrait Gallery which each year hosts the BP Portrait Awards… how long before the penny drops that oil is only actually a pollutant when it is burned to produce CO2 and a host of toxic poisonous chemicals hazardous to human life and all other life forms?

In other words, I wonder for how much longer a company which manufactures toxic, air-polluting ‘automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles’ will be allowed to sponsor works of art and installations like this?


Related links

Other posts about slavery / American history

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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’.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

50 Women Artists You Should Know (2008)

This is a much better book than the Taschen volume which I’ve just read – Women artists in the 20th and 21st century edited by Uta Grosenick (2003) – for several reasons:

1. Although, like the Taschen book, this was also originally a German publication, it has been translated into much better English. It reads far more fluently and easily.

2. It is much bigger at 24cm by 19cm, so the illustrations are much bigger, clearer and more impactful. There is more art and less text and that, somehow, irrationally, but visually, makes women’s art seem a lot more significant and big and important.

Judith beheading Holofernes (1602) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Judith beheading Holofernes (1602) by Artemisia Gentileschi

3. It is a chronological overview of the last 500 years of women’s art. As I explained in my review of the Taschen book, because so many female artists have come to prominence since the 1960s and 70s when traditional art more or less collapsed into a welter of performance art, body art, conceptual art, video, photography, digital art and so on, that book gave an overall impression that 20th century women’s art was chaotic, messy and sex-obsessed, with only occasional oases of old-style painting to cling on to.

By contrast, this book gives a straightforward chronological list of important women artists starting with Catharina Van Hemessen born in 1528 and moving systematically forwards through all the major movements of Western art – Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical, Romantic, Victorian Realist, Impressionist, Fauvist and so on. It kind of establishes and beds you in to the long line of successful women artists who worked in all the Western styles, long before it arrives at the chaotic 60s and beyond.

4. The Taschen book – again because of its modern focus – invoked a lot of critical theory to analyse and explicate its artists. Here, in stark contrast, the entries are overwhelming factual and biographical, focusing on family background, cultural and historical context, the careers and achievements of these women artists. Although this is, in principle, a more traditional and conservative way of writing about art, the net result is the opposite. Whereas you can dismiss great swathes of the Taschen book for being written in barely-comprehensible artspeak, this book states clearly and objectively the facts about a long succession of tremendously successful and influential women artists. It’s all the more effective for telling it straight.

To sum up, 50 Women Artists You Should Know makes a really powerful argument for asserting that there have been major women artists at every stage of Western art, holding important positions, forging successful careers, creating really great works, influencing others, contributing and shaping the whole tradition.

It is the History of Western Art, but done through women, and women only.

Self-Portrait (1790) by Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Self-Portrait (1790) by Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Quite simply it destroys forever the idea that there haven’t been any significant women artists until the modern era. There were loads.

Ironically, this goes a long way to undermining the common feminist argument that women have been banned, held back, suppressed and prevented from engaging in art for most of history. This book proves the opposite is the case: again and again we read of women artists in the 17th and 18th centuries being encouraged by their fathers and families, supported through art school, securing important official positions (many becoming court painters), being given full membership of art academies, awarded prestigious prizes, and making lots of money. It’s quite a revelation. I never knew so many women artists were so very successful, rich and famous in their times.

Take some examples:

Surprisingly successful woman artists

1. Old Mistresses

Catharina Van Hemessen (1528-1587) Trained in the Netherlands by her father Jan van Hemessen, Catharina specialised in portraits which fetched a good price. She was invited to the court of Spain by the art-loving Mary of Hungary.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) her art studies paid for by her father who networked with rulers and artists to promote her career, Sofonisba was invited to Spain by King Philip II to become art teacher to 14-year-old Queen Isabella of Valois. By the time Isabella died, young Sofonisba had painted portraits of the entire Spanish court. She went to Italy where she taught pupils and was sought out by Rubens and Van Dyck.

Three Sisters playing chess (1555) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Three Sisters playing chess (1555) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) Trained by her artist father, Fontana became a sought-after portraitist, even being commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII to paint his portrait. She married a fellow artist who recognised her superior talent and became her manager, helping her paint a number of altar paintings. – Venus and Cupid (1592)

Artemisia Gentileschi (1598-1652) Taught by her father who was a successful baroque painter, Artemisia moved to Florence and was the only woman admitted to the Accademia del Disegno. She painted dynamic and strikingly realistic Bible scenes. In her 40s she was invited to paint at the court of King Charles I of England. – Susanna and the Elders (1610)

Judith Leyster (1609-1660) Unusually, Judith wasn’t the daughter of an artist but made her way independently, studying with the master of the Haarlem school, Frans Hals, before at the age of 24 applying to join the Guild of St Luke. – Boy playing the flute (1635)

Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757) forged a lucrative career as a portraitist in pastels in her native Venice with a clientele which included the Elector Maximilian of Bavaria, the Danish King Frederick IV. In 1739 the Elector Frederick Augustus II of Saxony bought her entire output of paintings which is why Dresden Art Gallery has 150 of her pastels. In 1720 she was invited to Paris by an eminent banker who gave her a large suite of rooms and introduced her to the court. – The Air (1746)

Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721-1782) Seventh child of the Prussian court painter Georg Lisiewski, Anna received a thorough training and went on to a successful career painting portraits around the courts of Europe, being admitted to the Stuttgart Academy of Arts, the Academy in Bologna, the Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture in Paris, the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, working at the end of  her life for Tsarina Catherine II of Russia. – Self-portrait (1776)

Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) Kauffman was encouraged from an early age by her father, himself a portrait and fresco painter, who helped his child prodigy daughter go on to become one of the leading painters of her day, known across Europe as a painter of feminine subjects, of sensibility and feeling, praised by Goethe and all who met her. – Self-portrait torn between music and Painting (1792)

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) was taught by her father the painter Louis Vigée, soon attracted the attention of aristocratic French society and was invited to Versailles by Marie-Antoinette to paint her portrait, eventually doing no fewer than 20. Forced into exile by the French revolution, she eventually returned to France, continuing to paint, in total some 800 works in the new classical, unadorned style and published three volumes of memoirs. – Portrait of Countess Golovine (1800)

Rosa Bonheur‘s father was a drawing master who encouraged her artistic tendencies. She sketched and then painted the animals of her native Bordeaux and struck it rich with a work called The Horse Market which made a sensation at the Salon of 1853. An enterprising dealer had it displayed all round the country, then sent to England where Queen Victoria gave it her endorsement, and then on to America. It toured for three years made her a name and rich. She bought a farmhouse with the proceeds and carried on working in it with her partner Nathalie Micas.

Horse Fair (1835) by Rosa Bonheur

Horse Fair (1835) by Rosa Bonheur

2. Modern women painters

Somewhere in the later 19th century in France, Modern Art starts and carries on for 50 or so years, till the end of the Great War.

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was the female Impressionist, her family being close to that of Manet, so that she got to meet his circle which included Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne, Sisley, Monet and Renoir. She had nine paintings in the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874 and exhibited in each of the subsequent Impressionist shows until 1886. – Reading with green umbrella (1873).

Lady at her Toilette (1875) by Berthe Morisot

Lady at her Toilette (1875) by Berthe Morisot

Mary Cassatt (1845-1926) studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia before moving to Paris where she was taken up by Degas and exhibited in the 1879 Impressionist exhibition. Later in life she was awarded the Legion d’Honneur and the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts Gold Medal. – Woman in a loge (1879)

By the time Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) was 30 she was one of the leading portrait painters in America. I love Reverie or the Dreamer (1894).

Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (1859-1912) was Canadian, moved to New York, Venice, Munich, to Pont Aven where she experimented with the new plein air technique, but it was only when she moved on from London to Newlyn in Cornwall and married the artist Stanhope Alexander Forbes, that Elizabeth found a permanent home. The couple went ton to establish the Newlyn School of open air painting in Cornwall. – A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach (1885)

Gabriele Münter (1877-1962) progressed through the Munich Art Academy and is famous for the affair she had with Russian avant-garde painter Wassily Kandinsky. They bought a house in 1909 which became a focal point for the painters of the Blue Rider movement, Franz Marc, August Macke and so on. Her clear bold draughtsmanship and forceful colours are well suited to reproduction. – Self-portrait (1909), Jawlensky and Werefkin (1909).

3. Twentieth century great women artists

Summer Days (1937) by Georgia O'Keeffe

Summer Days (1937) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was the first woman to be the subject of a major retrospective at the New York Museum of Modern Art (1946). Her paintings are super-real, occasionally sur-real, images of desert landscapes and flowers.

Hannah Höch (1889-1978) famous for the photomontages she produced as part of the Dada movement. – Cut with Kitchen Knife DADA through Germany’s Last Weimar Beer Belly Culture Era (1920)

Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) fabulously stylish images of 1920s women caught in a kind of shiny metallic blend of Art Deco and Futurism. What is not to worship? – The telephone (1930) Auto-portrait (1929)

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) politically active Mexican artist who painted herself obsessively, often in surreal settings although she denied being a Surrealist. – The Broken Column (1944).

The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo

The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo

Lee Krasner (1908-1984) American abstract expressionist, worked as a mural painting assistant for socially conscious works commissioned by the Federal Art Project before developing an interest in abstract art and exhibiting in the 1941 show by the Association of American Abstract Artists. In that year she met the king of the abstract expressionists, Jackson Pollock, and married him four years later leading to an intense period where they influenced each other. After his death in 1956 she developed a new style taking the natural world as subject. – Abstract number 2 (1948)

Louise Bourgeois (1911-1993)

Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985) was only 23 when she created the work she’s known for, Object – a cup, saucer and spoon covered in the furry skin of a gazelle. – Object (1936)

Eva Hesse (1936-1970) died tragically young but not before making a range of stimulating abstract sculptures. – Accession II (1967)

4. Contemporary women artists

With Hesse’s work (maybe with Louise Bourgeois’s) the book swings decisively away from traditional art, from oil painting and recognisable sculptures, into the world of installations, happenings, performances, body art, conceptual art, the style of art we still live among. This means, in practice, fewer reproductions of 2-D works and a lot of photographs.

Rebecca Horn (b.1944) German. Rooms filled with objects, photographs, films, video, mechanical works made from everyday objects. – River of the moon (1992)

The Feathered Prison Fan ( 1978) by Rebecca Horn

The Feathered Prison Fan ( 1978) by Rebecca Horn

Barbara Kruger (b.1945) American leading conceptual artist noted for large-format collages of images and texts. – Your body is a battleground (1989), We don’t need another hero (1987).

Marina Abramovic (b. 1946) Yugoslav performance artist often directly using her body, sometimes going to extremes and inflicting pain. In The Lovers: walk on the great wall of China her boyfriend started walking in the Gobi desert while she started from the Yellow Sea and they walked towards each other, meeting on the Great Wall whereupon they split up. In Balkan Baroque she spent four days surrounded by video installations and copper basins cleaning with a handbrush 5,500 pounds of cattle bones. – Balkan Baroque (1997)

Isa Genzken (b.1948) German artist producing abstract sculptures and large-scale installations. – Schauspieler II (2014)

Jenny Holzer (b.1950) American ‘neo-conceptualist’ famous for her projection of texts, often pretty trite, in large public spaces. – Jenny Holzer webpage. In her hands art really does become as trite and meaningless as T-shirt slogans.

Abuse of power comes as no surprise (2017)

Abuse of power comes as no surprise (2017) by Jenny Holzer

Mona Hatoum (b.1952) Palestinian video and installation artist, producing dramatic performances, videos and unnerving installations. – Undercurrent (2008). In 1982 she did a performance, standing naked in a plastic box half full of mud struggling to stand up and ‘escape’ for fours hours. – Under siege (1982) I love the look of the crowd, the sense of complete disengagement as a pack of blokes watch a naked woman covered in mud.

Kiki Smith (b.1954) German-born American who, like so many modern women artists, is obsessed with the female body, in this version stripped and flayed as per Gray’s Anatomy. – Untitled (1990)

Cindy Sherman (b.1954) American photographer and art film director. Lots of photos of herself dressed as historical characters or as stereotypical ‘types’ from Hollywood movies, ‘questioning stereotypical depictions of “the feminine”‘. As she’s gotten older her the subjects have changed to spoofing Old Master paintings, and she increasingly uses dummies and models in her mock-ups. – Untitled film still #206 (1989)

Shirin Neshat (b.1957) Iranian visual artist producing black and white photos of women in Iran e.g. her series Women of Allah. Her videos emphasise the distinction between West and East, men and women.

Still from Rapture (2000) by Shirin Neshat

Still from Rapture (2000) by Shirin Neshat

Pipilotti Rist (b.1962) Video artist who works with video, film and moving images, generally of herself. – Selfless in the bath of lava (1994)

Tracey Emin CBE (b.1963) English artist making provocations, interventions, installations which are often powerfully autobiographical, like the tent, the unmade bed. Also hundreds of scratchy prints. – Everyone I have ever slept with (1995), My bed (1999).

Tacita Dean OBE (b.1965) English visual artist working in film and photography. – Bubble House (1999), The Green Ray (2001).

End thought

I’m not sure – it may be because I’m simply exhausted at the end of this thorough survey – but it does feel to me as if the contemporary art of women born in the 40s, 50s and 60s, with its interventions, installations, film and video and photos and happenings and performances – is somehow much the most unhappy, most neurotic, self-punishing and self-flagellating body of work, than that of any previous era.

Maybe their work simply reflects Western society as a whole, which has got richer and richer and somehow, as in a children’s fable, more and more miserable.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of exhibitions of women artists I’ve been to

Georgia O’Keeffe @ Tate Modern

Georgia O’Keeffe lived a long and fruitful life, from 1887 to 1986, dying aged 98. She is, according to the exhibition blurb, a ‘foundational figure within the history of Modernism in the United States’. This is an appropriately big exhibition, filling 14 rooms with works representing all periods of her career and covering all her major ‘themes’, taken in more or less chronological order. It also includes contemporary books and magazine articles about her, as well as the work of several of the major photographers she knew or worked with.

Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie's II by Georgia O’Keeffe (1930) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II by Georgia O’Keeffe (1930) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Room 1. The early years O’Keeffe grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin and knew she wanted to be an artist from an early age. She came to New York in 1907, studied with various teachers, and first exhibited in 1916, having her first solo show the following year. The early work includes many abstracts. She was experimenting with colour and line, influenced by her precocious reading of Kandinsky – she was one of the first readers of his classic Concerning the Spiritual in Art which was translated into English in 1914. And by the notion of synaesthesia – that music can be perceived as colour and vice versa.

She also made a number of drawings in charcoal, abstract swirls and flowing designs, which I found among the most compelling works in the show.

Room 2. Abstraction and the senses O’Keeffe lived in New York from the Great War till the Wall Street Crash (1929), experimenting with her own personal brand of abstraction and struggling to establish a name. The audio commentary emphasises from the start the struggle O’Keeffe had in a predominantly male art world. She hated being called a woman artist and rebelled against the criticisms and limitations of the male artists and critics of the day, especially those who deprecated watercolour as a soft, ‘woman’s’ medium. In fact she made lots of attractive, swirling, abstract watercolours.

Here in room 2 we meet an early crux of this issue of ‘gendered’ criticism, the painting she called Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow. Some critics at the time said it resembled a woman’s genitals, and used this ‘insight’ as a launch pad to discuss – and belittle – all her work in the same sexist terms, much to the artist’s anger and frustration. The audio commentary tells us that this ‘gendered’ interpretation was revived by a new wave of feminist artists and critics in the 1970s, who asserted these kinds of works were bold and innovative depictions of female sexuality.

To be honest, if the commentary hadn’t drummed home this line of interpretation, I don’t think it would have crossed my mind. But once it had been raised, and repeated a number of times, I found it harder to ‘forget’ that she was a woman artist. Particularly as O’Keeffe herself was quoted on the wall labels or on the audio commentary repeating her criticism of the male artists and critics of her time as bombastic, blinkered, limited and ignorant of ‘the real America’.

Room 3. O’Keeffe, Stieglitz and their circle In New York O’Keeffe fell passionately in love with the pioneering art photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). He was 54 and married, so she became his mistress until he finally managed to secure a divorce from his first wife and marry her.

Stieglitz was a well-established presence on the New York art scene, apparently single-handedly making photography into a respected art form, and he also ran galleries which promoted a range of other artists. This room contains a large number of his striking photos. He did a series of studies of clouds, grouped under the title of Equivalents which I found very attractive.

There are contemporary books by artists and writers he knew, manifestos and magazine articles, all conveying the artistic activity of the period. During this period Stieglitz also did a series of black and white studies of his lover, O’Keeffe, in all sorts of poses, close-ups of hands, of her face, wearing different clothes and costumes, with masks and props, as well as a series of striking nude studies. According to the commentary these are ‘the most important nudes in US art history’.

Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (1918) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles ©The J. Paul Getty Trust

Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (1918) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © The J. Paul Getty Trust

Stieglitz included the nudes in an exhibition of his photos in the early 1920s. Not surprisingly, for many critics and viewers O’Keeffe’s name became associated with these candid and striking photos of her naked body. There was a gap of a few years before she had the next exhibition of her paintings, whereupon the first thing critics and viewers associated her with was the nudes. A naked woman making paintings which look like vaginas – it is sad but true that O’Keeffe spent decades trying to throw off the limitations and gendered stereotypes which were created in these early years.

Room 4. New York cityscapes The 1920s were the Jazz Era and skyscrapers were going up all over New York, which became a byword for urban energy and excitement. O’Keeffe made lots of paintings trying to capture the energy and excitement of the city in bold vibrant colours. There are roughly two types of painting in this room. Much the more attractive are the stark blue and black night scenes:

Less interesting are the daytime scenes of the city, seen as a rather grey, smoky conurbation. These reminded me of the dreary the urban landscapes of L.S. Lowry who, as it happens, was born the same year as O’Keeffe.

Again the paintings are set against contemporary b&w photos of the city by Stieglitz and other art photographers. The best of her night pictures are more vivid than any of the photos.

Room 5. Lake George The Stieglitz family had a summer home near Lake George in upstate New York and room is devoted to paintings of the lake and the landscape and the house.

By this, the fifth room, I was beginning to get a feel for the variety of subject matter in O’Keeffe’s work, and for her tendency to make the subjects simpler and more colourful. But this room for the first time included works which seemed bland and under-powered. Looking back I realised the early abstracts are sort of nice but nowhere near as creative and fanciful as contemporary works in Europe by the likes of Kandinsky or Klee. The New York cityscapes are colourful, but lack the Modernist angularity of the European tradition. And now some of these lakeside paintings looked positively amateurish.

Room 6. Flowers and still lifes Room six is devoted to examples of her most famous subject, flowers. The commentary tells us that Jimson Weed (below) recently sold for $44 million, the highest price ever fetched by a ‘woman artist’ – before going on to tell us that the phrase ‘woman artist’ is one O’Keeffe herself would have angrily rejected. Why use it, then?

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 by Georgia O’Keeffe (1932) Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA. Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 by Georgia O’Keeffe (1932) Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA. Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

But you can see why images like this or Oriental Poppies are so popular: big, striking, colourful and completely undemanding.

There is an obvious continuity of style between the gentle abstraction of Grey Lines, the simplified clouds in New York Street and the stylised leaves and washy blue background in Jimson. Simple design. Bold, though pastelly, colours.

However, although there are 20 or so canvases of flowers in this room, not many of them are as big or as striking as the two mentioned above. If you google “O’Keeffe flowers” you get hundreds of images – big, bright, wonderful pictures which could fill lots of rooms.

It was at this point that I began to suspect that the exhibition, though comprehensive in scope, maybe doesn’t include O’Keeffe’s best work.

Room 7. New Mexico: Taos and Alcalde Like many other artists, O’Keeffe discovered the American South-West in the 1930s. This room features her paintings of the bleak, arid, desert landscape, with its stark adobe churches and primitive settlements.

There is a bright simplicity to all these paintings, but I was unimpressed by the lack of energy or excitement in them, with their unadventurous composition and flat placid colouring.

The room features the work of contemporary photographers of the same landscape and subjects taken by her friends Paul Strand and Anselm Adams, which I found much more forceful, more angled, more highlighted and distinct and interesting.

Room 8. From the faraway, nearby: the skull paintings In the desert she found skeletons picked white and clean. She took to juxtaposing accurate depictions of the skulls of deer and other animals against her stylised landscapes. There’s a great quote, repeated in the commentary and on the wall, in which she belittles all the men she knew in New York who were talking about the ‘Great American’ this, that or the other, when none of them had even been across the Hudson River – whereas O’Keeffe saw herself as a pioneer, out in the desert, in touch with the ‘real’ America, discovering ‘the Great American things’.

All the skull paintings in this room are good, in an often surreal way (though she and the commentary deny she was ever a surrealist). But – I don’t really know why – none of them grabbed me or arrested my attention, made me think Wow!

Room 9. Ghost ranch The ‘ghost ranch’ was a real place, a ‘dude’ ranch where Easterners came out West to play at being cowboys. O’Keeffe came across it in 1934 and was entranced by the powerful views from it. She rented a house on the property from 1937, and bought it in 1940. This room contains paintings of the surrounding landscape.

Maybe it’s me but I began to find all these semi-abstract, simplified landscapes to be increasingly samey. The commentary describes her increasing interest in ‘seriality’, by which they mean doing paintings of the same subject over and over again. When does repetition topple over into repetitiveness?

Room 10. The black place and the white place The commentary tries hard to convey to the listener the mystique O’Keeffe clearly felt for the hills and ranches and locations she painted. There was the ‘white place’, a stretch of limestone cliffs along the Chama River, and the ‘black place’, apparently a fold of black rock in some hills. But there’s not much to latch on to. The blandness of the names tells you something.

I also became aware of the lack of any people in the paintings, and the absence of any cultural reference. There’s nothing about the myths or legends of the local peoples (had they all been killed off by the time O’Keeffe settled there?) or pioneer tales of the white people who settled here.

In Hollywood this was the era of gripping films noirs, of big cities, wise guys, classy dames, noisy shoot outs. Of wide-finned automobiles and Coca Cola bottles. None of this whatsoever, nothing of contemporary American life, is in these paintings – which retail a landscape emptied and depopulated, bereft of any forms of organic life, no birds, no animals, no humans – nothing alive.

Instead – lots of series of more or less the same views.

Room 11. The series: Abiquiú patios, pelvis bones and cottonwood trees She worked more and more on ‘series’ of the same subject. In this room are examples from three series: the patio of a house, the blue desert sky seen through the hole in the pelvis bone of dead animals, and numerous versions of the local cottonwood trees.

The pelvis bones have a certain stark simplicity which quickly grows a little boring. I disliked the wishy-washy leaves and foliage of the trees series.

Room 12. The South-West According to the commentary, O’Keeffe’s ‘practice’ in the American Southwest involved ‘penetrating what it meant to find the essence of America’. Well, that essence seems to consist of desert landscapes emptied of all people. You could say it represents a wholesale and complete turning-her-back on the actual nature of American society in the 1930s (Great Depression), 1940s (Second World War), and 1950s (Cold War and atomic threat).

Instead, this room displays the series of paintings she made of ‘kachinas’, figurines of spirit beings which the local Indians carved in wood. But nothing anywhere of the actual Indians.

Room 13. Late abstractions and skyscapes By the 1950s O’Keeffe was flying to and fro across the skies, as were increasingly wealthy Americans generally. On one flight, looking down on the great carpet of clouds below, it seemed to her almost as if she could open the plane door and step out onto a soft woolly carpet. As my son put it, ‘that must be one of the most unoriginal observations ever made’. She also noticed that, seen from a plane, landscapes often seem like abstract patterns. Not unlike her paintings. And so this room of late abstracts collects paintings based on these rather under-powered ‘insights’.

Thoughts

After initial interest I became steadily more underwhelmed by this big exhibition and, by the last few rooms, I was impatient for it to end. In the whole show I liked the Oriental Poppies and the Paul Strand and Anselm Adams’s b&w photographs of the South-West, and found almost everything else very ‘meh’.

Searching Google Images for many of the links above, I’ve been struck by how many of the paintings which show up in the search results are much more bright and interesting than anything in the show, especially the flower paintings. It’s just possible that, although the show is a very thorough overview of her entire career, many of the best paintings are in private hands or for one reason or another, simply not available.

That might explain why, although she may well be ‘a foundational figure within the history of Modernism in the United States’, not many of the individual works here really justified that large a claim.

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